Day 122: Officials mellow out Vang Vieng's hedonistic party scene

The backpackers made good use of the mud pit at one of the bars along tubing tour. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

WITH big butterfly swoops, I guide the giant inner tube across the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng to the first of river-side bar on the tubing tour that put the party haven on the map for backpackers in Southeast Asia. Okay, it's not the same tubing tour, it's a faded shadow of the hedonistic chaos that once ruled the river.

Vang Vieng started to earn its reputation as part of the Banana Pancake Trail – the path beaten by budget travelers across Southeast Asia – due to its awe inspiring karst topography, caves and naturally blue lagoons.

About 15 years ago, tubing arrived on the river, and with it ramshackle bamboo and wooden bars on the river banks. Though the epic nature of the place was before my time, the rumors of the party scene could be heard in Phuket when I arrived in 2011. According to The Guardian, the bars were, back in the day, “enticing passing tubing customers with throbbing party music and free shots of the local Lao-Lao whisky. Rope swings, giant water slides and zip lines sprang up beside the bars, inviting sozzled gap-year kids to take their chances with the rocky riverbed in unsupervised acts of derring-do.”

Half naked girls and alcohol is enough to cause most boys to throw off any cloak of reason that they might have managed to keep with them thus far in their Asia trip. Add in a number of illicit drugs, specifically hallucinogenics, and it's a recipe for the most epic, and dangerous, type of partying.

“A 19-year old Australian tourist went missing while tubing down the Xong River [Nam Song River] on January 23 [2011] and it took three days for his body to be found in the deep part of the river. His name was Daniel Eimutis and he was on holiday in Vang Vieng, Laos with six of his friends. Earlier last month [December, 2012] another young Australian died after jumping from a platform into the same river. These were not freak accidents for as many as 22 foreigners died here in tubing accidents in 2011,” reported Riding the Bus.

The deaths of young, vibrant backpackers seeking a little wild freedom before possibly falling into some monotonous, soul-destroying mainstream lifestyle were the trigger for important changes. In 2012, seven bars along the waterway were shut down, more closures were to follow as rope swings, zip lines and slides were removed.

Though the party river that I'm splashing across, it's cold water tickling my bottom, is nothing like it use to be, it's not so tame that you can guarantee that you won't have the word “cunt” scrawled across your forehead with a permanent marker


Strangely, that was the only word I saw written on anybody. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

On the far side of the rapidly moving section of the river, thin Laos men and boys are throwing towlines out to tubers who are about to drift past the bar. Having easily made the shore, I throw my tractor inner tube on the huge pile of tubes along the bank and watch as Pink attempts to make the crossing.

Though she was athletic up to a few years ago, she's a fish out of water trying to get the tube across the river. Haphazardly, without the slightest sign of coordination, her arms splash on one side of the tube then the other as the fast moving stream of water at the center of the water pushes her down river and away from the reach of the boys throwing the tow lines. One of the boys throws the weighted water bottle with a line attached out to Pink, but she's too far away.

The river pushes her back to the other shoreline several dozen meters past the bar. The bar itself is a large wooden platform with a rickety plywood bar top. Behind the bar, an older Laos woman and a couple young bucks from the U.K. Are handing out beers, buckets of mixed drinks and balloons of laughing gas.

I jump back into my tube and head over to draw up a battle plan with Pink. Once there, it's agreed that she'll hike back up and try again. I spot another landing not too far down river, and set out for that one, figuring I can just hike up to the party bar.

Heading down river on a tractor inner tube. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Once Pink and I are both at the bar, I'm grateful to have my camera. It gives me a little purpose. Snapping photos of all the young, drunk backpackers, I'm suddenly hit with the realization that it is this kinds of stuff that I've missed because of my dedication to the Phuket Gazette these last five years. It's easy to picture myself fully immersed in the the chaoes with several groups of Phuket friends that are no longer around. There's the original group of South Africans that I spent time with as I started finally making friends after my breakup with Jackie and a couple other groups as well. Individuals names start popping up in my head: there's Brock, Bronwyn, Mama, Patrick, Ross, Jenna, Jason... the list goes on and on. They were all on the same schedule, in the same flow.

I wasn't. I was dedicated to my job. Three years without a holiday. How many trips did I miss with these amazing people? Trips to Laos, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Bali... so many options. I don't regret it, but looking at these kids through a camera lens, listening to the shutter snap close, makes me realize that those opportunities have passed.

A group of kids crowds around a giant Jinga set that has dares written on each block. One guy and one girl have both managed to get the word “cunt” written on their foreheads. Another is being beer boarded on the floor. Laying down, a partygoer holds his head while another slowly pours beer into his mouth. He coughs and spews and does his best to take it all.

Where my party people at? Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Pink seems to be feeling even more out of place than I do, at least I have my camera to hide behind. I buy us a couple cans of Beer Laos and sit down next to her, watching the river for a bit. A beautiful burnette with hair tinted red is led over to me by some guy.

He makes a comment implying that she likes me or that I should like her or, hell I don't know.

“That's how you end up with herpes,” she says, which seems to be a punch line to a joke that I've of missed.

