Unless you’re in your 20’s and from Europe or Australia, odds are you’ve never heard of Vang Vieng, Laos. I certainly hadn’t until we started doing research for this trip.
Vang Vieng was once a sleepy and picturesque village on the road between the “new” capital of Vientiane and the old royal capital of Luang Prabang (communists tend to like clean breaks with the past, so it was moved after they took over the country in 1975). Vang Vieng, along with most of Laos, went largely unnoticed by tourists for decades courtesy of a massive amount of UXO (unexploded ordnance) left behind from sustained bombing by the Americans during our conflict with Vietnam.
Backpackers started showing up in Vang Vieng in the 1990’s, and it’s not hard to see why it quickly became a hot spot: strategic location, majestic limestone mountains, lush greenery, undiscovered caves, cascading waterfalls, and secret lagoons. Sounds a lot like other SE Asian hotspots, but, somewhere along the way, things went in a decidedly dark direction.
It happened innocently enough: a local guesthouse owner/organic farmer bought some inner tubes for his farm volunteers and guests to float the river. What started as a fun way to relax and enjoy the beautiful Nam Song caught on like wildfire, and before long, the whole town was neck-deep in this new tubing business. Bars started popping up along the river banks, and by 2011, the scene reached a frenzy: there were over 25 bars, complete with ziplines, slides, rope swings, and a prolific and open drug scene.
Then tourists started dying. Yes, dying – overdosing, drowning, and in drunken accidents – and not just one or two. In 2011, the Vang Vieng hospital reported the deaths of 27 tourists, though it’s thought that the figure is actually higher since the serious cases were taken straight to Vientiane and recorded there. The international media caught wind in 2012, and the Laos government had a big and very public problem on their hands. They cracked down hard, shuttering almost every single bar on the river. Today, the scene is shadow of its former self – only four bars operate along the river, and the drug scene, though still present, is much more under the radar.
While Vang Vieng was not on the top of our Laos must-do list for obvious reasons, it made a natural stopping point for us on our ride from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. Ok, and maybe we were a little curious to see what it was like post-crackdown, and I can’t say we hated the idea of floating down a cool river on hot day with a few bottles of tasty Beerlao.
Upon pulling into town, it was clear the party hadn’t completely vanished. Laos is a fairly conservative country when it comes to dress, customs, and sex. Lest visitors are unaware and/or forgetful, there are signs everywhere reminding folks to behave respectfully, particularly when it comes to clothing (e.g. no bikinis while walking down the street, in restaurants, etc.). This is all but ignored. Callous disregard for the local people and customs? Check one in the party column.
We checked into our guest house, and after a hot day’s ride, grabbed a bite and hit the hay early: the next day, we would wade into tubing world.
As I mentioned earlier, the floating route now has four bars: one at the very beginning, and three along the way. It’s a very short stretch of river, so if you’re moving fast and have one drink per bar, you could easily be done with the whole thing in two or so hours. For the hard-partying crowd, this is not nearly enough, but fear not – tuks tuks are waiting at the end, ready to take you back to the beginning so you can do it all over again. Ad infinitum.
We decided to play it a little more tame and start at about three in the afternoon – plenty of time to do one, leisurely float. Our plan was to spend as little time at the bars as possible – we’d buy a few beers, and then hit the water, avoiding the mayhem.
After signing our lives away, we hopped into a tuk tuk with some very nice but half-lit, high, chain-smoking, unemployed Brits who were much closer to 30 than 20. This was not their first time in Vang Vieng, and we soon learned they were on SE Asia party-tour of sorts. Awesome.
When we arrived at the starting point/first bar, the Brits plopped down at a table and proceeded to do shot after shot of Lao-Lao, the local hooch, before even hitting the water. We opted to collect our free beer and get on with it.
I have to tell you, it was lovely. The water was cool and refreshing, the river banks were shaded with trees, and the
aforementioned mountains were towering above us in the golden afternoon sun. It was picture-perfect.
About two minutes later, we reached the first bar. Bass was pumping, people were screaming – sips into our first beer, we were so not ready. Pass. As we floated on, doing our best to create some distance between us and the revelers stumbling into the river, we noticed some locals diving under the water with masks and goggles on, swimming underneath everyone’s tubes. Turns out, they were looking for money and valuables lost by drunken revelers – a genius idea, but nonetheless slightly unnerving and creepy.
By the time bar number two came, we needed refills and decided to enter the fray. After being pulled into shore and unceremoniously dumped from our tubes, we headed up the bank, and the party unfolded before our eyes. How to describe it?
It was like spring break in Daytona but with better scenery (for our non-American readers, this is not a favorable comparison – if you don’t know why, a simple Google image search will tell you all you need to know). Blacked out girls in too-small bikinis danced languidly to blaring top 40 hits. Bruhs bruhs leered and pawed at the girls, most of whom were either too far gone and/or too insecure to mind the harassment. Nearly all were on some combination of beer, hard liquor, marijuana, and god knows what else.
After a day on the river, you can find the revelers still in their swimsuits, passed out face down in a plate of frozen french fries in any number of restaurants that all inexplicably run the TV show Friends on a loop 24 hours a day. In a country as poor and conservative as Laos, it’s not hard to see why there’s so much local animosity toward tourists, even if the money they bring in is not unwelcome.
As an American college grad and, confession time, former sorority member, this scene neither shocked nor offended me: mostly, it just reeked of desperation – the party was over, and no one wanted to admit it. It’s like being the last kid picked in kickball. The cool people have moved on, and all that’s left are the wannabes.
Nonetheless, it made for excellent people-watching, and we really enjoyed it all spite of ourselves. We met a lovely, nomadic couple from the UK at the second bar, and we spent the rest of the time floating and hanging with them, swapping travel stories and taking in the whole scene.
We floated well into the evening, and since the other revelers had long since passed out in front of Friends, we had the river to ourselves. We watched a massive orange moon rise over karsts towering above us – me, my love, and new friends floating down a peaceful river in a place I never knew existed until a few weeks beforehand. These magical and unexpected moments are the raison de voyager – they make all the disappointments, hard times, upset stomachs, etc. disappear.
Though there are few stragglers unwilling to let go of Vang Vieng’s sullied past, it’s definitely not the party town it once was. This is a good thing. Its beautiful surroundings have much to offer – caving, bicycling, kayaking, ballooning, hiking, you name it – and tourists are starting to trickle back in, providing a much-needed boost to the local economy post-crackdown.
Vang Vieng has been given a new lease on life, and the future looks promising. If you’re in Laos, don’t let a few die-hards scare you away – they’re easily avoided, and you can be a part of making it into the destination it deserves to be.