Lazin’ in Laos with Friends

Adventure Travel, Laos, Lost Girls RTW Adventure — By on February 25, 2007 at 1:00 pm

“Oh My God! This is the one where Ross and Rachel first get together. I love this episode,” we heard an overly-perky blonde exclaim from across the crowded restaurant. Hmm! Very interesting! This wasn’t the sort of thing we’d expect to hear in Laos of all places, but Amanda and I quickly discovered that statements like this were status quo in Vang Vieng.

When we’d skimmed the Laos section of our Lonely Planet, the description of this small town hadn’t particularly jumped off the page at us, but after hearing from several other travelers that Vang Vieng was definitely worth a visit, Amanda and I decided to schedule an impromptu stop there to see what all the fuss was about.

Known for its vast array of water sports and ubiquitous Friends cafes, Vang Vieng has become an increasingly popular destination for backpackers, luring them in by the busloads with promises of wild river tubing trips (read: half naked holiday-ers and cold beer) and mindless American TV shows playing on every corner from dawn ‘til dusk. Now, I know what some of you may be wondering, “Why would Amanda and Jen go all the way to Laos to wind up indulging in such culturally devoid, soulless activities?” Well, it’s simple really. Over the past 8 months, we’ve crossed 3 continents, 1 sub-continent and over a half dozen countries with our 40+ pound “homes” on our backs – – and we’re freakin’ tired!!

Not to digress this blog entry too much, but it’s worth clarifying that The Lost Girls have long since given up the insane notion that some travelers have that the only way to have a “real” experience in a foreign country is to get off the backpacker trail. After being on the road for as long as we have, we’ve realized that nothing is “real” and everything is “real”, that no matter how hard you try to be different, you’re still the same as everyone else and that the road less traveled doesn’t always “make all the difference” (wow, that was way too many air quotes in one sentence; forgive me!) It’s not that we feel this way all the time, or don’t still try to pursue more genuine interactions abroad, but spending a few days in Vang Vieng certainly shouldn’t mark us with a permanent scarlet “S” for sell out, should it?

Fortunately for Amanda and I, most Vang Vieng visitors also shared our sentiment for the superficial, so before barely stepping foot off our overcrowded bus, we linked up with other newbies who were organizing a tubing trip together for the next day.

After rising at the “ungodly” hour of 9am (yes, it’s awesome to have no job or responsibilities) and catching a few episodes of Friends: Season 5 (you just gotta love the one where everyone finds out Monica and Chandler are a secret couple!) over breakfast, Amanda and I headed to the tube rental shop down the block to meet up with our fun, new pals – Tim, an American (a rare commodity in this part of the world), Andy, from Munich, Germany and Lorraine, a “Dublin”-er on holiday.

Functioning like a well oiled machine, the friendly staff quickly ushered us from one line to the next where we paid 30,000 kip (approximately $3) for a full day rental, were issued an over-inflated black floatie and water proof bag and then asked to review the company policies and general regulations. My favorite was a posted sign that suggested: ” To save money no smoke marijuana on the river!”(see picture at right for proof). This is particularly hilarious because it uses the phrase, “Save Money”, rather than something that would seem to make more sense, like “Stay out of Prison!” or “Avoid Arrest!” In case you’re wondering why this is, let me explain. It’s common knowledge that slipping the local police a few bills is usually all that’s required for a busted backpacker to secure a get out of jail free card. So, the sign does not lie. Smoking illegal substances while tubing may very well deplete your bank account; so don’t do it!

Once we had a full grasp of the river rules, we were crammed into the back of a pick up truck with dozens of other people and their tubes and driven to the starting point of our day’s adventure. The five of us had barely made it 100 yards before we were lured back out of the water with shouts of “BEER LAO! BEER LAO! BEER LAO! (deep breath for dramatic effect) LAO BEER! ONLY 5000 KIP!” Wow, they’re only charging 50 cents for a huge bottle of beer? Well, reel us in immediately!

As we floated closer to the makeshift bar – an uneven platform lashed together with bamboo and river reeds – an enthusiastic little man extended a long pole in our direction and gracefully whisked us to the edge. We cracked open our first Beer Lao of the day then took turns climbing up a rickety ladder to test our skills on the suspended zip line the locals had set up above. After crashing head first into the water a few times, we decided to take our beers to-go and continue our lazy journey down the river. Apparently, there were stands like this every few minutes, so we didn’t want to get stuck for too long at the very first one. After leisurely drifting for awhile, we heard a low thumping and periodic squeels in the distance. As we rounded the bend, we joined hundreds of fellow tubers paddling furiously to the side to make the steep climb to river’s biggest and most popular pit stop.

A scene pulled straight from an MTV Spring Break Special raged above us. Music pumped from suspended loud speakers, bikini clad revelers danced across a string off connected gazebos and adrenaline seekers waited in line to try the 100 foot Tarzan swing. Were Amanda and I brave enough to ‘make like Jane’ and take the death defying plunge, you ask? Well, so far on this trip we’ve conquered the Inca Trail, sparred with a capoeira master in Brazil and stared down an 8 inch Kenyan golden orb spider, so the answer could only be…HELL YEAH WE DID!! I’ve posted video clips of our big jumps at the end of the blog for any skeptics.

After spending a few hours soaking in the sun, mingling with other travelers and sufficiently filling our bellies with foamy Beer Lao, Amanda and I hopped back in the water to begin the 3 hour trip back to Vang Vieng. As a soft tangerine glow settled across the sky and gentle waves rocked us downstream, we quickly went from pumped up party goers to ultra relaxed river cruisers. Amanda and I felt like characters painted into a water color as our tubes floated past local fisherman hauling their daily catch to shore, brightly colored hammocks swinging from thick tree trunks and jagged limestone peaks carved unevenly into the landscape like crooked teeth in a jack-o-lantern. Any residual tension left in our arms from the day’s acrobatic activities (swinging from ropes and lifting heavy bottles of Beer Lao can really do a number on your biceps!) melted away as we continued to drift.

By the time we reached town, we were completely chilled out and ready to continue our pursuit of laziness at one of the many outdoor restaurants near our guesthouse. After dumping our tubes back at the office and changing out of our wet clothes, Amanda and I headed over to our favorite cafe to meet Tim, Andy and Lorraine for dinner. And of course, we happily welcomed Joey, Phoebe, Ross, Rachel, Chandler and Monica to join in our party!

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  • Timen says:

    Nostalgia. I had a good time in Laos, though I must say I learned little of the true culture. Tubing was fun though.

  • Buttercup says:

    I’m glad to hear you all are having a great time in Laos. I think that’s right, that everything is “real.” One of my favorite things about travelling in SE Asia, other than the culture, people, amazing ruins, and history, was the fact that I could get chocolate chip pancakes and smoothies every morning. It’s not necessarily “off the beaten” path, but it was a lot of fun. Everything in balance.

  • damian says:

    saludos muy buena aventura…os he votado 😉

  • Dellie says:

    I loved the pictures and the slide show and the video of you girls swinging over the river. That’s something you sure wouldn’t have done over the Hudson River! Kudos to you! Thanks for all the visuals.

  • Hey Jen, you had a great time with your friends in Laos, picture are beautiful as always. I am sure you avoid Marijuana :)..