Vang Vieng - The Backpacker's Haven
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
Tubing is an activity that involves floating down the river on an inflatable tube. Combine that with the beautiful landscape of Vang Vieng, which is surrounded by striking limestone mountains and caves, and you get the idea why so many people were lured to come here.
The Deaths & The Crackdown
Back in the old days (before 2012), some 400 people would head down to the river everyday 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 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 drugs scene and reinforced stricter rules on alcohol sales in the area. Most of the bars in Vang Vieng were shut down.
What Is It 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.
Now, only one rental center is in operation. 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.
When to Go
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 55,000 kip for the tube plus a 60,000 kip deposit, which you will get back if you return the tube before 6 pm. Any later than that, and you’ll only get 40,000 kip 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 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 that I should lose some weight, perhaps (I know it had nothing to do with my weight, but I couldn’t help feeling that way).
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 went back to town.
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.