Today I think we saw the legend of Vang Vieng tubing at its best and we could now agree with everybody in rejoicing that it is “fucking mental”. We got the later bus up and instead of jumping off the first point, we continued walking upstream to where we’d been at yesterday. Along with Terry Bundy from Southampton and Dave from Melbourne, we were the only ones there except for a few others who had been in the truck on the way up.
According to Ben, “Terry wouldn’t be too incongruous in a white coat and hat working at the cheese or fish counter at Asda”. With the other two lads (with Terry and Dave replacing Will and Jack as our new pair) our group of names were no longer members of a GCSE math’s question, but locals of the Nags Head.
We did a few jumps and swings before the crowds started coming. They came from near and far. We then headed a bit further up to were the official party kicks off, and again the cheap homemade whiskey came right into play, making an appearance knocking us for six. We even spotted Ernie, the suspected undercover DEA officer we’d met in Chiang Mai, but thought best to stay clear. I did actually call after him purely on instinct, but Ben quickly gave me the look to suggest I was making a terrible mistake.
The four of us spent the rest of the day lounging around on the river or at the swing ropes, and only busy when making lots of new friends. In particular, a group of Aussie girls who I’d seen riding around town the last couple of days on mopeds. They were a good craic. Also we met Augustine from Argentina and his friends who begged us to come visit them in Buenos Aires at a later date. We would be seeing a lot more of them over the next few weeks on the same trail, even if on those future occasions it would be nothing more than a nod of acknowledgment. We had a big crew together and times were good.
We drifted down the river in our tubes taking it all in, giving all the highest and most dangerous looking swings and drops a go. We lost Terry somewhere, but Me, Ben and Dave had seen enough by sunset and were now going through the woods looking for the main road, tubes in hand. I lost them and was wondering around on my own, slightly worried I was lost forever; never to be recovered from this state of mind, let alone a dark forest. I could hear their calls but just couldn’t see them. My heart lifted as I came into a clearing and saw them in the back of a pick up truck with a load of other westerners. In I jumped and off we went.
Dave was also staying at Otherside, and so after a shower and a change of clothes, he came round and we all headed into town for some grub.
Of course, we couldn’t quite leave the hut without one creative boost of bowdlerized hallucinogenic story;
“Look, your bag has a face on it” – said one of us, pointing to the rucksack hanging up.
“Yes, yes it does. It looks like a pear. A smiling pear” – said the other.
Laughter ensured for quite a while. For far longer than necessary, actually.
***Before we go and meet Dave for dinner, I hasten to add that I still think to this very day it looks like a smiling pear***
“Whatever happened to Terry Bundy?” was the question on everybody’s lips that night. Not really, we were all lost in one way or another. I had one of the best Thai Green Curries since arriving in South-East Asian and Ben seconded my motion. Dave had the Pad Thai. We met another group of lads and all went off to the Bucket Bar for some buckets and a pool table. These little luminous buckets have perhaps taking over Cassia fistula flower as Thailand’s national symbol and come with a choice of vodka or whiskey along with a can of fizzy pop. Fizzy pop? I used to think this term was used in television programs to avoid breaching product placement laws or clubs that weren’t licensed to use the words Coca-Cola or Sprite. But I think it’s just used as an umbrella description of any fizzy drink. I normally went for the whiskey and sprite, which was served and mixed in a small plastic bucket. There was no real plan tonight and even less so now that the island and all its late night clubs were deemed under curfew. The party island had been shut down by the local police last night in a crack down on all the rowdy behaviour. I had much faith in the owners to have them bribed by now but whatever, this was Vang Vieng, and you make your own fun.
Leaving Dave and the others, Me and Ben said we would go and scout the island to see if we could find anything and report back any findings.
The island was indeed very quiet, and it was clear there would be no repeat of the scenes here from the last few nights. Maybe this was it. The locals had finally had enough. However, I was not disheartened as there was certainly mischief in the air of the night and upon further exploration we came across it’s source in a little clearing which had previously been the centre of one of the dance areas. There was a campfire burning and a group of people around it muttering away. We joined them and after hitting another Shake, the experience became all the better while the scene began to make all the more sense.
Not sure how it all started, but I came engulfed into a debate to the nationality of Alexander Bell with a Canadian who claimed that he was Canadian, and at that one of Canada’s finest exports. It was nice to have a friendly debate based on previous knowledge without some dickhead pulling out his smartphone and whacking it into Wikipedia and ending all conversation. It went on until the rest of the group confirmed my suspicions he was born in Edinburgh, but conceded he was one of Canada’s finest imports (he died there). He still didn’t believe me. He then stood up, hand on heart and recited a few lyrics from a Canadian Nationalist song that mentioned Alexander Bell in it, from which he had built his case, with not a shred of irony or pisstake.
“Is that some kind of rap song?” I asked him after he finished the whole thing, much to his fury at my attempt to mock his national heritage.
