We had heard all the horror stories. Drunk, drugged, hedonistic revellers. Featured on 60 Minutes and numerous other media reports, with at least 27 deaths in the past year! Having to explode rocks to get out the bodies. But we tried it. We survived. We loved it and we would highly recommend it to others.
The day before our tubing experience we caught a long-tailed boat from Vang Vieng about 5 kms upstream to the start of the tubing and the site of many of the bars. This is a relaxing way to ease into it if you have any doubts. You can see all the sites from the comfort of a dry boat and get lots of great photos without worrying about drowning your camera. You also get a feel for the tubing course, check out the currents and exposed rocks and see what you’ll be heading into.
Of course conditions will vary considerably depending on water levels. At this time of year, coming into the wet season, the river was low and slow, but with more exposed rocks. A quick tuk-tuk ride, included with your tube hire of about $8, takes you to the start of the course. It takes about 3 hours to do the full 5 kms, of course less in faster water. The late afternoon is probably best because you have great shade in many sections from the surrounding mountains. The scenery is stunning!
Of course the highlight for many is the bars along the river-banks. Starting right at the start of the course, they thin out as you venture downstream. There is loud music and typically free wrist bands and free shots on arrival. Many feature diving platforms and towers, slides, trapeze or flying foxes as added attractions.
Staff are on hand to pull you into shore with ropes. They also supervise safe practices, play the incredibly loud music, serve drinks and organise drinking games. They have a mix of local and western staff and the atmosphere is great. Many Gap Year students and young backpackers are part of the crowd. Drink prices are extremely friendly with a Beerlao around $2 and a bucket of Lao Lao based cocktail around $4.
Above all, everyone was just having a good time. Nobody was aggressive, abusive or threatening. A few macho guys did somersaults off the deck into the river and one guy hit his back against the deck trying to hang upside down from a trapeze, but the locals try to keep an eye on safety. It would be fair to say that most injuries or deaths would probably be self-inflicted.