One Way Ticket: The End of Tubing in Vang Vieng
Every so often we receive an email from Simone Spilka full of pictures from places we wish we were. It started about six months ago when she booked her one way ticket to Israel to go on her Birthright trip. A few weeks ago she had made it all the way to the Full Moon Party in Thailand. Her latest photos came to us direct from one of the most magical places in the world…
Vang Vieng, Laos.
To backpackers around the world these words are notorious for one main attraction: Tubing. Over the course of ten years, day in and day out, hundreds of thousands flocked in masses to join an infamously wild party down the Nam Song River. Tubes filled the lazy river as far as the eye could see. Everyone drinking or high on psychedelics, taking a long needed break from their constant traveling and watching the sun set in the sky. The bars of the town are built like giant wooden boxes. They were created less for the ambiance and more just to help maintain the endless supply of alcohol-filled buckets that float next to the tubing tourists.
Over the years, the tourism in Vang Vieng has defined the small towns culture and economized the local land. But as of September 2012 strict new government regulations were implemented to control the influx of deaths caused by idiots being idiots. Too many mushrooms made people believe they were superheros, jumping from dangerous cliffs into shallow water. Drunk drownings and other such accidents grew over the years due to the high volume of tourists flocking to Vang Vieng after stories of astonishment made their way through the hostiles of Southeast Asia. A reported 22 tourists died in 2011 while visiting Vang Vieng. Now all that remains are the foggy memories of those who lived to tell the tale.
I visited the ghost town eager to experience the relic firsthand. When my bus arrived at 3am I shared a tuk-tuk into town with eight complete strangers. Our driver rode cautiously through the blocks, eerily lit and deserted, until breaking down outside of a decently-priced guest house.
Immediately after the ring of alarm clocks we headed to the tube rental adorned in matching "In the Tubing Vang Vieng," attire. The Lao men running the joint handed out liability forms, carefully watching as we grazed and signed off their list of precautions nonchalantly before we received an official stamp of approval. One local pulled out a sharpie and grabbed my wrist: #168, he wrote, a number of identification in case I were to never return. As we floated slowly along the current our voices grew louder and louder with each finished make-shift bucket of Lao Lao (Laos whiskey), however, our surroundings were silent. The scenery of demolished buildings and empty rope swings hung above shallow water were the only indicators of the chaos which previously existed on the land – merely a sliver of a shadow of what once was.
But with all great parties that come to an end there’s an equally passionate storyteller to relive the glory days. Today, I am not that storyteller.
I sat down with local DK3 barman/DJ and Vang Vieng enthusiast, James Debeer, to learn and laugh about the rise and fall of mushroom shake mayhem.
Milk Made: When did tubing in Vang Vieng first start?
James Debeer: As far as I know it all started ten years ago for volunteers at Vang Vieng’s organic farm who stayed to learn about the local culture. The owner gave out tubes as a way to relax on their days off before the flocks of tourists eventually arrived. Over the period since then, tubing has evolved from random people floating 4km down one of the most breathtaking, tranquil stretches of river in Southeast Asia to the most amazing pub crawl on Earth, both of which I don’t want to live without, nor have other travelers miss.
MM: What was the tubing experience like when you arrived?
JD: I moved out six years ago when I was backpacking around the world on a $10/day budget. On my first day I had one of the best of my life, which cost me seven days worth of funds. I conceded that spending that amount of money wasn’t manageable, but worth every cent. So I invested in another week’s budget to stay a little longer without as much fun and got a job at a bar as fast as i could.
The majority of my salary went to as much food, drink, and other substances that my body could be punished with. The rest went to a place where I could rest my head at night. Back then, people were tubing everyday – but people were also making it back to town each day before sundown to return their tubes. The bottom line is that there weren’t any rules, regulations, safety equipment, first-aid officers, or even an ambulance in Vang Vieng, but there was enough common sense to survive the day without any harm done.
Over time the bars went from super chilled to chaotic and debauched. Most of them had rope swings – some also had mud volleyball, mud tug-of-war, beer pong, and "beersbie". One even had a slide the size of an international ski jump. On top of that there was cheap whiskey, joints, mushrooms, and tight bodies squeezed into tight cozies – it was mental. There were about 500 hiring tubes and 200 other people who were just coming out to party at its peak season. The ones who return year after year, or the regulars who live and work on the river to stop it from becoming mundane and keep the liver swelling, would have daily costume themes. There were up to 15 bars along the river, with promoters ready to chuck a bottle attached to a rope to reel people in for free shots and only Buddha knows what else. It took me three months to get past the third bar.
MM: Where did the problems first begin?
JD: The problem was when bars in town set up shop at the start of the river with sister bars to them in town. It was megalomania as more and more Westerners were hired to make businesses look busy and as a way to mingle and persuade tubers to stay at their bar throughout the entire day. The easiest way to do that is to play drinking games with free whiskey, which produces two devastating effects. First, it forces people to drink way more than in the normal comfort zone or an amount that would be safe around the river. Second, the bars further down the stream made less of a profit because people were already plastered by the time they got there.
Backpackers can afford to buy five or six buckets a day (now banned in Vang Vieng) – they don’t need free drinks as an incentive.
The staff wasn’t doing any actual labor and were taking away jobs from the locals who would have taken over their parents’ business. There was no possibility for the locals to evolve. I don’t want to be a hypocrite because I worked at the bars, but I would rather be working alongside three Lao guys who need a job to survive.