This was worsened by the laughter of the other campfire attendees, which in turn set everybody else off. Truth is I was actually 100% being serious. Ignorant too maybe, but these shakes were strong. As soon as my mushroom bucket began to remind me of a school caretaker’s mop bucket, I stopped slurping and tried to make amends with the broken Canadian by talking him through some of the zodiac signs that we were seeing up in the sky. All wrong probably, but it’s my interpretation so that’s okay.
We’d probably outstayed our welcome with “this bunch of honeymooners” (as stated by some of the Aussie’s present) and so the two of us and a couple of likeminded lads headed over to one of the hammock areas that encircled the campfire. We were seeing all kinds of lights now, it was awe-inspiring. I find it quite cringe worthy trying to explain side affects of recreational chemical intake, as it feels more like describing the short-lived results of a child’s kaleidoscope (“all these crazy colours man”) but just thought you ought to know. We hung out with another load of Aussies, and I like how within minutes they were all using the phrase “honeymooners” to describe boring couples that you so often meet travelling. One of them though needed to be in shackles, hence earning him the nickname ‘Shackles’ from Ben. They even began adopting that one too. He really did though; he was huge, bald despite being only 19 and was shouting all kinds of obscenities and raucous animal noises. He was like one of the evil monsters from Resident Evil that you have to slay in order to get to the next level of the game. Although, with our uncontrollable laughter and babble coming out of our own mouths, we were like his mini-bosses you have to defeat in the earlier levels of computer games.
We left Shackles and his gang of Pixies and with one of the Australian guys, headed back to the mainland to get some food. He had a broken foot, so we helped him across the bridge, although he was extremely reluctant at first with “I’m fine, I’m fine” in the stubborn way wheelchair bound Lieutenant Dan is too proud to let Forest Gump help him back on his feet when he falls over. But after nearly falling off into the raging river below, we grabbed him and pretty much carried him across. What with him finally succumbing and letting us help him, I remarked “this is just like a Disney film this”. He began to take a turn for the worse and began to trip pretty badly with “what do you mean this is like a Disney movie? Put me down? Get me out of here”. Too late mate, you’re coming with us.
He sorted himself out once on the other side and we got some food and sat on a bench over atop a huge cliff that took a sudden drop to the flowing river below. We were than approached by Lloyd Ingram, the guy who was personally putting one of the street seller’s children through college or rice school (is that racist? I’m not sure), by going through her hamburgers at an alarming rate. He’d actually helped make Ben’s dinner last night when the stall owner took a break to boil some more rice.
We were all chatting shit when approached by yes, another Aussie guy from Melbourne. I use the word ‘Guy’ sparingly here, as none of us knew what the fuck it was. At first, we just thought he was really pissed hence his struggle to talk. Than we noticed he had an extremely deep voice but with feminine undertones. Pretty sure he was a male, given his clothes and choice of footwear. He sat next to me and it was here in the moonlight that I saw it. His face. I was the first to notice.
He looked like Walt Disney’s 1996 interpretation of Quasimodo. He’d noticed our shock at who he really was (and yes, his physical appearance does determine who he really is, don’t give me all that ‘its what’s on the inside that counts’ bullshit), and instantly began trying to justify his physical features.
The story went…He was a crack addict back in Melbourne but would often shoot himself up with testosterone to boost both his body and his high. He would compliment building up the muscle in his arms by giving hand jobs to the boys at school – but he wasn’t gay. He was something else. He promised he could make all the lads in Vang Vieng come in a day if wanted to.
Thankfully the story was diverted as he went on to explain that he was doing really well in Australia, winning lots of weightlifting competitions and was number 1 in the country. In turn, his mum had placed his photo on her fridge, an honour he was very proud of. By the third repeat of this story, he was now the 3rd best in Australia. Now he was not on his Mum’s fridge, but his Grans one. At the time, I had this funny theory, or maybe more of an observation, that as he was sliding down the ranks in Australia, he was sliding down the ranks within his family members. His Mum probably kicked him out once he was no longer the champ, and now he’d turned to a life of handjobs and hypodermic needles. I stopped listening when he was now 24th best in Australia and I dread to think which family member has him on their fridge at this current stage of his flailing career. Maybe his old Uncle that gave him all those tips on building up those biceps?
I tried explaining this to Lloyd and Ben but I just couldn’t make them see my point about the relationship between failure at sport and its correlation with how many photos of you there are in your family members kitchens. Despite the side-splitting laughter, they still couldn’t get it. I don’t blame them really, I was talking and thinking a load of breeze
Sad to say, but in Vang Vieng he was known as the ‘The Monster’, according to a passing group who interjected to give us some backstory when he went for a piss. It did seem a bit out of order and especially with the talk of his Mother and Grandmother, as it would take a heartless bastard to ignore the fact that somewhere this guy is somebody’s Son and Grandson. Okay, I’ll admit. It was me who first labelled him The Monster but I did manage to atone for my unpleasant branding of the Guy by saving him from falling off the cliff face and impaling himself on the rocks below. He started to talk about killing himself and I was selfishly annoyed that he may start ruining my mushroom trip that was in full flow. My selfishness didn’t stop there. If he did plunge to his death, it would make one hell of a selling point for this story. “Somebody’s Son, somebody’s Son, somebody’s Son” I reminded myself as I grabbed him back from the ledge. I better wash my hands was my first thought, after he’d shaken it and begrudgingly thanked me for saving his life.
