Take the (inner) tube

As sports go, in terms of sophistication "tubing" is up there with darts. If you want to go tubing, you just need a tractor tyre's inner tube and a lazy river. Seated in the tube, legs dangling over the edge, you just roll downstream, grabbing as many cold beers as possible and flirting with strangers while remembering not to drown.

I know the rules because I have come to the world's tubing capital, Vang Vieng in northern Laos. Essentially three streets and a bus station, Vang Vieng teems with "TV bars" blasting out Friends in a loop that gets incredibly tedious unless you order a "happy pizza", which may drive you completely nuts. So tubing it is, then.

A session usually lasts three hours and entails pauses to lap up sunshine and beers at the bamboo bars equipped with zip wires and jumps. Between beer breaks, the day-tripper can admire the eye candy and the cave-riddled cliffs that rise from the paddies.

A 10-minute van journey with some middle-aged Koreans, gap-year British rich kids and dreadlocked Swedes brings me to the riverside gravel patch that serves as a starting point. Daily, about 500 adventurers brave the Nam Song river and as today's 195th, according to the squiggle on my hand, I kick my tube into the river.

The tube promptly takes off, forcing me to give chase and jump. I bounce off, scraping my knees and inspiring some naked brats tussling over a miniature tube to snigger.

Next attempt, the tube rears up, seesawing me backwards. Finally implanted, I cruise along the dirty green river whose rapids have no more kick than a suburban water feature.

Soon, the first bar looms into view, belting out Livin' La Vida Loca, a song sung by pirates about to face a firing squad, I read.

Grabbing the bamboo pole that a barman extends, I meet a tribe of Brits led by Guy, a dapper Home Counties type. Guy warns that "getting wasted" is unwise since, only last week, a girl who jumped off a platform clashed with a tube-rider.

Because I have docked I feel obliged to pull one Tarzan stunt. So I drain my Beer Lao then creakily climb the skinny bamboo ladder, grip the zip slide's handle, and feel the tension.

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"Wait!" yells Guy, preparing to take a picture. Before he completes the second syllable of "OK", I swing into action.

A rumble of bubbles. My body knifes through the water, begins to experience traction, comes to a halt, gathers upwards momentum then busts the surface with as much force as it sunk. Phew! That blew away the cobwebs.

Dive-bombing blows away hangovers too. The trap is some tourists go tubing, over-drink and keep repeating the process in a vida loca (crazy life) loop.

For now, Guy's English-rose girlfriend is out of the loop because she has the shakes. Sheepishly, she admits she taught the boys to back-flip and so feels even more mortified.

Enticed by a barrage of Anglo-American pop, I leave her to her crisis and duly experience mine at the next bar when I see that my dry bag now only contains 40,000 kip. Ouch!

After one more measly beer, I must go teetotal, which may, in the light of Guy's tale, be a blessing. As the party picks up, I soberly continue downriver then backpaddle and berth in an undergrowth overhang's shade.

Elbows propped on my tube, I photograph a succession of daredevils traversing a zip line. Their antics are scored against a Counting Crows dirge followed by a string of Scissor Sisters anthems that fades into an eerily infectious electronica hit.

The bearded alpha male star of this rave-cum-circus busts a series of trapeze artist moves. Egged on by spectators, he keeps swinging higher. Only after milking every last whoop does he relent.

Before the ripples clear and he returns for an encore, I head beyond the beat of the bass, my eyes on a sky prone to cooking up thunderstorms louder than any sound system. For now, the sky stays milky. I daydream, my reverie broken only when a rock stabs my back or a ripple of interaction beckons.

I revolve and roll on through the haze, past bathing buffalo, toward two villagers wading burdened by bundles. One villager deliberately splashes my camera in a reminder that shutterbugs should ask. Most Laotians are reserved, gentle souls.

All the more wonder that during the 1960s, the US bombed Laos ferociously for failing to back its anti-Communist fight against a nation fated to become a market economy. Thanks to "residual ordnance", people - often children - still get maimed.

But the little girl who appears next, commanding a shallow, rocky stretch, radiates indestructibility. "Sabadee!" (hello) she calls gleefully and snatches my tube from my arms. Together, we traipse through the froth, me trying to explain that I cannot pay a porter.

"Money," she insists with a pout before breaking off to lock on to the next tourist.

The last stretch leading back to Vang Vieng straggles. Basking, I watch a riverbank goat chew things over. Rarely have I ventured anywhere less stressed than this cheap and dreamy water resort.

Visitors have been known to roll downriver for 10 consecutive days. I could so easily get hooked on tubing and grow unmoored from reality - without the help of beer or happy pizza.

TRIP NOTES

* Getting there Vang Vieng is a three- to four-hour bus ride from Laos' capital, Vientiane, which lies just over the border from Thailand.

* Staying there Vang Vieng has countless guesthouses, few of which cost much more than the equivalent of $10 a night. The Babylon (babylonvangvieng.com), offers Wi-Fi, views and good English.

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