Sunday, December 27, 2009

“Happy” Place. - Part I

Hedonism, a word that promises so much. In Vang Vieng it delivers. “Heaven” might be a better word, “Utopia” or “Paradise” also fit the mould. Whatever word you use, in Vang Vieng I found my happy place, and I think my life was cut into two parts; before and after Vang Vieng.

There is a lot of things wrong with the place. Drunken backpackers stagger the streets wearing inappropriate clothing despite the signs that ask not to offend the locals. All of the bars show endless re-runs of “Friends” or “Family Guy” and if you ask for a beer at most bars, you are presented a second “happy” menu listing a varying cocktail of drugs from the humble joint of Weed to a Magic Mushroom milkshake or an Opium pancake. The bars have a 12am curfew, forcing drunk and drug fucked backpackers into the streets with no where to go and the guesthouse we chose from the book was at the very top of the hill on a long dirt road covered in sharp rocks and pot holes.

It can also be said that there is a lot right with Vang Vieng. The streets and bars are full of easy going backpackers with a collective mission of having a good time and making new friends. The bars are relaxed affairs, with cushions and coffee tables the only furnishings, TV and music to zone out to, and the bar serves and endless plethora of poisons to suit all tastes. Although the bars close at midnight the locals still pop their head out from the door of their stores offering sandwiches and perhaps a beer to keep the party fuelled well beyond the midnight hour. And as our guest house was at the top of the hill, setting a relaxed atmosphere away from the party sound, with an uninterrupted view of the breathtaking mountains.

I guess it is just a matter of perspective… Some people love Vang Vieng and rave about it to their fellow travellers while sporting the souvenir T-Shirt. Some people don’t like Vang Vieng, put off by the reckless behaviour of the intoxicated backpacker crowd who dominate the tourist demographic. Whichever side off the fence you sit on, one thing is certain; no one can deny the magnificent setting of Vang Vieng.

We travelled to Vang Vieng with the knowledge that it was a party town full of backpackers, we assumed there was a river as we had heard about the tubing. Tubing basically consists of jumping in an inflated inner tube and floating down a river from one bar to the next, getting pissed. Allegedly a few people die from tubing every now and then, but we all know alcohol and swimming is dangerous. Fun yes, but still dangerous. So it was a great surprise to approach Vang Vieng with a horizon filled with some of the most magnificent mountains South East Asia has to offer.

Vang Vieng is only a small town but packs enough punch to get a map marker. The town runs along the edge of peaceful river lined with Asian jungle at the foothills of the Sawtooth Mountains, a gigantic and rugged mountain range which is described as “rising up like the back of a Stegosaurus”. The natural setting is enhanced by the laid back style of the town, with bamboo and other wood the prominent building materials.

Our Guest House was built in this style. For 30,000 Dong ($3.75) we booked into a wooden cabin like room with no more than a double bed covered with a mozzie net, a power point and a light. We had a shared bathroom and a communal area with a hammock, some cushions and a couple of day beds around a coffee table. Below the cabins, an open air cafe led to a steep stairway down to a bamboo bridge across the river to bungalows. The bungalows were almost three times as much (still cheap) as the cabin room. But when we saw the view from the top of our hill -where our cabins and café were- we instantly knew we had picked the best spot in town.

After settling in we walked back down the hill grabbed a meal at a café overlooking the mountains and wandered through the main strip. We sussed out a few tour operators. With the mountains, river and nearby caves, Vang Vieng is an adventure haven offering rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, caving and so on. We wanted to get a bit more out of Vang Vieng than just renting an inner tube and heading to the river bars, so we booked a kayaking and caving tour for the next day. The tour would end up at the tubing place where we would be able to swing off rope swings, fly down zip lines and launch from a giant slide into the river. I was exited about the tubing place, what man doesn’t like jumping off shit into water?

