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A Hazy Laotian River Tour

By Dave Zook

July 24, 2009 

Squinting into the strangling Laotian morning sun, the heat grinds my progress to a near standstill. My haphazard crew has devolved further into virtually irreparable shambles, and we absolutely have to re-form and carpe diem or die trying. I need to find Seth, our Paralympic-Gold-Medal winning professional athlete, Shima, our token numskull-traveler, Dylan, our well-intentioned train wreck, and Reid and Morgan, strangers until a week ago, now essential pieces of this day, this ultimate travel day.  

I stumble into Bota, our lone sober soldier, out for a few days with a crippling stomach problem. I praise his stomach problem and the resulting cleared head, as he is our rock, our voice of reason, and our only proof of intelligence. He is also now tasked with the logistics of coordinating our helpless souls through the day, for we are not well, after too late nights and long days of taxing travel. 

We are in Vang Vieng, a tiny village in Laos about six hours north of the capital city Vientiane. And Vang Vieng is a travelers’ Mecca of sorts as it is home to the modern sport of river tubing/bar hopping/zipline swinging. About 10 bars line the calm, brown Nom Sam River, each beckoning any tuber in with free shots of whiskey, bikini-clad Germans and, in one case, mud volleyball. In town, you can rent a tube and a ride for about $8 US. 

Seth had only gone to check his email, and he was coherent where I had feared worse. Shima was a babbling, glazy-eyed mess. His normally ass-backward logic (he once told me, while sober, that losing a passport shouldn’t be hard to fix, so he didn’t need to keep it safe) had now plummeted and he was now jeopardizing the mission as he rambled in incoherent English, unable to differentiate a put-in from a take-out. Pretty sure he had more than just happy joints the night before. Dylan remained in bed with heavy back pain and a feeling of gaseous air in his belly that would not disappear. He threw up the white flag, one soldier down. Reid had been vomiting the night before and all morning, so that was just great.  

Renting the tubes and riding the taxi among the crowds we were treated to the shock of hundreds of western tourists indulging in a full day of binging and being obnoxious. On first sight, it looked ugly, an invasion on the locals world by white people with money.  

Riding the tourist trail through Southeast Asia, it’s not hard to inherit this view on multiple occasions. We are loud, often drunk, always ignorant and sometimes dangerous (in the case of drug and sex trafficking) and we never seem to have any perception that we are anything but fun-loving, pioneering backpackers. Yes, we bring welcome dollars and the all-important economic growth to places entirely dependent on tourism but the overall vibe can resemble a real shit-show sometimes. In Vang Vieng on a hot October day was one such time. 

We hopped in the river. 

Meandering merely 100 feet downstream, a widely smiling pre-teen Laotian boy threw us a rope in hopes of luring us in (literally) to support their business. Suckers we were, we downed the ‘first one’s free’ shot with gratitude.  

Cleared of his sickness, Bota was gung-ho to be back in the party spirit. After the second bar, the bartender offered Bota her half-full bottle of whiskey to take down the river that he took with a smile. Our voice of reason just happily decided to take cheap whiskey in a glass bottle down a river to another bar also serving the same stuff for free. Our logic was drunk.  

Then Seth wanted to hit the zipline. However, being paralyzed from the way down posed an unusual logistical issue, which had to be overcome via a twisted thought process. “Let’s do this before we think about it too much,” was the line I fed him and our crew, as we strapped him on a life-vest and I piggybacked him up a crooked one-story, rickety wooden-ladder covered in slick mud. Having obviously put safety as our top priority, Reid and our awesome British pal Rick were trailing me in case of a slip-up, and Bota was standing by on water support to retrieve Seth from the current. Standing on the zipline loading platform about 30 feet off the water, with a throbbing headrush either from the physical exertion, the booze, or Seth’s forearm applying all his weight straight to my Adam’s apple thereby constricting my oxygen flow, it was now or never. I repeated my “let’s do this” line, albeit a bit more feebly, and grabbed the handle and bombed away. Seth released his grip and plopped in the water midway through the line and I did the same soon after. We all emerged without a scratch. 

The lack of safety would trouble many a sober minds. At the first bar, a business-enticing rope-swing launched the drunks into surprisingly shallow water, and many emerging with cuts and scrapes, while risking a lot more. A scruffy Aussie, intent on hucking backflips off a Gelande-style tube ramp, insisted on doing so, despite his girlfriend’s pleas and repeated warnings about his seriously injured knee. Without a doctor for miles, he carried on. When we left the last bar, darkness set in and a hungry, exhausted mob formed a flotilla in total darkness, unaware of where the take-out was, and risking floating for eternity back to Vientiane. We heard tales of many floating too far. The guidebooks reaffirmed this fear by pointing out the tourist death toll that mounts every year on that particular section of river.   

Lucky enough to see the small exit zone, we emerged with everything intact. But we had taken a considerable risk, and hoped nothing went wrong, for if it did, we would have been positively screwed, with no one to blame. 

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