Travel, Teach, Live in Asia
Vang Vieng, Laos, is a town built for backpackers. Hoards of travelers pass through the little town every year, intent on enjoying "happy" pizzas, the four cafes that play nonstop episodes of "Friends" and a must-do Southeast Asian backpacker rite of passage--river tubing. Join the crowds of backpackers, tourists and die-hard travelers and float down the river. Sample local cocktails at the numerous bars that line the shores, try the giant swings, and be sure to get home before dark.
Don't leave unprepared. Invest in waterproof high-SPF sunscreen and apply it liberally. Eight hours on the water is enough to burn even the toughest skin. Eat before you leave as river tubing will inevitably involve a dunk or two and it's best not to mix alcohol, deep water and an empty stomach. Get a small dry bag to carry your money, sunscreen and anything else you need to take.
Dress appropriately. Respect the local culture and leave the tiny bikini at home. Lao people are uncomfortable with scantily clad tubers. Be sure to wear flip-flops, as you will be walking around on the shoreline and wooden bar platforms.
Find an outfitter. Vang Vieng is a tiny town and has almost as many river outfitters as it has hostels. They line the main street, and you need only to pick one. Most will offer the same price for a tube rental and a ride to the river. You'll likely have to wait in line, fill out safety and release paperwork, and sign a promise to return the tube by dark or incur an additional fine (that may or may not be leveraged). Outfitters will also rent dry bags to take on your tubing trip, and most offer free plastic bags to take along.
Buy a mojito to go. After a crowded tuk-tuk ride 3 km up the river, you, your tubes and the other passengers will be let out on the banks of the river. On the right side, you'll see a wooden stand with friendly Lao people selling organic mojitos to benefit a local children's home. The cause is legitimate and the mojitos are excellent and many people buy mojitos to start their trip. The drinks come in a bag with a straw for ease of transport as you float down the river.
Pace yourself. Less than 300 meters downriver, you'll see the first bar on the tubing route. Built out of wooden planks and equipped with a platform and zip line over the river, this cheerful establishment is the first of many to come. Indulge in a drink if you feel so inclined, but remember that there are countless other bars up ahead. For safety's sake, go slowly.
Make like an acrobat. Many of the bars offer giant swings and zip lines over the river. Park your tube, gather your confidence and climb up the wooden ladders nailed to the side of trees. As you stand on the platform high above the river, look down at the other tubers, take a deep breath and jump. Be careful to avoid landing on a tube as you sail above the water and try not to hit the tree on the back swing. If you're feeling brave and sober, try some acrobatics as you swing over the river. The swing looks terrifying, but it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Finish before dark. When the sun goes down, tubing on a river in Laos becomes considerably less fun. Be sure to talk with other people to get an idea of how far you have left to go and do your best to get out of the river before dark. When the sun sinks behind the cliffs, the air will cool off, tuk-tuk rides back to town get drastically more expensive and the dangers of being on a river increase.
Relax with "Friends." After you've spent the day baking in the sun on the river, join your newfound friends (it's impossible to go tubing in Laos and not make friends) for an evening of "Friends" at one of the many cafes in town. Enjoy a large plate of Lao cuisine, sip water, and head for the famous Smile Bar, where other river tubing veterans will inevitably be ready to celebrate the day.