I compare most strange experiences in my life to black and white episodes of “The Twilight Zone”. Walking down the dust caked streets of Vang Vieng in the middle of a hot day, I was reminded of “Stopover in a Quiet Town”, where a young couple wakes up with a hangover in a town they’ve never seen before. The husband grumbles that he shouldn’t have had so much to drink as they wander through deserted streets in search of aspirin and answers. There are no birds chirping, the squirrels are stuffed, and the food in the fridge is fake. The first thing I noticed about Vang Vieng was the silence. The proclaimed party capital of Laos, where boys and girls from around the world drank buckets of cheap rum while their young asses floated down the Mekong River and their brains danced from mushroom shakes and marijuana smoke; was this that place?
Neon tank tops and fake sunglasses filled the storefronts on my way to find a hostel. Our tuk-tuk had dropped a group of fresh and attractive foreigners off in the middle of the road and everyone had scattered in different directions. My friend and I were left standing in front of the open air lobby of what the sign called a hostel, but what looked like a nursing home for hippies. A sun-burnt girl with ratty hair was plopped on pillows, as she slowly sipped her cocktail out of a straw. Her eyes, like the other ten or so people in the rows of pillows on platforms, were glued to the television playing an episode of Friends. The pile of sloths, that picked at their sandwiches and pizza, didn’t even glance at us as we walked to the desk to ask about room prices. Vang Vieng during the day is a purgatory of souls too hungover to be on the river and too stoned to be asleep. It was downright eerie.
For lack of anything better to do, we were strolling, when a tuk-tuk, smashed full of wet foreigners covered in spray paint with scraps of cloths tied around their heads and ankles, drove by. Their arms were wrapped around each other and they screamed “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Further up the road, the tuk tuk stopped and they tumbled out, still singing, as they limped barefoot towards their hostel rooms. Vang Vieng was about to come alive.
Friends or Family Guy? Pizza, sandwich, noodles, rice, or pancake? Would you like that happy or not happy? The only three questions you need to consider when eating in Vang Vieng. If you choose Friends, make sure you don’t go to a restaurant that is playing one of the “baby episodes”. No one wants to watch Rachel give birth and Ross whine about their relationship while you’re on vacation. Choosing Family Guy will make you alternative and your quest for a place to eat will take more time. It doesn’t matter what food you choose to eat because it tastes the same anywhere you go. It’s the standard backpacker cafeteria food. If you decide to make your pizza happy, as in filled with marijuana, watch out for the special pizza that is buried under a mound of weed instead of having it artfully cooked in. One bite of it will send you to space and beyond. You may end up in the middle of a bamboo bridge, pondering which way you should go for an excessive amount of time, but that’s neither here nor there.
The rest of the night was a blur of bonfires, blinking lights, bacon pancakes, and hedonistic bars where buckets sloshed as the youth danced under the stars. I woke up with regrets. The bacon pancakes were a bad idea, but the nutella and condensed milk pancakes after were a worse one. Having a bite of my friends happy pizza had led to me explaining my idea for opening a bar called “Campfire” to a boy with the word “Loser” painted on his chest. I hadn’t even been down the river yet and Vang Vieng had already bitch slapped me.
The river was cold, the sky was cloudy, and my stomach churned against the pills that meant to calm it. It was around noon and we were part of the first wave to hit the river. A free whiskey shot had already been provided and we sat on platforms, high above the shallow section of the river. I stretched out on the mat as Eminem blasted from strung up speakers. We watched the bartenders in all their hipster glory, with more than a dash of neon, take their post. My group of friends and I moved down to the picnic tables that sat in a couple inches of water and played drinking games that soon took the game part out of the equation. After an hour or so, we thought we would be productive and float the two minutes down to another bar. As the current swept me by a large bar with signs shouting “Free Chili Fries” and “Mojitios!”, some Loatians in rolled up jeans tried to wave me over. I shook my head and pointed at the next bar to explain that I would be giving this one a miss. One of them threw his half full plastic water bottle tied to a rope (the means of towing partiers to the bars) and hit me hard in the side. I yelled obscenities as he laughed at me and tried throwing it again. Either he was attempting to maim me or didn’t understand my hand signals. I’m guessing he plays his own little game of “Smack The Tourist With A Water Bottle”. Five points for the head.
More bars, more signs selling buckets of sin, and less clothing as the day went on. Girls stomped to “Baby Got Back”, a bartender droned on about dupstep, mushroom shakes looked sickening in their grungy buckets, and I spray painted pink stars across my friends calf. The sun was setting and we’d seen only a small stretch of the river. Loatian children screamed as they jumped off the deck onto a large inflatable pillow and we sat eating curry that was served to us by an American with dreadlocks. A gangly Irish guy asked if he could sit next to us. Staring out at the river, he sighed with contentment and said to me, “this place is either heaven or hell.” I looked over at him, with his skin turning pink from the sun, and replied “nah, I think it’s somewhere in between.”
At the end of “Stopover in a Quiet Town”, the husband starts to lose it when he thinks he’s found a policeman that turns out to be a mannequin. He yells to the empty windows surrounding him, “Is this a test? You trying to find out how much of this we can take before we turn into blabbering idiots?!” In Vang Vieng, it only took two days.