Join thousands of backpackers and find out what to expect when tubing down the river in Vang Vieng, Laos.
As any young, avid traveler who has explored the wonders of South-East Asia may tell you, tubing down the river in Vang Vieng is a must. The river, in the heart of Laos, is often the only draw for backpackers to this impoverished, developing country. The profits acquired from this dangerous recreation help in large part at keeping Laos’ economy afloat.
While the idea of waking up around 10 a.m., standing in a line-up of dozens of travelers, paying an inflated price to rent a beat-up inner-tube, and drifting down a dirty river while drinking buckets of cheap alcohol may seem ridiculous to some, to the average backpacker on the hunt for adventure, it’s the perfect start to the day.
After renting your tube, getting a Laotian symbol inked on your hand in permanent marker (to show that you’ve actually paid), and hopping on a tuk-tuk (the local transport), you’re brought to the rivers edge. Upon arrival, each “tuber” is presented with a cloth-band, generally adorned around the arm or head, and the first shots of the day. Usually Lao Lao, local rice-whiskey, the first shot doesn’t always go down so well at 11:30 a.m.
As you walk to the first bar, tube in hand, you realize that other bikini-clad travelers have arrived and started drinking even earlier then you have.
With house music booming from weathered, black stereo speakers and backpackers swinging on trapeze ropes (inching dangerously close to the rocks below), you realize this may not be a typical afternoon.
With a smattering of about 15 bars on either side of the river, the day is spent floating to whichever one is busiest. With the trapeze ropes, giant jumping platforms, Tarzan-like swings, and rusty make-shift slides (one is aptly coined “Slide of Death” by backpackers), tubing down the Vang Vieng is no walk in the park. If these activities don’t sound dangerous enough, tact on six Beer Lao (the local favourite) 8 shots of Lao Lao, plus a few buckets and imagine the scene.
Almost every bar offers something to encourage drunken stupidity. The “arts and crafts” table presents tubers with spray paint, and funny or vulgar cardboard cut-outs. By the end of the day, people are walking around painted every colour under the sun, and with every lewd comment splayed across their back in lime-green paint.
The rivers current is quite strong, and with no actual brakes, it makes stopping at your preferred bar a struggle. You’re often “roped in” by a local, who whips a sand-filled plastic soda bottle attached to a long cable, in the general direction of your head, while hysterically laughing at your thrashing limbs. After he reels you and your friends in, it’s up to you to navigate your way up the steep rocks, or dodgy wooden planks towards the bar.
If you survive the swings and the other “local rides”, and are lucky enough to make it more then half-way down the river before getting too drunk and leaving, you are rewarded with a giant mud-pit. With a volleyball net in place, and dozens of muddied bodies dancing and wrestling, this is the bar you’ve been waiting for.
If you’ve played your cards right, you have kept a close watch on your tube, and can return it to town to receive your deposit back. But for most, your tube has been stolen, the sun has dropped behind the mountains and you’re struggling for breath as you swim down the river to the closest set of stairs. With little to no lighting, and obnoxious amounts of alcohol in your system this is no easy task.
While most travelers describe this experience as “one of the best days of their lives” and wake the next morning to repeat it, several people die in Vang Vieng each year, and even more leave injured. Just remember to stay with friends and don’t get intoxicated to the point of no return. Just like a full moon party in Thailand, this can be one of the most memorable experiences of your travels.