Laos is one of the less infamous Asian countries which cooperatively reel in millions of adventurous, predominantly Western and Caucasian explorers each year. In Britain alone, 160,000 students take a gap year annually to bugger off to some far flung tropical idyll to ‘find themselves’.
I actually said this myself when I went out there in September 2011. Yes, when asked why I was going travelling, I uttered the immortal three words that every newly bearded, elephant pyjamas wearing twat answers with: ‘to find myself’. Shudder. One of my mates rightly pointed out that I needed to put my free love banjo to one side and get a grip before I started greeting everyone with ‘namaste’ and making my own sandals out of tree bark. Luckily it never got that far but, at that point in time, not yet 21 and having quit my extremely well paid but soul destroying job in the city, I genuinely had next to no idea where my life was going to go.
And it’s Laos, with its lack of rules and mixture of a bleak, poverty stricken recent past and an uncertain future which so easily attracts confused but intrigued folks like I felt back then. If the Wild West had shoots-outs, wild horses and bar room brawls then the Wild East has stunning natural beauty and populations so vastly different to our Western selves in outlook and habits that they can feel like another species.
The tubing boom was centred in the notorious party town of Vang Vieng, which is far more renowned outside of Laos than the capital city Vientiane (though the latter is well worth a visit; cycling around the decaying French colonial streets and facades is one of the more unique experiences I had on my travels). Thousands upon thousands flock to Vang Vieng for nothing other than the almost non-stop, 24/7 party that is tubing.
In a nutshell, you go down to the Nam Song River, pick up an inflated rubber ring and jump in to be greeted by limestone cliff-tops jutting into the Nam Song River, a flawless sky above and nearly three miles of river stretching ahead. Sit back, relax, and leisurely coast downstream. So far, so idyllic. Then add in pumping music, twenty feet high zip-wires which people back-flip off into the water (which is generally clear but may contain a dead cat or ten), massive waterslides, beach volleyball and football, plus copious amounts of bars selling cheap Lao-Lao fire whiskey and an array of mushroom shakes and ‘happy pizzas’.
Laos is too exotic and chaotic to imagine until you get there. Its contradictions intoxicate you as soon as you arrive, locals veering between open hostility due to their ancient ways being crushed underfoot and, at times, a type of openness to total outsiders like myself that is staggeringly good-natured.
One cool early morning as the sun rose over the mountains, I was stumbling along in a shroom-addled state of wonder. I was wide-eyed and must have looked like an escaped mental patient; the bright stars above had rapidly disappeared to be replaced by a queer shade of blue which sent my senses into overdrive. I looked straight up at a vast sky which appeared to vibrate in slow motion like a guitar string, each ripple sending blues into pinks, yellows and greens. I probably looked like I was going to hurl because one kindly old gentleman, by the side of a dirt track road and outside what must have been his house, gestured to me and barked something in a foreign tongue. I would have had trouble recognising my own face let alone computing what he was saying, but whatever it was sounded like an order. Never mind that he came up to my nipples in stature and was so skinny he probably weighed less than Linford Christie’s cock; he wanted me to walk over to him, and I did.
As we strolled a few yards away from the road I wasn’t sure whether it was the bitter cold or unfamiliar silence of this isolated party town which gave me goose-bumps. Vang Vieng, just a few hours earlier, had been home to drunk and high tourists who frequented the nefarious back streets and bamboo constructed bars with a loud, heady abandon.
But now, it was just me and him.
The elderly gentleman squatted over a pile of earth, twigs and stones (what is it with squatting and Asian people? It can’t be comfortable.) We had no common language, or customs, or probably even hobbies or interests, but over the next hour I helped him create a fire which he was to use to cook with. I say helped, he nagged me and I passed him stuff and gently blew on the bristling pile to look like I was helping. And I left before he even cooked anything so he could have just been a nocturnal pyromaniac and I was to be the fall-guy if the cops came. But I like to think that despite utter ethnic, cultural and linguistic disparities he was simply a nice bloke who saw that I was a bit fucked up and it was his unselfish prerogative to distract me whilst I levelled out a bit.
You find a lot of stuff in Asia: Buddhist shrines which make you gawp, women who can peel bananas without their hands, wild monkeys rambling around a village street, *insert crazy personal experience here*. But tubing in Laos truly is something to behold.
Or at least, it was.
Since a 2012 governmental crackdown on the lax (sorry, I mean nonexistent) health and safety laws in Vang Vieng, the local economy has taken a huge hit; visitor numbers are down and many of the once thriving businesses in the town have since been boarded up. The riverside bars haven’t only closed, they’ve been eradicated, barely a trace left behind. The hastily constructed zip-wires and water-slides similarly dismantled after a raft of deaths in recent years which have been blamed on the lethal mix of drunkenness and drug-influenced risk-taking on the river. Without doubt, it’s a combination just asking for trouble. Whilst hard to pin down precise figures on how many have perished whilst losing control in the adrenaline junkie haven of Vang Vieng, conservative estimates put it at least twenty-five between 2011 and the summer of 2012.
It’s a Catch-22 situation for the residents; the huge influx of foreigners eager to try out tubing brought a steady stream of business which in turn fattened the pockets of local people and helped their community economically. But for those such as the kindly gentleman who stayed with me as the sun rose, the ones whose families have probably been in this area for generation upon generation, their customs and intrinsic traditions have been threatened by the same people who have brought such a boom in income. Do you sacrifice your almost ancient way of life for money? Or do you do something about it?
The Laos government’s decision to crack down on the more lurid elements of tubing has indeed caused difficulties for Vang Vieng’s economy, but there are some promising shoots of growth which indicate there can be life for the town after the hedonistic insanity of 2006-2012. Instead of getting drunk and high tubing every day, visitors are able to explore more of the town itself, to go kayaking or caving, maybe even rock-climbing. There has been a rise in the success of more expensive hotels and you’re more likely to see a tourist family riding their bikes than a pissed up 20-something puking by the side of the road at 2 p.m. Tubing does still exist too, just without the more raucous elements of before; the focus is on relaxing and absorbing the beauty of the surroundings although it’s still pretty easy to spot a bunch of lads with a couple of tinnies as they cruise downstream.
There is life for Vang Vieng yet and hey, it should be a much more sustainable and pleasant life for future generations of locals and tourists alike. Any sensible person including myself should applaud the cleaning up of the place as it tries to assert a more respectable and hopefully still profitable identity.
However, if you were to offer me the chance to go back two years and have just one day on that river, drinking bumblebee-infused whiskey, flying off a zip-line with the sun on my back and dance music pounding in my ears, I’d be tempted to get my suitcase down from the loft and start packing immediately.
The tubing I experienced in Laos is gone and it’s probably a good thing, but my God am I glad that I had a chance to give it a proper go.