Vangvieng had a bit of a reputation. Adventurers who had forded the Mekong before and returned to Korea told of a kind of dark partyland filled with drugs and terror. In this lucid, bacchanalian hellscape people were forever blasted out of their gourds on cheap, bathroom-brew LSD and radioactive mushrooms, swirling through life in a semi-permanent haze that left them brain-damaged and covered in body paint. It was a town insomuch as people sometimes lived there, but really it was a gateway to the river of sin and villainy.
The river was a gurgling, slow-moving pleasure obstacle course surrounded everywhere in jimmied-together shacks full of bargain booze and drunk foreigners. A shop in town would rent you a large, poorly maintained tube, which you then took to ride down the river. Locals, who were really just personified manifestations of human desire and low will power, would hook your tube as you floated by, make a margarita in your mouth, load your capillaries full of hallucinogens, and shove you back out into the rapids.
We imagined a sort of outdoor opium den, clouds of dark purple smoke puffing up into the sky in the shape of psychedelic dragons over the prone bodies and lolling tongues of dozens of foreign corpses. It was widely known that the town boasted an impressive death rate, as addled backpackers leapt from rickety bridges and fraying rope swings directly on to piles of jagged rocks while screaming, one supposes, “I AM THE ARCHBISHOP OF THE TUBE KINGDOM!”
This city was the halfway point of our journey through Laos, and we had mixed feelings about going there. We liked the idea of leisurely floating down a river, perhaps even while drunk, but all of the intravenous drug use and death sounded like kind of a bummer. Shredded husks of human flesh scrambled about on a calming river can really bring down the mood, you know? We were all behind on the most recent season of Breaking Bad, and somehow interacting with dozens of methed out weirdoes thrashing through the Lao countryside and urinating all over Buddhist temples did not hold a great deal of appeal for us.
But word came along the trail: something was amiss in the town. After a summit of neighbouring countries who thought that all of the wanton drug use, carnal scrupulousness, and numerous brutal deaths (Victorian prudes!), Vangvieng had suffered a blow. The river, people said, meaning the nonstop drugs’n'wangs’n'boobz-a-palooza, was gone. And thus Vangvieng itself, people reported, was history.
“Don’t bother with Vangvieng,” some told us, sagely. A single tear would sluice down a weary, sunburned cheek. Tragedy cracked their voices, and if you listened closely, you could hear the many shattered pieces of a heart broken on the ruddy ground. “There’s nothing there anymore.” A gentle wind tossed their seasalt-stained hair about, and there was a look in their eyes: all hope had died.
We were in a Post-Vangvieng world, according to most of these travellers. The city had been entirely blasted off the map, from the sounds of it. Homes destroyed, people burned in the fury of Hades’ wrath, whole crowds replaced by pillars of salt. The land was ravaged and scorched, the water was poisoned, and the soil so stained by what follies it had seen that ne’er again would another thing grow. It was a crater of a town, a complete lack of existence. Cows and chickens had gone sterile. The water was grey and caused both herpes and male pattern baldness. Ice cream, if brought within the boundaries of this forsaken land, no longer tasted delicious.God had turned his back on this village and its few caterwauling citizens.
Why, you couldn’t even get good weed there anymore.
We arrived at mid-day, the sun high in the sky. The bus station was far out of town, signalling we would need to transfer to some local transport and shell out more precious kip just to find somewhere to stay: always a bad sign. We prepared to enter the ruins of this town, to scrounge through the remains of a nuclear winter for sustenance and shelter.
We hopped off the songathaew and were confronted with a few quaint roads, which we felt certain must have been erected after the fallout, some New Vangvieng springing from the ashes. What horrible CHUDs must live here, dwelling within such a blighted nega-world? What would we need to trade for succor and a bed? Our clothes? Our kidneys? Our very human souls?
We put down our begs as Ty headed off to look for a place to stay. It was beginning to get dark, and the sun was sliding behind the mountains, casting rays of sunlight over dark forests. Dark forests full of dark terrors, one assumed. If there was one place where a yeti, a chupacabra, and the archdemons of Hell might collectively dwell, it was here.
A teenage boy approached us, jerking his thumb back to a nice-looking hotel that must surely have been made entirely of bed bugs and the bleached bones of those who had come before. “My hotel is very nice,” he hissed in a pre-pubescent tone. “Free wifi, free coffee, good price and good quality. Free banana!” When we demurred, certain this young monster was going to shank us in the gut at any moment, he tried repeating once more, occasionally re-arranging the components of his sentence to make it sound more charming. “Free banana! Good quality.”
We stayed in his hotel, which was deceptively cheap, we felt. Sure, the beds were comfortable, and the bathroom was clean and nice and had good hot water and pressure, and the wifi was disturbingly strong and clear, and there were also bananas. But something must have been wrong. We just hadn’t found it yet.
As we walked the town, we felt certain that the horrors must have been just beyond our line of sight. Nearby were restaurants with powerful speaker systems and countless televisions. They played each untold seasons of the television show Friends, which qualified as my personal hell, though not that of others and thus didn’t count. The food was plentiful and cheap and many nice women sold us sandwiches on fresh baguettes, or pancakes with banana and nutella smeared within the depths. Were all of these footstuffs secretly filled with poison? Hanta-laced rat droppings? Circus meat? Something was amiss, we knew, for we had been told, and we just needed to find it.
We took to the river for tubing, and it was certainly the greatest ordeal we had faced. The river was empty save for us, and the countryside was marred with great, untouched stretches of verdant landscape. Blech! Mountains and trees scarred the skyline, and the water gurgled and flowed most unpleasantly. Halfway down the river, young monk initiate boys leapt into the water and bored us by being absolutely not at all adorable practising their English and telling us about life in Buddhist temples, while the sun shone overhead and we linked arm and arm to float down the mighty river. How tedious!
Our remaining time was spent desperately trying to stop ourselves from suffocating under the weight of our own boredom. We explored caves filled with sleeping Buddhas and giant spiders, rode around on offensively cheap scooters, and swam in a blue lagoon where the water was crystal blue. Crystal blue! Not unlike the meth we couldn’t even try smoking!
The other travellers were right, everyone. Don’t go to Vangvieng. There’s nothing there anymore.