For many backpackers, Laos is synonymous with tubing. The majority largely ignore my favorite country in Southeast Asia, apart from a small loop through the northeastern corner and the highlight of that loop is Vang Vieng. For years backpackers have been flocking to this little village of bars and guesthouses amidst hundreds of limestone peaks to spend a day tubing on the Song River, while sucking down so much cheap alcohol they wake up the next morning with no recollection of even having gone tubing, which naturally means they have to do it again. A planned visit of a day or two turns into a week and suddenly their time in Laos is up and they hurry back to Thailand.
The Song River flowing through Vang Vieng
Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time in Vang Vieng, but I didn’t see the point in floating on an inner tube down the puny little Song River just to visit a few bars. Instead, I walked from bar to bar and saved my tubing for a much more impressive body of water: the Mekong River.
About a month after leaving Vang Vieng, we arrived at Si Phan Don in the very South of Laos. “Si Phan Don” means “4000 Islands” and refers to a large number of tiny clumps of land sprinkled around the 14 km wide (in the rainy season) Mekong River before it rushes over the Khone Falls, the largest in Southeast Asia, and into Cambodia. On the way to the 4000 Islands, we had spent a very rough week touring central Laos by motorbike, we had visited the Bolaven plateau, we had toured the ancient ruins of Wat Phou and we had spent way too many hours stuffed inside sweltering buses. It was time for some rest and relaxation and Don Det, the most touristy of the many islands, promised just that.
The view from one of the many riverfront restaurants on Don Det
If this island is not on record as the laziest and most laid-back place on earth, I would be shocked. Nothing seems to happen on Don Det—even the animals barely move. I don’t think I saw a single dog on the island standing up. Ever. Perhaps they do stuff at night, but they spend their days lying around on their sides, occasionally mustering up the energy to roll onto their backs. Not that I blame them. That’s pretty much what we did in our hammocks all week long.
It should come as no surprise that the most active thing to do on the island involves lying motionless in an inner tube and floating down the river. This appealed to us. It took a few days to build up the momentum needed to roll out of our hammocks and actually do something, but once we did, we rented some inner tubes and hired a boat to take us a few miles up the Mekong.
Looking toward the distant shore from Don Det
We could barely see our island from where our driver dropped us off. He warned us to enter the channel to the left of Don Det, since going down the right side would likely leave us stranded on some uninhabited rock with no way back. He also warned us several times to get out of the river when we reached the bridge at the absolute latest. Beyond that point the current speeds up considerably and we would have a difficult time getting to shore before hitting the Khone Falls.
Part of the Khone Falls. We agreed that it would be preferable to get out of the river prior to this point.
More of the Khone Falls. I’m sure they’re much more impressive during the rainy season.
It turns out he probably should’ve warned us less about the waterfall and more about the strong current dragging us to the wrong side of our island. We could have figured out on our own that we probably didn’t want to tube over the falls, but it would have been nice to know beforehand that we would have to fight a current the whole way. Not knowing that we closed our eyes and calmly floated past scattered clumps of trees and locals in their long-tail boats for who knows how long.
A monk cruising down the Mekong
At some point, one of us decided to pay a bit more attention to our surroundings and quickly realized that the current was moving us along much faster than it seemed and all of a sudden, our island was practically in front of us. More accurately, it was in front and to the left of us—not good considering we absolutely had to enter the channel to the left of the island. We started paddling that way and suddenly our relaxing little float down the Mekong had turned into a workout. None of us wanted that.
It took a lot of effort to fight the current but we did manage to paddle our tubes into the correct channel. We passed the tip of Don Det where we had rented the inner tubes and we knew we had a few kilometers before we would reach the bridge. This is why we did not need our driver’s warnings. If we got out of the river at the bridge, we would have to carry our tubes all the way back to the tip of the island to return them. In other words, we would get more exercise. It should surprise no one that we paddled over to the shore as quickly as possible to minimize the distance we would have to carry the tubes.
That distance ended up being about five hundred meters, which was no fun at all in the sweltering heat of the hot season. Despite that and despite all the furious paddling, we actually enjoyed our outing. I’m glad I chose to tube here instead of Vang Vieng. At the 4000 islands, the tubing itself is the highlight and not the drinking. Besides, isn’t it much more impressive to say you’ve tubed down the Mighty Mekong than down the Sorry Song?
Most of the riverside bars in Vang Vieng were shut down in 2012 (article on CNN Travel), so I’m guessing people who go tubing these days actually remember the experience.
For more on the 4000 islands, check out my travel guide to Southeast Asia.