Fast-flowing water, vertiginous zip wires and floods of cheap alcohol. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. And sometimes it is – people have died tubing the Nam Xong. But for most, floating effortlessly down this majestic river in an old tractor inner tube is one of Asia’s ultimate backpacker experiences.
From Vang Viang, the nearest big town to the drop point, it’s simple enough to get started. Cling to the back of a spluttering tuk-tuk, hold your breath as you fly through a few miles of chest-tightening road dust and, eventually, you’ll arrive white-knuckled at the riverbank. Then hand over your cash (a few dollars should cover it) and clamber into your makeshift rubber ring. When you push gently off the embankment with warm, squidgy sand between your toes, take a second to look up. The Nam Xong is penned in by towering limestone karsts, and bobbing along its cloudy brown surface feels like floating into a forgotten land.
But instead of hearing the birdsong that filled this valley for millennia, you’ll be greeted by the throb of dance music echoing off the rock face. And before long, locals will appear on the water’s edge, throwing ropes, bamboo poles and life rings your way to lure you to their bars. It’s unlikely you’ll be invited alone – these days the whole 4km route is packed with partying, sunburnt travellers – and you can guarantee the Beer Lao will be flowing as fast as the rapids.
Some barmen even hand out free shots of Lao Lao, a fiery local rice whisky, in a bid to make your head spin. You won’t need it though – there are frayed rope swings and rusting zip wires waiting to test your nerves round every bend. But for the best thrill, check out the Nam Xong’s pièce de résistance: a 30m-high waterslide that curls up like an Olympic ski jump, firing you skywards for a final stomach-dropping free fall into the drink. The whole experience is a scream – just don’t lose your head.
Vang Viang is easily accessible by bus and songthaew, whether you’re travelling from Vientiane or Louang Phabang. Laos Travel Plan (www.laostravelplan.co.uk) offers organized tours to the Nam Xong river and surrounding areas.