The drive to Vang Vieng was along probably the most beautiful, and also most harrowing, road I’ve ever taken. In Luang Prabang and even on the slowboat I hadn’t even begun to get acquainted with what Laos’s geology has to offer. Geologists will tell you that it’s an exemplar of karst topography, which is something to do with limestone eroding at fantastic rates due to rain being naturally acidic. Which is nice to know and all, but it’s not what I was appreciating when I was staring at the karst landscape. I was focused on the insane, precarious beauty. Most mountains looked as though they could fall apart at any moment. They were made entirely of cliffs, scrambled up and pointed every which way. They were gumdrops, castles, shattered rock candy, the plates of titanic stegosaurs, yet somehow managed to be so immense that the trees covering them could have been moss.
Probably because of this, the road was sometimes smooth but mostly a mosaic of potholes, like driving across a lava flow. It was strung along the closest thing they could find to a level ridgeline. That wasn’t very close, because this landscape is like the answer to a question: “Q: How densely can you pack mountains together within the limits of geological possibility? A: Laos.” Fairly often, the driver would put the tires on the very edge of the asphalt to let a Chinese-marked hopper truck full of something heavy but not visible pass by. At lunchtime we pulled over at a restaurant perched atop a knob that offered the best view of all the many views I’d seen today that stretched belief. I felt almost as if I had created a planet and was now looking down upon it. You may have seen this picture already.
I ate curry and then the van pushed on the rest of the way to Vang Vieng.
Within seconds of me leaving the car, a Westerner with lots of tattoos pointed me to a place where I could sleep cheap, so that task was out of the way quickly. I was annoyed that we’d gotten in too late—4:00—for me to do tubing today. Tubing is what Vang Vieng is famous for, almost synonymous with. I understood what it meant the first time I read the word, but I guess that’s because when I was a kid I would go to my Papaw’s house in West Virginia in the summers, and he would blow up an old truck inner tube he had, and I would sit on it and float down the creek in his front yard. Most people have to have it explained to them, but it’s basically the exact same thing as what I did on those lazy summer days in my childhood, except with a somewhat bigger river and stupendous amounts of booze. Nostalgically, I was more looking forward to the floating-lazily part, but in any case I would have to wait until tomorrow. So I started walking around.
Vang Vieng is a sad, sad place. Once, presumably a very short time ago, it was inhabited only by Lao people. They were the ones who would wake up every morning and get to enjoy the view of the thousand-foot teeth of green rock just outside town and the Nam Song River winding by downhill. Then some locals hit upon the relaxing practice of tubing. Westerners coming through loved it and latched on to it and then added loud music and Tiger Whisky and body paint and all the worst things. All those things bled over into the town. Now nearly every establishment in the town is one of these: a bar, a restaurant or street food stand, a store with cheap booze, or a travel agency. Nothing is left for the Lao. Not coincidentally, this is one of few places in Laos where you can go down the street and the locals, instead of waving hello cheerfully to you, will just glower.
But the travelers coming through aren’t too concerned about all this; most of them seem to be far too wrapped up in making sure they spend as little time possible sober. People party harder in Vang Vieng than in any other place I’ve been. Now, I don’t seek out party destinations, so I can’t compare it to the likes of Ibiza or Koh Pha Ngan, but this is a place where people voluntarily get their arms branded with heated metal—three lines to make a cougar scratch—to show how hardy they party. A girl at my hostel had been in Vang Vieng for over a week, working at a bar as many travelers do here (not for profit but rather for free booze and a bed), and she had been yelling so hard to passersby about free cocktails that she had no voice left. She didn’t recover her voice the whole time I was there, and in fact one night I saw her somehow playing through the pain to yell about drinks some more. There are functionally no laws here. Laos has plenty of laws, most of them pretty strictly enforced, but they’ve noticed that Vang Vieng is a river of gold, so they’ve decided not to enforce any of them there. So on the signboards at restaurants and food stands, you can see things like: Happy pizza. Opium tea. Mushroom shake. Opium weed. And these are just the things that you can buy openly.
After a tour around town I just couldn’t face it. I sat on the deck of the hostel for the evening and looked at the view and read a book I found. Later a hostel employee went to his second job at a restaurant and gave me a ride there on his motorbike and got me a free bucket. Buckets are another thing they have here: they’re little plastic ones, like a kindergartener might use to make a sand castle. Easily large enough to pour two beers into. But the operative booze in them is usually the extremely cheap Tiger Whisky, and it’s combined with things like Coke, Sprite, or Lemonade. The same buckets are used to manually flush toilets throughout the country: dip into a trash can full of water next to the sit-down pot, then dump it into the pot and the new clear water replaces the old dirty water. I thought the hostel guy said I was going to get a free baguette, but here I was with a bucket, sitting with a Dutch guy named Pieter, and I was just going to have to deal with it. So I ordered food and chatted with Pieter. He turned out to be pretty interesting, and a good guy. He was doing something I wish I’d done: he bought a motorbike in Hanoi and was now just riding it around everywhere. No need to worry about bus routes or schedules—complete freedom to explore any interesting little road. If I go back someday I’ll probably do it that way.
