Whether or not tubing is for tools is subjective. First you must ask yourself if you value your life. If your answer is affirmative, you may be inclined to believe that only tools would launch themselves into an unknown river in the middle of Laos, while pissed as a fart and smothered in body paint. However, this didn’t stop me from yielding to the temptation. I argued that it was possible to enjoy the Laos-Laos fueled hedonism of riverside raves along the Nam Song river while floating along in a tractor’s inner tyre, responsibly.
By the time my boyfriend Billy and I landed in Vang Vieng, northern Laos, in October 2013, the Laotian government had already imposed a crack-down on the tubing tourist’s hardcore party scene. With almost 30 deaths reported in 2011 and the local hospital inundated with injured tourists — not to mention those with more serious injuries who suffered a four hour journey straight to the hospital in the capital, Vientianne — police finally closed down a number of riverside bars and illegal clubs. Yet the ‘party poopers’ merely slowed the flow of tubers.
Vang Vieng was undoubtedly a shadow of its former existence by the time we arrived. With only three bars left along the river, where carefree revelers previously catapulted themselves towards the rocky river bed, high on life and other drugs, the tubing scene seemed tame. There were no zip-lines to tempt daredevils. There was not a pulsing crowd of hundreds of body-painted ravers. Despite my efforts to remain level-headed — I really do love my life– this was still a little disappointing.
Billy and I had decided to line our stomachs with a hefty breakfast and take on tubing at one o’clock. Tubes must be returned by five o’clock in order to get your deposit back. This gave us four hours of drinkage, which seemed sensible considering our quest to come back alive. However, this meant we were about two hours out of sync with most of our fellow ‘tubers’, so we missed out on the banter bondage. This didn’t bother us too much. We hopped into our tubes and skipped the first bar– as most do as it’s too close to the initial drop-off point — and floated on past stunning krast cliff faces.
Once we were hooked out of the Nam Song river at the second bar — apparently the best — we scrambled up the steps towards the thudding music. A small group of shit-faced 20-somethings were prancing around a stage with a sweaty Laotian man in a spider man outfit. We slurped thirstily on a couple of Beer Laos’, regretting our dry approach to what should have been ‘mental!’.
As sexy bikini clad girls showed off their moves, an odd Austrian guy in a cricket hat and testicle hugging speedos was creeping around vacantly. Out of the blue, a fun-loving Canadian guy pulled down his board shorts and proceeded to walk around proudly flopping his penis about. Meanwhile, we got chatting to an Irish man who was on the run for ten years, escaping a drugs charge by sampling Thailand’s finest prostitutes.
Two beers and one cocktail down, I was starting to feel tipsy, but it was too late for a dance. Everyone instinctively stumbled down the river bank and plonked themselves into their tubes, ready for the third and final riverside bar. No one wanted to return late and risk losing their deposit. This leg of the trip was more fun. Those in the centre of the river sped on, while the rest of us drifted slowly up along the edge, while sipping on takeaway cocktails. It felt surreal, chatting rubbish to randomers as the cool river gurgled and splashed around us, pulling us through the most magical scenery.
The final bar was a let-down. There was a BBQ and a big fire to warm everyone up. The music was thumping, but the party atmosphere seemed to have dampened. Drunken chats were all that was on the cards. It felt like Billy and I had missed the party boat, but wasn’t that what we had wanted? I admired my four braided wrist bands as I sipped on my last rum and coke. Only four drinks! Now that’s pacing it, even for a light-weight, I thought.
Splashing through the Nam Song once again, spirits were high as we clung to each-others tubes, passing spirited kayakers and rickety old bridges. Soggy fags were dished out and beers were drained. Next: the quest for a lighter. The group split, with the stragglers along the edges seeking lighters from passing villagers and the smarter crowd moving swiftly down the centre, ahead of five o’clock. Feeling suddenly giddy, we were among the stragglers.
As a dusky haze settled along the river, a gorgeous peace fell upon us. Now, we were only three. At every twist and turn we expected to see Vang Vieng. It became obvious that we had missed the five o’clock deadline, but I became more concerned with the encroaching darkness and the dizzying strength of the alcohol that suddenly seemed to be coursing through my veins. Clinging to Billy’s tube as if my life depended on it, I began to panic.
After being tempted out of the water and over slippery rocks by a tuk-tuk driver, we realised we were not yet in Vang Vieng. Back we went to the black currents of the Nam Song, which soon seemed to split in two. We could see lights in the far distance but the river became too shallow and the currents too strong. We abandoned ship. Despite being only ankle deep, it was a challenge clinging on to the tube as the rush of water pushed it away. I slipped and face planted, boshing my knee against the rocks and finding myself pinned down by the current. In the cool serenity of that moment, I realised, you probably do have to be a tool to go tubing.
Minutes later, we were clawing at the foliage along the steep river bank as we pulled ourselves and our tubes up onto dry land. The relief was quickly replaced with embarrassment, as we walked barefoot and muddied all the way through town, where would-be revelers were only just eating their dinner. The locals call tubers ‘zombies’ and I imagine we gave them good reason for it. If you think it is possible to be responsible, drink, party and float through Laos in a tube, you are sadly mistaken. Going tubing means making some rather serious decisions, but I won’t judge you. Tubing brought thousands of tourists to this sleepy haven for a reason, it’s fun.