Before coming to South East Asia everyone I talked to would tell me that above all else I absolutely had to go tubing at Vang Vieng. It was for this reason that I was dreading the end of the bus ride to get there. It's not really my kind of thing but but I felt a sort of duty to at least be able to say I'd done it. I was imagining it would be full of hundreds of western bogans spending the day fluctuating between two high levels of inebriation. I was right. But I soon realised that that was okay because I was one of them.
For those yet to experience the psycho-weirdness of tubing at Vang Vieng, the idea is to float down the town's river in an inner-tube stopping at various crazy riverside bars full of pumping music, rhythmically-challenged dancing, free-flowing alcohol and people throwing themselves at the mercy of Laos' nascent medical system by 'zip-lining' into supposedly deep pools in the otherwise shallow river, all set amongst beautiful but barely noticed karst mountains. There are also landmines.
Turning up alone I soon ran into a couple of Irish buddies from the boat trip and suddenly I was in the mood to party. Skolling a few half-litre cans of BeerLao plus some free shots to bring us up to at least the lower quartile of inebriation we quickly got into the swing of things by joining a game of mixed mud volleyball. Surprisingly, we all decided to play the game seriously and my team ended up not only winning decisively but also avoiding serious injury resulting from the many sharp shards of glass nestled in the more viscous levels of the mud. By the time it was all over it was almost dark and the further three kilometres of rapids still to be negotiated by our inner tubes forced us to discuss the very real possibility of hypothermia.
Not to be deterred, later that night we ordered a large $1 bottle of whiskey over dinner that turned out to be only 20% non-alcohol and let the night of parties, dancing and buckets (the fluid goes out of them, not into them) fade into amnesia. I woke up suddenly at 8 a.m. and knew that I had to leave that place. Immediately.
The bus ride to the Lao capital of Vientiane was eventful only in that I managed not to throw up. Now when I hear that Vientiane is like something out of a Graham Greene novel I know it's not a joke. It's a bit like that previously mentioned sci-fi genre with the suspiciously quiet daytime and excitingly lethal night - but with the night instead also being suspiciously quiet. I sat on the Mekong's riverfront for a few hours trying to understand some inexplicable construction activity and consumed the occasional baguette (Oh ho ho! Baguette!). I soon made up my mind to move on.
And what a move! The eleven hour bus trip was one of the best yet: I realised here that I have the stomach to read on buses after all and was entertained by the enthusiasm of Richard Dawkins to the ambiance of an epic Mekong thunderstorm. I paused for a night in Savannakhet where I discovered the joys of being evil as I wielded an electric tennis racket in my hotel room and committed a mosquito holocaust that must never be forgotten.
A far less satisfying bus ride to Pakse introduced me through shared misery to another cool English couple and two Canadian blokes called Matt and Troy (who would definitely hit back if referred to as a couple) with whom I searched for a hostel and had some riverside beverages. The next day I hired a motorbike and rode 170 kilometres to explore the Bolaven Plateau.
This was the first time I'd ever (legally) ridden or driven on the right side of the road and it did take some getting used to. I kept thinking, "Hey, this feels kind of natural. Maybe that sinister Napoleon was right to have invented dexterous driving after all" and then realising that I was actually back on the left with a truck bearing down on me.
But the destination made it all worth-while. At Tadlo I was given directions to three spectacular waterfalls by an American backpacker named Amber which involved a lot of rock scrambling to get to an extremely tall fall, and information on how to avoid the annoying pleas for money from the local village children for two huge wide falls.
Another failed attempt to travel down the Mekong by boat rather than bus brought me to Don Det, one of the famed Four Thousand Islands. This island is an amazing gravity well of cool (and may I say extremely handsome) young backpackers such as myself. Here I rediscovered, bit by bit, my old friends Teresa the German beautician I'd met in Pai, Matt, Troy and the English couple from the Pakse bus and Morgan and Shane, my Irish buddies from Vang Vieng and the boat trip. We instantly became a cohesive group and a large subsection chartered a boat for the next day.
This trip was a spectacular tour of many of the eponymous four thousand islands such as beach islands, water buffalo islands and an over-excited school children island. This was all capped off by the usual Felix-generated beach bonfire (the best kind) on Don Det in which the utilisation of bamboo as fuel ensured an explosive experience. However, my satisfaction of these evenings was somewhat tempered by late-night calls for my Australian de-vermination skills (I knew that show 'Crocodile Hunter' was a bad idea). I was even contracted out to deal with a scorpion found in the bed of some French backpackers.
One of the many things I'm seeking on this epic trip of mine is a certain level of craziness. For things to go a bit out of hand. A pub night becomes a beach party becomes a tribal jungle festival and all of a sudden I'm leading a small colonising expedition to a long period comet (that's why '2001: A Space Odyssey' is so awesome - it starts off like a normal movie with apes and stuff and then goes psycho towards the end). The final day of Don Det was nothing like that, but it reminded me of it.
I and the group that had congealed around me (yes, I have that effect on people) all hired bikes to ride around the serenely rural Don Det and neighbouring Don Kong (Connected by an old rail bridge) to see a waterfall and have a swim in the Mekong. Afterwards we visited a hot-sand beach that required a zen-like trance to avoid feet burns by using levitation and decided to charter another small boat to see the endangered Mekong dolphins on the Cambodian border.
Having consumed a few bevos on the journey we stopped right on the aquatic border and spotted the snub noses of a fair few fresh water dolphins as they flaunted international boundaries. Miraculously, half an hour of broken Lao coaxing and eventually beer bribes convinced our pilot to land the three of us in my boat on the Cambodian shore. Here we watched the sun set over the Cambodian hills from a Cambodian beach shack drinking Cambodian beer and learning our first Cambodian words from the Cambodian family living there. The daring boat ride back up through the rapids (the somewhat tipsy pilot was showing off) only enhanced our excitement at having committed our first illegal crossing. Luckily, on the pitch-black bicycle ride home over dodgy dirt paddy tracks we weirdly bumped into Amber from Tadlo who escorted us home with her presciently acquired bike light.
The next day I went to Cambodia the proper way.