Vang Vieng, Laos. 2007.
A small town in the middle of nowhere. I am surrounded by limestone rocks, wild caves and a river. And lots of young travelers. Most of them are here to party and to experience tubing: floating down the river in a big truck inner tube, while sipping on alcoholic drinks. The dream of any adventurous teenager.
The streets are small and characterless. Many shops, all offering the same items: flip-flops, snacks and waterproof bags. Motorbike rentals. At the end of the street is a uniform strip of restaurants. All have low tables, pillows, and almost identical menus. Special items such as mushroom shakes and happy pizzas are served to experimental souls, and large TV screens play ongoing recorded episodes of Friends.
I observe the other travelers. Most of them are young backpackers. Some of them are wet and covered with mud, walking around with their tube and bottles of Beer Lao. Others are lying around in the restaurants, in horizontal position. Watching sitcoms or just staring at the screen. Like they are hypnotized.
A barefooted girl in a minimal outfit wobbles past me. She has the hiccups.
Later that evening I run into her in a bar. She tells me how she had a mushroom shake for breakfast, and went tubing after. Tripping down the river. She felt confident it was safe for her. Because she had been high on mushrooms before, she explains. So she knew the experience. I am surprised that she is still alive.
Maybe she was just hallucinating that she went tubing.
The next day I rent a tube to investigate the river myself. I float down the river and latch onto my friends’ tubes every now and then. It feels nice, relaxing.
A bar rises up. I hold onto to a stick and climb up a ladder. I get to a busy platform where people are sharing buckets, beers, and stories. Some thrill-seekers jump off a high swing, into the river.
Some hours later we reach the end of the tubing route. Three local children swim up to us to take us in. The kids are fast swimmers and the current is strong. As soon as we are out of the water they ask for money. We pay them. The kids want more and get angry. They throw our money on the ground. In my opinion we paid them well.
I am clueless. Are they spoiled kids, or suffering under high family pressure, where their parents or employers beat them if they don’t bring enough money back?
I can’t help them.
Unfortunately, tomorrow, their day will be just the same. As long as there are tourists.