It’s sunset on the Mekong River. I’m sipping a cold BeerLao on the second floor terrace of a riverside bar. It starts as a growl, but grows towards a roar. The sound of turbojet engines. I put my headphones on and Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along The Watchtower” plays. Slowly they cross into my periphery. A pair of F-4 Phantom II’s headed earthward in a shallow dive. As the fighter-bombers glide across the sun, the jet wash from their General Electric engines makes the burnt orange and banana-yellow disk go milky for a moment. Suddenly the jets lurch upwards as ordinance spills off their under-wing hard points. The target is close. Fragments of white-hot Willy Pete knife through the air and the post-impact fireball begins to grow. I close my eyes and feel the heat and timber fragments begin to wash over me.
When I open my eyes, there are no fighter-bombers, there is no carnage and there is no fire. Between 1964 and 1973 American aircraft dropped more bombs on Laos than was expended by all sides in the Second World War, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in human history. However, America’s secret war in Laos has been over for nearly 40 years now. While that clandestine incursion has long since ended, there is a new infiltration underway, as western tourists are starting to discover Laos in droves.
Most tourists will arrive in the PDR (Lao People’s Democratic Republic) at Vientiane-Wattay Airport, the largest of Laos’ three international airports (Luang Prabang and Pakse are the others). Those who choose not to arrive on one of the less than ten airlines currently serving VTE, will arrive overland by bus, or via the overnight train from Bangkok that crosses the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Visa on arrival services are available for U.S. passport holders for a fee of $35…remember to bring recent passport sized photos.
Vientiane itself is a wholly surprising town. While the French tend to leave their mark in a positive way on their former colonial holdings, the years of conflict starting with World War II and running into the late-70’s have left most of South East Asia unrecognizable from its former colonial splendor. While Vientiane is hardly the spitting image of Paris, it feels distinctly French. The tree-lined quays along the Mekong are dripping with nostalgia and will instantly transport you back to 1925. While Laos was never the crown jewel of France’s Indochina holdings, it has perhaps retained more of the French esprit than any of its neighbors.
Tourist will want to take in the Pha That Luang, Patuxai, Wat Si Saket and the Morning Market for sure. Those looking for more on Lao culture can check out the Lao National Museum or the Lao People’s Army History Museum. Oh right…did I forget to mention. Since the Pathet Lao overthrew the U.S. backed monarchy in 1975, Laos has been a single party communist state.
In addition to ticking the necessary boxes on the tourist dance card, all visitors to Vientiane should take the other meaning of PDR (Please Don’t Rush) to heart and spend at least one afternoon relaxing along the shores of the Mekong with a BeerLao and watching the truly stunning sunsets, which have an ethereal quality to them as the fading light seems to bathe everything in a hauntingly beautiful blood red glow before the sun finally slips below the horizon.
After you’ve worn yourself out seeing the dizzying array of temples or simply topped off on BeerLao, head back to the Hotel Ansara (http://ansarahotel.com/) and have dinner at Le Signature before turning in for the evening. Even though it’s an extravagant expense for a low cost country like Laos, splurge for the Suite Escape Room (from $200) and luxuriate in updated colonial era comfort.
When you’re ready to move on, the next stop on the Laotian grand tour is Vang Vieng. A private car transfer up the horribly maintained and potholed Route 13 from Vientiane starts from $100.
I’m walking point through a sparse copse of trees that look like they’ve been plucked from the Ardennes circa 1918. I pump my first twice and motion for my platoon to continue onwards. We’re humping down river in search of Big Slide Bar, the last major bar stop on the Vang Vieng tubing circuit before the river is given over to tranquility.
Life is good in the PDR. For most of the last century, Vang Vieng has been nothing more than a historical footnote. It was best known as the site of a now abandoned airstrip that the CIA used as a base for their covert Air America missions in support of the Vietnam War.
Once the Americans flew away, Vang Vieng seemed rather content to fade back into the Lao countryside and continue on as a town of no particular note. That would have been all well and good, if not for the towering Karst mountains swathed in greenery lining the Nam Song River.
Travelers came first for eco-tourism, backpackers interested in exploring the caves, climbing the mountains and going trekking through the forest. They stayed in meager accommodations, and they paved the way.
Then a local farmer started providing inner tubes to travelers so they could lazily float down the river and everything changed. Things quickly snowballed and ramshackle bars made of wood and rope sprung up on both banks of the Nam Song. The rental of tubes became big business for the local cabal privileged enough to own the rights, and loud music and hard partying replaced the tranquil, chilled out vibe that had once ruled the day.
Now firmly entrenched as a “must-see” stop on the Banana Pancake trail followed by young travelers through South East Asia, it is seen as a “paradise lost” to those naïve souls who thought that things would stay forever in stasis.
To others however, it is a paradise found, Christoph Brürckner, a wind-energy executive from Hamburg lamented the impending end to his time in Vang Vieng “It’s surreal, you have expectations about going to a place, but this place is just ridiculous. It exceeds all expectations.”
The New Zealand Herald wrote of Vang Vieng “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng,” this is an incredibly apt description. You would be hard pressed to find ten people over the age of 40 within the three streets that make up the town. The bars are almost totally staffed by thoroughly intoxicated marooned travelers who have been unable to bring themselves to leave for one reason or another. Kim Sebag, has been putting off a return to Montreal to begin Law School at McGill “You realize once you get to the river that it’s so much fun and you think ‘shit, I can get paid to do this.’ I get 20,000 Kip a day (roughly $2.50 USD), free booze, free food, free drugs. I’m used to going to new countries and spending all my money. I spend nothing here.“
Following with its demographic, Vang Vieng is a town that is largely asleep before 11am. On towards noon, people begin to stir, and the numerous restaurants in town that show episodes of Friends, Family Guy and South Park non-stop start to fill with hungover westerners looking for comfort food. Between noon and 2p.m., the majority of the holidaymakers will head for the river (10,000 kip per person 1-way via tuk-tuk).
Once at the river, patrons are assaulted with free shots of watered down and putrid Tiger Whisky while bar staff tie string wristbands on. Those who choose to tube need not remain sober. Specially assigned staff at each bar will throw lifelines out to those in need of beverages and once reeled in they’ll even stow your tube until you’re ready to move on.
Those who eschew the tubes walk or swim between the bars on the river and indulge in drinking games and inane dance contests. The especially drunk and reckless visitors, those who require both adrenaline AND alcohol (as well as possibly the Marijuana, Mushrooms and other drugs freely on offer at the bars) can fling themselves off water slides, ziplines and high towers into the sporadically rocks waters below.
In short, Vang Vieng is like an alcoholic version of the Wild West…with drugs. All of this hedonism and lawlessness is not without risk of course. On average 1-2 tourists die in the river every month, either from drowning while inebriated, or from unplanned encounters with sharp rocks whilst arriving with haste from great heights. Oh, by the way…there are also unconfirmed reports that the river is rotten with Pythons.
If you’re willing to throw caution to the wind to experience a party that makes Spring Break look like an AA meeting, then take a room at Villa Nam Song (from $80 per night) and get ready to have the time of your life.
Provided you’ve made it through Vang Vieng in one piece and you’re willing to brave 6+ more hours on Laos’ version of a “highway” the UNESCO site of Luang Prabang and the fantastic Amantaka (from $750 a night) await to offer you a civilized and relaxing end to your travels before you make for that proverbial embassy rooftop and try to catch the last chopper out of Indochina…