Up there with the Full Moon Party in terms of a backpacking ‘rites of passage’, Tubing in Vang Vieng (Laos) has secured phenomenal status as being one of the best parties in South East Asia! A startling claim for a place described by the Lonely Planet just fifteen years ago as ‘far removed from the Western world.’ With backpackers flocking there in the thousands on word of mouth approvals and even some intrepid tourists nowadays making it their 2-week summer break; it’s clear the excitement isn’t about to slow down soon! But can it really be as good as they all say it is? Can Vang Vieng actually live up to its notorious party reputation? One backpacker shares his tale…
"One More Day!" - My Experience Tubing in Vang Vieng.
By Tzevai Chong
After a three-day stint in the lovely town of Luang Prabang, five of us arrived in Vang Vieng late in the afternoon. Trudging off the bus to find a guest house, we found the streets of the town deserted as the limp bodies of backpackers lay lifeless in the bars along the main strip, repeats of Friends and ‘Family Guy’ blaring out from large TV screens. In the middle of nowhere in South East Asia, the scene was bizarre to say the least. Just what kind of place was this?
After an Indian (as you do in Vang Vieng) and a few Beer Lao’s with the group that night, we decided on our intentions for our remaining time in Laos. We would be spending the next day tubing and the following day recovering from a definite hangover before heading down to the capital, Vientiane. ‘Intentions’ being the operative word here; after one night in the town you soon come to realise after speaking with other travellers foolish enough to make similar plans upon arrival, that all good intentions swiftly sail down the Nam Song river while you're sinking another whiskey bucket in one of the bars along the tubing route!
Nothing illustrates the point above better than the first guy we met at our guest house, an Irish guy (naturally) called Mark. Heavy on colourful wrist-wear (collectable at all the bars along the tubing route) and covered in cuts and bruises (including a heavily bandaged foot!) it was instantly obvious that the effects of tubing had caught up with him in a big way. You see Mark had also arrived with the intention (that word again) of tubing for only a day or so, yet here he was five days later proclaiming to everyone, “One more day! But then I've got to get out of this place before it kills me!” - My God, what had we let ourselves in for?
We awoke the next day buzzing about our first day on the tubes! Mark decided to join us for ‘one more day’ and the six of us headed down to the tubing centre around 1pm, but not before we all purchased the obligatory 'In the Tubing Vang Vieng' vests from the shop next door to our guest house. (I guarantee you'll buy one too!) We rented our equipment for the day - a big rubber inner tube (50,000 kip plus 60,000 kip deposit each), a couple of large dry bags (10,000 kip each) We signed our disclaimers and the jolly men at the desk numbered our hands in permanent marker along with something scrawled in Lao - writing along the lines of ‘Idiot number 345’ perhaps. All kitted out we hopped in the back of the tuk-tuk with our tubes on the roof and headed down to the first bar.
We arrived at the Smile Bar, and were instantly greeted by Trent - all bandana and handlebar moustache, proudly sporting a marker tattoo on his chest stating '285 days tubing!' (though this is likely to be well past the 300 mark by the time you read this!). Trent welcomed all us newbie’s with a customary shot of Lao Whiskey and proceeded to explain the route down the Nam Song River we'd be taking over the next few hours.
We swiftly moved to the bar and purchased our first bucket of the day, (the first of far too many) and perched ourselves along the riverbank watching the numerous attempts at somersaults off the 15m high rope swing. Most of these were met with choruses of 'Wooooh!!' from the energised throng, as the unwitting victims crashed into the water. The sun was shining and the river was flowing, so after a few 'warm up' buckets to get us in the mood we grabbed ourselves some tubes from the pile outside and hopped on the river down to the next bar.
There were a few technical difficulties steering the tubes at first, most of us getting stuck in the current and struggling to get into the main flow, but once we got the hang of it we swiftly sailed onwards to the next bar where we were kindly ‘fish-hooked’ in. The bar was just like the rest – crazy! More cheap buckets, more free shots, (hornets and all) more music and more good times! Here, we witnessed one of the highlights of the day. Our mate, nicknamed Mr Yeah Yeah for the day (don’t ask) hit the buffer at the end of the zip line and performed a 360 degree somersault into the river, totally accidental but highly impressive. We danced, we sang, we got spray painted by the Q-Bar staff and we sailed to Mud Bar.
You can probably guess by the name “Mud Bar” what it's all about. A huge warm gooey bath of mud, mud and more mud! In your hair, in your mouth, down your shorts, down bikini tops (naturally the guys were loving it!) We promptly jumped straight into a game of mud volleyball. There was a tug of war for those who fancied a bit of macho mud action and a pool to wash yourself in afterwards. We sunk more buckets, we got dirty, we got clean and we got dirty again!
Our next stop involved us crossing over to the other side of the river, and by now we were pros at tube travelling. We arrived at Slide Bar (again the clues in the name) and headed straight to the bar for – you've guessed it, another bucket – necessary as a bit of ‘dutch courage’ before an attempt of the slide. Queuing in line, I could hear the chanting and squeals from below as the hungry crowd watched in anticipation. Next in line, I laughed in the face of fear and clung onto my tube for dear life as I shot off the end of the slide into the river. Spluttering as I surfaced, I decided on one more bucket to celebrate my survival!
This was the last bar we stopped at on the route, mainly because we spent so long having fun to this point there wasn’t time to stop at any more. Naturally, as it was our first day we decided to go all the way to the end of the river in our tubes, declining the offer of a tuk tuk back to town. A big group of us hopped on our tubes and on we went down the river as dusk encroached. After a while, as it was getting very dark and we couldn’t really see where we were going or much of what was around us, so we hooked onto each other for safety in numbers, catching additional straddlers on the way.
We dubbed ourselves the ‘One More Day!’ crew and chanted our name as we floated along the dark river (bottom’s up for the rapids!), intoxicated by the ‘bucket effect.’ We all knew that we’d be back tomorrow for another go at it. We reached the end and clambered out on the island near Rock Bar. We made the short walk over the bridge to the tubing centre and happily reclaimed our deposit minus 20,000kip for returning after 6pm which is the same whether you're 10 minutes or 2 hours late. Small price to pay for an epic day.
So day one was over. We’d all survived, were all happy and relatively unscathed!
Day two followed a similar same pattern – as did day three and day four and day five. On the last day, we decided to make the 45 minute journey to the end in daylight for once – something I'd recommend to everyone. As we drifted slowly down the Nam Song we realised that tubing wasn't just about the partying. It's not until you enjoy the full beauty of the karst scenery at sunset on the river that you appreciate what an unmissable experience this is.
So, if you’re wondering if the rumours are true. They are.
As the sign on our guest house read, ‘You can check out, but you can never leave!’ One more day... one more day...