As soon as I said that I was heading down to Vang Vieng in Laos, I was immediately bombarded with comments like – The tubing is gone. It’s shut down. And the party is over. Didn’t we know the tubing isn’t nearly as fun as it used to be?? And to that I say, “Is that such a bad thing?”
For those of you who don’t know, Vang Vieng used to be the party mecca for backpackers through South East Asia from 2006 to 2012. The infamous tubing in Vang Vieng was sought after by hundreds of travelers a day. It was a day filled with drinking, drugs and a small amount of tubing. You would get dropped off at a small opening on the river, and get dragged into 11+ bars throughout the day.
These bars on stilts generously poured cocktails of liquor, drugs and petrol (ok, maybe not petrol), and the majority of the travelers on the trek would get absolutely hammered. Many tubers would lose their friends, lose their belongings and lose their sanity. Some would get in the tubes too late at night and get lost in the jungle. Few people broke bones, split their heads open and even died. I mean what do you honestly expect from having hundreds of backpackers off their heads, in fast moving water and high towers to jump off from into shallow water. It was a recipe for disaster waiting to happen.
After a handful of travelers got seriously hurt and some actually passed away, there was massive international pressure to shut down the tubing in Vang Vieng, which would have serious implications on its booming tourism industry. This was back in 2011/2012, right after Sam had his own “tubing” experience.
So began the said demise of tubing in Vang Vieng. For a few years after, many of the bars were shut down and tubing was closed for a long period of time. Only until recently has the Laos government reopened the river for tubing. There’s still 8 bars left on the river, but only four at a time can be open each day. They alternate every other day.
After seeing a handful of the “In The Tubing” tanks around Luang Prabang, we knew that the tubing was still open, but it may not be the crazy, out of control experience Sam had back in 2011. And this was TOTALLY fine with me. I’m not really the type who handles chaos and uncontrollable situations really well. From what the original tubing experience sounded like to me “in its heyday”, I wouldn’t have wanted to take any part in it. Too many people, too much liability, too many roofies. Not my scene.
I welcomed this tamer experience with open arms, and was surprised to find out that there was still a fair bit of chaos down the river anyways. You can take the backpackers out of the party but you can’t take the party out of the backpackers… Is that how it goes?
The day begins with you rocking up to the Tubing Office, which is in the main center of the city. There’s only one office so you can’t miss it. You wait for a tuk tuk to be filled with at least 4 people, and the driver takes you about 15 minutes outside the city to begin the cruise. You literally get dumped off on the side of the river, with zero instructions and just the faint memory of signing a liability release. You hop into your tube, head down the river for a total of 2 minutes and you’re already getting a water bottle attached to a rope thrown at your head. This means you’ve arrived at the first bar and get roped in by locals.
And so the party begins. Music is already blasting, beer pong is being played and slowly but surely travelers make their way down the river in groups and join in on the fun. There’s promotional staff there ensuring you remember to go to “Sakura Bar” after the day has ended. They also set up the largest game of flip cup I’ve ever seen – at least 20 people on each side!
After what seemed like ages for the game to end, Sam and I decided to leave the first bar a bit early to make it to the second before the huge swarm of people. This is where we met our new friends from England, who we spent the whole day with. It was such a good decision to leave early because as we sat at the second bar watching the 50+ people all floating together try to make it to the side of the river all at the same time, we realised it was about to be a nightmare. We watched more than a few people miss the bar completely and have to just bob along until the next one.
That’s pretty much how the day went. Drink a bit, chat a bit, tube a bit, and get dragged into the next one. Each bar had its own style, mostly a wooden shack on stilts with towers of speakers blasting EDM music. Some had basketball courts, waterfalls, dance floors, swings over the water, etc. It was certainly quite the sight towards the last few bars, but we had paced ourselves pretty well in order to not be the girl sliding in the mud face first…
By the time we realised it was getting dark, it was too late. We all got into our tubes as fast as we could to make it back to the tubing office before the 8 pm deadline. If you miss it, you don’t get your deposit back! We had about 8 of us altogether, talking, laughing, singing, in the complete dark, for an hour. I believe there was even a harmony of “In The Jungle” being sung. We were banking on Sam to remember when to get off the river, and luckily he pulled through. We didn’t want to be the travelers lost in the Laos jungle.
We made it back just in time with every intention of going out to hit up Sakura Bar, but as it usually goes, I was fast asleep by 8:30 pm.
All in all, it was a crazy day. Is there much tubing involved? Not so much. Is it as crazy as before? Probably not. But to be honest, I’m not too sure I would have liked it as much had it gotten any crazier.
FYI – The total cost of tubing in Vang Vieng is 55,000 KIP. You put down a 60,000 KIP deposit on top of that to return the tube before 6 pm. If you return after 6 pm but before 8 pm (very likely), you’ll only receive 40,000 KIP back. If you return after 8 pm, you lose your whole deposit. If you lose your tube, you’re screwed.
My next post will include top tips on how to survive this epic experience of tubing in Vang Vieng, so stay tuned for that!
Have you experienced Vang Vieng? What was your take on it?