Sunday, 22 February 2009 12:00 AM
Nick Claxton has never ventured outside of Europe before but a combination of too many years in London, a lack of proper responsibilities and an unhealthy admiration for Michael Palin now means he is spending a year travelling the globe. A terminally-disorganised 24-year-old taking on the world – solo. Here is his 28th blog entry:
In the months I’ve been travelling, I’ve never quite worked out why some places are routinely swarmed by us tourists, while others of equal or greater worth are routinely passed by.
Possibly it’s just good marketing or maybe it’s the double-edged sword of being featured in the Lonely Planet, but this still doesn’t fully explain why I’d heard about the tiny town of Vang Vieng even while I was still in Malaysia. When I met travellers coming south, I’d expected conversations about the Angkor Wat, Saigon or Khao San Road – but mention Laos and the first thing I’d be asked was ‘Are you going to Vang Vieng?’.
Back home in England, I’d barely registered Vang Vieng’s existence while reading up about south-east Asia – but foolishly, I’d underestimated the cultural importance of ‘tubing’.
In a country renowned for its devout Buddhism, untouched rainforest and amazing scenery, it is of course natural foreigners and locals alike celebrate these enviable attributes by floating down a river in a rubber ring, occasionally plunging into the water from rope swings, and (most importantly) getting very, very drunk.
Obvious when you think about it really.
Well, ok. Maybe Vang Vieng’s not the most culturally rewarding place in south-east Asia, but it’s a whole lot of fun.
To get an idea of this tiny town on the Nam Song river, imagine Bangkok’s backpacker haven of Khao San Road stripped of its most raucous and sordid elements and then transported into a picturesque river valley surrounded by dramatic limestone hills. Reaching Vang Vieng took six hours or so on the bus south from Luang Prabang – made much more interesting by stops at stalls selling bats, squirrels, monkeys, rats, mice and other animals as food.
Now, I’ve tried a few odd things – notably the incredibly moreish dish of fried ants and wasps mixed with chilli in Cambodia – but somehow monkey brains halfway through a long bus journey didn’t seem like the greatest idea. So I held out till Vang Vieng where we found a hostel (Amphone Guesthouse – from US$5 (Â£3) a night) and then headed out to find something a little more appetising.
Street vendors offer the typical Western snacks and banana pancakes, but we opted for one of the many restaurants where we were exposed to one of the more curious sides of Vang Vieng. We ordered food, lay back on the south-east Asian signature triangular cushions, opened a Beer Lao and gazed up at the three or four TVs hanging from the ceiling – all screening episodes of Friends.
Not so peculiar, you might think. But its not just one bar – its all of them. It’s as if some enterprising soul bought the complete Friends box set, burnt copies, sold them on, and now every bar is duty bound to churn through the series night after night. It’s worse than the Jack Johnson plague that blights the sound systems of backpacker bars in Thailand. It’s so ingrained that one bar actually has a ‘No Friends’ sign outside. Though that one plays endless Family Guy instead.
The next day, we decided to see if the tubing hype had any basis at all (tube rental 55,000 kip plus 60,000 kip deposit [Â£10]).
Our first experience initially seemed idyllic – it was Ciaran’s birthday, the river flowed lazily down to each of the eight or so family-run riverside bars, and our small group quickly grew to about 15 or so along the way. Swings were swung, drinks were drunk and free whisky shots from the bar staff gave the whole experience that special a warm, shiny glow.
But after sunset it all became a little more stressful. In the darkness, we all got separated and I found myself floating down the river alone. I’d been the last to jump into my tube at the bar, but I was the first to arrive back in Vang Vieng – even though I don’t remember passing anyone else!
Most of the rest of us straggled in over the next half an hour, but was gone midnight when Ciaran and the last few turned up in a tuk-tuk. Their tale of woe was filled with lost wallets, stolen cameras and hanging onto trees as they thought they’d missed Vang Vieng. It definitely does pay to be a bit careful while tubing – apart from the risk from the rapids and rope swings, there’s stories of belongings disappearing after wet-bags are slashed by kids swimming in the river.
However, we later found out that Ciaran’s problems came after he’d stopped off in two extra bars along the way – providing both a bit more of an explanation and a sudden drop in my level of sympathy!
The next day, a bedraggled group of us crawled our way to the nearest bar at around midday and with no energy for anything more, we camped out there till the evening.
I’d scoffed at the Friends bars on arriving in Vang Vieng, but I’m slightly ashamed to admit that the saccharine spell weaved by those five 20-something New Yorkers fits horribly well with those obligatory post-tubing hangover recovery days. Though I wasn’t completely happy with this state of affairs, I’d like to point out.
After all: was this really what I’d left home for?
All that way to watch reruns of schmaltzy US sitcoms? Days wasted in idle chatter, hours spent lying back on pyramid cushions, an endless cycle of noodle soup and beers?
Even if it wasn’t, I couldn’t care less.
Arms aching from too much rope swinging, head throbbing from too much whisky, I figured I’d let Chandler and co. turn my brain to mush – just until the next day of tubing, that’s all.