A Travellerspoint blog


In The Tubing

Being cool in Laos 101

Every now and then I like to take part in social activities, sometimes, perhaps more rarely in outdoor activities but such a hybrid social and active event occurred on my adventures while in south central Laos. Vang Vieng is a hub of activity between Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiene, a backpacker’s universe with cheap food, cheap booze and no OH&S rules.
You know a place is discovered when the Australians are there. Like the Americans do with their flag, Australians divide and conquer with an "Aussie Bar", a themed establishment selling beer and Australian food usually with a sports game in the background and some kitschy paraphernalia.

Vang Vieng had been branded and was swimming with flip-flopped, board shorted and singleted folk but why I hear you ask?
The locals here in Vang Vieng found a way to draw travelers to their little Laotian gem with the ideal Aussie concept: a river, inflatable tubes and riverside bars.

It was the thing to do. So off I went. Not being particularly cool, not textbook cool anyway, we soon realised we were out of our depth when I arrived in the board shorts I bought in year 10 that don't 'technically' fit me, Jody in her one-piece racing bathers and Alison in long pants, sleeves and a hat to protect her British skin and we climbed into the back of a tuk tuk with an excitable bunch of backpackers.
The tubes were balanced on top as we headed for the starting point of what we here would call a river float.
The regret started to flow with a heavy pace as we walked to the banks to cross a rickety bridge over to the first bar. Obviously before we could cross a shirtless Billy Goats Gruff passed us a shot of a mystery liqueur which we had to down.
Good lord.
Across the river stood a wooden, over-sized cubby house bar pumping out some lame rock tunes. The open jetty was full of shirtless guys and bikini-clad girls. There were people playing beer pong and tanning their golden bods. The guys all had varying levels of board short to underwear ratios, from simple ass crack to full buttocks. It was like some kind of horrendous MTV film clip. I looked at the rapids flowing underneath me that wouldn't drown a 3-legged cockroach and considered throwing myself in with the hope of banging my head on a protruding rock. The sheer thrilled enthusiasm coming from our fellow tuk tuk passengers was pushing us forward and closer toward the horror.

We were greeted at the entrance by some over-excited Australian guys who had perhaps come tubing one day, got drunk and forgot they had a home and a family and have never left. While I surveyed his tragic bleached hair and semi-goth/washed out hard-core rave-party-goer decorative face paint around his eyes I was branded with a fluro orange wristband which entitled me to more of the terrible whiskey that was poured down my throat on arrival.

We got a beer, got jeered at for only ordering a small, and stood on the deck while the cool people did back flips into the river, downed cups of beer and generally soaked up each other’s awesomeness. It felt a little like Spring Break and it was mortifyingly horrid. The bar was swinging and its inhabitants seemed to have arms full of wristbands, different colors from different days worn proudly like war medals. Dirty and ragged multi-colored strands which symbolized some hard-core partying and liver damage. You get the impression that tubing in Laos for these people means spending a month at this very bar. Not sure if any of them actually get into their tractor tyre.
We held our ground. Alison removed part of her swimming Burkha. I stood there with my half undone board shorts and my self dyed tie-dye singlet giving off a "you wish you knew me" vibe mostly because the faux High School environment had reverted me back to my mocking, on-the-social-outer hilariously witty ways which amused me while I powered through my Beer Lao hoping to see the shiny bottom.
As appealing as it was to skull beer to the sounds of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, we grabbed our tubes and threw ourselves into the rapids and willed it to take us far, far away until the bad r&b MTV video clip disappeared in to the distance.

Off we flowed down the beautiful Song River, the mountains of Laos looming overhead and the wooden bars lining its edges.
The bars try to entice you in with amazing offers like "Free shots for the Ladies" and "Mud Wrestling". Others rely on their slides or their catchy decor, like one wooden shit-shack with the words "good bar" scrawled in spray paint on the front.

We chose another bar downstream to try our luck again. We thought we were in with a shot seeing as it was completely empty. It had a makeshift water slide and a swing which plummets the intoxicated into the flowing river at high speeds. It was perfect.
As you make your floating approach they throw a rope out and pull you in or if you are lucky, small children will swim out and partially drown trying to drag your heavy Western ass to shore.

We hit our stride and called in at the classy gin joints along the way, knocked back a ladyboy or two (a cocktail of unidentifiable ingredients) and a bucket of vodka, red bull and other liquid sins and sat on the river and watched the cool boys do the rope swing into the freakishly shallow river, hang upside down mid-air like Nadia Comaneci. Soaking up the serenity we watched the people floating by, wondering how we too were actually going to get back on a tube and get to the end.
It is a float and the current takes you wherever she wills you to go, into a rock, kayak, bridge or simply beaches you in the shallows. It becomes a real art to get to where you intend to go, stay within meters of each other, remain reasonably uninjured and keep your two thongs on or in your possession.
All these get continually harder the more bars you visit and the more lady boys that enter the picture, as does the task of getting in and or out of an inflatable tube without it flipping or floating away.

We of course have little documentary evidence of this excursion, possibly a good thing as when we arrived at one bar Jody's camera did not. Who would ever have thought a plastic bag tied to your board shorts would not be a safe place to keep a camera while floating down a river. Lesson learnt. May it rest in peace, with all its hilarious pictures of me drinking from a bucket and crumping to Rihanna at the bottom of the Song never to been unearthed.

Having mocked the people arriving late in to town from tubing the night before and branded it the tuk tuk of shame (a tuk tuk for those who never made the distance, got drunk and forgot what they signed up for and why they were in their bathers with a huge tractor tyre - no doubt victims to the appeal of beer pong and the Chilli Peppers) we were determined to get to the end of this expedition, race against the setting sun and float the 3km back to central Vang Vieng.

Eventually the bars became fewer and far between, the people lessened, the sun got lower, the water got colder and the foreign water parasites started nibbling in search of dinner. The 6pm curfew to return our tubes for our full-deposit was leering its ugly head. My thongs became makeshift paddles as we passed the "2km to go" sign as we floated slowly down the dark and getting darker river. Vang Vieng was never going to appear around the bend, this was a hike. I couldn't help but think of all the schmuks at bar one with their dozens of wrist bands and how I bet not one of those boozy, suntanned douche bags had ever actually tubed this Nile-esque river. Only the nerds sit on a tractor tube for 3km, the others work on their tan, get sozzled and hitch a ride back to town.
We should have known.

Alas we made it, a triumphant return to town. The sheer athleticism was mind blowing. We pushed past the drunken Australians clogging the streets of this once Lao town and collapsed into a restaurant exhausted, dehydrated and still a little drunk for a touch of dinner before raging on at the Aussie Bar, and by raging on I mean going to bed. There’s no point getting cool now.

Posted by The Tipsy Gipsy 08:42 Archived in Laos Tagged laos tubing vang vieng south_east_asia Comments (0)

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