Prue had made friends with a girl from Brisbane somewhere between Vientiane and Vang Vieng and we ran into her in front of the tour place. She also decided to book our tour, and the tour guide promised us a small tour with five other backpackers who had already booked, so it all sounded perfect. We also ran into the Russian couple (who were actually Finnish) from the morning’s wait for the bus, in case you wanted to know; they were well. To make things just that little bit more perfect we walked back to our guesthouse just in time for sunset. Prue wanted to get to her Bag and left me two thirds of the way up the hill at a really chilled out looking bar with a sunset view. I walked up to the bar and asked for a beer…

The bartender placed a beer on the bar and a small tin which he subtly gestured towards. Written on the tin was another secret “happy” menu listing a variety of drugs served in interesting ways. I ordered a joint and he motioned for me to smoke over by the fire where two other guys sat relaxing. The fire was pretty much the perfect place to sit, I’d assumed they asked me to smoke there to mask the smell of the joint as drugs are still illegal in Laos. Either way I had a lovely fire and a perfect view of the sunset falling directly between two mountains, while the river and jungle spread out across the foreground.

I sat down, put down my beer and pulled out the camera, a man to my left looked over at me and said in a drawling voice “the sun”. He seemed pretty wasted, and so did the guy to my right, who then joined the conversation by saying absolutely nothing at all. A short while later the sun had dropped below the horizon and so had my brain. Having not smoked a joint in a long time, I found myself feeling pretty out of it. As paranoia and insecurity surrounded me, I decided it was time to bail out and headed back to the guest house to find Prue.

Back at the guest house Prue was chilling out in the Cabin reading a book. I laid down and zoned out for a while feeling myself drifting off into a higher plain of existence where I reached a realisation that the length of our lives was completely determined by our willingness to ignore the possibility of stopping and everything and everyone was connected by a gigantic rolling ball of energy that rolled around talking about me behind my back while I pretended I couldn’t hear it until it was satisfied I wasn’t interesting enough to pay attention to. Thankfully after a while I needed a cigarette, so I braved the exterior of the cabin, walked out the front door and ran straight into a half naked man.

Beau was from a small town that Prue and I both forgot the name of, somewhere in country Victoria. He was travelling with a guy called Ollie who later became quite an enigma, we never met Ollie but people kept mentioning him as if everyone knew who he was. Ten days later in the border town of Chiang Kong on the edge of the Thai-Laos border we ran into a couple who not only knew Beau, but had been staying at the guest house around the same time as us, and still owed Ollie money. Prue heard Ollie shouting and carrying on later that night, but never spoke to him, and the reason for his shouting comes later in the story. But enough about Ollie.

Beau had managed to pull a sense of logic back into the frame with his earnest country smile and humour, we chatted for a long time with him standing half naked in the doorway and me sidestepping like a boxer trying not to be very interesting in case the giant rolling ball of energy started taking interest in me again. Luckily I managed to stay under the radar, although I think I confused both Beau and Prue when I asked who the people over there were that seemed to know everything that was going on. “What people?” was the reply.

We let Beau put some clothes on, stepped around a drunken Aussie in a hoodie that looked like he’d ordered from the “happy menu” a few too many times, and the three of us headed down to the main strip for dinner. Once we got to the main strip we seemed to reach a point where we were at the epicentre of the town and couldn’t decide where to go from there. For a long time we stood in the middle of the street talking to each other and random people as they passed us by. Such is the spirit of Vang Vieng where every one seems open and carefree, strangers make eye contact, say “hello” and stop to chat and no one seems to be judgmental. Well except the locals, who are always watching…like a giant rolling ball of energy.

Standing on the street we ran into two of the girls from the UK who were on our nightmare bus trip from Hanoi, they were still wet, covered in texta, half drunk and raving about the fun they’d had tubing. Right next to us was a restaurant with a BBQ out the front showcasing an array of kebabs. Decision for dinner made, we walked in to find the exception to the rule about the locals watching you; the waiters aren’t. Service was impossible and sometimes comical. People would stand up waving their arms around like the ground crew on a Air Craft Carrier only to be thoroughly ignored. We sat with another couple who were friends of Beau’s (and also knew Ollie) and enjoyed delicious kebabs.

After awhile Rachael (the girl from Brisbane that Prue had met somewhere between Vientiane and Vang Vieng) walked past and we invited her to sit with us, her friend happened to be sitting on the table next to us, but as her friend had met a guy a few weeks earlier, she wasn’t getting much entertainment out of the new couple. I say sitting at tables, but really it was just a coffee table with some cushions around it. The relaxed style of Vang Vieng. Beau seemed to take an instant fancy to Rachael, but then again he also took an instant fancy to Sarah one of the girls from the UK when we met on the street earlier. I guess he was just toey.

