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From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

LAOS | Saturday, 5 March 2005 | Views [3449] | Comments [2]

Relax, then laugh. Relax some more and laugh again. So goes an afternoon of tubing down the river in Vang Vieng (Laos)

At the end of the dry season, the Nam Song river runs pretty slow – sometimes imperceptibly drifting around long wide river bends and occaisionally quickening it’s pace over some ‘rapids’ ; a foot or two of bubbling water atop green weedy rocks. Generally unable to control the pace whilst drifting along in the inner tube, the rapids are the fun moment that you wait for with anticipation. It’s hours of enforced chillaxing from the comfort of a bright orange ring – feet in the sun, bum in the cool clear water.

What inventive, industrious and adaptable people the Laotians are. All along the river were bamboo platforms, assembled as rough and ready bars to please the the crazy tourist crowd. Men squatted next to their home-made eskies in dustbins housing very cold BeerLao and as we floated past, they’d yell “BeerLao, BeerLao and Jumping!”. The real entrepreneurs had found corner bends and big trees over deep parts of the river and assembled a mottley assortment of swings, jumps and flying foxes. Jumping was free with the purchase of a large bottle of BeerLao for 10,000 kip, a mere 10 cent mark up from most of the cafes in town.

Needless to say that STC was a frequent jumper, exhilarated by the childish thrill of leaping off tall things into water. Not to mention the cold beer on demand! “Now I can understand Apocolypse Now a little better”, he says. “It is possible to have these tiny enclaves of commerce right in the middle of some untamed jungle”.

Aside from 100 metres of rice paddies, banana and bamboo plantations that line the river bends, the rest of the countryside is a series of suddenly vertical karst limestone that rises up for hundreds of feet from the lush green below and is pockmarked with crevices and caves. The riverbanks occaisionally have pebbly beaches along slow bends, but for the most part are invisible under the cover of weeds and trees.

Sounds idyllic and tranquil… But just when you think you’re alone, a glance up and down the river shows 20 brightly coloured tubes in each direction, all glowing sunset orange in the late afternoon sun. The light is glorious, the scene ridiculous. Funny enough to laugh out loud at each other and take stupid pictures. From the inside of the tube, it’s a fantastic experience. To the local observers, I cannot imagine what they make of it all.

Some of the young kids are bold and stride through the stream to grab hold of you when you pass under one of the bamboo bridges. With a determined little face and fit body, a tiny boy latched on and started running along the river stones to propell me through the slow parts. He didn’t speak to me at all – just running and pushing. A few hundred metres downstream, another older boy joined him and took hold of the other side of the inner tube. “Hello – what’s your name?” There was an appropriate exchange and then a question about ages. 6 & 9 years old. Most of the time, the river came up tot he armpits of the 6 year old as he was so small and I watched his brown skin get goosebumps the further and further we went. Every now and then as we passed over a quicker bit, they’d both jump aboard to catch their breath. Then with one on each edge, 9 would hand 6 one of his blue rubber flip-flops and they’d both start paddling like mad again.

STC and I got caught up in this frenzy and started to contribute to the race with giant backstroke style sweeps of the arm. At some point, he yells across at me – ” What do they want? Is this a race? ”. We both laughed and shrugged and kept paddling – it wasn’t clear why our kids were still hanging on when other tuber’s kids had dropped off along the way and swum back to the river banks to join their mates. I didn’t particularly want them to let go either as these two little tackers were helping get through the slow bits with all their might.

What boldness does it take to hunt down a foreigner and ride them down the river like they’re in some kind of horse race?

In the end, when STC’s two kids and my 6 & 9 looked up with adrenaline filled eyes and shyly asked for money, we both laughed and gave them 10,000 kip to split. Sam made it clear to them, they nodded and then started chattering away at a rate of knots to the oldest boy who was holding the money.

Other kids we saw didn’t ask for money – it was just about mucking around on the river and seeing who could win the race on their human-aqua-beasts. From my backwards facing position in the tube, I spent half an hour staring straight into the playful faces of these kids and dreamed about my own adventurous childhood activities. Modern western parents would have had a heart attack at the thought… Hell, we just laughed and laughed and laughed!

Tags: laughter



Author and artist Kurt Vonnegut put it best, if oddly, in 1963: “Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God. miss you keep dancin’ fiendix

  Fiend Oct 17, 2005 1:17 PM


Great to read this. I’ll look again soon for more pics. Must confess I was glad to hear white water rafting was a slow boat to China. Wonder where you are now. If there’s a ‘goddess’ or beautiful ‘god’ somewhere, please bring him/her back for me if you have room. The writing’s going well and I have few jobs on the go at the moment so I have time to mull and write as the spirit takes me. Right brain is in full swing. Left brain is summoned from time to time to organise info. Much love to you both, m2

  M2 Oct 17, 2005 1:18 PM

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