The Death and Rebirth of Tubing in Laos
If you’ve ever dreamed of drinking your weight in hallucinogenic shakes and leaping into shallow, rocky waters from a fraying rope swing, tubing in Vang Vieng should have been on the tail end of your bucket list circa 2010. But in case you missed it, thanks to a government crackdown, the previously debaucherous pastime has seriously cleaned up its act, leaving many to wonder whether the party is now over.
Here’s a highly accurate recap of what went down.
Local historians estimate that tubing has been around for upwards of 3,000 years, making it the world’s oldest surviving sport – predating even the likes of running, hopping and jumping. Recent studies found that tubing’s earliest participants stumbled across the sport while getting hammered on lao-lao whiskey on the otherwise arduous journey downstream to the local market. Over time, the sport has undergone significant maintenance, with tubes now constructed from rubber rather than the intestines of buffalos and other large animals. Also of significance was the strong correlation between the rising number of drugs consumed and the increased number of broken spines. Anthropologists suggest that regardless of these changes, the same sentiment has echoed through each generation: getting fucked up at the river is a nice way to pass time.
But alas – all good things must come to an end, and the dozens of high-profile fatalities were ultimately picked up on by Lao officials. Locals also became concerned about the impact of tourism on their beloved pastime.
“Our ancestors have been drink-tubing since the dawn of time, but what started out as a way to spice up heading into town to pick up some chicken feet and bat paste has unfortunately become a way for tourists to put Darwinism to the test,” explained a Vang Vieng resident in an exclusive interview with Global Hobo. “We’ve got 8-year-old Lao kids driving themselves to school on motorbikes while adult tourists can’t stay afloat in a bloody inflatable ring.”
The Prime Minister himself popped by for a visit, and after what witnesses recall as a “soul-crushing” eight-loss streak in beer pong, he demanded immediate change: Mushy shakes were to be replaced by detox juices, pingers were to be subbed out for fruit and all wine was to be converted back into water. Bars would close their doors effective immediately, and boys and girls would be tucked in bed by 11pm every night.
While Prime Minister Thammavong’s pipe dream championed a new, healthier status for Vang Vieng, it undermined a primary aspect of Laos’ heart and soul. Without the tea money procured from the dozens of bars, just as many dealers and the thousands of tourists, Thammayong’s paycheque was bound to suffer dramatically. And so a middle ground was quickly established: bars could operate on a rotation system, with a maximum of two opening per day. To ensure the fat cats remained fed and dipped in gold, the fine for the possession of any illegal substance was bumped up to 5,000,000 kip (close to 800AUD) and to allow officials a little leverage in quieter times, this fine could extend to anyone “suspected” of being under the influence of any such substance.
Nevertheless, tubing would survive.
So while the number of bars has been slashed and the death rate has been significantly reduced, tubing has not lost all of its charm. Tourists continue to flock to the water, kitted out in their rubber rings, prepared to lose their minds, their dignity and their go-pros. From beer pong to musical tubes to a casual game of suck-n-blow, there are still plenty of ways to secure that debilitating hangover. Many won’t make it past the second bar as mud-fighting turns into mud-loving and slip-n-sliding turns into broken wrists. Those who do manage to tube on will be treated to some of the most picturesque landscapes Laos has to offer, but will be too busy trying to keep their beers upright to notice.
To tourists who visited around five years ago, today’s tubing might feel like a shadow of what it used to be, but with bikini-clad girls spewing into their vodka buckets and lads on tour waking up to one missing phone and one found ladyboy, visitors can still catch glimpses into Vang Vieng’s golden past.
At this point, it seems unlikely that we’ll be seeing tubing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, but locals and tourists alike have their fingers tightly crossed for Japan 2020: “You know how many jumping events are in the Olympics? Three. Four if you include vaulting. Four different styles of jumping made the bloody cut. And it doesn’t end there. We’ve got figure skating, curling… synchronised swimming cops a guernsey. Surely it’s time to give tubing a run.”
Cover by Maurício Horta and Willian Vieira; inset by Johannes Ruehm