Thursday, 19 September 2013

In the tubing!

Way back in 2007 I got drunk and floated down a river in an inner tube and occasionally jumped off a pontoon or swung on a rope swing.

Oh and partied my little tits off!

I am of course talking about the one place in South East Asia that everyone heads to. This is of course Vang Vieng in laos and the infamous tubing down the Nam Song River.

In 2007 I was backpacking through South East Asia and after Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam I entered Laos.

Laos still a communist country but you would never tell is laid back, relaxing and incredibly beautiful.

It still hold the record for one of the most bombed countries in the world. The bombs being dropped during the Vietnam war and many rural areas you can see huts using old shell cases and fuel tanks from planes as foundations.

I entered on the slow boat which leaves from the Thai border not far from Chiang Mai.

There you cross the river and do the usual passport rigmarole in a small booth that is only open for a very small portion of the day.

Once officially in Loas it was a slow boat chugging along the Mekong River drinking beers and kicking back watching riverside villages pass by and the occasional fisherman staring with disinterest.

Occasionally the boat would run out of Beer Lao and they would pull over to the riverbank. Normally they would moor at an inauspicious looking rural area and send a child off into the undergrowth where he would return within a minute or two with a crate of beer balanced on his head.

One night spent in Pakbeng and it is off to the wonderfully gorgeous world heritage city of Luang Pranang. One of the most dazzling cities I have ever seen.

The night market is enchanting and genuine not like many others found in SE Asia. The monks roam the streets chanting and give the city a tranquil peaceful feel.

The bars are nice and friendly and hiring a bike is one of the best things to do to go and see the sights.

Not forgetting cycling up Phoussi mountain and giggling at the Phoussi Barbers and Phoussi internet shops.

But this story is not about Luang Prabang where I long to go back. This is about Vang Vieng.

The next stop along the backpacker tail in Laos is Vang Vieng en route to the capital city Vientiane.

Vang Vieng was a small backwater town until the tubing started. Now it is almost spoilt. Although I would hazard a guess that it has changed beyond recognition since I was last there.

My brother and his girlfriend went in 2011/12 and their pictures show a vast sprawling town of buildings one almost unrecognizable from when I went in 2007.

The once dusty town is full of bars, pizza joints and restaurants with monged out backpackers watching either re-runs on loop of Family Guy or Friends. While enjoying a 'space' pizza and dribbling.

Vang Vieng could if it is not careful turn into another Khoa San Road and become another backpacking ghetto.

Already when I was there the foundations were built and guesthouses were popping up all around.

The reason this stop has become so famous is that it has become a right of passage in South East Asia. You cannot go to Laos and not go tubing.

The tubing itself is seasonal and has been vilified in the press.

What was once an almost booze cruise on an inner tube has become quite dangerous.

Many travel organisations and websites warn against visits and partaking in the tubing.

I am a silly sod though and when I was there I didn't know of any dangers apart from the obvious deadly mix of alcohol and water.

Therefore I did the tubing twice.

I was lucky and had an excellent time on both occasions. Some others did not enjoy it as much as I did and have blogged about their experiences.

Once when the weather was wet and cloudy and another when the sun was out and each bar went mental.

The first time we completed the route floating down the Nam Song merrily pissed. Each bar was a bit too chilly to hang around in so we poodled along down the river.

But when the sun came out we got to about half way and partied mentally at a bar made of bamboo with dance floor DJs and a high rope swing.

We ended up catching a bus with the inner tubes on the roof back to town all sozzled to carry on drinking.

This is where I can imagine the dangers coming from.

Drunkenness, darkness and disorientation.

Also jumping from a high rope to hit the river bed floor and shattering your spine.

The Lonely Planet website now advises wearing a life jacket. Because not only will it keep you afloat it will enable you to be seen in the dark (hopefully). Although one of the comments on the said website says ''Men will take risks'', which is incredibly true and I sadly fall into that category as I do have moments where I have no regard for my own safety. Although I regard others around me and their safety above my own, which is either a good trait or bloody foolish.

While one news agency reported it as The River of No Return after two Australians drowned in a month.

Basically be sensible. Don't get too drunk and stay with others and if it is the dry season the water level is too low to jump from height into it. 

Of course this advise will fall on deaf ears as once tanked up and smiling you will just literally go with the flow.

When I went there I happily was pulled by a long pole from the riverbank into a bar where if you bought a beer you got a free shot of Lao Lao rice whiskey. 

All the makeshift tumbledown hastily erected bars offer the same and before long the wincing as you take the first sip eases and you rather end up enjoying the taste.

Some bars and rope swings are shoddily erected but fun nonetheless.

The bars themselves are works of art. 

How do these bamboo structures stand up and some bars are little more than an old lady in a dingy selling beers from a  cool box as she is anchored in the middle of the river.

The entire town seems to have set up shop along the riverbanks and tiny insignificant bars offering face paints sit next to giant bamboo semi permanent constructions.

I did hear a rumour about the tubing being banned because of the death toll. 

However I have heard that it never was banned and has re-opened and has also closed again. Basically I think it still operates as I have not mat anyone who said they went there and it was not running.

I also heard that the bars get washed away each yeah in the wet season and are rebuilt. This I am sure has more truth to it.

Safety measure have been described on the river as non-existent and the influx of tourism and backpackers has been life changing to the local community; not always in a positive way. As the more people come locals are driven out as they cannot afford to live there and sell their land to developers who wish to captalise on the backpacker trail and the important right of passage that is Vang Vieng.

Rambling bridges to bars
Brett Dakin, the author of Another Quiet American, a story of two years in Laos working for the tourist authority, said, "Each time a young Australian woman strolls down the street in a bikini, a bearded American smokes a joint on a guesthouse terrace, or a group of Koreans tumbles drunkenly out of a restaurant, it saps a little more of the essence of a town like Vang Vieng." 

His interview with the Telegraph can be found here.

What I noticed when I floated down the river was the amount of people who relaxed in their inner tubes and accidentally let the river water sip into their beer bottle. 

Unawares they then drank from that bottle and what with all the piss and shit in the river got a stomach infection and were normally found vomiting later on. 

Apparently eye infections are common and open founds that enter the river can become infected as well.

I loved Vang Vieng. I loved the hedonistic lifestyle and the backpacker way of life. In truth at the time I paid little or no attention to the problems which this activity of tubing was causing. I was drunk from travelling and living the dream.

Only now do I see with open eyes what has happened to this sleepy town.

The truth is people will always travel to Loas and seek out tubing and buy the obligatory 'In the tubing' vest. The lure of the backpacker pound, dollar, ruble or Laos Kip will keep this place thriving.

I just hope it does not lose its soul and does not claim anymore lives.

Me back in 2007
Would I do it all again; hell yeah!

Date - May 2007
Place - Vang Vieng, Laos

1 comment:

  1. What a place to visit. You are correct saying that it is a right of passage. Also a very dangerous one.

    Hugh Brown