Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Tubing Down the Nam Song

"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience."

Eleanor Roosevelt

One of the most memorable experiences Cheryl and I had in Vang Vieng (or in our entire Laos trip) was tubing down the Nam Song. The basic idea was to ride a tuk-tuk about 3.5 kilometres north of town to a drop-off point and recline on a huge inner tube of a tractor tyre as the gentle currents of the Nam Song carry us back to whence we came. En route, there are a few ramshackle bars situated by the banks of the Nam Song which you can stop at for drinks, food and partying - and most of them offer free shots of cheap lao-Lao (Laotian rice whiskey) to entice you to moor your tube and tarry in their establishments for awhile to deposit some of your money and barf. Before the crackdown in 2012, there were more than two dozen "entertainment venues" along the tubing route where drug dealers openly advertise their wares and there were rope swings, water slides and ziplines conveying high or drunk (or both) revellers into the river at the Darwinian speed of stupidity and the merciless acceleration of gravity. Understandably, there were lots of injuries and deaths.

I counted three riverside bars when Cheryl and I tubed down the Nam Song on February 9 earlier this year, so sanity and moderation seem to have triumphed over Bacchus in Vang Vieng.

Vang Vieng Tubing 09 Stunning Scenery
The view you get as you tube down the river.

Anyway, to back up on my story a little, Cheryl and I went and signed up for a tubing trip in the middle of town in the afternoon. A single cartel seems to be running the tube rental business and it cost 55,000 kip (about 7 USD or 27 ringgit) per tube. There is also a 60,000 kip deposit just in case you want to steal and take a giant honking tractor tube out of the country and you might also partially forfeit your deposit if you fail to return it by 6PM. The fee also covered a ride to the drop-off point and apparently, a life-jacket as for every tuber (as stipulated by the authorities) - a hypothetical life-jacket which, at no point in time, was offered to Cheryl or I. Luckily, Cheryl knows the ancient mystical art of moving through water without drowning swimming and I am an expert at lying on the surface of the water and not sinking while doing it, so we did not miss it.

We started at 2:30PM and the cold, refreshing water was immensely welcoming in the late noon heat. Like most rivers in mountainous regions, the Nam Song's water was very clear and it was possible to see the riverbed in many parts - particularly in the dry season when the water level is low (which was the time of the year we did this). And as expected, tubing was a lot of fun! For the most part, you are subject to the whims of the river currents but you can navigate to a small degree just by paddling about using your arms and legs as oars.

Vang Vieng Tubing 01 Drop Point
The tubing drop-off point 3.5 km north of town.

Vang Vieng Tubing 02 First Bar
The first bar.

As you pass the bars, you'll only need to wave your hand at an obliging attendant and he will toss you rope that you can grab a hold of as he reels you in. Cheryl had cleverly hooked her feet on my tube to prevent us from drifting apart, leaving my hands free to take photographs on our journey down the Nam Song (most pictures in this post was taken when I was floating on a tube down a river, in case you are wondering). Now, I lost a camera to an early watery death in 2008 so clearly, I have not learned to stop taking my picture-making devices with me when traversing bodies of water. This time, I brought a waterproof plastic bag with me that has six(!) strong groove-seals with a Velcro fastener to keep the camera in when I was not using it. You can get one in most shops in town and the one I bought was pretty reliable.

We skipped the first bar and headed for the second bar (which unimaginatively calls itself "Second Bar").

Vang Vieng Tubing 03 Cheryl Heading to Second Bar
Cheryl drifts ahead of me towards the second bar.

Vang Vieng Tubing 04 Second Bar
The second bar.

Vang Vieng Tubing 05 Second Bar's Backdrop
What good is a basketball hoop board that sprays water onto the court? For breaking necks?

Vang Vieng Tubing 06 Second Bar's Party Crowd
That lone brown guy eating a plate of fried rice there made me laugh.

We didn't linger because the music was deafening and there were far too many skimpily attired overweight people jiggling about for my comfort. Cheryl left with a can of Pepsi and I with a jumbo can of Beerlao. By this time, the sun was starting to retreat behind the limestone mountains in the west, casting a pleasant shade on the river.

