Vang Vieng. This was the hardest post to write to date. In no other place have we felt more conflicted about our presence than Vang Vieng. Set against the Nam Song River and surrounded by limestone karsts, it’s easy to understand its popularity. What’s harder to understand is how this town transformed itself from a quiet retreat to a bar hopping, Friends (as in tv show) obsessive, farang overloaded playground.

Arriving in Vang Vieng, we knew to expect restaurants playing Friends but the sheer number surprised us. If a restaurant wasn’t playing Friends, it was showing Family Guy and Simpson’s. And, I mean restaurant after restaurant. It was quite the bizarre scene. The first several meals we chose to avoid them, preferring instead to eat at the organic farm cafe (excellent!) but eventually we gave into their trance inducing shows.

We first heard about Vang Vieng in Argentina from a Canadian travel writer. He described a debauchery filled cesspool, but behind an embarrassed face admitted he enjoyed it thoroughly. He said floating down the Nam Song was something to do at least once, as long as you take a minor break from your usual judgements of farang obnoxiousness. And for one day that’s exactly what we did.

Our first day, we rented inner tubes and headed out with a group of Swedes to float down the river. This stretch of the Nam Song is littered by makeshift bamboo bars on either side. Each sports its own rope swing and zip line and one even has a water slide. Tuk-tuk after tuk-tuk dropped folks off at the first bar. We knew that if we wanted to make it all the way down the river to the take-out spot some strategy in bar hopping would be needed or else this little excursion would get expensive for us (late fees and tuk-tuk return fares). We made a plan to start our trip off right by drinking a beer at the first bar and then stopping at every other bar after that point. It was a nice plan in theory, but after a few drinks it was totally abandoned (not surprising!).

As we sipped on our beer we watched one of the workers fly from the rope swing and do acrobatics before plunging into the water. After he did this a few times, others gained enough courage to try the rope swing too. Chris and I watched but without the goading of our friends we were content to just observe. But eventually the sight of everyone having fun gave Chris enough courage to try. Watching him climb the stairs, I knew that I was way too chicken. It was a high swing perched in a really tall tree; little did we know that this was the highest swing of all the bars. With my heart beating fast, I was probably more nervous than Chris. As he stepped off the platform the rope swung him like a pendulum, high over the rocks and water below. Reaching the highest point, he let go and dropped like a lead weight. Getting out of the water, he exclaimed in a shocked voice that it was much higher and scarier than it looked.  This jump put an end to his high-flying acts for the day.

We floated down the river to various other bars. We had a great time, but it seems when we’re having the most fun on this trip we wish our friends could be there. Floating down the river was no exception. I wished more than anything that for one day they could join us.

We decided to stop at one last bar before we absolutely needed to push on in order to avoid late fees for the tubes. This last bar sported a waterslide that ended¬†20 feet above the water. Tons of folks were going off it, so I decided to give it a try. The thing that didn’t occur to me beforehand was to pay close attention to people’s faces when they got out of the water. If recollection serves me correctly, they didn’t enjoy the slide. Neither did I. Laying completely flat while skyrocketing toward the end, it occurred to me this might be dangerous. As I catapulted off the slide, I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer. If I wasn’t sober before (trust me, I wasn’t) the jolting pain from the impact sobered me right up. It took two days for the bruises to fully emerge down my thighs, and two weeks later they are still not healed!

After the slide fiasco, we paddled hard to make it back to town before 6pm. The majority of tubers never stand a chance of making the deadline. It’s a pretty good racket that the bars, tuk-tuks, and tube rentals have going. At a quarter to six, we were still on the water with no town in site. Although we were fairly certain we wouldn’t make it, we gave it our last ditch effort. With only 5 minutes left, the take-out point came into site and we hit the shore running. We scrambled across bamboo bridges with our tubes over our heads, but when we got to the other side we had no idea which direction to go. Luckily, a crepe maker sensed our confusion and pointed us in the right direction. We made it in just the nick of time and shared high-fives with the tube rental workers. The clockhand read 6pm sharp.

There’s lots of things to do in Vang Vieng. It’s surrounded by karst caves, and one day we set out on our own to tour one of them. Another day we kayaked and tubed through a cave with Riverside tours. We didn’t know what to expect, but laying on our tubes while spelunking through the cave was a lot of fun. The cave seemed to go on forever. In one part, we could hear the rush of water, and I wondered if there were falls down that tunnel. Of course, the operators didn’t allow us to explore on our own….

After spelunking and eating a great lunch, we headed down the river by kayak. Chris and I are a great match unless we’re in a kayak together. His non communicative style does not match with my anxiety over fast approaching rapids. Although he expertly guided us through all the rapids, we bickered with each other as each one approached.

At the beginning of this post, I talked about feeling conflicted with our presence. Why do we feel conflicted in a place we had so much fun? Well, from our perspective there is very little Lao left in this once sleepy village. It’s like its identity has been stripped away and replaced by something far less authentic. We worry about the children who watch drunk foreigners on a daily basis act with very little decorum. Drunk girls walk down the street in their bikinis (in a country where people swim fully clothed); bar fights erupt; and customs are not respected. We feel our presence only strips away their culture and identity. And yet, our presence brings their local economy large amounts of money and a way out of poverty. We don’t know how communities can strike a balance between the two, but in no place does it feel more out of whack than Vang Vieng.

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