Floating down the river with the sun shining and beautiful mountains passing you by. Tubing in Vang Vieng is every bit as wonderful as it sounds. You drift along at a lazy pace, past lush forests, herds of cattle and young boys spearfishing near the banks. The Mekong River meanders slowly, giving you plenty of time to gaze up at the rugged mountain cliffs and watch hot air balloons float through the sky. The river water is cool and refreshing and you drift into a relaxed state, free of deadlines or any sense of urgency.
As I floated down the river while tubing in Vang Vieng I could not understand how this simple and relaxing activity could have resulted in so many deaths. In 2012 there were 22 backpacker deaths on the Mekong in Vang Vieng. One death is a tragedy, 22 is a sure sign something is very very wrong. Was I being naïve to think floating down a shallow river at low speed was pretty harmless. Is tubing in Laos dangerous after all?
We had been told there has been huge changes since last year. There are now only 2 bars on the river. The dangerous rope swings have been taken down and the atmosphere is said to be a little more sober and relaxing.
Truth be told I was really enjoying myself. We found ourselves in a mixed group of Americans and a Swedish girl and we had a great time getting to know them during long conversations heading through very un-rapid rapids.
We stopped at the first bar and ordered a couple of beers and were even offered snake meat, which just tastes like a tough chicken. We played a few games of table football and headed back out before all the tubes disappeared. This seems to be a huge problem because instead of renting tubes people just turn up at the bars and take them down the river, leaving you tubeless, deposit-less and stranded.
It was only as we approached the second bar around 3pm that I began to realise how a relaxing tubing day could turn into such tragedy. It’s really not the tubing at all, it’s the booze. The bar served very strong buckets and we could see a few people were a little worse for wear.
We played volleyball and except for a few louder groups it was still all very relaxed and mellow. It was not the annoying obnoxious backpacker hellhole that I feared, although I have the feeling that 12 months ago this was a very different story.
After another few beers we were back on the river, a little tipsy but by no means impaired. We floated along with our group for a while but as the tubes needed to be back for 6pm we got a little deposit-anxious and went ahead.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
This is where our relaxing day turned a little serious. In a remote spot on the river we passed a lone tuber. As we peered over we soon realized she was not conscious. Not only was she passed out but she had slumped into the tube with one of her arms underwater and her face against the tube in a very fragile position.
I paddled over quickly, Kelly was not far behind. I tried to wake her and got nothing more than a few mumbles in what turned out to be Danish. Kelly realized that she had seen her at the second bar, stumbling around and falling over.
We lifted her into a safer position and Kelly held onto mine and her tube so I could paddle us faster downstream as a group. She was hammered; she could not keep her head from slumping and could not stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time. Kelly kept trying to talk to her but she was incoherent and did not seem to be aware of her surroundings.
“Here it is,” I said to Kelly, “the reason people die”.
Around 30 minutes later we passed what turned out to be her friends, we told them everything but they still did not seem to care. This was the thing that shocked me most during the entire incident. They said they would get her back safely.
We kept an eye on them and she did indeed get back to dry land. Her friends were pretty drunk too and left her to stumble on her own to return the tube and claim her deposit.
So Is Tubing in Vang Vieng Dangerous?
While Kelly and I shared a post tube beer we talked a lot about the incident and whether tubing in Vang Vieng is dangerous. We came to the conclusion that it is not dangerous at all when done sensibly. The danger is leaving all common sense at the hotel before going tubing in Vang Vieng. Tubing is an activity; you wouldn’t get stupid-drunk before going rock climbing, go karting, diving or kayaking. I like a drink and have had more than my fair share of over indulgences but there is a huge difference between having one too many at a party and falling asleep on a small inflatable tube on a river.
The girl had drunk so much she could barely keep her eyes open; she had no place on a river or anywhere for that matter, especially on her own. The signs are there, everybody knows 22 people died last year, everybody knows buckets contain a ridiculous amount of alcohol. The only danger is thinking you are invincible.
It would be pure speculation to suggest what might of happened to her had we not floated along. She could have been found by others, she could have drowned or she could have woken up the next morning in Vientiane. All I know is she and her friends let her get into a situation that left her in serious danger and it was completely avoidable.
Would I recommended tubing in Vang Vieng?
Wholeheartedly YES! It’s a little tacky and purely there for us tourists but it is undeniably fun. It is beautiful, you can have a nice drink, play table tennis or volleyball and it’s a brilliant way to spend an afternoon. Just please please please keep the slightest bit of common sense with you and don’t get wasted on the river. Have a little bit of respect for yourself and the locals who live there. Have a drink, sure, but don’t cross that line.
After the positive changes that the locals made after last year the responsibility is purely on us as travellers to make a change in our behavior to prevent more tragedy.