Vang Vieng Tubing 07 Cheryl With Pepsi
Cheryl swigging Pepsi while floating down a river. Now that's relaxation.

Tubing Down Nam Song
They say don't drink and drive, but they never said anything about drinking and tubing.

Vang Vieng Tubing 08 Scenic
A bridge over the river.

Not very long after that, we drifted into a fast-flowing portion of the river where the rocks lay in wait right below the water surface. Cheryl, lithe and light, cruise unimpeded over them while I get snagged every few feet and making us spin chaotically like a binary star system gone mad. Finally, we were forced to let go of one another and Cheryl raced ahead. She disappeared downstream soon after.

It wasn't as much fun tubing alone but I amused myself by taking pictures of everything I saw. I also asked passing kayakers for the time every so often in case I was running late on the clock.

Vang Vieng Tubing 11 Fording the Nam Song with a Bicycle
Two local guys standing in the river with a bicycle.

Vang Vieng Tubing 10 Crossing Nam Song with a Bicycle
Turns out they were just waiting for the kayaks and row boats to pass before fording the river.

Vang Vieng Tubing 12 Nam Song Swimmer
Some guy doing the butterfly stroke.

Vang Vieng Tubing 13 Moon Over Nam Song
The moon appears.

Vang Vieng Tubing 14 Pushcart on Bamboo Bridge Over Nam Song
Something tells me that this footbridge never had a safety inspection done on it before.

Vang Vieng Tubing 15 Local Kids Swimming in Nam Song
Local kids swimming.

As the daylight died by increments, I began to wonder if I would ever make it back in time to claim my deposit, and I can see other tubers thinking the same thing. Some of them have even started paddling in order to hasten their meandering progress down the Nam Song, while others headed for the shore to walk back. I removed my flip-flops from my feet and used them like oars by wearing them on my hands and suddenly, my relaxing ride down an idyllic river turned into a hobo boat race.

By the time I hit the landing "beach", it was twilight (and not in a sparkly vampires sense). On a sidenote, I think we humans have declined as a race when the first two fucking pages of a Google search for "twilight" showed only Stephenie Meyer's insult to romance and literature. Anyway, I quickly hauled my massive tube with me up to town where the tubing cartel have their tube depot - and I made it.

Vang Vieng Tubing 16 End Point
Someone had laid out a barbecue dinner by the river for the rich Chinese tourists that have taken to Vang Vieng recently.

I found that Cheryl already had a post-tubing snack of a large baguette sandwich (a popular fare in Laos given their ex-French colony heritage) that she bought with the deposit money. In fact, by the time I got back, she already showered and changed. Just how fast did she go?

Vang Vieng Tubing 17 Barbecue
Some barbecued local sausage and a strip of unidentified meat I had later that evening.

Vang Vieng Tubing 18 Cheryl
Cheryl at a restaurant waiting for dinner after tubing.

I think anyone who visits Laos and happens to pass through Vang Vieng on the overland route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang should seriously try tubing out. I mean, floating down a nice, clean mountain-fed river reclining on a huge rubber tube with a cold beer in hand while surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery that Southeast Asia has to offer? That's the recipe for an awesome vacation right there, bro.

Vive La Vientiane: Part One
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: First Night in Town 
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Climbing Pha Ngeun
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: The Blue Lagoon at Tham Phu Kam
Veni, Vidi, Vang Vieng: Solo Mountain Biking Trip to Kaeng Nyui Waterfall 
Veni, Vidi, Vang VIeng: Last Day in Town at Pha Poak and Lusi Cave
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: The Night and Morning Markets
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: Phou Si Hill, Haw Kham and Wat Xieng Thong 
Sabaidee Luang Prabang: Out Alone in the City 

Slow floater,
k0k s3n w4i


Anonymous said...

Have you read The Spitrit Catches You and You Fall Down? Available on Kindle

k0k s3n w4i said...

Anonymous: Nope. Should I?