In the north central area of Laos, lies a small town about 300km north of the capital city Vientiane. A picturesque skyline majestically perches atop a meandering river that gently bends it’s way amid the stunning limestone peaks that surround the vicinity. In a sense, the scenery is breathtaking. Though it is not the natural views that will take your breath away. No, it is instead the sight of the gentlemen (or gentlewomen) splayed out on the curb, moaning to the sky, his “in the tubing” shirt a dusty mess, as he pleads for another whiskey bucket, that will steal your eyes from the natural splendour of your surroundings. Indeed, this man has been tubing this day, and considering you are in Vang Vieng, you probably are going too, or have already been… multiple times.
Vang Vieng is probably the most frequented destination for tourists in Laos, and unfortunately, it is also the destination for the most assholes. The tubing experience is one that has morphed over the years from a lazy trip down the Nam Song river with some cheap whiskey, beer, or maybe a little reefer here or there, to a frenzied bender of drugs, cheap whiskey in quantities that could blind a horse, club music, huge water swings and slides, and enough over-indulgence to make Rick James’ knees shake. Tubing in Vang Vieng is like your friend who used to sneak liquor out of the cabinet in water bottles, but now openly cooks meth in the basement. But let’s face it, some people are into that.
Now hold on, let’s back this up a second because I just threw down a Rick James and a meth-head analogy in the same paragraph, yet some people might not even know what this “tubing” thing is. Going along with the chilled out atmosphere that is Laos, someone had a (seriously) great idea to offer tubes to tourists, and let them float down the Nam Song to enjoy the scenery detailed in paragraph the first. Then, somebody else had the great idea to open up a small bar or two (or more), and offer a couple of drinks to the happy souls floating down the river. Fast forward a decade or two, and we’re back into Rick James and meth head territory. The future is one “super-freaky” place.
Now it honestly goes without saying that tubing is a TON of fun. One hour into our day “in-the-tube” we already were talking about coming back the next day. Three hours into the day, we hadn’t even made it 50m down river. In fact, many “tubing” regulars don’t even bother with renting the tubes, as the first area you arrive at has more than enough bars and “scenes” to enjoy if your main goal is to party HARD. The benefit, however, of having the tube is that bars offer a free shot on arrival. And don’t worry about straining yourself too hard to get to each bar. Guys will happily throw a water-bottle attached to a line at you (whether you want it or not) and rope-you-in to their bar. It’s not all bad though, if you remember to get your free shot.
For us, we wanted to mix a reasonable amount of partying with actually doing the tubing properly (i.e. not dying). It meant that on occasion, we’d have to leave a bar with a happening party a little earlier than we wanted. But the decision was made easier knowing that there were plenty of more bars along the way. It was an awesome day with a lot of fun, and probably one or two more whiskey shots than we would have liked.
But enough about us… here’s a list of things you absolutely need to know if you are going tubing:
- Only bring what you absolutely need to the river, and put it all in a watertight bag.
- Only wear clothes you don’t mind getting ruined. For some reason, cans of spray paint are readily available along the river, and drunk people tend to have itchy trigger fingers.
- Eat a big, carb heavy breakfast. Sure, there’s food along the way, but you’ll most likely be too amped up to think about anything other than partying.
- Don’t let the first bars trick you into thinking that there is nothing else further down the river. There are PLENTY of more bars along the way.
- Limit the use of the platform swings, slides, or high jumps to when you are less intoxicated (i.e. at the beginning of your day). Lots of people get hurt. LOTS.
- If you bring the tube back after 6pm, you will lose your deposit on the tube. So try to keep an eye on the time if you are worried about the cash.
- Tuk Tuk drivers along the river will lie to you about what time it is. They want you to believe it is later than it really is, so you’ll take their ride thinking you are short on time to get your tube back.
- 8 people died between January and November 2011 while tubing. Most deaths involved… you guessed it… way too much alcohol or drugs. Let’s face it, Ketamine (an animal tranquilizer used as a recreational drug) and water go together like Kurt Cobain and a shotgun.
- If you are going to take drugs, be aware of your surroundings and who gave them to you. A popular scam involves tourist drug users being reported to police and then extorted for up to $500.00. This does happen. So be careful, or simply, don’t do drugs!
In the end, if you are sensible (or not), tubing can be a lot of fun. Just do your best to be as reasonable as possible, since Vang Vieng is now considered somewhat of a shame in the country of Laos. Up and coming tourist destinations (like the 4,000 islands) are actively working to avoid turning into the next Vang Vieng. Remember, that as fun as it is to get hammered and have a blast, someone has to clean up after you, and they might not be as welcoming to the next person who comes along.
Want to see what it’s like tubing in Vang Vieng? Check out our video!