Recently while travelling through Northern Thailand and Lao, I began hearing wild stories, legends perhaps, about something called “tubing”.
Surely these stories were too good to be true. Tubing sounded like absolutely wicked fun to me. What is tubing? Well, let’s find out…
After a long, “surging” day on a mini-bus (the driver constantly raised and lowered his foot on the accelerator pedal the entire way), we arrived in Chiang Khong on the bank of the Mekong River. On the other side was Lao. The great unknown for me, as I had never been there before. That night I met a couple of english blokes called Dave and Ryan. Dave as it turns out, lived about one hundred metres from me on the same street, in a small town called Westbury in England. His aunt lived right next door. I didn’t know him then, but as has happened many times during my travels, I was saying to myself, “what a small world”…
The next day we crossed the river into Lao and had our passports checked. We then eventually boarded a “slow boat” and spent the next two days cruising down the Mekong River. It was wonderful. I met many more people who quickly became friends.
The two days were washed down with copious quantities of beer and dodgy Mekong Whiskey. As the boat party continued and we came ever closer to Luang Prabang, our final destination, the “tubing” stories became ever more prevalent. It got to the point when I would meet people, and with a knowing smile and a nod, we’d just simply say, “tubing”.
I stayed a few days in Luang Prabang with Dave, Ryan and a Dutch girl named Saskia, whom I had met and been rather intoxicated with on the boat. Then there was a spectacular, though somewhat scary trip in a mini-bus through some incredibly high scenic mountains and bottomless valleys. It was difficult to get any good photos though, due to the constant movement of the van. Despite all this, I did manage to take a couple. Finally, we cruised into Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng, home of the legendary tubing, is a small touristy place. Normally I don’t much like touristy spots, but this one is special. The surrounding scenery is spectacular, with mountains, a wide river full of little islands connected by narrow bamboo bridges, small local villages, caves and of course “The Tubing” <play dramatic music here>. All the bars are comfy with mats and pillows around low tables, so you can literally eat, drink, and pass out if you want to (and is often highly likely). Most of the food is great, I always eat local varieties though, so I don’t know what the western stuff is like. Oh, and on the menus, just about anything your heart desires can be ordered.
Anything from magic mushroom pizzas and shakes – which actually taste incredibly good – to opium tea, joints, weed pizzas – anything. When I took my first walk down the main street and saw these menus and the bars full of very relaxed looking folk, I knew straight away that I was in for a very interesting time in this town. I would have to be vigilant and write everything down, because this was obviously not the place to rely only on memory.
The first afternoon in Vang Vieng was spent with Saskia in a bar, watching episodes of the Simpsons and the Borat movie, while eating and getting slowly pissed (Australian for “drunk”). Very relaxing. Played a little pool, and eventually returned to our room and crashed. We’d only been there one afternoon, and already loved it.
Friday the 1st of December, 2006, we awoke to Dave and Ryan knocking at our door. We threw on some swimming gear and opened the door to be greeted by wide grins of anticipated tubing. First though, we figured that food might be a good idea, so we had brunch in one of the bars, then set off down to the “tubing place”.
We signed a piece of paper and I hired a waterproof bag, which somehow ended up with the gear of about 5 different people in it and me carrying it. “It would be easier”, they said, yeah, for them. The equivalent of about $3.50US got us a huge truck inner tyre tube each and a lift in a tuk tuk up river where we were to start.
Now, for your information, in Australia, we also like tubing. We throw ourselves and an inner tyre tube and beer into a river and away we go. That’s it, no great mystery, it’s just damn good fun. What we did here on this day in Vang Vieng though, added an entirely new dimension to tubing as we knew it.
Into the water we went and within five minutes, the first bar came up on our left. Well, they call it a bar, but actually it was just a bamboo platform with a flying fox set up over the water. These bars along the river always have a person standing at the water’s edge with a long bamboo stick ready to reach out and pull you in, if you signify that this is what you wish to do.
So, we gave the wave, and he reached out to us. In we went, climbed up the rocks and grabbed the first beer of the day out of the ice box. In Lao, there is only one brand of beer and it’s called “Beerlao”. It costs around 10,000kip ($1US), is usually served in a large bottle and it’s bloody fantastic. I have always wondered why struggling third world countries like Lao, Cambodia etc, always seem to have much better beer than the mainstream stuff found in first world countries such as Australia and USA.
Australian mainstream beer in my opinion, is bloody awful. A few hard core patriots wouldn’t agree, but I know a lot of people who would.
