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Tubing, Beer Buckets...and organic goats?

Laos' party town of Vang Vieng has more to offer than drugs, drunkenness and debauchery

Every year in a small Venezuelan village on the Orinoco the locals sail a statue of the Madonna down the river with an armada of small boats to ensure a good fishing season. The second part of the annual ritual is for the men to go back and drink as much beer as they can.

As a local tradition, I don't know how much luck it brings, but it is local. Unlike tubing bar to bar on the Nam Song in Vang Vieng which seems strictly an imported affair. Even 5 miles out of town where the village farms are, the air is flooded with music from the clubs downriver.

How Vang Vieng became a party town

The origins of the Vang Vieng party scene, I'm told, go back to local villagers innocently growing a kind of magic mushroom and some intrepid travellers stumbling upon it. The news spread and pretty soon this picturesque valley with soaring limestone karsts was host to a frenzy of drugged and drunk backpackers floating on the river in inner tubes and rope swinging into a foot of water.

Shallow water and alcohol aren't such a great mix so after a few too many smashed backpackers smashed themselves on the riverbed the government stepped in and, in 2013, closed dozens of bars, waterslides and rope swings.

The town is now a shadow of its former hedonistic self; like waking from its own hangover. A few of the tubing bars still operate and backpackers lie all day in cafe-bars that screen endless episodes of 'Friends' and 'Family Guy'. Seriously, they do!

But some visitors are actually sober enough to discover that upriver are waterfalls, lagoons and limestone caves. Tentatively, outdoor sports for the sober, like kayaking, caving and ziplining are taking off.

Vang Vieng is a bit of a plain, scrappy town of bars and hostels with a postcard backdrop. It happens to be in a valley where the river meets the town and though the river is critical to the pub-crawling water sports of the backpackers it's odd that this particular backwater town became one of the backpacker party capitals of South East Asia.

I'm sure the mushrooms helped, but still, it's a good 5 hrs by minibus over rough roads to either of the next tourist towns: Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and neither are much liked by backpackers because they are 'boring' and 'expensive'. Beer in those towns isn't bought by the bucket and lethargic teenage backpackers have no place to literally lie back get trashed while watching TV.

Rejecting the Party Scene for Real Scenery

I hate being judgmental of other's holidays. I know millions love to lie in a deckchair and drink cocktails by the pool or sea. They even go to culturally and scenically beautiful places to do it while simultaneously holding no interest in the culture or scenery. But I've never understood why people squander a holiday like that.

I don't mind a drink but there are deck chairs and cocktails at home. Sure, it's cheaper overseas but not after you factor in the airfare, accommodation and visa costs. I spent my summers as a kid in an inner tube in the pool sipping cordials. I wouldn't fly to Laos and endure a butt shattering 5 hour trip of hairpin bends playing corners with a window and stinky backpacker to do it. I want more from my holiday than that.

So that's how I found myself on a farm making small coats for baby goats.

The day I arrive it's a sunny 25 degrees and the next few days are full of the promise of farm work with alternative travellers, river swimming and treks into the limestone landscape. I'm super hyped about this.

But overnight the temperature plummets as South East Asia is thrown into an unprecedented freezing rain. It's 16 degrees in Bangkok, I hear, and a hell of a lot colder in the northern half of Laos. Rumour has it, a little further up the mountains, it even snowed. The good news is it's too cold for tubing and the party music at nearby bars has switched off.

It's a motley crew of dishevelled and cold travellers who have passed up the beer buckets for feed buckets. In the freezing open-air restaurant, we consume mulberry pancakes and hot mulberry tea as we get to know each other.

Patrick is the first I meet, an Austrian who was on his way to Vietnam when he stopped in here 2 weeks ago and hasn't left. He's helping them revamp their website and they are helping him learn Lao.

Audrey, from France, had a similar problem with leaving. She came here for a 2 weeks stay, 7 months ago. She'd never been to Laos and never worked with goats before but she'd like to do both in the future, maybe on her own farm.

Michael is a bit mysterious, he keeps disappearing and it turns out this Norwegian has a co-patriate mate down the road building a house. Michael's extended his visa another 5 months.

But others are more transient. Ammon and Gillian from Minnesota (cue the Fargo accent) are here only for a few days weeding the mulberry trees before moving on to Luang Prabang. Nikki, from Belgium, left for there this morning after a week working with the goats. Evi, also from Belgium, intends to catch up with Nikki in a day or two but in the meantime will show me the ropes with the goats.

Making coats for baby goats

The stable is a two storey structure where the goats live upstairs. There's a ramp to the paddock and we sweep their poo and uneaten feed down a trapdoor where it becomes compost for the garden. The goat falling through the trapdoor was a bit of a mistake but at least it had a soft landing.

The baby goats, most around 2-3 months old are being bottle-fed to ration the milk and ween them onto a full diet of greens. So we have to milk the mothers and that's a more complicated task than you'd think. Evi and I take turns chasing one goat around its pen trying to get a bit of milking in as its neighbours try to lean over and eat it. Goats will eat anything, they'll even have a nibble on each other.

Sadly, the next day one of the babies has died. It was one of the healthy, older kids and we're pretty sure the unprecedented cold snap has something to do with it. So Audrey, Evi and I come up with the idea of making coats from feed bags for them and pretty soon the little ones are racing around warm and snug and dry and looking good.

The following day when I come down two of the smallest are strutting around in the rain in their waterproof slickers looking pretty pleased with themselves and we haven't lost another baby.



THE FARM: Vang Vieng Organic Farm makes goat cheese and mulberry products from its organic farming methods. Guests staying at the farm can, if they want and if there is work to be done, help out on the farm's garden or cleaning stables. Only stays longer than 2 weeks are free board.




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