Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tubing in Vang Vieng

Before even coming to Laos, Nick and I began to hear stories about the infamous tubing in Vang Vieng - a place where backpackers flock to jump in a tube and float down the river, while stopping at bars along the way. But absolutely nothing we would hear could possibly prepare us for the craziness that is Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng is a gorgeous town in northern Laos that is a dizzying 6-hour bus ride south of Luang Prabang through the incredible mountains of Laos. (I believe that it might be one of the most scenic drives on this planet).

 View out the bus window
View from our hostel

We had heard from some people that the river is pretty slow in the dry season and the best way to experience tubing was to do it by kayak, so that was what we planned to do. Unfortunately, our first couple of days in town were overcast and rainy so we were forced to spend two days experiencing another Vang Vieng phenomena – watching Friends at one of the 10 bar / restaurants in town that plays pirated episodes of Friends all day every day.

After two days of bad food, rainy weather, and lots of Friends, the sky cleared and we headed out on a kayaking trip. The first half of the day was spent visiting a cave and having lunch, so we didn’t actually begin kayaking until about 1:00.
By the time we arrived at the tubing bars, the party was in full swing – and I was blown away. I have never seen anything like it in my entire life.
It was like Cancun meets the lazy river – for at least a mile, the river was lined on either side with bamboo platforms on stilts, each equipped with a full bar covered by a thatch roof, and crowded with 20-somethings partying it up. Tubing is an all-day affair and it’s not for the faint of heart - every bar we went to was giving out free whisky shots with any purchase.
It was just one huge party. Each bar had a group of kids working for them who would stand at the edge of the bar with a long rope with a soda bottle tied to the end. When a tuber would float by them, they would throw the rope out and real them in – fishing for customers.

But the most amazing thing about the whole place was the rope swings. Each bar had a platform – either free standing like this one, or built into a tree – that was 30-40 feet above the water level and served as a jumping off point for their rope swing.
Even though it is dry season and the river is very shallow right now, each bar has dug out a huge area around their bar that has to be at least 10 – 15 feet deep, and right above it are rope swings that resemble circus trapezes.
Here’s Nick just before he’s about to jump off

The swings are attached to huge poles extending out over the river and once you step off the platform, it’s just you and the sky… until you decide to let go!
The swings were absolutely wild, but they certainly did a good job of digging out the river bed, because whether people went flying off the end, or fell off the swing right at the beginning, I didn’t hear of one person who even came close to touching the bottom.

Swings weren’t all they had either. There were also a couple of bars that had platforms for jumping and even a couple of zip-lines. This zip-line experience was a stark contrast to the one I had at Jungle Flight in Chiang Mai. Here, there was no harness, no safety clips, and instead of a new shiny shuttle, the thing we used was an old split piece of wood with rusty-looking wheels and nails sticking out of it… certainly not the safest thing I’ve ever seen, but I figured what’s the worst that could happen? I’d fall into the water – which I was planning on doing anyway – so I let ‘er rip.

My favorite bar was the one with the huge tiled water slide that launched you a good 10-15 feet out before dropping you into the water – it was all just insanity!
Well, like I said, the first day we were kayaking and didn’t show up to the bars until 2:00, so we were only able to stay for a couple hours (and a couple beers) before we had to head down the river to finish out our kayaking tour.

But we were so impressed by the whole operation that we decided to meet up with the same people again the next day and do it the proper way – in a tube.
Starting at 11:30 am we went with our new friends to the river 
 and spent the day swinging
And floating
Along the way, we took in some of the other activities on offer, like beer pong and mud volleyball.
It was an absolute circus. I never experienced a real “spring break” while I was in college, but I certainly made up for it in Vang Vieng. This place takes spring break to a whole ‘nother level. I felt like I was on another planet! As the sun was going down and the air was beginning to chill, we all hopped out of the river and into a tuk-tuk
And headed back for showers, dinner, and another party! If you’re looking for traditional Lao culture, Vang Vieng is definitely NOT the place to go, but if you’re looking for a one of a kind, crazy experience – u have got to come check it out.

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