Tubing. Because we had to.

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Okay, fine. We finally went. It is not something we’re necessarily proud of, but it was a unique experience and something we won’t soon forget. I don’t know if this scene could ever be duplicated anywhere else in the world… This is also a perfect time to remind my parents about how tame I was as a young adult. A few trips to Vegas cannot begin to compare to the insanity I witnessed on this river. It made my college years look like an episode of the Cosby Show.

The rains had passed, we’d already explored the area by bike, the sun was out. It was obvious- we had to give this a go. Midway through our final day in town, we rented tubes and hit the river. They use permanent marker to scrawl your tube number across your hand, so there is really no way to be subtle about your day’s activities when returning to town.

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Unlike most people, we successfully tubed the entire 7km section. The first half is exactly how we pictured it: simply built wooden docks with metal roofs serving up drinks and bar games. There are about ten bars lining both sides of the river, all with competing stereo systems, water slides built from any conveniently harvested materials, and rope swings that could break at any moment.

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Wave at a man standing at the dock and he throws a rope out to you. You quite literally get towed into the bar. Entrance requires the ‘door man’ pouring Laos Whiskey into your mouth straight from the bottle. I dodged this step by entering in a crowd of people- where undoubtedly the short person gets lost in the mix. Phew. I take back all those years of wishing I was taller. I did, however, purchase and drink a bucket- the standard drink on the river. I was surprised to enjoy so much the concoction of Laos Whiskey, cola, lime juice and red bull, since it sounds disgraceful.

20110826-032237.jpg And it just wouldn’t be SE Asia without a chicken or two running around. Even at a bar.

If our observations are typical, the majority of tubers move from bar to bar with the pack. It is a slow process that becomes more sloth-like as the day progresses and the buzz peaks. Thus, most never even complete half of the tubing section and end up getting a tuk tuk back to town when they realize it’s too dark to finish the planned activities. This is a shame. We found the last half of the river quite enjoyable.

The last half is a strikingly somber and stunning experience. It’s the section we haven’t heard about- the part without bars or loud music. The scenic section where you see the sharp rock formations jetting up on each side and the blue sky above. We had to pay a small fee for bringing the tubes back late, but it was well worth it to finish the course.

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A 60,000 Kip deposit is required for tube rental- a practice that has become a money maker for many local kids and penny pinching travelers, who simply grab one from the stacks outside each bar and quietly disappear down the river. We don’t blame them- seeing the debauchery late in the afternoon, it is tempting to not feel a singe of mischief. Drunk people don’t tend to notice much, and most are so drunk that they don’t care about the deposit. We hear that at the end of the night, there are always more people than tubes- a good deal of bargaining and the occasional fight goes into deciding who gets the last one. It must be entertaining. But we didn’t stick around long enough to see the show.

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So did our day on the river answer any questions? Is this bad for the community? Yes. And no. Would Vang Vieng be better without this tourist attraction? Yes. And no. Truthfully, there just isn’t one answer. This activity, just like any major tourist attraction, brings complications to the already difficult equation of small town economics. Many have prospered, and many are dramatically opposed to it. I imagine it is only a matter of time before regulations are stiffened, access is limited, and controls are set into place. I imagine that not long from now- just down the river bend- this wild activity will cease to be the same as it is today.

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