Laos River Tubing in Vang Vieng - Fun or Deadly?
Before I started traveling, I used to think that Laos was some remote, war-ridden, hunger-stricken, third-world country in the middle of a jungle that no tourist would ever want to set foot in. Yes, my ignorance level can be astounding sometimes.
Little did I know that this landlocked country has long been a hit among backpackers. Although not as popular as neighboring Thailand, or probably because of that, it’s the favored option for backpackers who wish to escape the frenzy of commercial tourism.
Especially famous is Vang Vieng, the gorgeous little town located north of Vientiane. Not too long ago, thousands of backpackers — especially the party-loving type — flocked there every year, mostly to go tubing down Nam Song river.
The activity had gained so much popularity that it was often compared to the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan.
Tubing in Vang Vieng
So, what is tubing and why is it so famous in Vang Vieng?
Laos Tubing Deaths & The Crackdown
Back in the old days (before 2012), some 400 people would head down to the river every day for those daytime booze parties. But alcohol, drugs and a treacherous river are never a good combination. Add to that the fact that very little safety measures were taken by the people responsible for organizing the activity.
As a result, at least 20 deaths were reported each year of drunk tourists drowning in the river or knocking their heads on rocks when attempting to rope swing into the water. In 2011, 27 tourists died. However, nobody seemed to know if these figures were accurate, since there was a lack of media coverage on the matter.
And yet, people still kept coming to tempt their fates. That is, until 2012, when the government finally put a stop to all tubing activities on the river. The police cleaned out the drug scene and reinforced stricter rules on alcohol sales in the area. Most of the bars in Vang Vieng were shut down.
What is Tubing in Laos Like Today?
For some time after the crackdown, Vang Vieng witnessed a plunge in the number of visitors. Today though, the tubing activity has been reintroduced and people have started coming back. But the new law only allows four riverside bars to open at any given time.
Instead of 400 tubers per day, now they are down to about 150 in peak season. Tubing in Vang Vieng is no longer the raucous party it once was. Today, the crowd is mellower and just want to enjoy a scenic tube ride down the river.
Best Time to Go Tubing in Vang Vieng
Tubing in Vang Vieng is available all year long. However, during the monsoon season between May and November, the current can be rather strong.
The peak season is between December and May. This is when you will see a surge of crowd on the river, as the dry weather makes the water level relatively low and the current not as strong. Consequently, the ride can take almost four hours to complete.
Tips for Tubing in Vang Vieng
- To rent a tube, go to the tubing center and pay for the tube rental (from 40,000 to 80,000 kip) plus a deposit, which you will get back if you return the tube before 6 pm. Any later than that, and you’ll only get a portion of your deposit back.
- Do check the clock in the rental office. Sometimes, they are set 15 minutes fast to make people pay the penalty for being ‘late’.
- The rental price includes free transfer to the starting point of the ride about 3 kilometers up the river. From there, you will drift down back to where the rental office is.
- Try to start the journey no later than 11 am, so that you can take your time and relax at the bars without rushing to be back before 6. Take note that the sun sets behind the mountains around 3 pm. Although it doesn’t get dark immediately, it does get colder.
- You can rent dry bags for around USD2 per day to keep your belongings dry. But there’s no guarantee that these bags will actually work. So, it’s better to bring your own. Or better yet, don’t bring any valuables with you, except for some cash for the drinks.
- Tipping is expected if some of the local kids help drag your tube to the bars.
- Always keep an eye on your tube when you stop to drink at the bars. There have been stories of tubes getting stolen by other backpackers wanting to get free rides on the river. You don’t want to be stranded there and lose your deposit.
- Wear sunscreen.
My Tubing Experience
I went during the dry season, so there had been no rain and the water was so calm you could have fallen asleep while gently floating down the stream. Although the river was calm, it was actually pretty deep. I know this because halfway through the ride, my tube deflated. A gentle reminder from the universe that I should lose some weight, perhaps.
No wonder I thought I heard a soft hissing sound coming out of it. Then it started to deflate steadily, becoming more and more flaccid until what was left was nothing more than a limp piece of rubber. I decided not to panic or feel too embarrassed despite some of the other tourists looking amused at my predicament.
