Two weeks later, my posse of travel companions had dwindled down to five and we headed to Luang Prabang and Vang Vien, Laos. Laidback and suspended in a time warp, Laos is romantic, magical, and teeming with temples. Shrouds of mist roll over stone karsts. Livestock litter the roadways. And the food ranges from traditional Lao spring rolls to reheated frozen pizza.
But we’d come for one reason: tubing.
Giant inner tubes in hand, we rode a tuk-tuk up river to the first depot on the tubing route, a bar. Music pumped from massive speakers and the party was in full swing. The waters of the Nom Song River swirled passed, tinted by silt like a mocha-flavored dream. The crowd is a cross section of the Western Hemisphere. Irish, Canadian, Argentinean, and Spanish mingle together. We’re all there for the tubing but nobody heads to the water. This is Laos. Things take time. The day is long and there is always another right after it. Nobody wears watches. Nobody’s brought much clothing. All we have is time. And nobody squanders it. In Laos, time is the traveler’s only commodity.
So we tossed our tubes atop the pile leaning against the bar and got some drinks. We merge into the crowd, welcomed by a man in a wolfmask, the unofficial River Mayor. In marker, he’d etched a number into his arm: 91—the number of days straight he had tubed the river. Three months, Wolfman’s been on the river. My mind could hardly grapple what that would be like. But as he offered us tequila and introduced us to his buddies, I realized life was easy in Laos, easy enough so that you could unplug and take refuge for a lifetime along this river.
A small procession of inner tubes begins downstream. We push off, lounging in our round floats. The Nom Song was gentle, taking us around the bend and to an even bigger bar. The army of tubers move to shore. Lao men leaned over the bar’s ledge and threw out ropes to pull us in. Five of us make it. “Wait! Ephrat!” We shout at our friend turning slowing in the current and futilely fighting her way to land. A man dives in, tether in hand. In three strokes, he’s secured our friend and escorted her to shore. Who says chivalry is dead?
At the second bar, conversations resume where they left off at the first. Reggae music spins and the river swept by. The day draws on. The rains moved in too but nobody noticed.
Somewhere mid route, we found The Mudslide Bar. Dirt caked my feet. My hair was matted and wild. So I didn’t think a little mud would hurt. At the top of the slide, I counted to three, held my nose and slid down with my friends. The slide curved at the base, pitching us up into the air for a mud splash into the pit. Arms tangled with legs and the rain picked up, sluicing the mud into our eyes. A few people at the bar, clapped. “Good one!”
Like a caveman, muck covered every inch of my body. Rubbing the grit into my arms, I exfoliated my skin before we lazed down the river a few more feet to the next bar. I leaned back in my tube, hair fanned out in the water. People think paradise should be about blue skies and clear water. Not that day. Paradise was mud and rain and a huge rubber donut bringing me down river.
Two weeks later and three companions left, I took the road north out of Chiang Mai, Thailand to a little town tucked away in the mountains: Pai. Only a 100-mile (160-km) ride, the trip winds through the mountains and follows the precipice around 762 drastic turns along the range. Thais come here to escape the city. Artists sell their wares and nature seems to perch at the footsteps of every hotel. From here, we arranged an elephant trek—our last excursion before we all left for home.
The heat had returned, drying out the forest around us. Our small caravan navigated along the path further and further out into open land. It was slow travel, quiet travel. I could hear bugs click-click-buzz in the bushes and my adolescent elephant’s feet pounded the ground flat. Knees clenched, I countered his steps and balanced myself, abs in full flex. When we reached the river, I relaxed and watched the familiar waters stream by. And when the mahout commanded, “Turn!” I didn’t think about my flight home. Or work. Or anything except how big a splash I could make.