The old man gave us, in the Queen’s English, a brief history of Vang Vieng: “At first there was nothing here. Then at some point in the 1980s somebody wrote in one of these travel guides that you could come to Vang Vieng and smoke opium. That was not true, but when enough Westerners came looking for it, it became true right away.” A long lasting, anything-goes reputation continues to make the haphazard little town a boozing hole of great renown amongst white kids on parade in SE Asia. Of course, the Lao government couldn’t legitimately allow the impressionable youths of the world unfettered access to psychoactive substances on its soil. Instead, the Laos of the new millennium offers us cheap alcohol, Friends, and tubing. For some reason we’re content with that.

We arrived in Vang Vieng at the start of the Lao new year, Pii Mai. This period is marked by three days of festivities, and by “festivities” here I mean karaoke and water-splashing. Water-splashing? Yes, water-splashing. Where the Western world marks its new year with alcohol poisoning and casual sex, the Lao people prefer to throw water at each other. It’s just about the cutest thing ever, and not the least bit raunchy. Entire families stand by the roadside, dancing away to Thai-pop and tossing water at everyone who comes by. Little kids hover on the curbs with squirt guns. Dads shower the pavement with water hoses from lawn chairs near the grill. And in Vang Vieng, obnoxious white people take the opportunity to act like it’s their new year, too.

The goal was to go climbing, but Ruthie and I spent the better part of a week crawling through the dense underbrush along the river. The crags were supposed to be in there, somewhere. We found them eventually, but not before getting scratched, poked, cut, stung, and bit into utter despair. Fortunately, the only thing more plentiful in the underbrush near the river than mosquitoes and nettles is bars. Recall: tubing. This isn’t a life-jackets-and-white-water kind of affair. Think “booze cruise.” And while I was glad to be able to have a beer at the end of a long day of pointless bushwhacking, the scene on the river was just a little too surreal. It’s disconcerting to walk through a tiny village of subsistence farmers, to cross a bamboo bridge built by their careful hands, to look down and see a drunk Brit in a bikini passed out on an inner tube just below. Then again, maybe it would make sense if I were twenty-two and in the river.

~br

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