This video was taken before my tube started to deflate:
The guide was too far behind for me to alert him. Luckily, I had my partner with me, so I acted nonchalant and just hanged on to her tube until help arrived. I was so, so glad I was wearing a life vest. The guide finally saw me and swam over to exchange my tube with his. He then swam ahead and waited near the bar where he would help drag us to the riverbank.
I don’t know if it was because we were late (we started at around 3 pm), but that was the only bar that was open on that day. We spent some time there, drinking and watching people doing the rope swing. I was surprised to see that they still allowed rope swings on the river, considering how many lives they had claimed before (you can read the story here).
Anyway, after about 30 minutes, it started to get too cold, so we were taken back to town.
Final Thoughts on Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos
Tubing is an enjoyable activity that you must try if you’re in Vang Vieng. Just don’t expect wild, hardcore partying with hundreds of other drunken backpackers. Those days are long gone.
Most importantly, be safe, avoid tragedy, and make sure you choose a tube that doesn’t have air coming out of it, or else it will become a tragicomedy.
Have you tried tubing down the river before? Did you find it fun? Comment below.
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macam tenang je aktiviti tubing ni, enjoy tengok nature sambil rendam kaki dalam air sungai yang sejuk2 tu. Tapi baca sejarah tempat tu macam bahaya jugak ea. Seram!
Haah, cuma sekarang ni dah takde la. Kalau nak relax2 je, pergi masa dry season, air tak deras.
Wow……it’s good that you have traveled to Laos. My friend said there are so many interesting things to see there. Thank you for sharing your travel experience once again.
Yes, Laos is perfect if you love nature and quiet. It’s like a much quieter version of Thailand. 😄
Very interesting activities tho! I have experience floating on the river at KKB after water rafting but that was free-floating without any tube.. Hurm,, Laos and Cambodia were both in my traveling list this year but well, seem like we going to delayed in maybe 2022 or 2023.
Laos and Cambodia seem to be doing pretty well in keeping their Covid cases under control. So, who knows, you might be able to visit sooner than you think. Btw, free floating sounds cool too!
Banyak tempat travel yang Ummi share, semua Sis baru tau.. yang suka nature memang bagus baca blog Ummi ni tau.. amazing gile pengalaman Ummi..
Terima kasih, sis Lin! Semoga info2 ni bermanfaat. Dan kalau sis ada kenal siapa2 yang mungkin perlukan tips2 seperti ni, jangan lupa share ya. 😘
I am so going to visit this place!
After this pandemic is better or over, I am so going to relax & enjoy the mother’s nature.
Yes, Laos and especially Vang Vieng is the perfect place to visit if you love quiet, peaceful places surrounded by greenery. 🙂
Bestnya.. i never try this activity – tubing. Best dapat peluang mcm ni.. adventurous
Tubing ni sebenarnya relaxing je, tak adventurous sgt pun. Nk duduk atas tu sambil tidur pun boleh. 😄
Alamak ni kena simpan dalam whishlist so that after covid 19 dah reda boleh terjah
Nanti Covid-19 dah reda, jgn lupa refer balik pd blog ni ya, untuk cari aktiviti apa yang nak cuba. 😁
Tak pernah buat tubing tapi looks like interesring. Macam water rafting plakkan. But this is more relaxing
Ya.. kalau white water rafting tu untuk orang yang sukakan cabaran dan adrenalin. Tubing ni untuk rilek2 je. Kat Kuala Kubu Bharu (KKB) rasanya ada dua2 aktiviti ni, boleh combine sekali. 🙂
Tak pernah lagi try. Macam takde je kt sini. Kalau dalam pool tu biasa lah kan tengok huhu..
Kat sini pun ada, kat Kuala Kubu Bharu. 🙂
Kita tak pernah lagi tapi nampak macam best jer… Mendamaikan. Cuma
Feel seram sejuk jer bila baca kisah nya, terus tak jadi laaa.. Hahaa.. Hebat u berani!
Skrg ok je. Yg seram tu kisah dulu, sebab banyak pelancong mabuk n main terjun suka2 hati. Masa i pegi ni tenang je, air pun tak deras.
macam menarik je aktiviti tubing ni..tak pernah buat lagi..alahai jauh lak nk kesini..aritu nampak dekat kuala kubu jalan ke fraser hills tu ade water tubing..
Haah, kat Malaysia ni pun ada je. Kat KKB. Perak pun ada rasanya.
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