Imagine the most pristine, untouched, slow-moving river. A place that seems from a dream. It carefully wraps around banks of green, where water buffalo and cows nap in the shade, and wake to sip from small pools. Four novice monks hold umbrellas for shade as they cross a rickety old bridge. A fisherman slaps his bamboo rod in the water to punt himself a few feet upstream. Up above, two volcanic mounts bring Mordor to mind. Beauty. Absolute pure remote beauty. You float through this serenity on an inner tube, and smile.
Now hold that prior image. Jam twenty bars that resemble frat parties into this river, each jutting out, perched over the water, each with their own pounding '90s techno or hiphop soundtrack. At one bar, thirty muscled drunk jarheads dance in a sweaty circle to "boys who like girls who like boys" as four girls in bikinis pretend to be bored. A screaming couple fly over our heads, suspended on a zipline, and bellyflop into the river behind us.
Now try and retain the images of the four monks and the rickety bridge and the fisherman and the water buffalo. It's hard, but do it. It was all there.
"Free shots of laolao, man," some body-painted guy shouts to us, as a Bob Marley tune comes on, and I smile. He throws out a rod of bamboo, attached to a fishing line, and drags us in from the current. We sit beside a girl who's dancing by herself, fixated on her own hands as she draws traces in the air with her fingers. She's tripping hard. "A big bottle of beer," I order. "No free shot?," the bartender asks. "No!? Man, I ain't never heard nobody turn down a free shot of laolao before."
Two fat drunk Canadians, on leave from Afghanistan, drag us in.
Both of them were unbelievably sunburned. “Long as I keep moving, dude, it don’t hurt. But I gotta keep moving — and drinking! You fall asleep on the roof of a boat, maybe one of your buddies gonna wake you up, right? But no!” “Hell, man, I passed out too! Shit!” They would pause only to suck at the large bottles of beer tied to strings around their necks.
Besides not being incredibly drunk, something else that set us apart was our virgin skin — everyone else sported serious temporary tattooes: a gorgeous sunset above the promotion “sunset bar,” a guy’s name scrawled down a girl’s arm, one man with a moustache and bow-tie both Sharpied on. “Were you passed out, or concious, when those happened,” I asked, sure the answer would be about passing out. “Dude, they’re sweet, right? I wanted to look real smart! Nice, huh?” Smart was about the only thing he didn’t look, but as he kept dancing, I thought it was mildly awesome.
As a crowd of Japanese kayaking revellers approached our bar, we fled to the river, and slowly floated past empty bars playing rock, jam-packed bars playing Snoop, and a dozen bars playing Fatboy Slim. Finally, around a long bend in the river, we found a submerged restaurant playing soft Thai/Cantopop, and I grabbed a table. This was more my scene. A crowd of Thais wobbled around at a table balancing twenty large bottles of beer, and a group of well-tanned Persians sat to our right. I liked it. Sitting below water-level, we could perch our beers and Lao shish kebabs above the current, while cheesy love songs made me smile. A pair of flip-flops, twenty feet apart, passed us by.
This was Vang Vieng. It was amazing and terrible and awesome and horrible and the best of times and the worst of places.
I wanted to move here and to run screaming. I wanted to order happy pizza and to urgently call the DEA. I didn’t know what I wanted. But I did consider the sign, perched above the water, that read “free meal and three buckets of whiskey for 3 hours work at river’s edge finding customers for bar.” I really did.
Back in town, Lonely Planet had mentioned the “Friends” bars, where stoned Farangs would order “Happy Pizzas” and sit and watch an endless stream of reruns of Friends. I thought it was a joke. But when our tuktuk pulled into town, I was greeted with a clumsy “ey’up mate!” from some kid I’d met on the slow boat. He was so stoned, at lunchtime, he couldn’t remember his hotel’s name. Or where it was. Nor could his friend. Instead, they turned back to the tv, and joined the dozen other zombies watching Ross and Chandler argue the merits of midget wrestling. It was a parody of itself, and awesomely so.
At night, we would explore the myriad bars, most of which were deserted, a few of which were jam-packed with sweaty kids balancing plastic buckets filled with cocktails and straws. (Some of them apparently filled with opiates or mushrooms or speed.) Ours were only filled with red bull and coke and vodka, but still packed a serious punch. The Dutch kids didn’t think it was serious enough, so ordered rounds of M150, while we played makeshift UNO without UNO cards, and I watched a tuktuk full of blind-drunk Australians pounding on the roof as it drove along. “Oi Oi Oi Oi Oi!” they shouted.
For dinner, the best bet was pizza.
“What’s in the pizza?,” a friend asked.
“Vegetables,” came the reply.
“Yes, but what kind of vegetables?”
The waitress looked confused.
“Tomatoes? Peppers? Mushrooms?”
“No! No mushrooms here!”
What a town. We left after 36 hours.