If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng in northern Laos.

Set in the jungle, it is surrounded by limestone kyrsts which soar into the sky like sharp teeth, tearing apart the white flesh of clouds.

With its natural beauty and heavy reliance on adventure tourism, in a tourist brochure it probably looks like it has a lot in common with Queenstown.

But although, like Queenstown, it is full of bars and restaurants, instead of playing music, in Vang Vieng most play non-stop episodes of "Friends". At one intersection it is possible to hear the distinctive jingle and canned laughter from four different episodes.
The other four bars play the "The Family Guy" constantly. It as if only two TV shows were ever invented.

Inside these dens of generic hilarity, backpackers can sip on NZ$4 buckets of whiskey and munch a selection of "happy" food. Unlike in the rest of the world, where a "happy meal" includes a plastic toy, in Vang Vieng this food includes an unknown quantity of marijuana, magic mushrooms or even opium.

Even with such a variety of drugs and episodes of Friends on offer, the part of town where tourists hang out is deserted during the daylight hours.

At this time people are either asleep, or "tubing".

Saying you're going "tubing" in Vang Vieng is like claiming that you're going walking when you're really about to head off on a pub crawl.

In the rainy season, you're in a tube on the fast flowing river for almost an hour, but for most participants this time is incidental to the five hours of partying.

This was obvious as soon as the tuk-tuk dropped Sanna and I off.

Instead of focussing on the jungle clad peaks, we were staring at people flying through the air into the muddy river, launched by giant swings, slides and flying foxes from a series of tall wooden towers.

When not playing on these giant adventure playgrounds, people were dancing in the mud and singing along to blaring party anthems, trying unsuccessfully not to spill there buckets of whiskey. Not that it mattered when they did - shots of tequila were free.
In this world without consequences, every crazy stunt was encouraged by the crowd and always ended with a happy splash.

Although most people had only just met each other, the party seemed full of old friends. For us, after spending a few weeks in steamy cities, the river was a refreshing break and great fun.

We had planned to spend only one day in Vang Vieng, then escape to more culturally interesting cities in the north. We were even up the next day, ready at 8am to hop on a bus.

But the sun was shining; our new friends were staying in town and the pull of the cool river strong. Sealing our fate we were able to change our tickets until the next day.
Losing the battle in our minds was our concern over safety.

Life jackets were available from the co-operative that runs the operation, but in practice discouraged. When we inquired about them, the man taking our money - a Laotian version of Brando in The Godfather - looked at us as if we had just asked him to commit murder.

"Don't worry about it" a couple of young English lads assured us. "Nobody uses them. If you get into trouble someone will jump into the water and sort you out."

To people who have grown up protected by numerous safety regulations, this sounded reasonable. If everybody else was doing it, it must be safe.

Even taking into account the more relaxed safety standards of the less developed world, we figured it couldn't make good business sense for this organisation - which the whole town relies on for revenue - to allow unnecessary safety risks.

While partying with the crowds of happy revelers for two days, at no point did we feel in danger. Even so, our initial assumptions were quite wrong. It was without a doubt the most irresponsibly organised adventure activity I have ever participated in.

Safety measures were not relaxed, they were nonexistent.

Although nobody in town talks about it, according to the Lonely Planet, tourists regularly drown on the river.

It still came as a shock of course, when while on the river for the second day, the details of a tragedy began to emerge.

A German girl we spoke to told us that she was drinking at one of the bars until well after we left. (Although the party was still good, we still managed to leave soon after 5pm, to give ourselves enough time to get off the river before dark.)

With her at the bar there were still about twenty people. Perhaps because some people who had not bothered to hire tubes had taken someone else's from the bar, when this last group went to leave, they discovered that there were no tubes left.

Although it is possible to get back to town with a tuk tuk, the girl we were speaking to was not aware of this. In her drunken state she managed to lose everyone she was with, but still jumped into the pitch black, swollen river, and swam by herself, with no life jacket or tube for half an hour to the exit point.

When she hauled herself from the river there was a commotion. A man was missing. His friends were trying desperately to get the locals to help search for him, but apparently they were unwilling, and even found the situation funny (given how little English many people here speak, they may not have understood what was going on, or possibly their reactions were misinterpreted).

Now, a few days later, we are in a city to the north, called Luang Prabang. Today we recognised some people from the river. They told us that after two days of searching, the man's body had been found in the river.

He was from Ireland, and was here on his honeymoon, with his wife from New Zealand.

It is hard to imagine the horror that she is facing right now.

In Vang Vieng, the party on the river continues. It is fun which comes at a high price.


- Matt Kennedy-Good


Photo: The Mekong River in Laos. Photo / Jim Eagles