There is a playful glimmer in her eyes, but I feel like I'm back in Jackson Creek Middle School when Stephen Letelier pushed one of the cute cheerleaders, Chelsea, into me while walking down the hall. It didn't occur to me until years later that Chelsea probably liked me. In fact, I didn't come to terms with the idea that girls could like me until my sophomore year in high school. But when it clicked, it really clicked.

The couple wander back to the Jinga table, perhaps it was a dare. Then there is a voice on the loud speaker, overriding the electronic dance music thumping through the open-air building.

“We're going to play Slap Cup,” a long-haired Englishman with a beer tab necklace wrapped around his neck calls out.

“Come on, let's play,” I tell Pink.

If Donald Trump truly believes America needs to be “great again”, he's clearly not come to terms with the fact that in addition to all of our achievements, only country to put a man on the moon, invention of the internet and numerous social rights movements, we also reign king in the world of drinking games. America is the country that brought you the Red Solo Cup and continues to do so. That in itself should be enough to squash this nonsense about needing be made great again. Add Slap Cup, Flippy Cup and Beer Pong to those accomplishments and I really don't know what platform he has left to stand on.

That said, I've never played Slap Cup. I was miserable at Flippy Cup during my University years, but could hold my own in Beer Pong. Slap Cup is a new one for me, even if it's part of a our American tradition of drinking games.

I help fill the communal cups on the table with a couple fresh beers. I am perhaps the only person attentively listening to the rules – a sign of my age?. I love games, which inadvertently means I love rules, as they dictate play. What makes drinking games so wonderful isn't the alcohol, but the fact that something is at stake – your sobriety and better judgment.

To play the fast-pace game of Slap Cup all you have to do is bounce a ping pong ball into a solo cup, which isn't nearly as easy as you might suspect. I bounce the orange ball against the rough wooden table missing the cup again and again until another cup going around the table gets to me, at which point I'm forced to drink the beer in my cup and pass the stack of two cups to my left.

Faster and faster the game goes as the cups keep appearing in larger and larger stacks. All the time, the fear of getting caught with the final stack of cups looms large. Nearly at the end of the game, the large stack passes me, which means I'm safe – probably – from having to chug the center glass. The volunteer organizers, who are probably paid in drinks, poured all sorts of booze and even some fish sauce into the center glass making a devastating concoction that nobody could possible enjoy.

The table erupts in a cheer as a kid in his early twenties gets the last cup stacked on him and is forced to chug the center glass. He nearly vomits a couple times, but manages to finally down the beverage.

“Everyone start getting ready for musical tubes,” a voice calls out.

Now dancing, dancing is something I can get into. Pink takes a seat with about half the crowd, while the rest of us begin to create a disorderly circle around a dozen or so inner tubes that have been brought up from the shoreline.

The music begins.

A heavily bearded man who could have passed as an over-sized, mythical dwarf elbows me slightly, constantly attempting to edge me away from the pile of inner tubes as we dance. He's clearly got his eyes on the prize – a free bucket of booze. I don't worry about it, and just dance. Until the music stops, dancing is all that matters.

The music stops.

Everyone leaps into the middle, several people squirming into he same inner tube. Those who doubled up are forced to play Rock, Paper, Scissors, while those who didn't get a tube are kicked out of the game. Tubes are removed from the center and the music starts again.

The game continues, and my fat ass continues to find itself comfortably wedged into a black inner tube directly after the music stops.

Long after we had to dance like animals, we're down to three of us, our bare feet thumping on the rough, wet wooden floor.

The music stops.

My ass finds the hard wooden floor – I wasn't even close.

In the final round, the two survivors spin in circles. When the music stops, they have to find where the inner tube has been hidden and be the first to sit down for the free bucket of booze.

With the last drinking game wrapped up, we're told that it's time to go to the next bar.

“It's five minutes down on this side,” the organizers say.

The bar is actually where I left my inner tube after I went back for Pink, which is more like 30 seconds down river by inner tube or walking.

The organizers disappear by the time everyone makes it to the second bar. At this bar there is a low wooden platform that a couple guys are jumping off of into the river, but nothing like the giant swings and slides that were once here.

A mud volleyball net is set up next to the bar, though there is no sign of the ball. Instead, the kids are simply wrapping each other up in wrestling holds. Boys are tackling boys, and carrying girls into the fray. A pickup football game, soccer, kicks off with so many people going either direction it's impossible to know who is one whose team.

It's good to take a break from being an adult and getting a bit dirty. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

A few drinks later and it's time to grab a to-go beer and start the slow drift down river to the exit point. Already it looks like we'll be getting the tubes back past deadline, thus loosing some of our deposit, which is just a clever way for the business to charge more without us realizing it.

Slightly buzzing from the Slap Cup match, Pink and I watch the sun descend and a gentle blue settle over the landscape as we drift down stream.

After returning the tubes and showering, we head to Sakura Bar, which is where the evening portion of the party kicks off in Vang Vieng.

This is our second time to Sakura Bar; my age got to me on the first attempt:

There is a long, sloppy bar under a thatch roof in the courtyard, further inside is a platform throbbing with young bodies under a black light.

