Monday, June 8, 2009
Vang Vieng, Laos
One of the must-dos of Laosis the activity popularly known among backpackers as “tubing”, defined in the Mancuso backpackers dictionary as “the act of floating down a river on a giant tractor tube.” Yes, the idea may seem a bit odd at first, but I do give “the guy who thought it all up” a lot of credit. I mean, it must have taken a lot of courage to approach his first customer and ask whether he or she was interested in floating down the river on a giant tractor tube. The tourist could either respond enthusiastically, or else look at this man like he was crazy. After being in Asia for a little over a month, we have been asked a lot of bizarre questions, and I can sympathize with the lone tourist who thought tubing was the latest mode of transport in Laos. Hey, we all took the slow boat in from Thailand to get here… Now, we are one among many who try their skills at this popular sport.
We need tubes. Fortunately, there is a store in town that rents them. No motorbikes, no bicycles… in fact, it is illegal to rent those in Laos… just tubes. We stand in line and take our pick from a pile reaching to the roof of the metal shed. The size and the shape of the tube are crucial and one doesn’t want a tube that is too large, or one might fall through the hole in the middle, or oval-shaped, which is prone to tipping.
The four of us pick our perfect tube and clamor into a waiting tuk-tuk. Now, let me remind you that none of us have done this before, so we have no idea what to expect. The tuk-tuk driver is experienced though, and drops us off at the right spot along the road outside of the town. The problem is, once we find ourselves on the side of the road, in the middle of a rice patty, in the settling dust of a departing tuk-tuk, we have no idea what we are supposed to do next. The logical idea is to find the river, so we pick up our tubes. Now, these tubes are not the easiest to carry. They are incredibly large, and deciding whether it is easier to carry them under your arm so they almost reach the ground and bump into your legs uncomfortably or if it is better to hold them around your waist so you look like a clown, is difficult. As we are walking down the path towards the river, we begin to hear loud music… The characteristic bump…bump…bump… of Bob Sinclair’s Love Generation becomes more distinguished as we approach. And then, there on the side of the river emerge a couple of open bungalows, teeming with people and stacks of tubes lined up on the outside. We merge into the crowd and begin to grasp the situation. One of the experienced tubers senses our inexperience and comes over to clarify. We wait here until 2 or 3, then the whole crowd grabs their tubes and makes their way to the next stop along the river. That’s the way it has been for the past 162 days, he tells us. He has a different color bracelet for each day of tubing and the pen markings on his chest declare that that is how many consecutive days he has been at it. I’ll take his word for
it. We settle in to watch the chaos around us, not to mention the giant rope that swings out over the river and deposits its passenger to carry out an elaborate set of flips and turns before breaking the water’s surface. A man walks around with face paint and I end up with an intricate glow-in-the-dark design across my face. 3 o’clock and
we grab our tubes and step down to the river bank. It is not the easiest thing to get into a tube while the force of the river water tries to pull it downstream. It involves a steady hand and a large jump to land in the hole in the middle of the tube. Try that, and add a bit of mud under your feet and some rushing water around your tube. Once you are off though, nature takes over and you simply enjoy the ride. That is, until you see the next stop. As you approach, workers throw bottles attached to long strings at the tubers. We grab hold of the string to be pulled in to the shore.
I grab the string as the same moment as my tube tumbles into some rapids, so it takes all my strength, not to mention my sunglasses and a part of my ring and index finger to make it out of the water. I make it to the shore a little disheveled. I look up to see a
sight that does not allow a frown for long. Sunglasses and fingers immediately forgotten, I step into a giant mud hole. My mom always tells the story about when I was younger and she came up with the ingenious idea of rubber boots to keep my feet clean and out of the mud, only to find me 5 minutes later with the garden hose stuck in a pile of dirt packed inside the shoes. Here we were again, and there was no staying clean. People who tried to keep out of the muck usually ended up slipping and falling
in anyways, so my motto became you might as well do it with a smile and a laugh. Then you have the people who try to look like they are taking the whole situation cool, come strutting along in the mud, only to find that the ground is unpredictable and hidden under the water. Once in a while, you get a strutter who finds that he is walking in ankle deep mud one moment and the next moment is submerged up to his neck, much to his surprise. There is also the trapeze that carries you out over the river before you plunge feet-first into its depths. Tubing is not a great activity for those who are unwilling to go against their fears and take a little risk.
We arrive at the last stop along the river before the ride home. Another bar, like the last, but this time equipped with a water slide, a zip line, and volleyball court submerged in a couple feet of water. The water slide is more like a giant chute, rising near the end so you are tossed out into the water. The zip line, on the other hand, supplies the best form of entertainment. Passengers who are hesitant and unfortunate enough to reach the end of the line find that the track has a build-in back flip promoter. The sudden stop forces their feet above their heads and their release into the water. We begin an epic game of volleyball before jumping in our tubes for the ride home.
The town is about an hour away and we are leaving the last stop as the sun is falling behind the limestone slopes projecting colors and shadows on the water. It is quiet, relaxing, and unbelievably beautiful. However, it also means that we will be arriving in town in the dark. Once the sun is gone, it is a little eerie on the water. We pass a couple bungalows before we finally recognize the bright lights that must indicate that we have made it back to town. How do we get ashore without the workers and the bottle and string contraption? My mind begins to race as I start to paddle in and find I am going no where… that is, until I stand up and realize that the water is only a couple feet deep. I laugh at myself silently, but can not bring myself to take a relaxed breath until I am crawling up on the shore. Safe and happy. Maybe I am not as much mermaid as I thought. Tubing was a great experience; a day full of laughter and risk. However, I could not be one of those consecutive tubers. Something tells me that my body would refuse. Given the close call with my fingers, that is all I am willing to sacrifice for now.