… Continued from Part 1…
Meandering down the serene Nam Song River, reclining lazily in the inner tube of a truck tyre… this essential stopover on the Southeast Asian gap-year tourist circuit has somehow simultaneously evolved into one of the most pleasurably relaxing and deadly travel experiences on Earth. I highly recommend it.
It’s not the tubing itself however responsible for the diminishment so many young peoples’ social status (from ‘alive’ to ‘no longer alive’), as much as the party culture that has developed in the township and along the four kilometres of river bank along the tubing run downstream to Vang Vieng.
One thing rarely mentioned in the increasingly frequent and lazy barrage of reportage on the lawless den of depravity known as Vang Vieng is the stunning natural beauty of the place. The limestone mountains rising steeply from the riverside are a spectacular backdrop to what, a few years ago, must have been an amazingly peaceful scenic journey back to town.
Between the river bank and the mountains however are the bars. A few years ago there were a couple. By 2009 there were half a dozen. By the summer of 2012 there were about 15. The infamous Nam Song river bars are where visitors are encouraged to get completely wrecked, before being sent further down stream to the next bar a couple of hundred feet away. This is where damage gets done and people get dead.
The local operators of the bars have collectively concluded that the perfect way for the foreign visitors to enjoy the stunning mountain backdrop and the gently burbling river is with the accompaniment of non-stop dance music. Without access to electricity, each of the bars has a generator, which powers the small beer fridges, and the obligatory PA system, which of which provide the relentless, ear-splitting club music through speakers the size of Volkswagons, all day, every day. It certainly seemed a little disconcerting to my friend and I during my first visit in 2009, but noticing the demographic of the majority of the ‘tubers’ out there with us on the river (who might most accurately be described as 20 years old, and English), it appeared that the locals knew their market well.
The biggest and busiest of the bars is the first, where the tubers are dropped, one small truckload at a time, all day, every day. Hundreds of these young tubers get into the party to such an extent that they never even make it into the water (which is kind of the point of river tubing), and drunkenly return to town at the end of the day, the same way they arrived. In some sense, these kids are the smart ones.
The thing is, once you set off down river, there is only one way back into the town – by tube. This does little of course to stop each of the bars attracting as many customers as possible, with promises of lao lao (the potentially deadly local whiskey – basically ethanol, formaldehyde and window cleaner, with perhaps just a hint of used bathwater). The lao lao is always free. Hint: don’t drink too much lao lao. Along with the complementary shot of the local “whiskey” as soon as you step out of the water, there are buckets to be had (which might contain anything), and various homemade hallucinogenic and psychotropic drugs, as advertised by the cardboard signboards being held by twelve-year-old spruikers who yell to the passing tubers, “Mushrooms here! Joints and mushrooms! LSD!”
After one beer my friend and I decided to leave the first, loudest and craziest bar, and set off toward what I was assured would be more casual places to stop and relax along the way. After about 30 seconds in the water came the shouting from the banks, urging us to stop and partake in whatever was on offer at the next bar. It occurred to me that even if I did want to stop at the bar, I was sitting in an inflated rubber tube without a steering wheel, travelling downstream at the whim of the river. How would we make our next stop? We found out quickly.
As it turns out, the young kids who work along the river have some surprising (if somewhat annoying) skills. The way to stop at the river bars is simple and effective. The kids on the river bank will shout out, then throw a plastic bottle attached to a long length of rope into the river. If you feel like stopping, you simply grab hold of the rope and are soon towed to shore.
If you choose to ignore their calls however, or are not paying attention, you run the risk of being struck in the side of the head with a coke-bottle wrapped around half a litre of river water. These kids don’t seem to spend much time at school, if any, but they’re strong swimmers, and possess an amazing ability to hit a moving target from about 70 feet. They aim for the head, and a chorus of laughter comes from the river bank whenever someone receives a direct hit. My friend and I were both struck by flying plastic bottles on more than one occasion. Between the music, the yelling and the constant threat of coke-bottle attacks it appeared that the locals were doing everything in their power to distract our attention from the beautiful natural surroundings. Again though, most of the people there didn’t seem to care much for the scenery, and the locals were most interested in our money.