The next morning I ambled around and tried to decide what time was a good time to go tubing. I had some breakfast and got my shoes glued back together by a guy with a shoe repair shop consisting of a homemade roof and about three wooden skids and a chest of tools. Around 2:00 I decided to go for it. I entered what appeared to be an abandoned warehouse with the front wall removed and paid a little to get a tube of my own. This was piled on top of a pickup and I got in the back with ten other people and we were driven to a place a few kilometers up the Nam Song. Once I got off, I was immediately greeted by a Lao guy who gave me two absolutely free shots of Tiger Whisky, even though I had no idea what bar he was working for and didn’t plan to go to it later anyhow. Right across the river, not even downstream at all, was the first bar, blasting loud music and with probably a hundred people roaming its decks, drinking, talking about sex and partying, writing obscene things on each other in permanent marker, getting designs spray-painted on their bodies. The paint wasn’t anything specifically designed for human skin. It was straight-up motorcycle paint. But I figured this was part of the experience, so I might as well check it out.
From the decks of this bar, I looked down the river. All the bars were right next to each other. I could clearly see at least three from where I was. I assumed they were spaced evenly along the whole stretch of river reserved for the tubing experience. And there couldn’t be that many, so it looked like the tubing experience was pretty short, maybe a few hundred yards, and composed entirely of a succession of loud bars. Disappointed, I gave up on the leisurely float I’d been envisioning and tried to enjoy being in a bar.
But I couldn’t. I moved on from one to the other until I started getting to the ones that had rides. These were what attracted me to tubing in the first place. The lack of laws in Vang Vieng extends to safety regulations, so bar owners have felt free to build whatever rides seem like they could be thrilling. One of them is a cable stretched from a high place to a low place, going over the water. You get on a trapeze at the top end, jump off, and descend quickly toward the bottom end until you hit a catch and the trapeze stops dead and you flip off end over end into the water. I rode that, but I let go before the catch, like a wimp. I rode another trapeze-based ride, too—a swing that starts twenty feet up over the water’s surface and approaches as close as about six feet. That’s where you’re meant to let go, so I did. But some people timed it worse, and some people, supremely unwisely, went two at a time, and the Lao guy who was handing the trapeze to each person who came next had clearly been practicing for a while, because he was able to actually swing back onto a lower part of the deck. Later he spray-painted his legs completely blue and looked like a frog and did lots of dangerous things on the trapeze.
Then there were waterslides. First a narrow one with an abrupt upturn at the bottom that hurts the tailbone just enough to disorient you into nearly bellyflopping from about seven feet up. Then the Big Slide, also known as the Death Slide. It’s made of tile and concrete, starts at least thirty feet in the air, and lets you go ten feet over the water. It earned its nickname by being at one of the last bars along the route, where people arrive already extremely drunk but decide they’re just fine to tackle the slide. Each person you ask has a different answer for what the yearly death toll is. One person told me 11. Wikipedia says in 2011 22 people died there. Yet the slide keeps operating. I suppose the theory is, it’s hard to stop drunk people from doing stupid stuff, and sometimes they’ll kill themselves doing it. I assume everything is at-your-own-risk, because if it weren’t, the Big Slide would have been torn down years ago. At any rate, if you’re one of the thousands who manage to ride it safely, like I was, it’s pretty darn fun. I rode it two or three times, though each time there was that weird twinge from knowing I was doing something that could be fatal if I were a lot drunker.
After the Big Slide, the bars pretty much petered out. The last one had a sign saying “90 MINUTES TO FINISH”. I was puzzled. That long? Then I realized that the bars were all clustered at the very beginning of the tubing route. There were still kilometers left until I got back to town. But I’d wasted so much time at the bars thinking they were all I got that now it was getting on toward dusk. Other revelers were heading back to town in tuk-tuks. But I couldn’t be that lame. So I kept floating. So did a Californian guy. We floated along near each other, and egged each other on to keep going all the way to town. The sun went down behind the rock teeth. The stars came out. We got cold. But we kept floating. It was nice, and it was relaxing—it was everything I’d hoped for. Except that it was nighttime.
We did get out before the finish, fearing hypothermia. We walked back to town and ate a lot. I passed Michelle in the street and arranged a time, then failed to meet her one more time when she didn’t appear. After this we never saw each other again. I read a book until bedtime while the sounds of drunkenness swirled around town.
