Updated: Nov 5, 2020
Laos is long considered the undiscovered beauty of Southeast Asia. Floating down the Mekong in a two day long flat bottom boat trip its easy to let all the hustle and bustle of Thailand melt away as you sip on a nice 2 dollar bottle of tiger whiskey while the river’s surreal landscape lazily passes by. But, with all the sites and potential cultural experiences that a country such as Laos has to offer ask anyone on the backpacking circuit what you should do with your time there, and the answer will always be the same. Tubing!!
In the month leading up to Laos the legend of the small town of Vang vieng and their notorious tubing began to unfold in the shadows of random hostels. Rumors of riverside bars that played continuous family guy episodes 24/7, hidden jungle bars, and death defying water slides were really the only things anyone ever mentioned when talking about Laos. In fact trying to extract anymore information about what to do in Laos other than debauchery from the early 20 year old crowd was about as pointless as trying to get a fair cab in Bangkok.
After a rather interesting minibus ride from Luang Pabong that was in itself filled with stories of engine breakdowns and eatable roadside BBQ rats we arrived Vang vieng. After all the rumors I was half expecting to step out of the bus into streets filled with hordes of backpackers in something akin to Mardi Gras. Instead we were met with a dusty one street town. There were a couple of random motels next to the minibus station. Andy and I split a two bed room for a trip setting record of $2.50 each per night. That night we ventured out for dinner. The town had a hippie, druggie, drop off the face of the planet backpackers vibe going on. We ate at this tucked away pizza place that was really just a bunch of raised wood platforms outfitted with dozens of pillows. The whole place reminded me of some sort of opium den. Fittingly enough when we got our menu there was also a separate hand written laminated menu called “drug menu”.
The drug menu had three different sub categories with the headings of “opium, marijuana, and mushrooms. All of which could be manufactured into whatever variety of tea, brownie, shake, or joint you pleased. We would find out days later the drug scene in Vang Vieng wasn’t as open as our first impression made it out to be. Stories of undercover cops selling weed to tourists on the streets soon spread around. How this random pizza bar was getting away with the open selling of opium was beyond me. Although our waiter did come up to us once and in a very shady quiet tone asked if we wanted to smoke the opium pipe? I could never figure out why the opium “pipe” was such a sketchy deal, yet it was clearly not an issue to openly sell opium joints, tea, cookies, pancakes, etc.
The following day we set off to see if tubing really lived up to the hype. It quickly became apparent that my southern idea of laying on a lazy river all day was not the Laos idea of tubing at all. In fact a tube was not even required. Tubing as they so called it was no more than six bars that were built on wood platforms above a river spaced out over about a quarter of a mile. The whole operation was about 3km outside of town. We arrived at the first bar somewhere around 11am and started hitting the whiskey buckets hard.
Whiskey Bucket: A plastic pale filled with approximately 40 oz of whiskey and generic mixer designed to place the user in a state of total inebriation sometime before lunch. Bucket can also be used as a hat when finished, which usually seems like a good idea
The main patron population of these river bars were mostly brits between 18-23. So yes, we were the old creepy Americans. With music blasting, people dancing, lots of booze, and a mysterious blue marker that seemed to be everywhere creating drunk sayings and cartoons on everyone’s bare chests and back it was definitely a party. Each of these bars was equipped with a unique way to, well basically kill yourself. Adjacent to the first bar there was a step ladder that lead up a large tree to a platform probably 25 meters above the river where you could swing out on a giant rope swing with a trapeze at the end. The drop into the water even at the lowest point was still a solid two story drop. The river had been dug out to allow it to be a moderately safe drop. Oh, but don’t let go at the wrong point or you may hit the jagged rocks. Andy and I decided that it would be a good idea to start a game of HORSE for the day. I would do something on the rope swing and he would follow and then step it up, etc. This was all fun until I decided to do a front flip. While swinging in the forward direction I attempted to do a forward rotation. Of course three buckets to the wind do not help in understanding of one’s own inertia and my rotation miserably failed resulting in about an 10 meter drop onto my neck. I was shook up, but still ok for the time being. Oh did I mention that two weeks prior to this I fell off a motorcycle that resulted in a nice open arm wound that had since got infected, and the water wasn’t exactly the cleanest. Doubt the Air Force high risk activity form would be so approving of such things.
The way to bar hop on the river, which I suppose would be the only real time the “tubing” would come into play was to jump off the platform of the bar into the river and let the current carry you downstream. Once at the next bar, typically about 100 meters or so away they would toss a full water bottle attached to a rope that could be grabbed and then would real you in. Sort of like fishing for drunk westerners.
At the second bar the flavor of death was a zip line with the concept of letting go at the right time to fall into the deepest part of the river. If you let go too soon, again the punishment was jagged rocks. If you held on too long the zipline would come to a sharp stop that would basically whip you back, a lesson I would soon learn. Unfortunately the game of HORSE wasn’t going so well and my years of trampoline experience weren’t really panning out as planned. Andy stepped it up by showing me how he could hold on to the zipline to the very end and absorb the snap back. My strategy was going to be to hold on tight until the very end, then I would loosen my grip just before the snap so I wouldn’t be whipped back as hard. This entire theory revolved around a good understanding of where the zipline actually ended, which I realized in mid zip that I was less than proficient in such knowledge. Anticipating the end to be much farther away than it actually was, I was still holding on for dear life when suddenly I executed a perfect double back flip as I was snapped off the line. Lets just say me and my back weren’t the best of friends the rest of the trip. The good news was I claimed defeat and the game was over, and I had learned my lesson about doing stupid stuff the rest of the trip..sort of.
The last and most notorious bar was fully equipped with a giant three story waterside that had a large lip at the end that would send its patrons hurling through the air with about a four second hang time before crashing into the river. Unfortunately this attraction had a very recent tragedy. Apparently five days before we arrived a girl had gone off the slide and due to the lip at the end her neck snapped back and she hit her head on the end of the slide before crashing into the water presumably already unconscious. Her friend noticed that a few minutes had gone by before she came up and by the time they pulled her out it was too late. The insane thing about this was this slide was fully functional the very next day with no mention or concern about what happened. I was of course extra careful to tuck my chin when I went off however.
After two days of “tubing” my liver, body, and common sense had taken a thorough beating and it was time to move on, but I will always remember VangVieng as one of the most fun, dangerous, and overall outlandish times I’ve ever had.
It wasn't more than a year or so later that tubing in VangVieng was shut down permanently by the Loas government. Also, this post was originally written in 2009, this update is being written in 2020 and I still have back issues from that zipline!