MM: What were you doing for work on the river?
JD: Promotions and bar work, but I also took it upon myself to help keep people safe. A lot of the injuries were complete stupidity. Often times it was more dangerous when a crowd tried to help someone who had an accident than it was in the first place. If a tuber needs resuscitation 20 drunk people are going to do a lot more damage. I wasn’t always a injured tubers safest bet, but I had seen enough to know when things were about to get ugly and could step in with a bit of reasoning from time to time.
My day started with an obligatory white Russian for breakfast before off to the river with my troops where I welcomed or coerced new customers into the bar. I was bartending, DJing, getting customers involved with drinking games, cross promoting an upcoming jungle party, and trying to get laid whilst also trying to get crunk. It was debauchery, a pervert’s paradise. There is no where else on Earth you could party like that every day.
MM: And did you party everyday?
JD: Of course. My job is to party.
MM: Party by day…what by night?
JD: In early 2012, DJs like Mirror Image, Greg Haywood and Owen Haywood, came to with the idea of setting up a jungle party for people once they finished a float since there was a serious lack of quality venues that provided underground, original electronic music. We set up a site halfway to the start of tubing in the jungle on a friend’s property with a palatial outdoor garden and an indoor nightclub. To our surprise they were a great success. At one point we were up to two or three raves a week (before the government imposed a midnight curfew, even way out in the jungle) with backpackers coming in from Thailand and Vietnam knowing about them through word of mouth. Everything was free for the partiers except for the rides home but because Lao drivers are on union they aren’t allowed to work during the night so we had created a way for them to earn extra income. We weren’t looking to make money; we weren’t getting paid for promotions or DJing, but I’d rather put effort into that than into a white picket fence in Australia. It turned out to be somewhat of an oasis for the very few people in town that actually gave a shit about good music.
MM: What was the craziest thing you ever saw happen?
JD: I don’t know if I should disclose that information because it might be read into the wrong way. There’s people, like you and me, who might think the stories are funny and entertaining, but an adverse person might see it negatively and there’s a lot of bad going on with the reputation now. The government closed the bars along the notorious tubing stretch due to the high number of accidents, fatalities, and international press. It forced them to pull the plug on one of Laos’ largest tourist attractions. Lets just say I saw a lot of very loose people. When you’re drinking everyday in Southeast Asia, you tend to go a little crazy…but the best kind of crazy.
MM: So what regulations did the government implement?
JD: As of August, bars and restaurants are not allowed to operate on the river whatsoever. Business owners cannot pull tubers off of the river and restaurants can’t invite people in who have been tubing. The properties were forced to dismantle any part of their establishments that were within 15 meters of the waters’ edge, otherwise facing a fine for a building that would have been torn down anyway. Tubing carried on, but people looking for the past party that Vang Vieng had to offer were a little disappointed. Fortunately, Greg and Owen were able to evolve on the river changing their bar Fluid into a venue accessible by road. They’ve created an artists’ space of recycled construction with a backdrop of the river and its mountains so people have a place to go and express themselves creatively and stimulate the imagination.
MM: Do you think the regulations are a good or bad thing for Vang Vieng?
JD: The regulations were an extreme wake-up call to people destroying my slice of heaven. From September 2012 until February 2013, tubing was only an activity if you organized a tire tube float yourself. We thought about making the tubing experience into a pub crawl, allowing certain times for certain areas of the river that way people would move down the river in one mass and the money would be distributed equally to all of the bars. More importantly, everyone would be off of the river well before dark.
The government could have had first aid available, but in reality this is Laos. People would get drunk and jump off of a tree with a sign that read, "Do not jump off of here, you will die." Actually it said, "DO NO JUMP OFF OF HERE, YOU WILL FUCKING DIE!!!" [Referring to one Australian tourist who caused a media wave that caused the Australian government to force Laos government to action]. If they don’t have enough common sense then no safety conditions or restrictions will help. But damn the red tape and police – this is the only place on Earth where I can drink a beer, eat some mushroom shakes, smoke a spliff, jump off a rope swing, and mud wrestle with 20 year-old bikini clad babes.
MM: What does the future of tubing look like?
JD: I think the future of tubing is more likely to be what I fell in love with on my first day six years ago: safe, old-fashioned fun. But right now with all of the trauma received by the town I think its important for me to stick around to support the local community that I love so much. Trust me, these people need it. There are families who built four-story hotels with money loaned from the bank – and now after the new regulations have hurt tourism, they’re families with very large establishments and inadequate bookings who are fighting bankruptcy.
Vang Vieng has provided me with so much over the years so I want to help create a new hype and interest for tourists to visit, to curb them back here. Greg, Owen, and I are planning a charity event supporting local issues, such as a mine disposal charity for 2014. But beyond that, there are so many activities and natural spots to enjoy here. Where else can you go on a hot air balloon, kayak, tube, trek, cave, mountain climb, paintball, and have a "happy pizza" all in one day? Come visit. Bring your art, music, love, and friends. I’m not just saying that to preserve its reputation. I really love Vang Vieng – and I think any walk of life could find some bit of heaven here. The way I see it Vang Vieng is evolving into something even better, especially if I have anything to do with it.
All Photos Provided By: James Debeer