With the requisite tubing done, I woke up in a mood to do some serious climbing and exploring around all those rocks. And luckily, a Lao guy working at the hostel had just the thing for me. He wanted to start running treks of his own for people at the hostel, but he wasn’t from town, so he didn’t know the area. Today he wanted to go gathering information, and take along a few tourists to tell him how fun the stuff was. This tailor-made opportunity was in place of spending upwards of $35 on a guided tour. Sweet.
So I joined an Englishman and a Canadian and the hostel guy, named See, and we walked over the bridge on the river, past the river bars, through the fancy hut resort, and straight out of town. We were in rice fields. Endless, dry rice fields. Each one bordered by a bank of dirt, each the size of a respectable American backyard. Completely level, the whole patchwork of them, to the horizons. Or to where a hill or a massive wall incongruously poked straight out of them. This was the dry season, so they were all fallow for the moment. Nothing was happening. It was peaceful. We just walked.
Guided by See, we found our way to Par Poak, a hill sitting on the rice fields like a haystack on a barn floor. Some Lao guys were lounging around under some trees where the path got to the mountain, and we paid them about a dollar each, and we climbed. I loved this hill. It wasn’t built like any other hill I’ve seen. It was as if someone hastily dumped a load of rocks there a few thousand years ago from a dump truck the size of a skyscraper. There were hollows and giant crevices and obstructions everywhere. The people who set up the trail to the top had to add bamboo ladders and bridges. I was desperate for some climbing, so I circumvented all the suggested routes and made everything difficult and found myself at the top a happy man. From there I could see the patchwork of the rice fields much more clearly, and it was amazing the way it stretched out off into the distance completely flat in this landscape that was in most places the mathematical opposite of flat. The other guys all called me crazy as I perched on points of rock and looked out, and I was glad to have earned that title.
On the way down we stopped into a little cave. It only took a few minutes to explore every crevice and look into the very deep and unenterable pit there. But it was still cooler geologically than anything I’d ever seen in Ohio.
So I was looking forward to seeing Lusi Cave, the next place See wanted to take us. It was a long walk on a path through the jungle. I got ahead and walked quietly to listen to the jungle, and I heard a noise from a tree near the wall—which by now was only a couple hundred yards away, but through impassable forest. The noise was a monkey. I was pretty content.
At Lusi there was a similar shade grove with Lao guys hanging out. One of them took some money from each of us and then waited. I didn’t know what we were waiting for, but See seemed to. Eventually another Lao guy came from the direction of the wall with a few tourists who left after coming out. He took a break, had some water, gave us flashlights, and invited us in. He would be our tour guide. He unlocked the gate—ah, so this was why we had to wait—and led us up another bamboo ladder to the entrance.
And it was a tremendous cave, chamber after chamber, some of them big enough to fit several temples inside. Our guide, Phouvang, pointed out various impressive rock formations to us, calling them things like candle, flower, toilet, “big pussy”. He appeared to think he was hilarious. But at least he showed us plenty of cave. There were some interesting things, like a natural podium and floors that were secretly just thin shelves over a massive underground reservoir. Really, though, I wished he’d let us wander on our own. A guide seems to take the fun out of everything. But maybe it was better we didn’t: by the time we came back I had no idea that we were about to arrive at the entrance, and when he pointed down one corridor, he told us that it would take over an hour to get to the end of it.
Then we sat around a bit. See talked with Phouvang and evidently worked out some deal with him. Phouvang led us on a different path out of the grove, not the one we’d arrived by. We foreigners were puzzled, but See assured us we were going somewhere interesting. It was bushwhacking through the jungle. There was barely a path at all, but Phouvang led us surely. After at least 45 minutes, when we had all resigned ourselves to wandering the jungle forever and not having the food we’d been hoping to eat very soon, we punched through into some rice fields. They had cattle in them. Phouvang took us on a walk across them, sometimes on paths, sometimes not. He talked with locals in their stilted huts on the edges of the fields. He showed us edible plants. I slowly realized that we weren’t just getting back to town really slowly—we were actually getting a heck of a tour. I’d never imagined that in Vang Vieng, of all places in Laos, I’d actually see the way traditional rice farmers live, and the fields and the cattle that they live on.
Finally, after a lot of wandering in all different directions and some questioning whether Phouvang actually had any idea where he was going, we went through a little collection of houses near a manmade forest next to the fields—a village with no road—and looked at the fluffy pillow-stuffing plants they were growing and crossed a bamboo bridge guarded by a group of giggling little girls. It took us across the Nam Song, over today’s tubers, to a place where a big market was being held. It was almost exclusively Lao people there. We sat down at a counter and had noodle soup and it was great—and about as authentic as you can get. After we ate I bought some weird fruits, which I later forgot on a bus, and looked around. This was authentic Laos.
We walked back to town. I relaxed and read a book again. Managed to get through an entire novel, actually. I fell asleep feeling a little better knowing that, even here, it only took a short walk for locals to get away from the opium weed and the mushroom shakes and the cougar scratches and find real life once again.