If Luang Prebang is a cultural hub, rich with Buddhist tradition, French architecture and artisanal charm, then Vang Vieng is its beautiful, washed-up little sister struggling to overcome an alcohol-and-drug-infused past. Depending on your predisposition, Vang Vieng is either your worst frat party come true or a particularly sloppy Thursday night at Skeeps. Even though this dusty city seems to have been established to fuel the alcoholic ventures of backpackers and other young foreigners, if you venture only a few kilometers out, the rocky cliff-like mountains and natural greenery almost make up for the booze fest going on downtown.
In the past decade, local officials have cracked down on tubers who would become belligerent at river-side bars, trip on acid and then accidentally drown. Only two bars are open at any given time, and the use of any kind of drug - even weed - results in strict consequences and fines. Looking for a more active experience, Miki and I opted for kayaking over tubing. Our late arrival the night before resulted in a late start that morning and only a half-day kayaking trip was available. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as it was only the two of us and a guide who was quite the jokester and had an affinity for singing Bruno Mars (and by singing I mean repeating the two lines of the one song he actually knew). After a bumpy ride in a Tuk tuk (which is basically a glorified pickup truck with benches in the bed), we unloaded and began our journey downriver. The weather couldn't have been more beautiful as we paddled down the Nam Song River at a relaxing pace. Miki insisted we were "professional kayakers" so we opted for a boat of our own and a ride down the "rapids," which were actually only a series of rocks that barely rippled the water. Through his broken English, we learned that our guide was twenty-two and was one of four. He primarily listened to Thai music, but enjoyed Sam Smith (we think that was the artist he was repeating to us).
We stopped at one of the two bars open on the river. You could tell how the river used to be a party place by the number of closed down river-side buildings with old Pepsi and Beerlao posters. At first, there was no one there except for a dozen of middle-aged Korean tourists getting drunk on beer and dancing awkwardly to Gangham Style. Eventually, though, some younger people arrived, making the age gap a little less obvious. Miki and I collectively had only brought $20,000 Kip (which is around $2.25) thinking we'd get one drink each. Turns out, the prices were a little higher than we anticipated, so we bought a large Beerlao to share (Beer #2 on this trip. Man, am I an animal or what?) As soon as we had our beer, the owner of the bar shoved two puppies into our hands. They were so adorable but clearly were terrified, shaking so uncontrollably that I put mine down on a ledge where he proceeded to poop. Yup. Literally scared the shit out of a puppy. Later, when I was sipping my beer and Miki was playing makeshift volleyball with some Croatians, a guy in a Spider-Man costume handed me another puppy while simultaneously trying to get me to play beer pong with him and asking if I had a boyfriend. When I told him I had no more money for beer, he walked away. So much for the romance we could have had. Instead, I fell in love with the little yellow ball of fur that slept in my lap and cuddled with me until it was time to go. While Puppy was napping, I met three nice Koreans who were on break from University. They loved the puppy, but didn't want to hold her, so instead opted to take selfies with me holding the puppy. Somewhere on the Internet are a series of photos of me looking slightly confused holding Puppy up like Rafiki holds Simba in The Lion King.
After the bar, we paddled to some caves, which, frankly, I wasn't such a fan of. As you can imagine, someone with a predisposition for falling on flat land and who has trouble climbing down from top bunks shouldn't be trekking over rocks in the dark. Plus, that one beer was probably clouding my judgement. Either way, thanks to my headlamp, I made it out alive. Back in the kayaks, we paddled downriver to Vang Vieng, passing the Koreans for a quick selfie and splashing some lazy tubers (that was more our guide - he LOVED splashing, be it us or other random tourists trying to enjoy the lazy river). After kayaking and a quick late lunch/early dinner at an Israeli-reviewed dive (their falafel was not "metzuyan," in case you were wondering), we walked over to Earth Bar, a bar on the edge of the river made entirely of recycled materials. Had it not been for the mosquito who found me particularly tasty that evening, the sunset would have been divine. Miki and I sat in silence (aside from me slapping myself to get the mosquitoes to leave me alone), watching the sun dip behind the mountains.
Once the sky had darkened, we headed over to Sakura Bar - possibly the most popular bar in all of Southeast Asia based on the sheer number of Sakura Bar T-shirts I have seen everywhere. A friend of Miki's from year course worked there and we wanted to check it out and say hi. Oddly enough, the bar was full of middle-aged Koreans (apparently Vang Vieng is like Miami for Koreans) and only some backpackers (it was still pretty early, though). It was free whiskey shot hour and for 20,000 Kip (around $2.25) you could buy a balloon full of laughing gas to get high on. I knew it was easy to get prescription drugs in Southeast Asia (no prescription needed), but this must have required some kind of dentist office robbery.
After Sakura Bar we wandered over to the one place I had been desperate to visit since we walked past it after kayaking - the Friends bar. Yes, there is a bar in Vang Vieng that only plays Friends. On a loop. From opening till closing. The mothership was essentially calling me home. All the booths in the front of the restaurants face the TVs and have cushions so you can really get comfy. I ordered some noodles, Miki got a killer dairy-free banana smoothie and that is how the two of us raged in Laos' most notorious party town.