Friday, 17 September 2010

Lunacy on the Nam Song

It has been described as both a traveler’s paradise and a sullied Eden: whichever way you look at it, Vang Vieng is an almost obligatory stop on any travel route through Laos. The mountains surrounding the town are breathtaking – the limestone cliffs jut out of the Nam Song river and tower above the town’s 25,000 residents and hordes of tourists. The area is steeped in natural beauty and offers a wide range of activities including rafting, mountain climbing, caving, kayaking and trekking. With all this on offer however, tourists flock to the muddy banks of the sometimes lethal Nam Song river for one purpose – tubing.

After hiring a large rubber inner tube, we traveled around three kilometres upstream where we were deposited unceremoniously at the first stop on the tubing trail – the ingeniously named ‘Bar Number 1’. Sitting rather precariously on the river bank, this small wooden shack reverberates with dance music and offers the cheapest drinks on the river. Tube-goers can sit on the decks and smoke shisha, play some table tennis, get themselves painted up by the ever-obliging bartenders or take a seat on a cushion, soak up some sun and watch kayakers capsize on the nearby rapids. A rustic ‘Engrish’ sign outside advertises ‘free shorts’: you’d be forgiven for thinking they went so far as to provide free clothing for unprepared tourists. Instead, on arrival you will be offered a free shot of a particularly vile unidentified alcohol containing wasps. Yes, wasps.

As with many south east Asian countries, health and safety isn’t a consideration in most aspects of daily life. Poverty is rife in Laos, and with a large percentage of the population living under the poverty line it isn’t what you’d call a litigious society. So, health and safety aside, a number of enterprising locals have capitalized on the hedonistic tendencies of tourists and lined the banks of the Nam Song river with wooden shacks, enormous rope swings, zip lines, water slides and bars selling cheap alcohol. A recipe for disaster? Absolutely. This recipe, however, contains one more key ingredient – a river. In the rainy season, the river levels rise to the point where they virtually engulf some of the river bars and the murky brown water moves with frightening speed.  A fair number of tourists have lost their lives to this river and, from what I understand, are often not able recovered from its waters. There are days (particularly after heavy rain) where the river is ‘closed’ to tourists, however the bars are still open and tubes can still be hired for those brave or stupid enough to take it on.

We spent some time at Bar Number One having a drink, soaking up the sun and chatting to fellow travelers. When we were ready to move on, we plunged into the river via the small slide attached to the bar. As we discovered, this slide doesn’t claim lives but it does claim sunglasses – two pairs from our group. Billy was unable to find his, but was offered a new pair for free by a woman toting a large bag of lost and as-yet-unclaimed sunglasses. He promptly lost these at the next bar and spent the rest of the day blinded by the bright sun.

The second bar we stopped at (imaginatively named Bar Number Two) offers an incredibly precarious and highly dangerous rope swing. Even at low river levels, there is insufficient clearance to let your legs dangle down as you swing. The first day we went tubing, the river was swollen from the previous day’s rain and most people were unable to clear the water at all and instead hit it with great force, wrenching their shoulders and forcing them to let go. I’m surprised there were not more dislocations and injuries although in saying that alcohol is a great anesthetic – I’ve no doubt that sobriety later that evening would have been accompanied by a great deal of pain. I was also greatly amused by the strategies of a good number of men who tried to avoid hitting the river on the downswing by lifting their legs up either side of their body, exposing their nether regions. Of course when they don’t achieve sufficient clearance, you can imagine exactly which part of the body connects with the water first. At high speed. If I had a dollar for every man I saw emerging from the waters breathless, pained and holding themselves I could have purchased the entire bar.

Bar Number Three offers a far safer alternative – a swing with a far greater level of clearance, even in the rainy season. It looked like great fun and I eventually worked up the courage to climb the slippery wooden ladder and have a go. My legs were shaking as I climbed and I couldn’t look down as that would have been the end of me. I realized upon reaching the top that there was nowhere to go but down via the swing, as the ladder would have been infinitely more dangerous to descend. So, grabbing the swing I set off and discovered that, like a lot of things, it wasn’t anywhere near as scary as what it looks like. No sooner had I been fished out of the river at the bottom I was back up the ladder for a second go.

We finally left this bar and, jumping in our tubes we floated down river headed for a bar on the opposite river bank. We bypassed a number of other bars including one offering mud wrestling and mud volleyball. We declined to stop as we have it on good authority that these mud pits were in fact pink-eye central – the scourge of the Nam Song affecting a huge number of travelers. The bar we arrived at boasted three attractions – a zip line, an incredibly high rope swing and an enormous waterslide. It was also what appeared to be ‘self service’ – you relied on whoever happened to be standing on the dock to toss you a rubber ring and fish you out of the river otherwise you’d just whizz on by.

Lip service was paid to health and safety, with signs everywhere proclaiming you would be refused admittance to the swings and slides if you had imbibed any alcohol that day. The bar is conveniently situated at the base of the slide and zip line entrance and the women behind the bar were dishing out alcohol with great gusto and watching as people downed their drinks and headed straight for the slides. The madness doesn’t stop there, however. No attempt is made at coordination of those on the zip line, rope swing OR slide, so your chances of a mid-air collision at any given time are pretty high. Billy quite literally came within centimeters of colliding with a guy who had just come down the zip line. Just to add a bit of extra danger to the mix, there was also an approaching kayaker AND someone tubing down the river at the same time so upon landing all four of them were dangerously close together. I can’t imagine what landing on a kayak would feel like, and I’ve no doubt that a mid-air clash of heads could quite easily result in death from drowning. Very scary stuff.

Tubing is dangerous, but with a bit of common sense and an appreciation for the dangers of the river it can be a lot of fun. Every tourist-filled bar pumps out music and offers incredibly cheap alcohol (bucket of whisky and coke for $2, anyone?). The atmosphere is fantastic, the weather is hot and it’s a great way to meet fellow travelers and take a break from reality. I’ve done it for two days running and will take a break today ready for one final day on the river tomorrow. After that, the next stop will be Vientiane and then on to Malaysia, Brunei and Borneo. Sabaai dee!

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