Its early afternoon and I’m already on the whisky. I’ve got a giant yellow rubber ring under my arm and 7km of river to float down. Ive also got blood pouring out of my mouth.
Welcome to the world of Tubing!
If you’ve not heard of Tubing in Vang Vieng, let me explain: its basically everything you’ve ever been taught not to do near water when it comes to having a shandy or two. It mainly involves a fairly fast flowing river, inflatable inner tubes, rope swings, zip lines, slides, and a lot of bars!
The whole tubing thing is seen as a bit of a rite of passage to backpackers making their way around the southeast Asia circuit. Most days you’ll see someone somewhere proudly wearing their tubing vest, almost as a certificate to prove they survived. Because some haven’t.
Our tour company actually discourages the activity, saying its dangerous. They’re right, of course, but it doesn’t stop the entire tour group from making their way to the tube rental shop. There are various stories, some true, some myth, some just blatantly made up, about how many people lose their lives by fuelling themselves on buckets of Laos whisky and Coke and then somersaulting off a bar and straight onto a rock beneath the water.
There have been casualties, but it’s the old advice of taking it easy and being sensible. So when the bottle of Laos whisky was thrust into my face upon arrival at the first bar, did I turn it down? No chance!
The whole experience starts with everyone decking themselves out in the tubing uniform of brightly coloured vests, cheap sunglasses and a (not so) waterproof pouch, before heading to the tube rental shop where we hand over a deposit and cash for a big rubber ring. A truck then takes you upstream where the fun begins, as you wobble your way across a rickety bamboo bridge, following your ears to the music blasting out from the riverside bars.
First up was Q Bar, where we were welcomed with a free shot of whisky and rewarded with a cotton bracelet. Before long, a Lao Beer has been ordered, a guy from the bar is drawing symbols down your arm (it’s a code for whether you’re single or not!) and someone decides its time for a water fight.
With a bad track record when it comes to cameras, I didn’t want to risk mine in the flimsy PVC bags that are supposed to be waterproof, so I bought a cheap disposable waterproof film camera to take with me (hence the awful quality of them!) However, Dirk decided the day was worth the risk, and we took it in turns to film each other with his digital camera, being careful not to get it wet.
After about an hour we decided to move on to the next bar – its only a short 50 metre float down the river on the tube, but it provides the next brilliant bit of fun. With bars all along the first part of the river, staff from each venue desperately try to attract you in with a variety of waves, cheers, shouts and noises.
The main way of getting your attention though is by throwing a plastic bottle at you, attached to a rope. If the bottle doesn’t get you, the splash of water from it normally does. Of course, that’s also the way of getting to each bar and saves you from sailing past. Its really good fun to see who can catch the rope as everyone else links arms and legs to get pulled to the shore together.
By the early afternoon, we’d got through a few beers and the whisky buckets were kicking in – and that’s when we saw the rope swing.
“Biggest rope swing in Vang Vieng,” declared the sign.
There’s probably not that many elsewhere, but whatever, it was worth a go. We climbed the steps to the wooden launch platform, about the height of two houses above the water, and Dirk the ‘cwayzee’ German went first while I filmed him on his camera.
Next it was my turn. I grabbed hold of the rubber-coated handle (this was a proper rope swing, not just a bit of string from a tree!) got a count of three from everyone else stood on the platform, took a deep breath and swung forward. I left my stomach behind as suddenly the wind hit my face and I raced through the air. I could sense everyone else watching below, and as the swing slowed and I rose back higher into the air, I let go and dropped into the water below.
It was great fun, and best of all, I survived.
It was so much fun, suddenly I wanted to do it again, so up the steps I went and watched a few of the others gracefully launch themselves into the water below. Dirk even pulled off a double swing before somersaulting into the river. I went for my second go, but let go at the wrong moment and made a bit of a hash of my entry.
I heard people laughing from the bar as I dropped through the air at a weird angle, and sure enough there were smiles on faces as I reached the surface of the water. I needed to do it again.
It was a bit of an error. I waited behind Alissa, who plucked up the courage to perform a fantastic belly-flop straight off the platform. As members of the tour went into the water to drag her to the shore, I decided to go. And that’s when the Laos tipples properly kicked in – in a way that made sure my arms wouldn’t hold my body weight anymore.
The moment my arms and the rope combined to take the strain of my noodle-based weight below them, the muscles failed to function. I remember thinking as I headed for the water that ‘this might hurt’ and I was destined for a copycat Canadian-style belly flop.