So anyway, we “hit the piss” (Australian for “started drinking beer”) and chatted to the other people there. We went for turns on the flying fox and for once, the tacky nightclub, corny pop music blaring from their sound system, didn’t bother us so much. I had heard that this would be a long day, so spending so much time at the first bar would be a bad idea. I suggested that we keep going, so it was back into the water, with our beers and away our floating party went – down river.
There were bars all the way down the river, but we chose not to stop at all of them. Apparently we would most likely be arriving back in Vang Vieng in the dark as it was. Eventually we came to another bar with a huge swing. It had to be at least 10 metres high. This was a big bar, and it was full of people sitting around in little terraced bamboo lounges, so we stopped.
Met some mad Irish blokes who we had last seen on the slow boat to Luang Prabang. The music was loud, more of the same crap, but again, it was not a problem. We sat for a while drinking and contemplating the swing. It was a long way up and I have to admit, at first I refused outright. There was no way they were getting me on that thing. Dave was thinking along the same lines. Not really his cup of tea either. However, a few beers later and Dave jumped up, “I’m gonna do it”, he said.
Well, that was motivation enough for me, so off I went too. We had to climb a bamboo ladder straight up to a high platform over the water. There a Lao bloke sat ready to pull up the swing with a line, as it swung back from the previous user. I grabbed hold of it, while my toes struggled to keep grip at the edge of the platform and felt the weight of it try to pull me off.
My gut tightened and away I went. The water seemed a long way down, but I swung back a couple of times, then let go. I tried to do a kind of a flip and heard everyone cheer, just before I went in sideways. When I broke the surface again, I did my best to hide the pain and pretend for everyone that I was not winded at all and the entire thing had been planned. I think I managed it…
There were more bars with swings and things. All of them great. The last one I remember was a quiet spot built up on bamboo stilts. The old lady in charge brought us beer, then pointed down to the water’s edge at a couple of Lao guys who had turned up on a tube of their own. She said they were cops and that she would get us joints when they leave.
Eventually they did go, and suddenly some joints appeared on the table in front of us. We all sat around the table smoking and drinking and before long, we were all laughing hysterically. I don’t know what was in those joints, but it was damn strong thats for sure. Instead of getting sleepy, and mellow, everything just got funnier and funnier. We stayed there for some time, and finally departed, giggling idiots all of us. So it was back to the river…
A town where it is encouraged to get as drunk and stoned as possible and then throw yourself from high places could never exist in Australia. This must be heaven.
A big group of us linked up together, so we had a large floating fiesta slowly making its way downstream as the sun went down with us. We didn’t have to worry about running out of beer. At one stage we went under a bridge, and just held on while local kids brought us beer in exchange for very little money. At another place, a guy was sitting on a small rock in the middle of the river with a bucket of beer and ice. Anything you want, anywhere you want it, anytime.
Somehow we all got separated. It was dark and I wasn’t sure where I was. I could see that there were bars all over the place on little islands with bamboo bridges inbetween. I thought this must be the place to get out, so I went over to the bank and climbed onto the bank. I didn’t feel too cold. I think I was just so completely wasted that it really didn’t matter.
It was very surreal, with all the coloured lights, little bungalows, different music coming from various bars. I couldn’t see anyone else with tubes, but ventured away from the river anyway. I staggered across a narrow bridge, then all of a sudden, the others were standing there, handing over their tubes. I followed suit.
I found my way back to the hotel, had a shower, then met up with all the others at a nearby bar. We all had had a fantastic day. We knew we would be doing this again. In fact, the two Irish guys I mentioned earlier did it every day for an entire week. I don’t know if I could have, as there can be too much of a good thing.
For dinner I decided to try one of their “happy pizzas”. When it arrived I could see that it was absolutely loaded with magic mushrooms. I swear it was the most delicious pizza I have ever had in my life. I thought it would be prudent to just eat half, but there was no way I was wasting anything that yummy, so I finished it all.
About an hour later I started tripping hard. I went around a few other bars, but lost the ability to speak. In fact, it was another day or two before I learned how to relate to other people again.
I went tubing once more after that first day, and then one day I woke up, hungover as hell after another big night out at the bars on the islands and decided that I had to get out of Vang Vieng. Enough was enough. If I didn’t get out of there, I might never leave. So, when I was not dry retching in the toilet, I somehow forced myself to pack my bags and went downstairs to pay for the room and catch the first bus to Vientiane. While paying for the room, I found out that I had been there for over a week. You know when you lose complete track of time, that it must be time to go. I didn’t say goodbye to any of my friends. I just left. No more Vang Vieng for me. What a trip.