I awoke this morning ready to do the one thing you simply have to do in Vang Vieng…tube down the Song River. This simple act has reached legendary status as one of the must do activities on the Southeast Asian backpacking circuit, and, though I’m no fan of Vang Vieng, I might as well try the one experience it’s absolutely known for!
Unfortunately, the skies were gray and yesterday’s intense heat had given way to quite mild (and rather pleasant) temperatures. Undeterred, I waited until about 1:00pm (when it was slightly warmer) before trudging down to the tubing company du’jour (there are three and only one operates on any given day).
For a 55,000 kip rental fee, plus a 60,000 kip deposit (about US$13 total), they take your hand and Sharpie a number on it (I was 112, if anyone is curious) before directing you to a waiting Tuk-Tuk (a three-wheeled taxi, of sorts) whose roof was piled high with inflated tractor inner tubes. You are then driven several kilometers out of town to a drop off point, where you are handed an inner tube.
It was immediately apparent why there were Tuk-Tuks, their roofs similarly piled with inner tubes, coming back last night, with the occupants amazingly intoxicated (if you tubed the whole way, you ended up back in Vang Vieng). Before me sat the river, yes, but along the river were about 5 different bars, all with their own gimmicks. Would it be free shots or dirt cheap buckets of alcohol? Oh, and every bar boasted their own wild way of ending up in the river, be it zip line water slide, or even mud volleyball, some of which looked rather precarious!
Wanting to tube, instead of drink, I took to the water, which was a nice pleasant temperature. As I drifted along, I would occasionally get splashed by a water bottle tied to a rope that had been flung in my direction, an attempt by further bar owners to literally reel me in. Call me a sour puss, but I wouldn’t have any of it!
The good news is that 1/3 of the way down the river, the bars disappeared! As their music died down, it was completely silent but for the crickets and birds chirping away. The serenity was beautiful, both physically and metaphorically. There were so few fellow tubers around as nearly everyone was back at the bars, making for an incredibly peaceful experience!
The highlight of my four hour river journey was witnessing an entire herd of wild buffalo bathing in the middle of the river. To be able to float by so close to them was incredibly special! The buffalo seemed to be in bliss, as they kept their eyes closed, made chewing motions and occasionally dunked their heads.
As I approached Vang Vieng, my inner tube was suddenly bombarded by three Lao children. Knowing where this was going, I tried to get them off, but they clung on tight, even literally sitting right on top of my arms! They swam me towards shore, and then, as predicted, wanted money. Though I did have some in my dry bag (folded up out of view in a copy of Passport), I told them I didn’t have any, as I was quite annoyed in the way they had treated me.
(They also assaulted the group in front of me, causing one of them to sink and their inner tube to burst on a nail at the bottom of the river. If you’re tubing in Vang Vieng, beware of this).
I suppose the beauty of tubing in Vang Vieng is that it can be whatever experience you want it to be. If you want to swing into the river and get drunk off your ass, that’s ok. If you want to have a relaxing time tubing on the river, that’s ok too (though most people seem to chose the former).
Unfortunately, Vang Vieng just really isn’t my cup of tea (after all, I did dub it “Backpacker Hell” when I arrived yesterday), despite the other activities here, like kayaking lessons/tours or spelunking opportunities. And frankly, while fun, I could’ve lived without the tubing. And Vang Vieng entirely, for that matter! Tomorrow, I’m moving onwards to the Lao capital, Vientiane!