Thursday, 19 June 2014

Tubing in Vang Vieng: Part 1

After chilling in the Buddhist sanctuary city of Luang Prabang for a few days, Angela and I made our way south to Vang Vieng, the party capital of Laos. The town has become synonymous with loud music, drunken backpackers, magic mushroom shakes, and most famous of all, tubing; not exactly mine or Angela's kind of scene, but we'd heard that the tubing was an essential rite of passage for travellers in SE Asia.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, tubing in Vang Viang involves floating down the Nam Song river on a rubber tube, and stopping at numerous bars along the way to enjoy beer pong, music, and cheap buckets of alcohol. Add to that some dangerous rope swings and zip-lines, along with almost non-existent health and safety measures, and it's no surprise that many drunken revellers have drowned or injured themselves in the river over the years. In late 2012, after complaints from locals that the tubing and tourism were destroying the town's culture and way of life, the Laos government carried out a crackdown, tearing down many of the riverside bars and rope swings. Tubing still goes on, but with fewer bars and under a much more relaxed atmosphere. Frankly, this suited Angela and me just fine.

Much to our relief, in fact, Vang Vieng was nothing like the noisy, exploited party-town we'd read about. It seemed almost dead, with quiet, empty bars and restaurants showing continuous repeats of Friends, and only the occasional tourist wandering around. This must have been a welcome change for many of the locals who'd grown tired of vomiting, weed-smoking westerners messing up the place, though it was also clear that many bars and restaurants were now struggling with the lower rate of visitors. In any case, the town was incredibly chilled out (like the rest of Laos, really), and tubing was a lot more enjoyable than we'd expected, especially since we didn't have to deal with many obnoxious "lad" types along the way.

We came here mainly for the tubing, but just as significant was the countryside surrounding the town. It was here that the unspoiled beauty of Laos really shone for us. Rugged, fortress-like karsts overshadowed everything, each towering peak draped in fog. Temples rested on green paddy fields backdropped by infinitely high cliffs. Herds of water-buffalo paced idly down the roads, forcing drivers to weave between them. It was honestly some of the most beautiful countryside I've ever had the pleasure of exploring, clear evidence that there is a lot more to Vang Vieng than just tubing and partying.

Our route south from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng.
We passed some beautiful countryside along the way.

At times the landscape had an almost Celtic quality, like we'd been transported to the Scottish Highlands.

Close to Vang Vieng, we passed towering karst cliffs with ribbons of cloud draped along them.

The town of Vang Vieng has an unused airport runway running through the middle of it.

Almost every bar and restaurant in town seems to play Friends episodes on repeat.
The morning after we arrived, we rented a motorbike and drove west of town to visit a lagoon.
Passing through quiet villages.

Compared to the amazing countryside, the lagoon was kind of disappointing and we didn't bother dipping in for a swim.

Click here to continue the adventure in Part 2, where we continue motorbiking and partake in some tubing!

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