July 21, 2007

Tubing Down the Nam Song
Vang Vieng, Laos

Of Vang Vieng's outdoor recreational offerings—tubing, kayaking, cycling, caving, and rock climbing—tubing down the Song River is certainly one of the city's biggest attractions.

I was really on the fence about doing this activity. Not necessarily because of the financials involved—around US$4 gets you a tube and a tuk-tuk ride to the launch point, 3km upstream—but because of the weather/water conditions. Smack in the middle of the rainy-season, I hadn't seen blue sky since my arrival the country, and intermittent downpours aside, the air temperature was mild and the water rather cool. But today was warmer and drier than most, and with my time in this place fleeting, I decided to give it a shot.

I think there are a lot of tourists and travelers here that have never done something like this before—whereas I've indulged many a time over the past few years. One of the best things about living in the United States is the access to such a wide variety of climates and outdoor activities. In Arizona, tubing down the Salt River is a popular pastime for the college-aged crowd. Likewise in Texas, where my friend Matt has gone tubing as well.

In the U.S., river tubing is synonymous with drinking—as are most college-aged activities—and it's impressive to see the rather ingenious floating cooler/speaker ensembles people will devise to ensure a heavy saturation of alcohol and hip-hop music throughout the day. The Salt River float isn't quick either; the right combination of river conditions and government-sponsored launch point can find you tubing for the better part of eight hours.

The Nam Song float is but a fraction of the distance I'm use to spending in the water, but without any tubing buddies to while the day away with, 3km sounded good enough. I was in it the for the scenery, not to get tanked.

Bamboo bars and floating tourists on the Nam Song

I'm not sure who came up with the idea of tubing down the Nam Song, or for how long it's been going on (I forgot to ask some locals this question), but it's one hell of an excellent money-making idea to have adopted for this city. The process goes something like this: Have a few beers with lunch; rent tube; get dropped off at launch point; float to, stop at, and disembark at makeshift bamboo bars along the river; drink; talk; drink; float; drink; jump from things; drink; float; float and drink; drink and float; wash ashore; stumble to return tube; return to bars by river; drink; pass out—day complete.

Before departure, a thick, blue marker is used to write the number that corresponds to your signed contract on the top of your hand. My guess is that it has less to do with organization than it does with body identification.

With the sardine-like pack job of a Japanese metro complete, our tuk-tuk labored along the flat road towards the launch point, unloading its cargo of compressed backpackers upon arrival. Securing my day-bag to the rubber inflatable, I waded into the Nam Song and plopped backwards into the water that was much too cold for such an overcast day.

I hadn't been in the water for more than five minutes before looking around and murmuring that it was worth every penny. The sight I was marveling at wasn't the landscape—although it too was impressive—but the wooden/bamboo bars and swinging/jumping platforms that had been built at the river's edge to service the thirsty, sociable crowds.

Music dumping from massive speakers, I watched as Lao people with long bamboo poles reached out to those floating tourists that couldn't quite make it to shore under their own power, as other travelers flung themselves out from wild heights on ropes and into the middle of the river. A zip-line with a dangling, intoxicated Aussie screamed overhead.

It was Spring Break on the Nam Song.

I think I was part of the first batch of people on the river that day, because as soon as I drifted past that initial mass of chaos, I had the entire river to myself. I floated in peace past empty bars, contemplating deep thoughts, as I admired the limestone cliffs and occasional bamboo-poled fisherman. I should have been fishing—fly-fishing from the inner tube would have been absolutely perfect.

What should've taken two to three hours (with stops for alcohol) only lasted me about an hour or so (without booze). The rains have given the Nam Song strength, and it moves at a pretty good clip this time of year.

I would've loved to have done this activity with my brother (as we'd often float down the Salt River together), or a few other friends that come to mind. Guys that would've been on another tuk-tuk to the launch point if their float had ended too fast. Guys that I would've been jumping in tandem with into the river, and would watch out for me in case I got hurt.

But there were no such mates around, and instead found myself having what was easily one of the most mellow river tubing experiences of my life—and still loving every minute of it.

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