Me, Ben and Lloyd headed back down the hill discussing what the name of that guy’s autobiography would be if he ever chose to write one. Monster: My Story was the obvious choice, but I think we’d a winner with “Have you washed your hands mate?”
The other question had been “what if he actually did jump and kill himself?” To which me and Ben agreed on the hypothetical outcome; “Lloyd, you’ll have to go and inform the Australian embassy and track down his parents. After all, he’s one of your lot”.
We bid our farewells to Lloyd with exchange of Facebook details and plans to meet up in Vietnam and crossed the bridge back to our peaceful oasis on the other side. Ben would later learn that Lloyd was best mates with his next door neighbour back in Townsville. Despite the dark, we could still make out the bridge and were it split off towards the Launderette. The dimly lit area where we’d picked up our BRIT award looked a far cry from the glitzy podium it once seemed, and despite our success we would now be joining past winners such as Lemar, A1 and Ms Dynamite into pop star obscurity. Our time had been and gone.
It had been a mystery the last couple of nights; where was the party that started up around 4am and lasted until dawn? Many people had heard it, but the problem was nobody had seen it. Almost after every night, walking across the bridge to our Bungalows just as day was dawning, we could hear whooping, laughter and cheering somewhere in the deep mountainous forest, as if Vang Vieng was calling us back. It’s hard to go to bed, even after a full day and night’s session, when there might be another party elsewhere. It could be my generations Spike Island and I’d never forgive myself if I missed it for the sake of a kip in a wooden hut.
It’s one of my biggest fears, turning down an invite which ultimately leads to me missing out on some life-defining event. I’m sure I would have done a lot better in my GCSE’s had somebody just told me in advance that I, nor any of my mates would lose their virginity before sitting them. For a start, there would’ve been a load of parties I would’ve been able to have rain checked on. When I was about 8 years, I stayed around my Nan’s house one week while my parents had gone away. She lived on a main road that happened to be the nucleus of the neighbourhood where most of my friends from school lived. Can’t remember if it was actually a nightmare or my imagination, but I seem to have this vision of looking outside, not longer after going to bed and seeing a big group of school friends walk past, all of which had snuck out from under their parents noses to get up to their midnight mischief. Me excluded. Also a bit like in the summer when you had to go bed at your usual time, but given the longer days it was so much lighter. Struggling to sleep in the heat, made worse by the sounds of kids outside in the neighbour’s garden having loads of fun. Although at least my Parents came up with a good excuse for my absence when the older kids knocked on my door to see if I fancied coming out for a kickabout. Also when they’d call me in for bedtime, they’d open with something like “Rob that action movie that was banned at the cinema is on now if you want to come and watch it” to disguise the fact I was actually being called for my bath and bed. Turns out the grass wasn’t always greener on the other side, especially towards the end of the summer when Lynch’s lawn was cut to shreds from all that football. On that point actually, I can’t remember the last time I heard kids out playing in the garden or out in the street in my neighbourhood. I suppose who wants to throw water balloons at passing cars or set fire to a dog turd after leaving it on somebody’s doorstep, when there’s Call of Duty to complete on the Xbox.
We bumped into the Weymouth Boys once we’d made it to Otherside Bungalows. After asking them about the noise, one of them said “That noise? That’s a cockerel isn’t it?” He was right, cockerels placed up in the hills by the locals to try and coax people away from their beds and back to the party town, just like the Pied Piper of Hamlin did with all those German kids? No, they were just cockerels. I felt silly at first, but then more reflective on the state of mind I’d taken up since arriving here and the things we’d indulged in within this town and along its river. All things considered, it was hardly surprising I’d mistaken the cry of a farmyard animal for something completely different.
And even if it had been people, did it really matter? We’d had our fun here and it was perhaps a good thing we were moving on in the morning. Saying that, I will miss this place dearly.
After a smoke with the Weymouth Lads, who’d taken advantage of their medical insurance and claimed a load of laughing gas canisters from the doctors on behalf of a mate who’d broken his foot on the tubing, we stumbled back to our cabin and recorded on my camera an advert for keeping belongings safe from burglars (aimed at households of 1960’s Britain), inspired by the fact that we’d all our valuables under our mattresses. The first place that every thief/burglar looks according to reconstructions on Crimewatch. It may have worked in the last millennium, but not now, so why do we still utilize the mattress as a safe haven for our things?
Yeah, reading that last paragraph, I don’t have a clue as to what we were trying to convey at the point in time either. I was now more sure than ever that we were making the right decision in heading to Vietnam tomorrow.