Sunday 7 February 2010

In the tube in Vang Vieng - with photos

When I’d been tubing in Vang Vieng ten years ago, it was a very relaxed affair involving nothing more than bobbing down the river in a big tyre inner tube for an afternoon and getting out at the end and having a beer. My first clue that things might have escalated somewhat was back in Africa when I’d seen a girl wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “In the tube in Vang Vieng”. Crikey, I thought, they didn’t have T-shirts for it in my day. The full extent of the change was revealed during dinner on our first night in Vang Vieng as we watched an army of tourists wander up the road, barefoot and barely wearing bikinis and swimming shorts, carrying tubes on their shoulders. “Excuse me,” one of them asked us, “where am I?” It was like watching the walking wounded of a glamour-modelling apocalypse. It would take us a few days to psyche ourselves up for this particular lark.

Vang Vieng isn’t all about tubing, it’s also about karsts, rice fields, caves and… well, you’re probably beginning to get the idea. It might sound samey, but it’s hard to get sick of. There’s plenty of walking and the caves here are big enough to pose a genuine threat of getting lost in. Wandering around with Andreas and Heike in a very real pitch black playing Who’s Got The Best Torch, we suddenly stopped to wonder if we’d just imagined a cry for help and then heard it again. We called back. The boys told Heike and I to wait while they went off to get the girl and kill the baddies and returned to tell us that a couple behind us had dropped their torch down a hole. This seemed to prove my earlier point to Andreas that paying for the guide would take the fear of death out of the caving experience. He thought it proved his point that that was the exciting bit.

The night before the day we went tubing, we had a very late night and weren’t in the best of moods for the day’s planned activity. Having decided to go with some friends we’d made, we got caught up in the strange group phenomenon of waiting around for no-one really knows what. To kill time, I made the mistake of asking Martin, the town’s resident tee-totalling, holistic spiritual healer who spent his time telling visitors to Vang Vieng not to drink and organising a system of active democracy in Sweden, what he thought of tubing. “Be careful on the swings, you can come off at the wrong time and break your legs. The slide is dangerous; you can knock your head and lose consciousness in the water. You can break your bones or drown.” There was an uneasy silence as we took this information in. Finally, someone said, “OK, let’s go!” and we left.

Our tuk-tuk took us a few kilometres up the road to the tubing start point; a bar called Mud Bar heaving with scantily clad girls and boys bouncing away to love songs such as Smack My Bitch Up, while others flew thirty of forty feet into the air from a huge swing, landing in the river with a massive splash. I watched carefully for any signs of bones breaking, heads smashing and general drowning, but they all seemed to be quite safe and having a nice time. Still, I wasn’t taking any chances and put my life jacket on, not caring at all that I was the only one wearing one. I wouldn’t be taking it off all day. On one side of the bar people were playing mud volleyball and on the other was a mud slide ending in a mud pool. Everyone was covered in mud. I began to see how the bar got its name. “Oh God,” we muttered to ourselves feeling very old.

Somehow, I got adopted by a girl called Laura who must have noticed my expression and decided to ease me in to the whole thing. “Don’t stand too near the mud volleyball,” she advised, “because someone will throw you in,” and carried on with all kinds of tubing wisdom and words of reassurance. Meanwhile, Alex had decided to have a go on the swing. It seemed to take ages for his turn. Eventually, he had a hold of the swing and I saw his blue shorts dip low then very high and then drop rather elegantly into the water with a generous splash. When he came back, he was entirely intact and it was clear he wasn’t feeling old anymore. “This is fun!” he said.

When we got into our tubes to head to the next bar, I inexplicably managed to drift upstream and ended up stuck next to a tree. “Typical,” I said to myself while everyone else successfully negotiated their way downstream. Eventually, I manoeuvred myself into the drift of the river and bobbed along to the next bar just like a normal person. The thumps of the music died away and there was just the gentle lapping of the water against the tube and the sound of the birds and it all became very peaceful and relaxing. As the next bar approached, an army of Lao guys wielding smaller inner tubes were playing their own game of hoop-the-tuber. I missed the first one, of course, but another was soon flung in my direction and they hauled me in. This was the Slide Bar, aptly named not only for the giant slide pointing at the river, but the manner of getting to the bar which required digging your toes in to the mud to avoid landing at the bottom of the slope on your bum.

“Are you doing the slide?” Laura asked me.
“Don’t be ridiculous, look at it!” It was about 150 feet long and I’ve never pressured myself into being any kind of daredevil.
“Oh, come on, you’ll be fine!”
“Yes, you should do it,” Mandy chimed in. “It’s a great laugh”. Only the other day, Mandy had told me that she’d come off it funny and landed on her stomach.
“No, I’m not doing it.” I was adamant.
“Why don’t you just join the queue, get to the front and see how you feel?” suggested Laura. That seemed reasonable.
“Fine. But if I don’t like it, I’m not doing it.”
“And you won’t think less of me.”
“Of course not. If you’re at all uncomfortable, then that’s it.”
“Alright then.”
On the way up the slippery slope, we bumped into a friend of Laura’s coming the other way who, weirdly, was from Ealing.
“I might do the slide! Are you doing it?”
“No way, someone died doing that thing!” he replied. Laura gave him a very stern look as he walked off.
“Don’t listen to him, ” she said leading me away, “anyway, that was three months ago.” It was her worst display of reassurance all day.

I asked every single person anywhere near me in the queue if I should do it and they all said yes. I should perhaps have been asking people who weren’t in the queue. It was encouraging that everyone ahead of me did it without breaking anything. And then it was our go. “Tell you what,” Laura said, “I’ll go first, get to the side and watch out for you. If you have any kind of trouble, I’ll jump right in and get you. I’m a very strong swimmer.” She was very good, this Laura. Off she went, happy as Larry, and it was my turn to sit at the top of the slide. I couldn’t decide if it didn’t look as bad from there or if it looked much, much worse. I could see Alex and Mandy waving and giving me thumbs up. Then Laura was at the bottom of the slide waving and shouting up that I was going to love it. And then the guy running it told me to lie back, lift my head up at the dip and GO! So, I did. Everything flashed by; I lifted my head at the dip and landed in the water fully conscious and unbroken. An inner tube thrower nearly hooped me, reeled me in and Laura, Mandy and Alex were waiting for me with lots of hugs and congratulations for being so darn brave and looking death full in the face and laughing. It felt very fast to me but, apparently, I slid so slowly that I could have run it quicker and plopped about three feet into the water. At least I didn’t stop completely at the dip and have to climb the ledge and jump off like the girl after me.

We stopped once more, where the guy behind the bar was playing old rave classics, inexplicably stopping them in the middle. Mandy and I tried to play pool but had to give up when another girl started dancing suggestively on the table. More dancers climbed on, threatening to send it crashing through the floor (with Mandy and I shaking our heads at such abuse of a pool table). It was beginning to get dark so we left the party before the party left us and drifted back to town on our tubes where everything was quiet and a shade of blue, feeling happy and rather proud of ourselves. We’d had a brilliant day, we’d partied with the kids and there was still time for a nice cup of tea and an early night.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We heard that someone did die tubing while we were there. We heard that they were not a strong swimmer, lost their tube and drowned. I’d advise anyone going tubing not to get wasted (we didn't, Mum) and take plenty of care and, if remotely necessary, a life jacket. Accidents can and do happen, especially when you’re drunk, but as long as you’re careful, you should have a brilliant time.

The stunning bus journey from Louang Prabang to Vang Vieng:

The quiet side of Vang Vieng:

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