Tubing in Laos. Many travellers have experienced it. Most have the common sense not to attempt it in the dark.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with this strange phenomenon, ‘Tubing’ is a hugely popular tourist attraction in Laos. It consists of forking out a hefty deposit (for a traveller’s pocket) to loan a giant rubber ring for the day. You and your rubber ring then jump into a Tuk Tuk and are driven a few miles up the river. The aim of the game is to float down the lovely brown, grimy river in your tube, before finally returning to your original destination. To spice things up a bit, there are bars strategically placed along the riverside. Along with offers of free alcohol. And rope swings and waterslides galore. I would love to know whose bright idea it was to mix daytime drinking with water sports? Surely a recipe for disaster!
Becky, Francis and I were in the tubing capital of Vang Vien to celebrate their birthdays. With our tubes hooked over our arms we headed over the bridge and into the awaiting chaos.
‘It’s my birthday!’ declared Becky, ‘Do I get a free bucket?’
That’s right, not just a drink. She wanted a bucket. At 1pm.
Generously the bar tender handed over a large bucket of ridiculously strong alcohol. We were unaware of what the alcohol was supposed to be. And just accepted the fact that it was absolutely disgusting. Beggars cant be choosers right? The bucket was followed up by free shots of suspicious looking spirits.
‘I don’t think I can handle much more of this!’ I moaned, ‘I already feel sick!’
‘But we’re only at the first bar!’ cried Francis, ‘You better get used to it, we’ve got loads of bars to go to yet!’
Pub-crawls have never really been my thing. Especially pub-crawls in the baking 40-degree heat. With dodgy tasting alcohol!
We left bar number 1, and floated down the river for a whole 30 seconds before being rescued by a man in a Superman costume, insistent on us climbing out of our tubes and drinking some more.
‘It’s my birthday’ declared Becky, ‘Do I get a free bucket?’
Another free bucket. More disgusting alcohol. My head was starting to spin. Three more bars later, three buckets later, three pounding heads. Becky had managed to nearly slice off her fingers from jumping into the river from the rope swing hundreds of times. I had somehow ended up chatting to a Scottish lesbian for the majority of the day. And Francis was, well, just being Francis! The sun was beginning to disappear and I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t get any of our deposit back for the tubes.
‘Come on guys, I think we better head back’
‘Yea, It shouldn’t take too long…I reackon we’re about halfway back already. We’ve been to five bars already’ considered Francis wisely
In his intelligent assumption, Francis had failed to realise that those five bars were literally 30 seconds apart. We all failed to realise just how far away from our desired destination we actually were. And we all failed to realise just how quickly it would get dark.
Blissfully unaware of the events that were about to take place, we floated lazily along the river. My ring had drifted out in front and I was happily soaking up the atmosphere lost in my own thoughts, which were rudely interrupted by the most awful sound. Alarmed, I jumped up in my tube and looked behind me, only to find Francis throwing up in the river. Lovely.
Things were about to get a whole lot worse. As I attempted to climb as far onto my tube as possible to attempt to avoid the sick that was probably due to float past me at any moment, I came to a standstill. The river was becoming that shallow I couldn’t even float anymore. Reluctantly I began to slowly trudge along in the filthy water. I decided to be kind and wait for Francis. It was at this point I realised that Becky was nowhere in sight!
‘Where’s she gone?’ I asked Francis.
‘I don’t know’ he replied (looking rather green at this point) ‘I think she stopped to have a cigarette.’
‘In the middle of the river?! How did she just stop?!’
‘I think a man stopped her’
‘Oh for gods sake’
It seemed to be getting darker and darker, and I was starting to panic. But then, far off in the distance I spotted a tiny figure. Splashing away, and swimming furiously fast like an Olympic athlete… it was Becky! We were shortly reunited, but now had other things to worry about. It was pitch black. As Becky and I were both completely terrified, Francis tried to reassure us, telling us it would be fine as long as we all stuck together.
Then we heard it. A rumbling, roaring, rushing of water. Becoming louder and louder by the second. It quickly became apparent to us that we were about to enter the river rapids. In the dark. I began to scream in panic and found Becky close beside me in a similar state. I could just make out the frightened look on her face, which probably closely mirrored my own. I reached out and grabbed her arm.
‘Don’t let go!’ I shouted!
‘I’ll never let go!’ she assured me.
With the possibility of death at my doorstep, I still had to giggle at the Titanic reference. We were swept down the rapids at a frightening pace, flung into branches, bushes and dangerously sharp rocks. Before we had even had time to catch our breath we heard another sound…
‘Chug chug chug…..Chug chug chug….’
That was it. Becky lost it. And screamed and screamed at the top of her voice. I can only assume she thought she was going to die.
‘Its ok!’ shouted Francis from up ahead, ‘It’s just a boat!’
The boat with no lights then literally drove into us, the men aboard chuckling away at our apparent misfortune.
‘We need to find a way out of here’ said Francis anxiously, ‘and fast!’
We all glanced miserably at what were now steep cliffs either side of the river. It didn’t look like we were going to be able to escape the death trap anytime soon. We had been in the water for over an hour now, and with no sun to warm us up, the whole situation was becoming incredibly chilly. My teeth were starting to chatter and I was increasingly aware of the fact that we had managed to get ourselves in an extremely dangerous situation.
‘Look!’ cried Becky ‘Over there!’
We looked on ahead to where she was pointing with a newfound hope. Sure enough, we could just about make out that the cliff on one side of the river was coming to an end.
We crawled up the riverbank on our hands and knees. Slipping and sliding in the thick mud, those god awful rubber rings rolling ahead of us. My hands were trembling. I don’t know if it was because I was so frightened, or because I was so cold.
‘I feel like a sea monster or something’ commented Becky.
With mud-caked legs and hair that looked like she had been dragged through a hedge backwards, I wasn’t about to disagree with her.
‘I feel like I’ve just survived the Titanic or something’ I said shakily.
The three of us grabbed hold of each other, and just stood in an embrace for a good few minutes, there on the random riverbank in the middle of nowhere. We had no idea where we were or how we were going to get home, but none of that mattered. We were so grateful that we’d all managed to escape such a frightening situation unharmed. All of a sudden, out from nowhere, a vehicle sped around the corner and pulled up next to where we stood in our huddle.
‘Tuk Tuk!’ shouted the Laos driver.
I have never been so glad to hear those words in my entire life.