Mudslides had covered the road from Luang Prabang so our journey had taken twelve hours instead of six and we arrived in Vang Vieng in the early hours. Birds sang and water flowed in the distance. Early morning Vang Vieng was a different town to the one we would find later and the silence was beautiful. Lush green mountains huddled over the sleepy guesthouses and the soft brown water sped peaceably by.
I found a room to share with Yoav, the amiable Israeli guy with whom I had endured the arduous trip from northern Laos. I fell asleep as the bright morning sun peaked over the protective mountains.
I awoke to the sounds of laughter as Yoav chatted to some Canadian girls in the hallway. It was around noon and Vang Vieng had woken with a start. We left our room and strolled through the alley ways. Mopeds buzzed around tourists that were either hungover or getting drunk again and the smell of weed hung low in the air.
We wasted no time in heading to where the locals were renting out the inflatable rings. The price they quoted us seemed exorbitant after traveling round South East Asia for two months so, even though it was probably just a few pounds, we decided to leave it and risk the river without any buoyancy aids.
A short tuk-tuk ride later and we arrived at the first bar up-river. The music was blasting, the sun shining, and the alcohol and river flowing alike. Girls were on hand as we arrived to paint our bodies and faces so that we were fully ready to party. The quiet countryside that we had driven through the night before was a distant memory as young people from all over the world drank and danced and chatted in the midday sun. A constant queue of bodies lined up to fly down a zip-line and crash into the river.
We watched the festivities whilst knocking back free whiskey shots and chasing them with some refreshing Beer Lao. As other party-goers started climbing into inflatable rings and setting off down the river we became restless and eager to join them. Being ringless, we waded into the river and edged our way along the bank and down stream. The water was cool and welcoming. The centre flowed fast and the current tugged on our legs as we made our way to the next bar.
We arrived and were immediately given another free shot. We sipped more beer, danced, and played volleyball in a field of mud. More whiskey, more beer. We jumped into pools of muddy water and laughed with other travellers. Vang Vieng was a pit-stop in the centre of Laos, an oasis that young people used as a place to blow off steam during their travels.
Eventually, we decided to move on to the next bar and made our way down to the river bank. Down stream we could see another bamboo bar overhanging the river, only this time it was on the opposite bank. We would have to cross the river to get to it. With no tube to help us, we decided to swim.
We waded out as far as possible and then dived into the current. The river was more powerful than I realised and immediately started to pull me down stream. I adjusted the angle of my body and tried to swim straight across in the hope that I would end up at the bar down river.
I now began to realise that alcohol doesn’t mix well with swimming. My technique was off and I was struggling to make progress. The river battered me constantly and I started to worry that I wouldn’t make it. Panic set in. I furiously battled against the current. Water splashed over my face and I struggled for breath. Mercifully, I heard an unnatural splash to my right and reached over to grab a rope that had been thrown from the shore.
They pulled me in and I sat, thankful and breathless, on the steps to the bar.
After that, I was more considered in my approach to drinking and had some water in between beers. We partied on for another few hours and visited several more bars. Other travellers kindly let me hang on to their rings like a drunken stowaway and I made it back to terra firma without drowning.
I’ve since heard that Vang Vieng has been forced to change after so many people died, mostly because they drank too much and passed out in the river. I can absolutely sympathise. Everybody is entitled to have fun on their travels and it is incredibly easy to have one too many and get out of control. I had an amazing time in Vang Vieng but I don’t think anything is worth risking your life over. At the risk of sounding like a saccharine christmas movie: have fun, be safe, keep travelling.