Having met up with my friend again, Triona and I decided to take a trip to Laos. Laos is the only land-locked country in SE Asia- bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west.
Laos is normally on the back-packer route to experience the very different, and potentially dangerous, activity of tubing. We left Bangkok on the 7pm night bus and arrived the following day at 2pm. It was such a gruelling journey but at least we got a bit of sleep on the bus-whenever you travel long distances, like this one, the buses are actually not too bad. The seats recline, there are toilets on board (on most buses), they have blankets in case it gets chilly with the air-con, they make a few stops to stretch your legs or to buy food and drinks, and some of the buses have on-route movies (mostly in Thai). When we arrived in Vientiane- the capital of Laos- it was still another 4 hour journey on very rugged roads to Vang Vieng. When we got there we realised we were in the middle of nowhere and wondered what on earth we were doing in such a place and we were ready to get on the bus and go back the way we had come- to Bangkok. It is a small back-packer oriented town, with a myriad of guest houses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes, tour agencies and mostly western tourists. Take that away and you notice the beautiful karst hill landscape that surrounds the town.
We had gone there to go tubing, which is basically floating down the river in a giant rubber ring (very different), whilst getting extremely drunk (potentially dangerous). It cost 40,000kip, which was about 2 GBP, at the time, and, well, it is a lot of fun and worth the effort of getting to Vang Vieng. We picked up our tube at 9am and a guy took us to where you launched into the river. At that time of the morning there were no bars open so we went on our merry way bobbing along down the river. It took about 2 hours and at least the first time round we got to appreciate the scenery.
Although, it got a bit hairy when Tri got propositioned by this weird guy, who appeared to be lurking in the undergrowth, and when he saw us coming he came towards us but Tri was quite a bit in front of me and started yelling to me to come closer, so I did my best to move quickly to catch up with her, paddling with my flip flops, and we managed to bob passed him and he left us alone. It was quite scary considering that we were the only two people on the river at that time of day.
The second time round, the bars on either side of the river were open and there were more people around. If you want to go to a bar you just wave at the guys and they throw a stick, attached to a rope, and you grab it and they pull you in! We got into spirit (literally) of tubing and we were pie-eyed by 2pm! It was so funny and we met loads of people at the bars or floating down the river, it was great fun.
I really don’t know who thought up the idea of tubing but it seems such a good idea, however, as you will find anywhere in South East Asia, health and safety is lacking somewhat. It is so dangerous and you could easily hurt yourself coming off the massive slides or swings or letting go of the zip wires if you don’t drop in the right area. Especially when you have had a few drinks. In fact I have seen several friends, back in Bangkok, with legs and arms bandaged, and the first thing you ask them, “have you been tubing”?
We had such fun, Tri and I. The currency in Laos is kip and, like I said earlier 2 GBP was around 40,000 (now it is just over 3 GBP), we just couldn’t get the hang of it. We must have counted it a million times and still couldn’t add it up right (that might have been the copious amounts of alcohol we had). In one of the bars we met a guy that I had met previously on Koh Tao- Ben- so we stayed and had a real laugh with him and his friends.
Then the boys left to go to the next bar and, after counting the money yet again, Tri and I decided to go and see if we could find them again. So we got back onto the river in our tubes and made our way further downstream. In some parts of the river the current was very strong and you move quite fast, so when we eventually spotted Ben and his friends, we tried to stop moving and get out but we were literally swept away with the current and ended up on a little slope where a bunch of goats were grazing, one of which looked at us totally bemused! It was hilarious we couldn’t stop laughing. So after we had pulled ourselves together, we went on our way, drinks in hand, and made our way to the last bar, where we eventually met up with the guys and continued our fun packed day.
It was all part of a fantastic experience but there is so much more to Laos than tubing- Pak Ou Caves, Plains of Jars, Kuang Si Waterfalls, kayaking on the Nam Song River, Luang Prabang- to name but a few. And with the apparent lack of safety measures, causing at least 22 tourists to die during 2011, the riverside bars have since been pulled down in an attempt to make tubing a much more relaxed, and not potentially fatal, experience. The authorities have taken steps to try and bring the charm back to Vang Vieng, rather than it being a haven for raucous behaviour and drinking, as Brett Dakin, the author of Another Quiet American states, “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”.