Except it was worse than that – somehow my legs and face combined to hit the water at the same time. It was quite a spectacular face plant, and I remember it happened so fast I didn’t have time to shut my eyes. Thankfully, it didn’t hurt.
“Phil mate, there’s blood,” said Ricky, fresh from plucking Alissa out of the water.
I didn’t believe him at first, thinking it was one of his wind ups. But his concerned face didn’t change.
“No mate, seriously, its all coming out of your mouth,”
My immediate reaction was to check for missing teeth with my tongue, but to my relief they were all there. And Ricky was right, blood was starting to trickle out of my mouth, made worse by all the water that was dripping off my face and onto the rest of my body. But it still didn’t hurt.
That’s when I felt the thing that was missing – the little flap of skin that links your top lip to your gum. Its proper name is the ‘upper labial frenulum’, except mine was now a torn ‘upper labial frenulum’ by the force of hitting the water so hard with my noggin.
Undeterred, I had to lay the ghost to rest, and besides, it was still good fun. Thankfully, I managed to hold on and ended on a high.
Someone not managing to hold on was Dirk, but it wasn’t the rope swing he let go of. His camera took a direct hit from a barman’s pop bottle on a rope. He was in the middle of filming everyone floating down the river, and was doing a good job of keeping it dry despite being wedged into his rubber ring. Sadly, despite his diving attempts, the camera had gone.
It was the same camera that had been subject of the robbery by the Vietnamese mafia just a few days before, an incident that cost the hapless German the equivalent of £60 to get it back. Now it was resting on the bottom of a river, complete with all the footage of our rope swinging, my face plant and lots of photos of us all before we took to the water.
He looked lost, but somehow negotiated a recovery fee for a team of people to dive down to look for it once the water had cleared and everyone had gone home. The price was about £50, with no promises of it being found, and even if it was, there was little chance of the images and video on the memory card ever being seen again thanks to its watery home for the night.
The day continued, the sun was scorching, the drinks were cold and Dirk’s pink attire was going down well despite his camera loss. Memories were being made as quickly as the alcohol made them fade, but with a float down the river interspersed with a mini party at each bar, it was a brilliant way to spend some time amid the stunning scenery.
The sun began to drop behind the mountains around us at about 4pm, and while some wimped out and got a tuk tuk back to the main town, I was determined to float all the way to the end. I had Jaclyn and Welsh Emma for company most of the way, before they both got too cold and clambered out.
It was pitch black before I eventually saw the lights of the main town once again. In most places the river was relatively shallow, so I knew it wasn’t too dangerous to still be in the water.
There were a few people shining torches at me too, although they were mainly tuk tuk drivers hoping the crazy foreigners braving it to the end would chicken out under the cover of darkness. Instead, my tube ran aground and I came to a standstill. For me, tubing was over. The beer blanket was starting to get a little worn in places anyway, so I walked to the side of the river and hoped for a path. There wasn’t one, but there was a big prickly paddy field that I had to traipse through. After five minutes, I found myself in someones back garden, and a woman gave me a cheery wave as I rolled my tube past her wash tub. Something told me I wasn’t the first foreigner and yellow tube to make a detour via her property, but with my cheery ‘Sa-badee’ she smiled back and laughed.
I eventually made it back to the tube shop, picked up my deposit and came across all the others back at the Friends bar once again. Most were asleep, or looked like they needed to sleep.
I went back home for a nap and returned to the main town at 11pm, meeting the remaining three people – Dirk, Ricky and Cindy, as well as our tour guide Fon – in Q Bar. Its fair to say everyone had a great night, and probably thanks to my little power nap, I was the last one standing, returning back to the hotel in the small hours having got talking to some random people from Finland at the bar.
The next day was painful, but amid all the chaos on the river, we had a brainwave. The tour was supposed to make a six hour journey north during the day to Luang Prabang, leaving at 9am. Partly inspired by the knowledge our heads would hurt at that time, five of us agreed to travel through the following night at our own expense, and therefore giving us an extra day of Tubing. In any case, Dirk wanted to try to get his camera back, so we had to go tubing again!
The plan meant we’d just miss dinner in the evening, and then meet up with the tour group for the remainder of the trip. Fon agreed it made sense, and we worked out it wouldn’t cost much for the public bus north. It was to leave the main bus station at 8pm, and a tuk tuk would collect us from the hotel at 7.30pm as part of the price.
As we waved the remainder of the tour group off into the distance, there were a few snoozes before we headed back to the river. Beer didn’t go down too well, and after a cheeky one at the start, it was soft drinks for the rest of the day, and we all happily floated down the river to the main town, watching and laughing at all the frivolities involving everyone else along the way.