I feel dirty. I get this feeling sometimes, as if there is a thin layer of grime on my hands. It's not a metaphoric dirty, it's an actual dirty that goes away if I wash my hands, but its probably more due to sudden acute awareness than anything else.

We walk up to the bar. I turn around.

“I just can't do this. All these young kids being young and shit,” I say with a laugh as I lead Pink back outside. There are puddles on the torn up road, wet from a recent rain. “Just looking at them makes me tired. All that bouncing around, gyrating.”

“Poor old man, poor old man. Maybe tea and cookies would be better?” Pink teases.

It's true tea and cookies would be better, at least sitting somewhere that I can talk to people. I'm stuck with a perpetual curiosity about people, asking so many questions when we meet, because, well, because people are fascinating. Here though, the only thing to do is get drunk and dry hump on the dance floor, which isn't necessarily a bad way to spend an evening – if you have the energy.

“I just don't have it in me right now. It looks terrible. I know we came here to party, but I can't tonight. I don't have the energy for this right now.”

Feeling a little guilty, but not so guilty as to turn back around, I head to Domon Guesthouse with Pink, who is several years older than I am, though you wouldn't know it tonight. What I need is a shower and to feel clean and sexy, that would help. However, once we're in the room, Pink isn't about to go back out with me. So, we called it a night.

Tonight, however, with a decent buzz from the river and a little food in me, I'm ready for Sakura Round Two. The biggest difference is that in my mid-twenties, I didn't need to be in the mood for this kind of party, I was perpetually in the mood. Now, it takes a bit more priming to get me there.

Two Australians funnel us into the bar area, again westerns who are probably working for free drinks and maybe accommodations. I'd spoken to the guys working on the tubing tour about what it was like keeping up with this chaos, as they've been out partying every single day for nearly two months straight.

“Spitting image of health,” one of them had said with a laugh.

Inside Sakura, I order us two vodka Sprites in order to get the tank top with their logo and slogan on it: Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single.

The place looks exactly the same as yesterday. Loud house music is pounding through the young crowd. Here and there, someone is sucking down a paint-speckled happy balloon. Pink and I find seats not far from the dance platform and settle in to people watch.

“There's your girlfriend,” Pink says, pointing out a garish ladyboy prowling the dance floor. Pink has a habit of trying to get me to pick up ladyboys, which was funny at first, but has now gotten a bit old due to her persistence.

“Where? The girl dancing up there in the white?” I ask.

“No, there,” she says, emphatically nodding her head at the ladyboy again.

“Hmmmm... I don't think so,” I say. “It's weird how few attractive people there are here.”

Between the two of us we managed to spot one white girl who was reasonably attractive, perhaps not the kind of person Trump would boast about sexually assaulting, but still a good looking woman.

“What about him? He's kind of good looking,” I say, pointing to a big, broad shouldered drunk on the dance platform.

“No, I don't think so.”

The nearly all the young men are boasting grizzly beards or shaved chests – it seems that all the hair or none of the hair seems to be the look – while most of the girls have small beer bellies, all results of stumbling along the Banana Pancake Trail.

By the time we are through with our first drink, the music has been killed and the crowd is being directed down the street to a club, located past the two pizza places on the main drag that are well-known for their magic mushroom munchies.

Some people are piling into a tuk-tuk to make the several block transfer, but Pink and I decided to walk it.

Things haven't really kicked off at the next club by the time we arrive.

Pink wanders off to the bathroom, leaving me on a stool on the edge of the well-lit, large dance floor, which is occupied by only a couple white kids doing what white kids do on the dance floor, which is rarely a good thing.

“There's you're girlfriend!” Pink says, nodding at the anorexicly thin ladyboy in a candy-cane dress.

“I don't think so.”

Not only does Pink keep trying to get me to pick up ladyboys, she keeps pushing me toward the most obvious and unattractive ones. To be far to the transgender community in Thailand, a vast number of their members actually make up a significant portion of the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom – they are after all post-op woman designed by men. If you find yourself on Phuket's party street, Soi Bangla, watching a girl's thick ass swinging in a tight miniskirt, you're most likely looking at a dude's ass. That's just the fact of the matter. However, given that I have no plans of seeing exactly what kind of pistol they may or may not be packing under there skirt, I see no reason to think of them in any way other than as how they identify – as a woman.

The pre-op woman in the candy-cane skirt in front of us, however, is simply not easy on the eyes, as a man or as a woman.

“Let's head out,” I say. It's past midnight, we're not drunk enough to carry on. And what would be the point?

Back in the room, I'm struggling to fall asleep. I crawl onto the floor between Pink's bed and my bed with my blanket and pillow. Pink joins me on the cold, hard floor. There's hardly enough room for both of us, which ends up wedging me below one of the beds. Nonetheless, it's better than being on the bed. I'm sure I'll end up crawling back into bed at some point, but right now I need the firmness of a hard floor in order to fall asleep.

A good night sleep is important, as tomorrow we're heading to Bat Country – it's our last day in Vang Vieng and the Will of the Die must be served.

Take a bird's eye view of the party town. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli

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