Well, after the cultural magnet that is Luang Prabang, what was I to expect of Vang Vieng as the bus wound its way across the mountainous jungles, bumped along the potholed track they call a highway?
We meandered downhill late at night, the eerie glow of the moonlight on the limestone karsts which line the route casting a bluish tint across our way. I'd been warned that this place was beautiful in its surroundings, and less than beautiful around its centre. Can't be that bad, I thought? Surely it'll just be a slight step down from Luang Prabang? I couldn't have been more wrong if I'd been involved in a foursome with Gary Glitter and Michael Barrymore.
This place truly is the armpit of Asia, never mind Laos. It looks like Vegas before they built roads. Neon signs and crappy bars. Bars which have beds to lie in and watch Friends. I hate Friends. I hate their stupid, vacuous little faces and the crap they dribble out of your TV set. And I hate these simple fools who sit and watch episode after episode all day long. Who's idea was this? Adolf Hitler's? Pol Pot's? I feel sorry for the poor bastards who work there, not understanding it, but having to put up with that godawful racket of a theme tune every 30 minutes. It sets my teeth on edge, andmakes me want to chew my own ears off. Speaking of Pol Pot, if his Khmer Rouge thugs had burst into the bar and hammered pencils in my ears, they would have been puzzled by my grin of gratitude. I digress.
People say to put it out of your mind, and just enjoy the tubing. Well, yes...there were ten of us doing it, and jumping off big rope swings and death slides is great. But does it need the shit music at each bar on the river? The pouting, flabless goons in giant sunglasses pumping their little bums to the commercial house, nodding at no-one in particular and pointing at the sky? And that's just the blokes. The locals pull you in with bamboo poles as you float downstream between bars.
A young Irishman was bouncing about, pissed out of his nut, with "22" written on his chest in black marker pen. When I asked what it signified, he gleefully informed me that he'd been tubing for 22 days non-stop, and apparently held the world record (?). I quizzed him about where else he'd been in Asia, and he said he was off to Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand, for a Full Moon Party the next week, before coming back here to beat his own record. Wow. He'll certainly have some amazing stories for the granchildren about his time in Asia, won't he? Well done, mate.
Without wanting to sound too my like my hero (opposite), I did enjoy some of the experience. Several of the platforms you deathslide down are 30 feet+...and I preferred to just leap off them into the river. Especially when some Yank shouts "Yeah, man...WHOOOO...fucking awesome, but this slide ain't big enough!" while he's waiting for the slide to come back up. I suggested he jump off with me this time. His little face dropped, but he'd dug his grave with his remark. So at the count of three, we went for it. And it's a long way down, so much so that your feet sting as you hit the water (it's preferable to keep the feet together...doesn't do much for the old Nobby Stiles if you don't.
We were tubing with some of the gang from Luang Prabang. We had a right old laugh, despite the rest of the company (in particular a 50-year old stalker from Northern Ireland who looked frighteningly like Steven Berkoff. The Jock was perturbed when the guy rubbed all the water off his peanut head while he was pouring us beers and obviously had his hands full. When the hand started upon his shoulder, Jocky had had enough "OK...stop touching me now, please?" I chuckled to myself. Berkoff went off to do a sex on someone else.
As night fell, we set off in the inner tubes to try and get back within curfew...they charge another wad of cash if you're late. We linked up, around 15 of us going downriver towards the town, various locals houses lit up alongside us. Most bottled out in the dark, and headed for a local house to get back to the road and hail a tuk tuk. Myself and a plucky Yorkshire lass named Helen were having none of it, and drifted along on our own. It was lovely. Peace and quiet, looking up at the starts and the limestone karsts, chatting about this and that. We ended up at one of the local bars, knees scraped from getting out in the current under the shallows, to have a butty and a beer to celebrate. Some turd had nicked my flipflops at the final bar, so a walk home over stony ground for me.
To sum up, it comes to something that the best bar in this town is the Irish one. I detest sitting in them usually, "enjoying the craic" and that bollocks. You don't enjoy crack...you smoke it and then it becomes a necessity, for fuck's sake. The lad who owns it is married to a Laotian. He'll let you play your own music, and smoke weed upstairs. That's good enough for me.
Now get me out of this shithole.