Tubing scene is ruined and it's your fault

It's over ... the tubing scene in Vang Vieng has been ruined by its own popularity.
It's over ... the tubing scene in Vang Vieng has been ruined by its own popularity. Photo: Getty Images

Shut it down. It's finished. Tubing was once great, but it's done.

Pack up the rickety old bars. Destroy the "slide of death". Find another use for the tubes. Send the tourists and their ratty wristbands and their "In the tubing" singlets off somewhere else. It's over.

I didn't expect to feel this way about the demise of "tubing". As someone who's championed the experience of floating down a South-East Asian river in a rubber ring while getting hammered, I should be mourning its potential passing.

For a while there Vang Vieng's backpacker scene really must have been a Beach-style South-East Asian utopia shared by the few.
For a while there Vang Vieng's backpacker scene really must have been a Beach-style South-East Asian utopia shared by the few. Photo: Getty Images

But it's the opposite. It should be gone.

From a distance I can now see that the whole Laos tubing experience has so many parallels to The Beach – Alex Garland's generation-defining book about an English tourist who stumbles upon a travellers' utopia on a Thai island – that it's ridiculous.

Like that community in The Beach, tubing was initiated by those with good intentions and little idea of the monster they would create.

As the story goes, in 1999 the owner of an organic farm upriver decided to reward his employees with a day of relaxation, floating down the Nam Song towards Vang Vieng on inner tubes. Others noticed and copied the experience, adding plastic bags full of Beerlao cans to their ride.

And so others followed, and others.

For a while there it really must have been a Beach-style South-East Asian utopia shared by the few, an experience kept secret not through design but by sheer isolation – because who would want to go to Laos? Just like-minded travellers up for a bit of fun and a few drinks. And so they floated down this beautiful river in an amazing part of the world, drinking cheap beers and loving life far from home.

But then Laos became cool and the numbers of visitors increased. Word got around on the backpacker grapevine. Soon there was a mafia-style collective of Vang Vieng families running the tube hire, and makeshift bars sprung up along the riverbanks. Stereos arrived. A mud volleyball court was set up.

Hard liquor was added to complement the Beerlao supply. Thai-style buckets were introduced. Drinking games were brought in. Drugs arrived – those chasing the drugs did too.

Like the community in The Beach, this one-time paradise, Vang Vieng, has gradually been chipped away at by the sheer number of visitors and their numerous accidents and bad habits, its original appeal completely destroyed by those seeking to enjoy their part of it.

I'm one of the ones that ruined it. You can't separate yourself from the rest of the backpacker hordes by virtue of good intentions.

I got in at the tail end. I first went to Vang Vieng about four years ago and spent two hilarious days floating down the river with some friends, drinking Beerlaos and jumping in the water, narrowly escaping accidents of my own and coming home to tell everyone what a great experience it was. My brother once said his day tubing was the best of his life – it was hard to argue.

I went back this year, however, and the vibe had changed. There are "lifers" there now, those Westerners who don't want to let the dream die, who take up work in the bars and wear their armfuls of wristbands – given to tubers each day they hit the river – as badges of honour. The challenge is to do 100 days in a row.

Those Westerners bring with them a new mindset, that you're not there to have fun with a few drinks, but to drink as much as possible and then have fun. They don't seem to get the contradiction of their carefully placed warning signs about rocks and their drinking games with cheap Thai whiskey.

There's the stench of death on the Nam Song now, but people have worked out that if you get wasted enough you can just ignore it.

I saw four backpackers being initiated into working at a bar when I was there this year. They were told to lie down, heads hanging over the back of a bamboo platform, and were then forced to skol an entire bottle of whiskey that was tipped down their throats. There are Mad Monday footy trips that are tamer than that.

That's not fun, for me. That's not utopia. That's a bunch of morons taking advantage of a place with no rules, in the process tearing apart everything that made that lack of rules great.

Like the backpackers in The Beach, they're desperate to cling to an idea that's already gone.

So go ahead and ban tubing. I won't mourn its passing. It was once fun, but it's finished.

Would you be happy to see the end of the tubing scene in Laos? Or do you think it should continue?

Email: bengroundwater@gmail.com

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