Going Tubeless in Vang Vieng
November 2 – 7
What you’ve heard of this little Laos river town (if you’ve heard of it at all) likely revolves around tubing, buckets of booze, drunken rope swings and, did I mention, booze? We managed to spend a week in the tiny adventure tourism-oriented town without – gasp – a tube ringed ‘round our midsections or indulging in more than a couple Beerlao.
However, we did manage to soak up the littler known activities such as cave exploration, lounging at the Blue Lagoon, walking along the quaint bar-lined streets (every other bar playing FRIENDS reruns on hanging televisions), enjoying the street sandwiches sold everywhere by friendly local women and swinging lazily on the front porch hammock of our bungalow (mainly me). This was a vacation we hadn’t even expected. Mainly because the original plan was to make this a mere 2-day stopover before continuing our route north to Luang Prabang, where we had plans to meet friends the next week.
The main reason for our extended detour came in the form of the flu. Poor Dave battled major fatigue and some dizziness that we didn’t want to challenge with a winding, bumpy 6-hour bus ride. Plus, I was sure it was malaria. Because when you get sick in Laos, it’s malaria, right? Luckily, some antibiotics helped him slowly kick the bug and we still had a couple days to explore the town.
The days that Dave spent resting up in bed, I spent reading every book in the kindle library. My mom and I share an account as we’re both voracious readers with a love of all things literary, so there was no lack of material. I cruised through the long-awaited final book of the Divergent trilogy, Allegiant, Steven Tyler’s rambling autobiography, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You?, John Green’s beautiful, The Fault in our Stars, the new tell-all book, Johnny Carson, by the famous TV host’s former lawyer and Stephen King’s tome, Under The Dome, all while recumbent in a hammock, with only the noise of the Mekong river flowing lazily past our bungalow to distract me. It was heaven. You know, aside from the whole “husband maybe having malaria” thing.
Feeling only slightly better on his birthday toward the end of our stay, I convinced my lethargic hubby to wander down to the main dirt road for a birthday beer (at this point, I was PRETTY sure it wasn’t malaria. In retrospect, this may raise a red flag for future parenthood). We lounged at a bar perched precariously on the brown river and watched the world go by. Literally, this place is where efficiency goes to die.
This sleepy, picturesque town first saw expansion during the Vietnam War when the US developed an Air Force base and runway. Which leads to my next sad factoid – the real threat unexploded bombs leftover from a war that ended 35 years ago still poses to the country. I did a little digging and found an NPR article that estimates that the U.S. military dropped more than 1.6 million tons of bombs on Laos during the war in Vietnam. That’s more bombs than it dropped on all of Europe during World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world on a per capita basis. Insane, right? We worried about any lingering resentment toward Americans as we traveled the country, and yet time and time again we were only met with friendly acceptance and positive interactions with the local people.
Later, I would read George Bush’s memoirs, Decision Points, and gain insight into the decision-making process behind going to war with a foreign country. I have lots of opinions on THAT, but I’ll save it for our next dimly lit, wood-paneled, bourbon-fueled hang.
These days, the streets are clogged with rebel travelers bucking the corporate system or European youngsters on holiday, all wearing tank tops touting their favorite foreign beer, or the tubing company they used to cruise down the river (EDITOR’S NOTE: Which is super convenient for all those times when I was about to ask “Where’d you tube, brah?” and I could just look at the tank top and be like. “Ah, in Vang Vieng,I see. Chill tank.”). Tubing in Vang Vieng is a source of controversy among the locals, due to the conflict between appreciation for the business it brings to the local economy and the unwanted “party-town” image it has unwillingly inherited. There are several deaths each year, due largely in part to over-imbibing then hitting the river with only a piece of plastic to keep you afloat, or disregard for “shallow water” signs near rope swing platforms. I read an article that interviewed a local doctor who said they see 13-15 cases a day of cuts, broken bones, and sometimes worse. They’re not equipped to deal with much more than scrapes and bruises, so the unfortunate patients with more severe injuries find themselves on a 4 – 5 hour painfully bumpy bus ride to Vientiane (EDITOR’S NOTE: Where they will then cross their fingers that if their injury requires surgery there won’t be anyone like Noelle and I allowed in the operating room…).
This aside, the charm of the town can’t be missed, and shouldn’t be. The massive limestone karsts that rise above the town are breathtaking, and the skies seem impossibly blue. Our cozy guesthouse on the quieter side of the river from the main part of town gave us the countryside serenity we sought.
And if you change your mind upon arrival and need an extra boost to get into the spirit, just order up a “Happy Shake” at any restaurant. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on its natural herbal ingredients. (I bet you’re all wondering back to Dave’s birthday shake now, right? Alas, no, it truly was Ovaltine…if you’re familiar with Dave’s grandpa-like tendencies, you’ll know this is fact.)
Party on, Wayne.