Vang Vieng is undoubtedly most famous (or infamous) for tubing. Thanks to tubing the town has become a favourite stop for backpackers travelling through Laos. In fact for many this is the main reason for coming to the country (which I think is a real shame as Laos is beautiful and offers so much more to travellers than that). One New Zealand newspaper once wrote that ‘if teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng’. With stories like this I wasn’t really sure about coming here and the town was not originally planned for us as a stop. However since Vang Vieng is located en-route between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, we felt we might as well stop for a couple of nights and see what the place had to offer.
After a terrifying, but beautifully scenic 7 hour bus journey through the mountains of Central Laos we arrived at Vang Vieng bus station just outside the town. We shared a tuk-tuk into the centre with two young British lads who we also had lunch with earlier on our scheduled bus stop somewhere halfway on the journey. We each paid 20000 kips for the tuk-tuk (about £1.60) which sounds really cheap, but we all knew town was only 2km away which made this a very lucrative 5-minute drive for the tuk-tuks indeed. A lot of backpackers tried to haggle the fare, and this is usually an accepted practice, however these tuk-tuk drivers clearly all had an agreement amongst themselves about what the fare was and none of them budged. I had researched earlier the alternatives of getting to the town centre and knew that walking-it would take about half an hour with our bags in the hot afternoon sun. So, we accepted the fare and got our ride into town. We saw many backpackers setting off on the walk into town, not accepting the relatively high price, but to be honest we were glad to have had the good sense and got the tuk-tuk, it would have been a loooong walk…
In town we said goodbye to the guys and set off to find our guesthouse. The tuk-tuk driver didn’t seem to understand which guesthouse we wanted so he just dropped us at the intersection of the two main roads. We had no idea where our accommodation was, how big the town was, weather the guesthouse was anywhere near the centre, etc. and we started to feel just a teeny bit lost. A kind local girl must have seen our clueless expressions and asked us where we needed to go. It turned out that she actually worked in that same guesthouse! What a coincidence! She kindly offered to walk us there.
The main streets of Vang Vieng feature lots of guest houses, bars, restaurants and tour agencies. And even though we were here in the low season, the place was buzzing with backpackers. Sure the town and most eating and drinking establishments were nowhere near at capacity, but it was still busy.
We found the infamous ‘Friends bars’ – these are the bars where the TV series, Friends is played on loop on giant screens. When I first heard about these I thought they would be really tacky, but actually I really liked it 🙂 I love Friends anyway and the bars had a really laid-back feel about them – literally. There were no chairs just massive cushions. Guests would just lie down and watch Friends with cheap drinks and dinner. What’s not to like?!
That evening Adam and I had a disagreement about what to do the following day. Adam wanted to have a go at tubing and I really wasn’t that keen, but wanted to go kayaking instead. He managed to talk me round in the end, and the extortionate price of kayaking also helped swing the argument in favour of tubing.
Funnily enough I think that while we both really enjoyed tubing, I perhaps enjoyed it a bit more than Adam. And that’s purely down to the way tubing turned out for us.
Being a non-drinker I didn’t really see the point of tubing at first. And although I had heard about it before, I had no idea what a tube actually was. ‘It’s the inner rubber tube of a tractor tyre’, Adam explained. Right. I had never seen under a tractor tyre before, so still had no clue.
So if you are as clueless as me about what a tube is, here you go:
‘Tubing’ involves sitting in one of these and floating down the Nam Song River. Why this pass-time has become notorious is because a lack of regulation and safety measures meant that lots of foreigners have died in the activities that go hand in hand with tubing. There used to be many many bars on the riverbank. Bar staff would throw a rope out and pull tubers into the bar as they floated down the river. Getting drunk and recklessly jumping into the river via rope swings and hitting rocks, or drowning in the river caused as many as 25 tourists deaths each year. The Lao government was under pressure to crack down on this practice and towards the end of 2012 they did. Most of the bars were shut and all the rope swings, zip wires, etc were removed. With stories like these circulating, I was a bit apprehensive, but mainly because I just didn’t know what to expect.
The next morning we decided to get up early and get down to the river to make most of our one day in Vang Vieng. We walked to the tube rental place in town and hired two tubes and a tuk-tuk ride from a guy who could have passed for a Laotian Godfather. The tuk-tuk drove us down to the start of the tubing course, about 3 km out of town. All this cost us 260000 kips – 55000 each for the tube rental, 60000 each for the deposit, which would be returned as long as we got back by 6pm and 30000 for our tuktuk ride. As we did return well before 6pm, we got our deposit back, so all in all this only cost us 140000 kips or around £12 for the two of us. Not bad for a days entertainment..!
So here is how to do tubing differently and safely:
Our experience of tubing was definitely a toned-down version. There were various factors contributing to this:
– low season meant nowhere near as many people as usual on the river
– it was also the end of the dry season, which meant low river levels, slow river flows and a lot fewer river rapids
– we’re a couple where one half doesn’t really drink very much
– we started earlier than most people to make the most of the day. Most people start around midday.
All of the above meant that we floated down the river at a very slow, but incredibly relaxing pace. I think Adam was a bit bored, so he was in charge of steering both of us around rocks, a few rapids and a few bridges, etc while I was taking photos. I was just enjoying the scenery :-). We still got a couple of drinks just to honour ‘the real tubing experience’. There are still a few bars at the beginning of the course. I actually think they are placed rather unfortunately right at the beginning and then there are no bars for most of the way. If safety was a real concern, why don’t they put the bars somewhere along the middle of the tubing-course, so those who get drunk don’t have to float for that much longer?
The scenery along the way was beautiful:
To start with the weather wasn’t very warm so we kept our T-shirts on. About an hour into our floating the sun came out with all it’s might and we got nicely sunburnt, so we kept our T-shirts on to protect us from the sun!! Problem is that even if you put sunscreen on the river just washes it all off. Sunburn is inevitable. When the river is slow, you’re out there baking for over 3 hours. I don’t know how people wearing just swimsuits don’t get burnt to a toast!!
The scenery is beautiful though, and for that reason I did not regret tubing for one second. This may be a very different type of tubing than most people, who come here are looking for, but I think this just shows that you do not have to be drunk to enjoy the experience. You can still grab a drink if you wish in one of the few bars along the river. Stories of drunken shenanigans should not deter you if you want a more sensible, but equally memorable experience. Or there’s always kayaking.
For the rest of the day we chilled out in a bar with the most fantastic view over the lime karst mountains of Vang Vieng and were eating lots of sticky mango rice, which is my new love since our cookery school day in Chiang Mai.
Adam also got his first haircut of the trip in a makeshift barbershop that was set up in a garage. The barber had all the gear, if a bit old and tatty, and he did a really good job. It cost about £2. 🙂
We went for a walk around the town just to soak up the scenery. Definitely my favourite landscape of our trip so far!
In the evening we went out into the famous Vang Vieng nightlife to get a few drinks and immerse ourselves in all the known cliches of the town. Truth is, there is so much to do in this town. You still get the party crowd, but a more mature type of tourism is quickly emerging. After the reigning in of tubing tourists have now started visiting Vang Vieng to take advantage of its beautiful natural setting and for activities like kayaking, caving, cycling and rockclimbing. We would have loved to have spent more time here and try some of these things! Maybe next time 🙂 But tomorrow would be an early start for us and all-day travelling to Vietnam!