Once upon a time, there existed a place that was somewhat of a backpacker dream world. The whiskey and beer flowed freely. There were “Happy Pizzas” and special shakes on all the menus. Rope swings, zip-lines, and even a terrifying “death slide” hung above the river. Below, people decked out in body paint floated along in their tubes in a drug and booze-fueled daze, bouncing from bar to bar. Locals armed with an empty water bottle on a string would “go fishing” and pull them up to their bar. Waiting was a shot of Lao Lao, a table set for beer pong, or a court ready for a game of mud volleyball. Afterwards they could stumble into one of the countless bars in town, which for some odd reason all had “Friends” playing non-stop. This was the scene on a daily basis along the Nam Song River – the infamous In the Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos.
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A Bit of Background
What started as a few backpackers tubing along the river with a bag full of Beer Laos eventually turned into a wild, hedonistic party full of hard liquor, weed, ‘shrooms, uppers, downers, laughers, screamers – you name it. The madness of In the Tubing was the stuff of legends on the Banana Pancake Trail through Southeast Asia. Along with the Full Moon Party on Ko Pha-Ngan, it was one of the requisite stops for those looking to get crazy.
A tiny village in a dirt-poor country soon developed into a major backpacker destination. Guesthouses, restaurants, shops, travel agents and bars sprung up by the dozen as locals sought to cash in on the influx of inebriated foreign kids on gap year. The local hooch – the 45% alcohol Lao Lao – came cheaper than bottled water and was served in beach buckets.
Drugs were easier to find than a bottle of sunscreen, from a bag of crappy weed all the way up to bricks of opium. The party raged day in and day out, and yes, Ross and Rachel continued their drama on TVs all across town. To see what it looked like in its heyday, check out this video from Life Before Work Travel:
Not surprisingly, things eventually got a bit out of control. After a substantial amount of deaths occurred on the river (there are no official figures on the numbers), foreign ambassadors stepped in and told the Laotian government the madness had to stop. The illegal bars were shut down, In the Tubing ceased to exist, and the party-hungry backpackers took their business elsewhere.
The Renaissance of Vang Vieng
As you can imagine, the locals who pumped all their life savings into opening a hostel or bar were not too thrilled with the decision to shut the party down. Business, which had once been booming, was now practically non-existent. Thankfully, this beautiful town has managed to get back on its feet in recent years due to a new focus on eco-tourism, and, yes – a new and slightly less insane version of In the Tubing.
These days, you’re more likely to see package tour groups of Koreans kayaking up the river than you are a bunch of sloppy drunk Aussie teenagers on psychedelics for the first time. Surrounded by stunning karst mountain peaks, Vang Vieng now seeks to capitalize on its natural beauty rather than cheap thrills.
After much debate, In the Tubing returned. Rather than 20+ bars, only a select few were allowed to reopen. The swings, zip-lines, and fortunately the “death slide” were all torn down. Life jackets are now provided along with the tubes. While drugs can still be found, they aren’t readily available or advertised on menus. The party still continues along the Nam Song River, but it’s a far more chilled out scene these days. Once again, the tubing experience is about enjoying the incredible scenery, a few cold beers, and the company of good, like minded people. Having peered out over the edge of the abyss, the town of Vang Vieng has transformed itself again, this time for the better.
In the Tubing – A New Tube
In a move that should surprise no one who knows us, we book-ended our first backpacking trip with stops at the Full Moon Party and In the Tubing. After busting our asses for nearly a year in Beijing at any jobs we could find and dealing with getting screwed over and kicked out of our apartment (long story), we were ready to let off some steam and enjoy a tropical vacation in SE Asia.
With a flight into Bangkok and one out of Vientiane, the plan was to spend about 20 days in Thailand and 10 or so in Laos. Needless to say, we ended up liking Thailand just a bit. With just five days to spare, we made it into Laos on the slow boat. Arriving in Vang Vieng late at night as clueless n00bs, we consulted a pair of zombie-like bros on the street about In the Tubing. In semi-coherent slurred speech, they told us simply to go down to the river around noon, when the party would just be getting started.
