Like a lot of people, when Oli and I planned this epic trip, we wanted to tick off certain rites of passage, even though some of them sounded a bit weird and one of us wasn’t always as keen as the other. We also knew that certain things would have the potential to be a massive disappointment, like Koh Phi Phi could be, or how Sri Lanka (sadly) was. Tubing the Nam Song river in Laos was on the list.
If you’re heading this way — chances are you’ll be skimming past Laos, and it follows that you’ll probably head to Vang Vieng, the notoriously hedonistic capital of South East Asia — and home to the legendary sport of tubing. . We did just that a few days ago and have lived to tell the tale and bought the stylish garb. You can read about our debauchery here.
There’s a sort of myth on the backpacker grapevine that tubing is dead, it’s been closed down after one too many drug and alcohol fuelled deaths. We heard the same thing when we were getting our travel vaccinations back in the UK before Christmas, and to be honest, I wasn’t surprised. The idea of floating down a river from bar to bar drinking free shots of cheap whiskey and enjoying drugs on tap seemed fairly ominous. Throw into that a healthy bunch of Australians (you know what I mean) and the ubiquitous ‘bad tourists’ and you have a pretty unpalatable cocktail.
Bloggers like Alex in Wanderland, and Adventurous Kate reported on what tubing was like back in 2010, before the big shutdown — so you get the picture of how hedonistic and potentially unsafe it could be for those douche bags who just can’t say no. As Alex Baacke put it —
So. What happens when you create an all-day, every-day rave culture in a quiet, small town deep in the jungle of an already conservative country? Bad things.
Bad things did indeed happen. It’s obviously not a huge stretch of the imagination to imagine backpacker drunkenly breaking bones, but the world properly took notice when in 2011, a reported 27 people died whilst tubing. Source: The Observer.
The government reacted by setting up a task-force committee to resolve the issues…..as such, 24 bars were demolished, and tubing became a much more sober activity. So, onto our experience of tubing in 2014…..
We went tubing twice, and loved it. Our experience was 100% positive, but we also saw a darker side too, and thought it was important we shared both sides.
Our first experience of tubing was being greeted by a 22 year old luring us into the first bar (Bar 0) with free shots and promises of willllld times. I dithered……he said, in gap yah public schoolboy English ‘Basically, you can’t go tubing sober yah?!’. We were plied with alcohol at every turn, and whilst we loved our experience and never once felt pressured or saw anyone do anything really unsafe — some of what we saw and heard was pretty grim.
I’m not as drunk as you think I am. Sure.
One day, we got there super early to set up for Ruth’s birthday surprise and saw first hand the effects a tubing lifestyle can have. We started drinking at 11, as did most people — and the shakes we saw on many a long term tubers hands were shocking. We were offered opium pizza, mushrooms and saw (a small few) people smoking weed during both of our days tubing, but the main poison seemed to be shotguns. Hour after hour the staff would gather people (mostly other staff) who would all chant the Shotgun Prayer and down another Beerlao. Whilst I definitely wouldn’t say it’s the height of debauchery — there was a feeling that anything goes.
The Shotgun Prayer
We mentioned Ginger Jesus in our last post, and one night (post a smashing at beer pong) he chatted to us about the old days. He started working in Laos back in its hey day 4 years ago so saw first hand how hedonistic it really was. He recounted a pretty shocking story of a day he turned up to one of their usual riverside bars.
There was no music playing, so we turned it on but realised that there was a dead body floating in the river. The shocking thing is not so much the death, but how the bar was keen to drift the body on to another bar to preserve their reputation…..1 hr later, the music was back on and everyone was partying again like nothing had happened.
I can see how someone could easily die jumping into the river (particularly during dry season) as the rocks are pretty vicious when you are floating, let alone throwing yourself in. But, the less obvious ways you could injure, or even kill yourself are all clear as day too — drinking too much and floating down the Nam Xong in the dark is a recipe for disaster. We all came back safe and sound, with sore heads, poorly tummies and a few scrapes — but no one was really looking out for us, so it could have easily gone the other way.
Preaching over. Google “Vang Vieng tubing” and you will get countless blogs just like this one (but with better grammar), asking the same question — “Is the party over??”. I’d probably say no, it’s not over — it’s just grown up a little bit.
Have a granny nap
Have you been tubing? What’s your experience???