Some travelling experiences feel irresponsible and slightly cringeworthy with hindsight.
And river tubing certainly falls into that category. In fact, it was so dangerous that people had died trying it.
Arguably, it put Vang Vieng on the map for tourism and the drinks served as part of its water-world bar crawl gave back to the local economy. Although ultimately, it was pure, high-risk hedonism.
I was 26 and riding high on the confidence solo travel gave me. Since leaving the UK, I’d immersed myself in local cultures, tried desperately to grapple with some of the most complex and sobering political histories I had ever encountered and fumbled with basic language to engage with locals. At times, I wondered whether I was taking the whole thing too seriously…
Enter Vang Vieng: perhaps it was time for some frivolity.
If Luang Prabang was quintessential Laos, Vang Vieng was the polar opposite. Reruns of Friends played on loop in an airy restaurant that catered solely for backpackers. It served everything with chips – or so it seemed. Hungover twenty-somethings gathered there to prepare themselves for the onslaught of the area’s main attraction: A daily pilgrimage that begun by hiring a large rubber ring.
With a motley crew of Aussies, Brits and Americans, I set out for the starting point wearing nothing but a bikini and a waterproof money pouch slung over my shoulder. With our fat tubes clasped under our arms and flip flops flailing on uneven ground, we resembled unsure penguins approaching an icy cliff edge in a wildlife documentary.
The irony? Tubing micro-culture was actually a great way to see southern Laos’ natural world.
Dry season had made the river run slow and shallow. I drifted past coned peaks of mountains and the thick canopies that covered them. As rays of sunlight danced on the water’s surface and my vessel was spun by cross-currents, I entered a trance. It sucked me down river and muted the shrieks of revellers downing ‘snake vodka’ on the bamboo platforms attached to the river’s banks. Which meant that as bar staff through me a line of rope to hoist myself into the next watering hole, I sometimes missed the opportunity altogether.
The afternoon was the perfect warm up for the New Year’s Eve that followed back on dry land.
Once darkness fell, sandcastle buckets that I had played with as a child were put to more sinister use. They sloshed full to brimming with fluorescent cocktails, while fire pits crackled among dancing travellers, like beacons signalling the onset of 2011. It arrived in a blur driven by the excitement of new friendships and the overwhelming sense that nothing existed other than that place. That evening.
The next day I found myself part of another pilgrimage: The exodus from Vang Vieng. While a few intrepid friends were venturing south into a remote region of waterfalls and coffee plantations, I had my eyes on the north.
I was getting back onto the river responsibly. On a two day slow boat towards the Thai border.