Poor, beautiful, messed up Vang Vieng

Posted by Katie DeRosa on Monday, May 6, 2013

                                                                                                                        If Vang Vieng was a student in the high school that is South East Asia , it would have gained the reputation of the stunning prom queen, full of promise and hope, whose life went off the rails after she started binge drinking. People would whisper about her while shaking their heads, wondering how such a good girl could have gone so bad. Vang Vieng was put on young travellers’ radar because of the alcohol-and-drug-infused tubing party down the Nam Song river. The activity gained popularity around 2003 and 2004 and quickly exploded into a must-do on the backpackers’ bucket list.      

According to an April 2012 article in the Guardian, 170,000 people arrive to the once sleepy village in the jungle every year, which means that backpackers outnumber locals in the main town by 15 to 1. 

Teens and twenty somethings would lodge their butts into black inner tubes, beer or liquor bottles in hand and embark on a floating bar crawl, stumbling up the river banks to bars dishing out free shots and amphetamine-infused cocktails served by the bucket-full. For most, it seems the towering limestone cliffs that flank the river whizzed by in a drunken haze. The river was also dotted with zip lines, a water slide ominously called the “Slide of Death”, rope swings and cliff jumps, which now seems shocking given how shallow was the rocky river bed when we floated down. Not surprisingly, people started dying, in increasing numbers. In 2012, 27 tourists died, either by drowning, or cracking their heads on jagged rocks and some estimate the casualties were double that in 2011. Eventually pressure mounted on the Laos government to crack down on the deadly activity and by the end of 2012, most of the bars were shut down.

When I told people I was going to Vang Vieng, they lamented that I hadn’t made it there during the hay day when the tubing was in full swing. When I saw the river cradled by lush green limestone cliffs, I don’t think I missed a thing. A group of six of us tethered together and meandered down the river, which was admittedly an unappealing murky brown colour. We stopped at a bar, played beach volley ball and chilled out in the shade on the bamboo mats. We all had a great day and none of us seemed to miss the debaucherous gong show tubing used to be

As one Aussie friend commented, “Less drunken bogans, chavs etc, ok with me. Vang Vieng with a few friends is the best, you really don't need a Koh Phangan atmosphere to have a good time there.”

I totally agreed. There’s also so much more to Vang Vieng than just the tubing. There are kayak trips, trekking experiences and lots of caves to explore.

One day, a friend and I rented a motorbike and rode to Tham Chang cave about three kilometres out of town. After a brief hike up the stairs, you can see the Nam Ou winding through rice paddy fields and between the towering mountains. The cave was lit up with golden-tone spot lights here and there revealing impressive stalactite. Even more breath-taking is the cave near the Blue Lagoon. This one requires more work to access, with a quad-crunching, steep climb to the mouth of the cave. There’s a little temple surrounded by a pool of light making its way in from the cave entrance. You need a flashlight to explore the cool darkness beyond the reach of the sunlight but it’s well worth it. A friend and I clambered between the slippery rocks, deeper and deeper into the cave, which began to look like another world; specifically like the meteor from Armageddon, but without Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck. 

Despite the unpaved, rocky roads (which resulted in a punctured tire, thankfully just a few hundred metres from a bike repair shop) it’s worth renting a motorbike to explore the jungle landscape, tiny villages and dauntingly wobbly bamboo bridges that look like they could barely sustain a push bike let alone a motorbike. 


One lingering hangover from the crashed tubing party is the locals’ attitude toward foreigners. There remains an apparent hostility and they look at every Westerner as an offensive, insensitive lout who has shown up to a party uninvited. If we’ve robbed this beautiful place of her culture, how does she get back her dignity and respect? Maybe Vang Vieng is like the jilted prom queen, left bruised, battered and knocked up and just doesn’t want to accept our half-hearted apology. Well, I still love you Vang Vieng. I hope we can make it right again. 





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