Laos is breathtakingly beautiful. If only because you’d never expect it to be. Luang Prabang up north is unmissable. Being the spiritual and to some extent governmental capital of Laos, there’s heaps to see. There’s antique stores full of old French et ceteras and Soviet era machinery. The few remaining French people cook up a storm in restaurants deserved of a Michelin Star. Or down the same street, you can have a mojito cocktail at a bar on the street, served by some crazy Lao guys dressed in cowboy regalia. Assumedly because you know, all western men are stereotypically cocktail drinking cowboys.
Eventually though you grow tired of the place and it’s on with the new. So we decided to catch a bus to Van Vieng – home of tubing. Getting there is half the fun. When I say ‘bus’ I mean more like a Toyota mini van that seats about 12 in discomfort. Oh and like a Toyota because I later found out that they were called a Jinbei and I believe made in North Korea. So the voyage is already off to a flying start. No bus leaves Luang Prabang until every last seat is packed. Which kind of works pretty well with the general ‘try not to work too hard’ demeanour of the Lao people. But they will poke you with a stick to get another paying bum on an otherwise empty seat.
Van Vieng is slap bang between Luang Prabang and the major capital Vientiane. You wouldn’t be able to fly there on a plane any bigger than a kite. The roads from Luang Prabang undulate and twist incessantly.
Once on the bus you realise what a motley crew of travellers you’ve been bundled up with. We had an Israeli couple, that looked like they’d just finished their military service. They whiled away the tumultuous voyage saying nothing, doing Hebrew crossword puzzles (yes there is such a thing). Almost to the point of rudeness, but probably just to avoid the imminent car sickness from looking out the window. There was a Japanese guy and a bunch of flash-packing Euros. We were the only Australians.
I don’t get car sick, so I looked out the windows of the mini bus, down the steep cliff faces and into tiny villages. You’d be pleased to know that you see a lot of wells and water storage in these villages built by charities such as World Vision. Almost every village had one.
Eventually you get to Van Vieng. My immediate thoughts were “it’s a nice way to fill a paddock”. It reminded me of small Aussie country towns that you drive into, with the mandatory football field, a pub, a motel and a way out. Fortunately Van Vieng has a few tricks up its sleeve. You can get stoned or get something to eat. Or why not do both at once?
Some items on Lao menus are for instance ‘happy pizza’ or ‘happy milkshake’. They will have either hallucinogenic mushrooms or marijuana on them. In Laos this is basically full disclosure. I am slightly ambivalent about drugs. I’m not what you’d call an avid user them but I refuse to live in a world without them. But one thing I do know is that you DON’T want to digest these substances. It’s like booking a plumber. They will show up in the next couple of days. No punctuality required.
Thinking that would be our only THC based experience, we explored the town while the sun was still up. There was a great little ramshackle bar on the river. A very modest water front. They were playing mellow Red Hot Chilli Peppers and I thought this would be a good place to chill later on. Oh and there was a sign “Don’t try the #26. It will fuck you up”.
After a few whisky buckets in town we decided to come back. By this time there were 5 people there but the party was in full effect. Gone was the mellow commercial rock. Now it was hard core industrial techno music, somehow in tune to a massive bonfire. Speed freak stuff. Sure enough the Laotian bar tender was speeding off his gourd on crystal meth. He was tiny, naked but for a pair of jeans and not an ounce of fat and rocking very, very hard.
The barman threw down two menus. One was alcohol. All in buckets, no tap beer and peanuts here. The second was drugs and booze. At this point a Dutch bar owner came up and kind of winced when I asked if the second menu was a joke. It clearly wasn’t. The five punters and the Dutchman were clearly drinking off the later menu. We finished our whisky bucket and walked off. Oh and what was in #26? Whisky, speed, opium, marijuana and another drug that was more of a downer. I told a few drug aficionado friends and they all blushed. That’s the mother lode of psychosis and they wouldn’t have even tried it. All this and I haven’t even got to the tubing yet. More on that another day.
Is it worth doing Van Vieng. Yes for a couple of days. Just getting there is an experience. Just remember some small towns will do anything to put themselves on the map.