He was desperate. His eyes said as much before his frantic waving arms confirmed it. In the water, floating down river, tube around his waist, the tuber was frantic to escape the rapids for shore. He calls out for a line to be thrown. “Hurry!” he yells.
On the shore, a man swinging a half filled plastic water bottle casts his line, landing it square across the tuber’s arms. Relieved, they both pull frantically, fighting the currents of the river each inch of the way. Soon the man and his tube are safely ashore.
“Thanks for the line” says the man, handing the tube to his savior “I didn’t want to miss the last bar on the river.”
And there it is. Another tuber is saved from his sobriety by the skillful aim of the bartending ‘lifeguards’ of Vang Vieng.
From my hammock hanging above the crowd on a small hill at ‘Last Bar’, I watch the tubers float closer. They make paddling motions to ensure they are within distance of the safety lines thrown by the various bartending ‘lifeguards’. One by one they are quickly reeled in to the comfort of this modest riverside bar.
I swing, beer Lao in hand, to the rhythm of Susana’s adjacent hammock to avoid collision. Below, young men entertain themselves shooting beer caps at empty cans with a slingshot while others dance to the thumping club music with bikini clad women.
A wooden horseshoe shaped platform made of tree branches and bamboo juts out some ten feet over the water. Standing on one if its planks are two large and bald Australian men wearing boxing gloves. They punch each other to the laughs and cheers of the patrons. A rousing applause is sounded as they both fall into the river below from the blows and, more likely, their own inebriation.
In the distance I can still see a makeshift slide and trapeze like swing. A young man died only weeks ago on a swing very similar if not exactly that one. You wouldn’t know it, however, from the lineup of people looking to try the very same. I was told that some two dozen people died last year from these sort of things. This is a shocking number to me, in that it is so low.
The various amateur circus acts and strong man competitions that play out in front of me make spring break look like Sunday tea with Grandma. Free of financial restrictions – half liter beer bottles cost a little over a dollar – and basically any laws or pesky safety standards, Vang Vieng appears as nature intended it; full of drunk college aged kids tossing each other in the river and generally making a show. In some cases, unfortunately, it can end up being a who’s who list of Darwin Award candidates.
I watch as a thick crowd clears out, leaving only two tubes behind. Such a low tube stack count is a good sign that its time to depart. A common practice in these parts is to swim the river, tubeless, looking to mingle at a bar and then depart, tube in hand, all without paying a penny for the privilege. At $10 dollars a tube, it’s more inconvenient than financially taxing to have your tube stolen. The last ones to leave the bar frequently pay this tax.
Susana and I grab the last two tubes and throw ourselves down the meandering river. In the fading sunlight of mid afternoon, the surrounding mountains stand proudly gathered. It’s a really beautiful ride into town on the tube and, having left the last bar behind, a quiet one. The 90 minutes it takes to float the rest of the way into town are a real treat and one that’s hard to ruin.
Along the way, we pass other tubers, some still sipping rum and coke from their child sized yellow sand buckets that rest precariously on their chests. Others have opted for a longer and faster trip using two man kayaks propelled almost exclusive by the guides in the back and marginally by the travelers in the front. Susana and I wave as they pass.
Further along we watch a young Lao boy fish with a homemade harpoon and snorkel mask in much the same way a grizzly bear hunts for salmon. Face down with his mask just below the surface, he shoots his arrow and pulls out triumphantly what looks to us like a pitifully small fish but to him, success. We wave and give our best expression to show how impressed we are. He beams at us and shows us his harpoon contraption with pride.
As our ride reaches its natural ending at the edge of town, a pair of young boys wade into the water to haul us out of the river. “Sit. Sit!” they tell us. I oblige and pay the obligatory $1 tip in exchange for the service.
Although it is still light out, I know that there are a number of tubers at the mouth of the river, resting at one of the first riverside bars and will not make the trip before dusk. They will have to bail mid river and take a tuk tuk back into town. Such is their miscalculation.
Despite the alcoholic excesses of the scene which are not to our more conservative tastes, Susana and I both agree that its an afternoon well spent. Handing back our tubes at the rental shop, we resist buying a ubiquitous ‘In The Tubing’ tank top, worn by every young thing in town.
A nice afternoon but not, we feel, that nice.