Anyone who has ever looked in to travelling to Laos has probably heard of the infamous Vang Vieng. At its peak the small town attracted hundreds of thousands of backpackers looking for a wild party. And a wild party here? You jump in a rubber ring a few KM up the river and float along. Within minutes guys throwing weighted bottles on ropes tow you in to a bar where you get drunk, take drugs and grind up against a stranger on a table. Back in the day the river was lined with hundreds of illegal bars and obstacle courses which resulted in so many deaths that eventually the police cracked down on the activities.
We had heard Vang Vieng had now cleaned up its act and was a great place to see the beauty of the area. I had read online that tubing was now a great way to float calmly down the river and see the stunning scenery.
Well…. not quite. The town itself now resembles the clean up from the funeral of a once great party and everyone who goes there is determined to keep the tubing spirit alive.
The tubing ring owner didn’t even want to let me participate in the activity, making sure I fully understood he was not responsible for my death and making us sign our lives away. We left my wheelchair with him and jumped in a tuktuk up to the start point. It was at this point that I realised the river did actually look quite fast and deep and questioned what we were doing. We literally had only been floating for one minute when the first bar appeared, Steph somehow convincing me that we did want to go and join in. The ascent up to this bar was definitely the toughest, but luckily two guys we had been on the slow boat with Chris and Jur (Nothern for Joe) came and gave me a hand up. What we witnessed up the top was a spectacle of the finest examples of gross (mainly British) tourist behaviour. Everyone was either drunk, high, or both and dancing away in bikinis. Is this what we’ve come half the way across the world to see? Bournemouth in the sun? We hadn’t been in the first bar long when the whole crowd made a decision that we were moving on to bar number two, a good three minutes float down the river.
At bar number three we realised that we were never going to get our tube back by 6pm for the full deposit back but we HAD to make it back by 8pm or my wheelchair was getting locked up for the night. We jumped back in our tubes and set off, presuming most people would be following us soon. After about five minutes we saw a sign saying ‘last bar’ but there was no one about so we kept floating. After about 25 minutes of heading down the river it was nearly pitch black and we had seen no other signs of civilisation since the last bar. We paddled up to the only other people in the river and decided that hopefully our chances of dying were lower if we all stuck together.
After about an hour, and repeatedly trying to kick ourselves to shore for every little light we saw I was just starting to think we were spending a night on the (now quite cold) river when the lights of Vang Vieng appeared in the distance! Finally we got hauled in to the final bar and at this point the scariest part of the activity happened. To get from the water to the bar and drop off point we had to walk 5 minutes through complete darkness and boggy land. For those of you that don’t know how my disability started it was a situation pretty much similar to that, involving a year being practically bed bound and a permanently paralysed foot. It’s safe to say I spooked myself with that a bit and it’s the only time throughout the whole trip so far that I’ve really felt like I was doing something stupid and unsafe. If I’m on my bum or in my wheelchair I feel protected but on my legs I just feel unsafe… especially in the dark. What we discovered afterwards is everyone else in the bar had stayed at the bar until it got dark then jumped in a tuktuk back.
My advice for any tubers would be to go, but skip the bars altogether (as hard as it is not to follow the crowd). The best stretch of the river is after the bars and it’ll be dark by then if you make stops (unless you go early). My advice for disabled visitors: Unless you’re comfortable walking on very uneven terrain, up stairs and up hills – skip it, unfortunately.
(no pictures because you know… water)