Water for the Skull: On River Tubing in Laos


On the Nam Song River, I had refused the shots of Lao-Lao, the backyard rice whiskey served free in the water, and taken only a solitary sip of beer. I didn’t want to be seen not drinking though, so I held onto the bottle longer than usual. That we were waist deep in water was part of the problem; shirtless, there was no escape from intense scrutiny. Eventually, as we drifted downstream and people got sloppier, I just gave up the charade. I was now standing on a rickety wooden tower, clinging to a dirty rope, egged on to swing over the waters below and let go. I recalled the reasons I had refused to drink earlier. Behind me, a woozy Irishman was growing impatient, bellowing, ‘Aren’t all you Australians the strong swimmers? What are you waiting for?’

In a particularly feverish stretch of Spalding Gray’s autobiographical monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, the actor recounts his experiences working on the film The Killing Fields. Though set in Cambodia, The Killing Fields was actually shot in Thailand, and during his downtime Gray traveled to Phuket with the film’s crew to go to the beach. On one of these down days he went out swimming with a South African cameramen. Gray began to panic when the cameraman swam out into rough Thai waters and went suddenly out of sight. Gray called to the others, fearful of going into the water himself, and then the cameraman reappeared. Seeing Gray’s fear, he offered: ‘I’m really sorry, man. Listen, don’t worry about me, I won’t drown. I’m from South Africa.’

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