Tubing in Vang Vieng is still great for those seeking to have fun with friends, drink a few beers and experience some amazing scenery. But the serious party on the river is over. “Tubing” was once a synonym for backpacker debauchery: the Nam Song river was lined with illegal bars brazenly selling bucket drinks and drugs. At its peak, more than 400 people a day would tube down the river – and fly into the river via makeshift swings, slides and zip lines.
It was a disaster waiting to happen, and it did happen, frequently, for many years, and when the deaths of young backpackers finally drew international media attention and pressure in 2012, the Lao government at last cracked down.
So while backpackers today loudly lament how they wish they’d got to experience the tubing heyday, there is no question that the change is for the better. There are still a few bars on the river with music that will throw a rope and pull you in so you can stop for a beer, a chat or a game of mud volleyball, but instead of advertising happy shakes and opium, signs at the bars sell you with “Free WiFi”. And tubing itself is still worthwhile as it’s an awesome way to get close to the stunning karst that looms over the river.
The system for tubing is the same as it always was and it remains a well-oiled machine: Roll up to the tubing mafia office, pay 55,000 kip for the rental plus 60,000 kip deposit and sign away your right to sue if it all goes horribly wrong. A tuk tuk driver promptly loads four to 12 people into the back of his vehicle as well as all the tubes and drives four kilometres north to the drop off point right next to the Vang Vieng Organic Farm (which in itself is worth a visit for a meal).
You must return the tube by 18:00 sharp or incur a 20,000 kip penalty. Return it after 20:00 and you lose your whole deposit. The office rents dry bags for 15,000 kip but they don’t look so reliable. Bring your own dry bag and don’t bring anything you care about.
In dry season it takes about three hours without stops to travel the entire length, finishing at the seasonal bamboo bridge. Water levels can get so low you’re backside sometimes scrapes along the bottom. In rainy season it takes as little as two hours, with water swift and high. It must be said: If you can’t swim then tubing is not for you.
By Cindy Fan.
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