After awhile we headed of to a nearby bar on the next street, a place pumping with dance music and scantily clad backpackers, most of whom were still wet, covered in texta and half drunk. We ran into the four UK girls again, they were rat shit drunk by now and forced their bucket upon us. Buckets were possibly invented by a bartender who doesn’t like serving the same person twice in one night. Or ever again. Basically you take a small bucket like the type you’d build a sandcastle with, pour half a bottle of spirits, fill the rest with mixer and ice then throw in a handful of straws to be passed around communally. Needless to say Buckets get you drunk properly, and in South East Asia a bucket costs about the same as one mixed drink from a Melbourne nightclub.

We ordered more buckets and played some pool. But we lost interest along the way and recruited a British couple to help take turns having shots. Rachael met a French guy who gave her pool tips. Prue and I laughed our arses off watching Beau and the French Guy sizing each other up, and competing for her attention. While Beau sunk the black ball using his toes and the French guy looked like he’d gotten the upper hand, I finished off our third bucket and we realised that midnight curfew was approaching and headed off to the chilled out bar I’d visited earlier.

Returning to the scene of the crime I found the chilled out bar was not so chilled out anymore. The place was chocka block with people. I walked up to the bar and ordered another beer and perused the second menu. At the stoke of midnight the music and the lights were cut off instantly. The entire bar shifted from a mess of noise and revelry into a dark open area with a lot of people standing far too close to each other. It didn’t just hit our bar though. The entire town was plunged into dark silence. The island, the main strip and our rocky little road up the hill were now all dark and silent. Well, except for the murmur of the crowds, who had no idea were they were supposed to go next and had no intention of getting there in any hurry.

Beau and Rachael had disappeared, and I walked with Prue and the British girl we’d recruited for pool back up the hill to our guest house. Standing around out the front of our guest house Prue called it quits and went to bed while I met a crazy Frenchman and we decided to head back into the streets. The streets were full of likeminded people, who were intoxicated in some way and had no where to go. We headed to the island, but as we got to the bridge we were told the island was dead, so we hang around the street some more talking to random people at every shop.

The shops all close at midnight and the store owners cover the front of their shops with tarpaulin. But as you are standing around chatting, suddenly a local face will pop out between the gap in the tarp and say “Sandwich?”. Supposedly the curfew isn’t normally enforced, but as the South East Asian Games are on in Vientiane there is a bit more regulation on the rules. However the locals are always keen to make a dollar and will even offer a beer or two while you wait for the sandwich. It all reminded me of the 3am Souvlaki trips back home.

Eventually I found myself in the middle of town, talking shit to people I don’t remember. Somewhere here I found Beau and Rachael embracing each other while sitting in a gutter… Nice. I left them be and wandered up to the terrace of a guest house where a few people where chilling out with some stashed beers and a laptop playing iTunes. I can’t remember the Crazy French guy being there, in fact I cant remember the Crazy French guy. A couple days later in Luang Prabang I was approached on the street by a French guy and his girlfriend who spoke to me as if they knew me. I took a gamble and mentioned something about Vang Vieng. They walked away and I said to Prue “Some French guy just talked to me and I have no idea who the hell he was”. Prue concluded it must have been the Crazy Frenchman that I had disappeared into the streets with, I concluded that if I couldn‘t remember him, why did we think he was crazy?

The streets were thinning and the backpackers were eyeing the locals hanging around with great suspicion. There are a lot of warnings around town about being caught with drugs after midnight and the people on the terrace seemed to be getting a good dose of paranoia that iTunes is illegal too. I decided to bail again, and trekked the long rocky hill back to the guest house, looking back to make sure I wasn’t being followed by a suspicious local, or worse a gigantic rolling ball of energy.

At the guest house I found a guy asleep in the hammock. I found out later that this was Ollie. Ollie had gone nuts when he got home and realised that Beau had the key. This was the shouting that Prue had heard through the night. Eventually Ollie had given up and slept in the hammock, a smart move as Beau wouldn’t be getting home with their key until the early morning. Beau had hooked up with Rachael and gone back to hers. Over near the café I spotted a blonde guy with curly hair sitting on a chair shivering himself to sleep. He’d lost his key and was also locked out, I dragged him up onto the balcony of the cabins and put him on the day bed then threw a massive cushion on him. He muttered a nonsensical “thankyou” and passed out, I went to bed and passed out shortly after. Hoping my good deed wouldn’t attract any unnecessary attention from certain rolling balls of energy...

...To be continued...