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Tubes and karsts

May 19, 2009

The road meanders in and out of the folds of the mountains like a mite crossing the wrinkly terrain of a monitor lizard’s back. Our bus flings us left and right as it struggles around tight bends, climbing ever higher until the clouds float below us like dew-encrusted cobwebs. The jagged raggedy Annamite mountains with their sheer-faced limestone cliffs and tumbling vegetation fill the bunched up land between northern Laos and Vietnam making it near impossible to travel between the two and providing Lao culture a handy buffer against its Sino neighbours. For me, the rise and fall of the Annamites is a welcome relief after the unrelenting flat of West Bengal, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bangkok and Chiang Mai…

We twist and turn up and away from the Mekong for six hours until we descend into scenery straight out of a silk screen: enormous limestone formations rise in dramatic groups against the mountainous background. These karsts line a tributary of the Mekong, the Nam Song. We rent a bike and ride into the karsts visiting caves along the way. The sky cracks open, emptying its aerial waters onto us as we skid on a pathetic scooter. We seek refuge in a cave, cowering against the downpour with other refugees: a bat and skink. The scenery disappears in the rain and we are alone against the grey.

Vang Vieng village, perched on a bend of the river, is a strange place that has grown from a small cluster of simple bamboo houses to an amusement park for teen tourists. We watch fishermen in broad conical hats throw weighted nets again and again into the rapids to catch small fry for bait. Little brown children swim naked, jumping off the bridge supports, egging each other higher and higher.

And then there is the tourist scene: mostly 20-somethings who spend the day in cafes that play episodes of Friends or The Simpsons on a continual loop, and then travel down the river on tractor tyre inner-tubes. Tubing is so much fun and so popular that bars have sprung up along the river offering beers and other drinks at cut prices, and erecting swings, slides and zip lines. This strange playground doesn’t end with the ride. The late afternoon is filled with tourists who emerge drunk from the river and wander bruised and injured around the tiny town in near nakedness. And then the evening begins. Bars crowd a small island in the river providing vast quantities of whiskey and Red Bull in plastic buckets for the youngsters to drink with straws, shakes made from coke and magic mushrooms, opium, methamphetamine, etc etc. By the end of the evening, most are near or completely naked and much the worst for wear. The local people seem to take most of this in their stride, remaining smiley and calm as another 20-year-old girl in her underwear vomits on the street. Laos are a laid back, accommodating people. Public nudity is not acceptable in most of the country, but certain tribes have different customs, such as the Akha mountain tribe of the north, whose women don’t bother wearing any clothing after marriage.

I haven’t been anywhere like Vang Vieng before, where such a blatant clash of culture is tolerated, even encouraged. In the same eyeful, one can suck in a scene of local boys bathing buffalo in the river, and western kids swinging drunkenly on ropes. It’s a fascinating and, despite the incongruity of the scene, a very likable place. We stay two nights, try everything, feel old and leave on a bus for the capital, Vientiane.

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