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The Mekong Waltz


As sports go, in terms of sophistication ‘tubing’ is right up there with darts. Further similarities between tubing and darts are that, like darts, tubing is a sport which involves virtually no physical exercise and during which the ‘sportsman’ is encouraged to consume large volumes of beer.

If you want to go tubing, all you need is a tractor tyre’s inner tube and a river. Then you deposit yourself in the middle of the tube, legs dangling over the edge, and float downstream. The objects of the exercise: relax, drink as many cold beers as possible and flirt with the maximum number of strangers.

I know the ins-and-outs because I presently find myself in Vang Vieng in Northern Laos, the tubing capital of the world.

The Vang Vieng tubing experience lasts three or four hours and essentially entails soaking up sunshine and cold beers at riverside bamboo bars kitted out with music, rope swings, zip wires and jumps. Between bar breaks, the day-tripper floats down the Mekong’s majestic tributary the Nam Som, bumping into random strangers and admiring the spectacular scenery, which consists of limestone cliffs rising from rice paddy fields.

I am about to climb aboard one of the tyres, but before getting carried away down the river, I want to ensure that the river does not swallow my phones (I have more than one but not, I must repeatedly tell every Laotian I come across, because I have a ‘Mia Noi’ - ‘little wife’, or mistress). In theory, I should be fine because I have a dry bag: an elongated rubber pouch folded over seven times and fastened with a backpack-style click-clip.

Earlier, the dry-bag shop assistant had insisted that his product would do the job. I was dubious and cross-examined him - I examined him so much he got cross. Eventually I splashed out to the tune of 20,000 kip, suspicious I was paying a zero too many, before jumping in a minibus with six other travellers - a mix of middle-aged Koreans, gap-year British kids and goateed, dreadlocked Scandinavians.

Around 500 adventurers make the journey down the Nam Som every day. I notice that I am the 195th, according to the marker pen squiggle on my hand, as I kick my tube into the river.

The tube promptly takes off, forcing me to run after it. I jump in and fall out, scraping my knees on the stony riverbed, provoking several small children to snigger and whisper "farang ting tong" (crazy foreigner).

I climb back in. This time, the tube rears up like a malevolent horse and I collapse, backwards, back into the muddy Mekong’s tributary.

Finally, I succeed in planting myself inside and, steering with my hands, start cruising slowly down the somewhat dirty green river, whose flow is interrupted by rapids which, thankfully, have less kick than a fengshui-inspired garden water feature.

Soon a skyscraper-high bamboo platform rears up on my left. Next to it the first bar looms into view, belting out Ricky Martin's La Vida Loca, a song commonly sung by drunk pirates en route to a firing squad, I once read.

Grabbing the bamboo barge pole that a barman extends, I reel myself ashore and meet a scattering of Brits led by Guy, a Home Counties type with air ace looks and not a hair out of place. While I sip my skittle-sized bottle of Beer Lao, Guy tells me that getting too drunk is a bad idea. Only the previous week a girl who jumped off one of the podiums crashed head-to-head into a tube-rider.

The tube-rider apparently escaped serious injury. But she “ripped her jaw off”, Guy says, lending credence to a blog posting I read, which reported a drowning. I squirm. Everyone falls silent.

Just to prove that I’m just as childish as the younger crowd which I’m drinking with, I feel obliged to pull at least one Tarzan stunt. So I finish my beer and make my way up the skinny bamboo ladder, grip the handle of the aerial slide and check that nobody is lurking below. I zoom down the wire and collide at speed with the river.

A rumble of bubbles. My body knifes through the water, experiences traction, hits a halt, gathers upwards momentum and then bursts through the surface. That certainly blew away the cobwebs.

Coaxed and cajoled by the boys, Guy's English rose girlfriend eventually heads for the ladder, looking like someone walking the plank. In the wake of her splash I move on, soon followed by Guy's squadron. The last time I see him, he is mounting another much higher platform with a cheery wave.

As I turn a bend in the river and he disappears, I imagine him executing the perfect swallow dive. Enticed by a barrage of Britpop, I head for the next bar, dip into my dry bag and rummage around for a wad of notes, only to discover that I am already down to my last 40,000 kip. Ouch!

Over the din of Faithless and The Arctic Monkeys, I ask the ruddy Liverpuddlian barman what that pittance will buy. "A small beer," he says.

After finishing it, I am obliged to go tee-total, which is maybe, in the light of Guy's observation, a blessing. As the party revs up and gets into full swing, I tire of the noise and all the tediously young and clichéd traveller-talk – how much this and that bus/boat/plane/dinner/shirt/battery/box of matches costs. I continue downriver, then settle for a while into a peaceful riverside berth formed by an overhang of undergrowth.

I move on, sinking into a pleasant reverie which is only interrupted by the occasional bumping of the tube into underwater rocks. I float beyond the main strip of bars, then strike up conversations with a series of random female strangers. Tubing is a very pleasant way of meeting and getting to know members of the opposite gender. If you tire of someone, all you have to do to escape is to float away and ‘accidentally’ bump into someone else.

I fall into conversation with a Guangdong legal assistant who recently quit her job to go roaming. We bump together and become a double doughnut until, in the run-up to a series of rapids, she steers away and waves good-bye.

I do nothing – I just spin and watch a goat chew grass. It seems to do this in extreme slow motion, but maybe this is just an illusory effect of me having slowed down. The improbable happens – I relax. I am suffused by a pleasant and unusual sense of in-the-moment tranquility. I can see why some people become hooked on tubing and do the journey as many as 10 times in a row.

I slowly revolve through the haze towards a herd of buffalo taking a dip. They are disembodied, a surreal jumble of huge heads with ropes through their noses. As I near, they startle, then settle.

Beyond the buffalo, two locals wade across the river, looking statuesque with impossibly large bamboo bundles on their heads. One splashes my camera, reminding me that, here, if you want to take someone’s photo, you should ask first. Laotians are shy people.

All the more wonder that, during the 1960s, America saw fit to drop more bombs on their country than were used during the whole of the Second World War. Laos has the dubious honour of being the most bombed country in history. Thanks to the bombardment, people - often children - still get maimed in the fields of Laos today. But the little girl who now approaches me in the shallows at the end of the tube ride has an air of indestructibility.

She tries to take my tube off me, whilst demanding money. I do not pay as I have heard that, if I do, she will walk away with the tube and never return it to base, forcing me to pay a fine.

As I am returning my tube I bump into the Guangdong legal assistant and am not too surprised when she refuses my dinner invitation – well, it was a rather optimistic one, I suppose. Maybe I’ll take another ride down the river tomorrow.

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