Everything seems like a good idea in Vang Vieng
You take a deep breath and reach upwards. Your hands tightly grip the handle. You take one last look at the shirtless and painted crowd beneath you and take that final step forward. You start surging forward, flying over the surface of the river. The metallic whirring of the pulley gripping the zip line cable fills your ears, mingling with the pounding riffs of “Killing in the name of” that tear the air. Your eyes are glued forward, intent on the end. You’ve done the zipline before, but this time is different. This is it, this time you won’t let go. You know it will hurt, you’ve seen how it hurts. But fuelled by a mixture of alcohol and macho pride, it has to be done. You can’t leave this place without trying it. The sound of the cable gets louder and more high pitched as you go faster, faster. That all important knot in the cable getting closer and closer. You want to let go, save yourself. But you have to do this. Faster, Faster, Closer, Closer.
Your arms are pulled back until your fingers slip from the handles, muscles straining, your body surging forward. Then suddenly the world is spinning end over end, just a crazy mixture of sky, river and bars as the momentum sends you into a crazy spiral. You have no idea which way is up, but you know soon you will hit. You vaguely here the cries of “Oohh,” from the crowd as your world keeps turning. Spinning.
Suddenly the world is turned a muddy brown as the river engulfs you. You have no idea which part of your body hit first. Your whole body rocks with the impact. You slowly float to the surface, then leap into the air, punching a fist to the crowd. “I feel ALIVE!” You swim back towards the bar, taking care to avoid those hidden rocks that left your knees bruised and bloody two days earlier. You haul yourself back up the stairs, past the piles of truck inner tubes and grab the beer that’s thrust at you. Your friend looks at you, slaps you on the back “good one, now I have to do it.”
You often hear the phrase “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” In Vang Vieng, everything seems like a good idea. The outcome of this particular “good idea” was my friend sustained a rather nasty black eye from following my suit and having a run in with his own knee on the way down.
I’ll admit it. I was nervous before I got to the town. I’d heard the stories; I’d seen the travellers wielding their battle scars from Vang Vieng. Some small, some large. Would I survive? Would I be crippled? Would I remember tubing?
We arrived in the afternoon, and set ourselves at a bar on the river, watching the few drunk stragglers that had managed to float all the way back to town on their tubes haul their bodies out of the river, stumbling and cursing as their legs failed to properly follow their orders. As we would find out in the coming days, most “tubers” don’t get that far...
Tubing is like a collection of all the very worst things you want around a bunch of drunken 20 somethings. Trip hazards, fall hazards, fast flowing water, submerged rocks, sharp rocks, huge swings, zip lines, giant slides, big jump platforms and free shots. Mix it all up with scantily clad youths, permanent markers, spray-paint and large amounts of Beer Lao, buckets of local whiskey and in some cases magic mushrooms and you have a recipe for disaster, and a bucket-load of fun.
Tubing in Vang Vieng is a pretty simple concept. Get a tube and do a bar crawl down the river. This can actually be done on foot, swimming or by stealing tubes; but the actual tubing can be quite fun, even though you do end up spending little time on the tube. By bar two the permanent markers have come out and everyone is covered in rude slogans, most also wearing rough Rambo style headbands with rude slogans. Examples (and by far some of the “softest” there) is “I lost my innocence to ladboys,” and “I’m a <insert random insult here>”
The debauchery continues further down river as the swings get higher, and the zip lines, giant slides and mud volleyball start appearing. We never saw actual volleyball being played, these are basically mud wrestling and mud throwing pits, it’s disappointing I got no photos of these. I’ve never been somewhere where you can pick up a stranger and throw them into a pit of mud and they enjoy it before.
I heard a few people in Vang Vieng say “but it’s not culture.” I would actually disagree. It certainly isn’t Laos culture. It’s very removed from Laos culture. But it’s got a unique culture all its own. From the original concept of relaxed day floating down a river through a spectacular karst limestone environment has grown, evolved and twisted into the crazy uniqueness of tubing it is now. There’s nothing in the world quite like it. The full moon party and I imagine things like spring break and Schoolies on the gold coast are similar, but Vang Vieng puts a different twist on it.
Of course this culture has its dark side. And any discussion of this “culture” can’t gloss over the questionable morality of it all. In any western country this simply couldn’t happen. Would never happen. The casualty rate is just too high. Rumours fly about the number of deaths each year, from one a year to one a week. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. Who knows what to believe? But the fact is while we were in Vang Vieng there were multiple serious accidents. The last day we popped out in the afternoon to take some photos (there was no way my camera was coming tubing.) Before we arrived a guy had gone off the giant swing. He let go at the wrong point and fell into a shallow part of the river. We also saw a guy at breakfast one day whose face was covered in cuts and bandages. He had an eye patch and his nose was taped, obviously broken. He’d gone the wrong way off one of the swings, clipping his face on the edge of the wooden platform before hitting the water. We also met a French girl who had done the same as my friend on the zip line, only her knee fractured her nose.
Then there’s the big one, something I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It was our last day tubing. Johan and I were among the less drunk of the crowd. I’m not saying we were sober, but the afternoon was getting on and things were starting to get crazy. We were standing on some steps at the back, overlooking the bar with the zip line. The guy standing next to me (who is actually called Guy) tapped me on the shoulder and pointed at the ladder to access the zip line, “Man, that drunk girl almost fell!” I turned where he was pointing, just in time to see the girl drunkenly take the next rung of the ladder, slip and fall. She fell about 4 metres (see photo below) and went face-first into the wooden platform. It looked nasty. My first thought was “If she ever walks again, it’s a miracle.” The crowd swarmed and we lost sight. Soon enough her unconscious blood streaked body was being rushed to a tuk-tuk and hospital. We heard conflicting rumours of her condition. Ranging from, “Cuts and bruises, but otherwise fine” to “Open skull fracture,” which never ends well. I hope she was ok, but from that fall, it would be a miracle. As we were a bit more sober, it took quite a while to get the party spirit back, and I contemplated leaving. But half an hour later it was back to normal. Most of the other people there however were back to partying in five minutes.
Maybe the danger is part of the thrill. In fact it is one thing about travelling. The danger. Like adventure sports. You sort of hope it never happens but sometimes you secretly hope for that disaster. The bomb or a tsunami or a bus crash. You don’t want to be killed or even hurt, you want to be survivor. I’ve heard quite a few travellers mention this. And those moments of danger always make the best stories.
Who knows? But I do know that tubing in Vang Vieng is some of the most fun I’ve ever had!