A little further downstream the bars become less frequent. Coming toward a nice, quiet little bar which for some inexplicable reason was not attempting to make our ears bleed, we motioned for the extraordinarily strong little boy to tow us both to shore. With the absence of music was the accompanying absence of 20 year-old backpackers and, climbing ashore and up the wooden steps we were pleased to find we were the only customers. Immediately, the woman ran from behind the bar toward the PA system. We politely suggested, since we were the only two customers that we preferred the quiet, and offered the lady a tip to keep it that way. She looked at us like we were insane, then smiled, accepted the couple of dollars happily, and poured us a complementary shot of lao lao to go with our beers. We asked if she had anything to smoke. She apologised for not having cigarettes for us. We said we were fine for cigarettes, so she quickly disappeared around the back of the shanty bar. She returned a moment later with an expertly rolled joint, for which she charged around one American dollar, and which took us around 40 minutes to smoke. After another beer we set off again downstream, now in a refreshing light rain, to the next bar, where the music was again loud, the lao lao was free, and young women in bikinis were playing mud volleyball, which is just as it sounds. We had another couple of beers before throwing ourselves again into the river.
The next bar was also pumping the music, but seemed devoid of customers. The kids were holding up their signs to indicate that this was the place to get your drugs on. We got dragged ashore. Every river bar has some kind of theme or activity, to set it slightly apart from the others. The theme of this one was clear. Drugs. We were the only customers there.
The kids with their hand-drawn placards inviting people to come in and get wasted didn’t seem to be drawing much of a crowd. The young tubers were in fact steering their tubes (as best they could) toward the other side of the river. We could hear the discussions on the river as they floated idly past. “Oh my God! That place is selling LSD! Quick, let’s get to the next bar for more buckets!” My friend and I noted, the way grumpy old men tend to do, that things seemed to have changed in the 20 years since we were 20.
“What the hell’s wrong with these kids today?” grumbled my friend, ordering something with mushrooms in it.
“Dunno mate.” I just had a beer.
It was beginning to make sense why so many people die on this small section of river just upstream of Vang Vieng. It stands to reason that many have drowned, simply by being too out of it to differentiate up from down while still in the river. Drowning however accounts for just a few of the many deaths each year.
The major problem is the riverside zip-lines, rope swings, waterslides and other crazy contraptions the bar-owners have built to entertain the party crowds. The thing is… the river, even in the low (rainy) season when the water is at its highest, is in many places just a couple of feet deep. Excavators have been used to create waterholes in strategic places, deep enough for alcohol-fuelled, drug-addled partygoers to land in from various heights. Unfortunately, sometimes people manage to overshoot the landing area (which isn’t marked in any way, or mentioned at all), and hurl themselves at random angles into the rocks, a foot or two below the waterline. I was told that one French girl and an English guy had died there in the week before my last visit.
Most reports suggest between 20 and 30 tourists died in and around the river in 2011, though many locals I’ve spoken too say the actual number of tourist deaths in Vang Vieng is much higher. A few business owners explained that a significant number of deceased partiers are quickly and quietly taken to the Laos capital, Vientiane, or other provinces where there deaths are registered as having occurred. This, I was told, is happening because the local authorities do not want to lose the tourist trade, and the increasing amounts of money being brought into the poor Southeast Asian nation, and the Vang Vieng area in particular.
Interviews with locals and long term expats, given anonymously for fear of reprisal, also suggest that the openness of the drug dealing trade in the town and river bars is related to the involvement of the local police, who are known to collaborate with the dealers. It is not unusual to be sold a joint, or some opium in Vang Vieng, only to be stopped and arrested two minutes later by a local police officer, who then demands the standard “fine” of around $500. Everybody’s in on the game.
Only weeks after my most recent visit to Vang Vieng in the Summer of 2012, a number of river bars were shut down however, due to unsafe practices and the fact that the bars were lacing their “bucket” drinks with opium and mushrooms.
Personally, I love the place. It is beautiful, crazily hedonistic, and it won’t be this way for much longer. Go and check it out while you can! Just avoid shady looking characters, don’t drink those buckets (beer Lao is fantastic – just drink that), be polite and keep a smile on your face. You should be just fine.
Kop chy, lye lye (thanks a lot).