In the morning, we caught a tuk-tuk out to the river. The driver seemed confused at our choice of destination, but we thought nothing of it. Arriving there, we quickly realized why – there was absolutely no one around. Ok, there was one Laotian guy sweeping up and getting the first bar ready to open. Much to our chagrin, there were no tubes in sight. “You get the tube in town!” said the equally confused bar worker.
We decided to order some sandwiches and beers while we waited for things to get going. Feeling sorry for us, the dude offered us a few shots of Lao Lao, which Rachel promptly threw up.
Double fail. We were not off to a good start.
The rest of our afternoon was spent swimming between the bars, as we didn’t feel like going all the way back to town to get tubes. I drank Beer Laos while Rachel continuously ran to the makeshift toilets to purge the Lao Lao demons in her body. I tried a zip-line and came down hard on my side. Other backpackers took the shots down like water and did backflips into the river. Clearly they had more experience than us.
By late afternoon, we finally found a chilled out bar and the Lao Lao stopped torturing Rachel. We spent the remainder of our day there, enjoying their trampoline and good conversation with the owners. Determined not to have our In the Tubing experience go down as a colossal fail, we decided to try again the next day.
Rather than start at the beginning with all of the college party type bars, we got in the water where we had finished the first day. Along the way, we stopped at some of the more relaxed bars for food and beers – no Lao Lao this time. A famous “Happy Shake” from one bar sent us off down the most picturesque section of the river feeling groovy. All around us Laotian children were playing and water buffalo cooling down, with the majestic karst peaks looming overheard. This is what we had come to Vang Vieng for, not a frat party on steroids.
After some French bread pizzas and a few episodes of “Friends,” we bid farewell to the tiny town and concluded our first backpacking trip. That month-long outing planted the seeds for the life of travel that we would soon set out to live, and as fate would have it, we even returned to Vang Vieng a few years later.
In the Tubing – The Tube Strikes Back
Before we go any further, perhaps I should explain the title. Every shop in Vang Vieng sells t-shirts and bathing suits that say “In the Tubing – Vang Vieng” on them. Clearly no one in town thought it wise to ask one of the hundreds of English-speaking backpackers whether or not it made sense before having them printed by the thousands. On our second visit, we decided to take a “Star Wars” theme to our In the Tubing experience, hence the headings in this post.
During our gap year trip, we made it back to Vang Vieng to see it in its new and improved state. This time we brought a few friends along and even adopted a Canadian who was traveling solo. Having learned from our prior mistakes, we were ready to do it right the second time around. Rather than spend two days tubing, we opted to take kayaks out on the river for day one and take it easy on the partying. Before getting in the river, we went out to the Water Cave. To be honest, it’s a bit of a lame tourist trap, but we still had a good time.
Rather than the chaotic scene we had witnessed a few years earlier, we were happy to find a much more relaxed atmosphere the second time around. We stopped at each of the three remaining bars for drinks and games, enjoying the scenery along the way.
As it was my brother’s birthday, you know we had to rage that night. The party may have calmed down on the river, but it’s still going strong in town. In fact, they’ve decided to let the bars stay open later in exchange for toning down the craziness on the water. If you’re looking to get wild, Jay Dee’s bar is the place to be.
The owner is a rowdy dude who will pour a row of bombs and then whack his head on the bar to make all the shots fall in the glasses. It can’t be good for his health, but it sure is good for the party.
The next day, we all piled in the tuk-tuk (this time with tubes!) and once again drifted along the Nam Song, enjoying the Homer Simpson of water sports. It wasn’t a wild party, but it was a damn good time. In fact, we still consider it among the top 10 places to party in Southeast Asia.
If you ask us, the reincarnation of In the Tubing is far superior to the shit-show that it once was. Those looking to pound cheap liquor out of buckets are advised to head straight for the rowdier Thai islands, while those in search of amazing scenery and adventure travel mixed in with a bit of partying will find Vang Vieng to be just right. We love it so much that we fully intend to complete the trilogy with In the Tubing – Return of the Tube.