Amazingly, Dirk managed to get his camera back yet again, after it was recovered by divers near one of the bars. We knew there was little chance of ever seeing the videos and photos from within it, but Dirk took it back to the hotel and removed the SD card. It went into his netbook and it made a sound – and by some sort of miracle, the photos and videos emerged on the screen. Incredible, or as Dirk said many times, ‘unssbelievable’.
By now our tuk tuk was late and we were concerned. The public bus we were allegedly booked on was due to leave within 15 minutes. Despite this, there didn’t seem to be much panic from the hotel staff who were coordinating our lift to Luang Prabang, instead telling us it was on its way. The story then changed to how they had done us a favour and instead a private minibus would take us, that would be more comfortable and usually costs more. Next, the time was put back to 8.30pm.
With still no sign at 8.20pm, a few of us began to wonder whether someone had pulled a fast one and taken the money we’d paid. We had no receipt or ticket, and I admit something seemed a bit fishy.
Eventually, a white people carrier arrived, complete with a driver who couldn’t speak English. We set off on the seven hour trip north, looking forward to getting some sleep. Unfortunately, the flat beds we’d hoped for were just normal seats, but those in the back managed to spread themselves out. It was cold, mainly because our driver insisted on keeping his window open. We soon realised why.
Just over an hour into the journey, he stopped for dinner. We waited in the car while he ate at a roadside café. Back on the move half an hour later, I was just nodding off when I realised the car had stopped, and my head fell down as the passenger door I was leaning on opened up.
“Sleeping,” the driver muttered.
“Well I was,” I muttered back.
He then walked around to the back, opened the boot and took out a blanket. At first I thought it was a kind gesture, then he got in and spread it over himself. I looked at him, wondering what he was up to. He twigged, and pointed at the clock.
“Sleep until 4am, arrive Luang Prabang 6am or 7am,” he said.
Surely he didn’t think we’d pay for an overnight bus to pull over in the middle of a town and make us sleep upright for the night. Not that you could, as some flashing fairy lights outside meant the car was rhythmically lighting up like a Christmas tree inside.
Sure enough, snores began to sound from the driver seat. I started laughing at the bizarre situation we’d found ourselves in. As the chief organiser of the bus, while everyone else was sleeping, I felt hugely responsible. My laughs, and those of everyone behind me, soon wore thin. I got out for some fresh air and a quick wander to work out what to do. If the driver is too tired to drive, I came up with the plan of driving the driver.
We decided to give him half an hours kip, but then I leaned on the central locking switch which woke him up.
“Do you want me to drive?” I asked, pointing and gesturing as if I was driving. He just laughed and shook his head, before telling us he needed another hour.
Patience was now wearing thin – we wanted to be in Luang Prabang in the early hours so we could sleep and still enjoy most of the day. Our driver had other ideas.
Suddenly he tidied away his blanket and started the engine. Our not so discreet hints had worked, and we were back on hour way.
That’s when the singing started – quietly at first, but then louder and louder. It was some sort of traditional Laos song, and from 1am until 1:19am, he sang it non-stop as he drove along, trying to keep himself awake. Despite this, everyone behind had managed to nod off. I was keeping myself awake to make sure the driver didn’t nod off too and kill us on the winding country roads.
Then the CD player went on, instantly waking everyone. I could hear sniggers from behind, as Alissa started laughing at the absurdity of it all. I turned around, caught her eye, and immediately stuffed my sleeve in my mouth to stop myself laughing out loud too.
As the driver began singing along at the top of his voice, patience yet again wore thin, but there was nothing we could do. Freezing cold and being kept awake by his singing and five-track CD on repeat (his favourite was track three, which I knew really well by the end of the journey) there were moments when I would have quite happily swapped for the leaky, cockroach-infested sleeper bus in Vietnam.
Oh, and the driver kept making some weird disgusting noise with his mouth and throat from time to time, which got more comedy horrified looks from Alissa behind me.
It was 4am before we reached Luang Prabang, and my eyes were sore from keeping them open. Alissa didn’t keep her early promise of tipping the driver well for his troubles, mainly because she didn’t get a wink of much needed sleep, and we headed to each of our rooms.
Except for Dirk, that is. His famous hat was missing – he’d left it in the minibus. Despite following it to try to get it back, which saw him upset a couple of dogs in the area, he couldn’t get it.
He seemed distraught. We all thought it was quite amusing!