So we’d arrived. The main bridge in town makes bamboo scaffolding look like a bridge in Berlin. It’s made of scrap wood and is so rickety it looks like something you’d make on a boozy weekend with some mates. The locals though ride their motorbikes across it every day without hesitation. Welcome to Vang Vieng, a town of the sublime and the ridiculous in equal measures.
My previous post talks about the happy pizza and whisky bucket good times in this city. But tubing is what puts this place on the map. This is like Cancun or Bali for the slightly more intellectual. Or just plain those who have travelled for so long the itch gets a bit harder to scratch. So lo and behold you find yourself in this bizarre little part of world.
Frankly no one would be here without the tubing. While I had arguably the greatest day of my life riding around on a tiny 150cc motorbike, neither would’ve I. Perhaps that’s why Laos is so great. You can go with no expectations and have such a great time.
Tubing basically takes a four or so kilometre stretch of the Mekong river, puts a bar virtually every 100 metres and puts you in the inner tube of a tractor tyre. You float along the river from bar to bar, stopping as you please. For a few dollars (or Kip) you get a Tuk Tuk ride and your rental of an inner tube. La Dolce Vita for a backpacker.
Our journey began with some American guys. They were made redundant in January and were travelling till the money ran out. It was April. One of the Yanks hadn’t shaved since he was laid off – or showered by the smell of things. Except for a stripe from his lip to his Adams apple the width of a razor, leaving him with massive nineteenth century pork chop sideburns. He looked like some kind of carriage driver. Adam and his mate (I can’t remember their names) were true characters and were genuinely living the dream.
Adam and his mate regaled us with stories about how one night they decided to go camping in Van Vieng. They piss farted around until the sun went down and pitched a tent, unwittingly in a field full of poppies. When the sun came up the next day, a tent had never gone down so quick and probably never will. Even if the story isn’t true, they made great raconteurs and so the adventure began.
Also with us were a really young Canadian couple. The guy was well under twenty five and probably only had his foreskin and a few toes not yet covered in tattoos. Normally I’d say this guy was Emo but he was far cooler than that. His tatts were also just that bit more obscure, like the freemasons symbol on his Adam’s apple. And with a group together, our tubing adventure began.
We weren’t in the water no more than 5 minutes when two six year old kids swam up to my fiance’s (at the time) tube. Of course she fell for the cuteness and they pushed her tube to the banks, into the first bar. We’d travelled 100 metres. I guess this bar is often overlooked because it’s at the beginning, so they have to try that bit harder.
That pretty much set the tone for the whole trip. Some bars threw out ropes to reel you into their bars. You’d get to the bank of the river and they’d give you a free shot of Lao Lao (this cheap local sake/whisky that helps you sleep like a baby). As we drink the stories and the bravado get crazier. After about 300 or 400 metres, the bars turn from chilled out shacks to drunken amusement parks on acid. Complete with flying foxes (zip lines if you’re a Yank like Andy) and water slides designed by idiots and psychopaths.
We arrived at the crazy park and it was like natural selection meets reality TV. The water slide was shaped like a tick with a deep, sharp V at the bottom. This girl got stuck on the end of the V and there was was nothing else for her to do but jump off about 10 or 20 metres into the shallow water. It was insanity. From where we sat at the bar, you could see the patchy, shallow rocky parts of the river. Yet it didn’t stop the flying fox guys and several got hurt.
After both the Americans and Canadians tried the flying fox without serious injury, I was in a surplus of cowardice. It was time for Team Australia to represent with gusto and bravery. So I wussed out and took the water slide. After drinking all afternoon I was damn near lucky to come out unscathed. I hit the water pretty hard and bruised up my leg. But at least I hadn’t broken bones. It suddenly came rushing back to me that the first thing I saw when we rented our tubes was a tourist with his arm in a cast and sling.
This has to be the craziest water park in the world. An Australian bar won’t serve you a beer in a glass near a pool for fear of being sued. Yet these bars will sell you poppies, booze and let you jump off a flying fox near rocks. But all good things must come to an end. From what I heard they’ve given up on tubing in Van Vieng. It probably brought in too many broke idiots and there’s not an international hospital for miles if you’re seriously injured. And like any good sport it’s dangerous all the time. When the water’s high, the currents fast and you can get carried off. When the water’s low, there’s heaps of jagged rocks and logs that you can hurt yourself on.
As for our tube down the Mekong, we only got as far as 600 metres in about 4 hours. How anyone can do the whole thing I’ll never know. It was just fucking crazy and I am damn glad I got to see it in my life time. It’s a special kind of madness and an incredible place and with or without tubing I will always fondly remember Laos.