More fun than a barrel of monkeys and infinitely more dangerous, tubing is to Vang Vieng in Laos what the running of the bulls is to Pampalona in Spain – albeit with more alcohol and less tradition.
That is to say that it is nearly as fun as it is dangerous; a veritable rite of passage for backpackers all over the world and the bane of worrying mothers everywhere.
Like the running of the bulls, the dangers of tubing in Vang Vieng are well documented. More than a few unfortunate and inebriated travellers have lost their lives tubing, drowning or plummeting from ramshackle towers and zip-lines.
Many more, however, have had the times of their lives – myself included.
Hot-air balloons float high above, the beautiful karst hills their breathtaking backdrop, while children play in the usually slow-moving and shallow Nam Song River below as locals go about their lives, bartering and chatting with tourists.
The bars are packed with travellers, drinking and eating, chatting and laughing, all watching Friends, Family Guy or South Park as they recline on cushions. It seems as though nothing else is ever on in Vang Vieng but nobody seems to mind – especially those euphoric on magic mushrooms.
It’s all very relaxed and quiet – but a few miles away hundreds of tourists play.
Seemingly as soon as they wake up, the young and young at heart are hiring big rubber tires and climbing into the back of trucks to be whisked several miles away from town, where the drinking and partying will begin.
Drunk on cheap-and-cheerful buckets of whisky and cola, Mojitos and bottles of Beerlao, tubers dance and party all day long; when they’ve had enough of one bar they simply jump back in the river on their rubber tube and move on to the next.
Enticed by signs promising free drinks and food, wet T-shirt contests and illicit substances, flying foxes and giant water slides, partygoers merely wave down youths with ropes when they want to be hauled in to the next bar.
It’s quite an operation, perfected over more than ten years of being one of the foremost hedonistic pleasures in South East Asia.
The circuit takes roughly three hours to complete – even quicker during monsoon season (May to October), with the only caveat being that you need to get your tire back by 6pm or you’ll lose your deposit.
Bars cover only the first part of the river and the last hour or so can be a strenuous, extremely sobering experience if the river is low and you’re rushing to beat the 6pm deadline. To avoid the rush, hit the river no later than 11am.
Naturally, the ghosts of those who have met an untimely end while tubing loom large in Vang Vieng, prompting many to call for the party to end – at least in its current guise. According to The Guardian, at least 27 travellers have died tubing in Vang Vieng and only recently a Melbourne woman came into trouble when she was poisoned by unregulated Laotian whisky.
The combination of drugs and alcohol, zip lines and waterslides, the river and relaxed inhibitions undoubtedly proves a heady mix – but for most people, only their cameras are in any real danger.
So relax, enjoy a bucket of alcohol and let the good times roll. Know your limits, watch out for your fellow tuber and travel in pairs or a group and you’ll live to drink another day – or at least long enough to purchase the ubiquitous “In the Tubing” singlet vest.