Little did the CIA know that their clandestine airstrip in Central Laos, once known as ‘Lima Site 6’ and used for Air America missions during the Vietnam War, would one day be splattered by backpacker vomit from revelers trying to find their ways home.
Perhaps the closest rival that Koh Phangan’s Full Moon Party has in Southeast Asia, Vang Vieng tubing is notorious as one of the most perpetually insane party scenes in the region.
Vang Vieng seems the most unlikely of places to develop into a raging party. Tucked away in the mountains of a very conservative, communist country, the tiny riverside fishing village had no idea what was coming: first, machine guns; then, the hippies; then, the tubing masses.
In fact, Thanongsi Sorangkoun, the local who ‘accidentally’ introduced tubing to Vang Vieng in 1998, had no idea what was to come.
Thanongsi had Vang Vieng’s best interests in mind when he started a 30-acre organic farm and guesthouse to house volunteers on the peaceful farm. To give travelers a distraction, he purchased a few tractor innertubes so that they could float lazily down the river.
Now in his 60s, the organic farmer cannot believe his eyes. He shouldn’t. His neighbors even report seeing drunk backpackers have sex while floating in the tubes he innocuously introduced.
The tubing scene developed into a full-on rampage. Rickety bamboo bars and platforms now line both sides of the river where backpackers can park their tubes, hope that they don’t get stolen, and take a break with either a notoriously cheap-and-good Beer Lao or a whiskey-Redbull bucket. Locals stationed along the river ‘fish’ for backpackers floating by in their tubes with bamboo poles. Travelers can grab the pole and be pulled in to purchase a beer or moonshine shot from ice coolers.
After having a bucket or two of liquid courage and bravado hits a peak, travelers are then encouraged to zipline or jump from platforms into the river, hopefully not landing a rock or another tuber. Spectacular zipline flips and belly flops are rewarded with applause, and lots of attention from the bikini-clad ladies.
Now, you can’t travel anywhere in Southeast Asia without encountering hordes of people sporting their ‘Tubing in the Vang Vieng’ shirts that caught on for the classically bad English.
But Vang Vieng isn’t just all about puking into the river. With jagged, green mountains rising up in every direction, the place is simply gorgeous. While I wouldn’t name Vang Vieng as a good place to learn about Laotian food or culture, you could spend weeks exploring the wild caves, trails, and natural wonders. I hired a mountain bike there in 2006 and rode for days through the surrounding hills and villages.
Unfortunately, only a small fraction of the visitors to Vang Vieng actually leave town. When not floating with a beer dangling in the water to keep cool, they’re sweating out hangovers in front of televisions while watching South Park or Family Guy in one of the numerous restaurants.
The party scene in Vang Vieng certainly isn’t contained to the banks along the river.
Once darkness fall and tubes have to be returned — or paid for because they were lost — the town gets busy. Plenty of the obligatory Rasta-themed bars that backpackers tend to frequent cater to whoever has some liver stamina left.
Drugs, mostly weed and mushrooms, are ubiquitous.
Ironic that in a country where getting busted with drugs could potentially land you life in prison, ‘magic’ shakes made from local psychedelic shrooms are advertised by permanent signboards. It’s as easy to get weed added to your ‘happy’ pizza as pepperoni; both appear on restaurant menus.
Compared to the strictly enforced curfew requiring bars to close around 11 p.m. in Luang Prabang — the next stop north of Vang Vieng — the little riverside village has obtained legendary status for drug accessibility on the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail.
The drugs in Vang Vieng have never been a secret, but local authorities have always turned a blind eye.
The End of a Backpacking Legend?
Until now, anyway. Perhaps in response to the 27 travelers who died in 2011 while tubing and ziplining in Vang Vieng, the Vientiane Times reported in August 2012 that at least 24 bars along the river will be shut down following a crackdown on the drug scene. [The link to the article was blocked due to internet censorship of this site.]
Whether the crackdown by authorities is permanent or just a move to quell public outcry remains uncertain — only time will tell.
For every traveler who cracks a drunken skull while jumping into the river, at least 10 more are injured with broken bones and fractures. The small local clinic in Vang Vieng stays perpetually busy with injuries.
It’s difficult to travel long term through Southeast Asia and not meet someone who has heard of a traveler dying while in Vang Vieng.
Drowning and head injuries claim an annual toll that increases every year.
Maybe mixing drinks, drugs, ziplining, and diving into a sometimes-shallow river doesn’t bode well for young travelers.
Fortunately, Vang Vieng isn’t all doom and gloom. Like many places, it’s just given a bad reputation by a careless minority who ruin it for the majority. Many travelers who were lucky enough to not witness any carnage, like myself, name Vang Vieng as one of the best memories of their trips.
The local residents, who endured both colonization and communism, now have a new and unexpected challenge: sharing their river. The Nam Song River, the lifeline of existence for people in the area, is no longer a source of joy. Many locals still cling to their ancestors’ animist beliefs of a spirit world and can feel the negative energy saturating the place. Who wants to swim or do laundry in water where so many people die?
While the water may be cursed with evil spirits, tubing is certainly good for employment. Although all residents would agree that their quiet part of Laos has been forever trashed, business has never been better. Few local young men want to throw fishing nets when they could be selling drinks to half-naked Western girls who paint penises and sexual messages on their bodies.
Even microindustries have sprang up around tubing. Locals quietly dredge the river at night for the many lost artifacts. The Nam Song has claimed more mobile phones, cameras, jewelery, wallets, and flip-flops than perhaps any other river. Small children drag tubers through the shallows at the end of the trip for a small donation. A handful of nefarious individuals have even been hired by the tubing companies to steal tubes while people are partying at bars so that the deposit must be paid later.
My advice for Vang Vieng? Go, you have to see it. Have fun, try not to get yourself hurt, then get out of town — either into the mountains or to the positive vibe in Luang Prabang — to see something more interesting than a 19-year-old puking all over his/her flip-flops.
August 2013 Update
I decided to have a look at what has changed in Vang Vieng and this is what I found on my August 2013 visit:
- Tubing is still very much alive, although there are now only three bars open on the river.
- Nightlife in town has been restricted down to one or two bars, with the ‘Irish Bar’ being the most popular.
- One late-night club known as ‘101’ is open until 2 a.m. or so.
- A few restaurants including ‘Milan Pizza’ on the main road and the ‘Family Guy’ place still serve happy shakes and pizzas.
Meet the Author:
Greg Rodgers is the editor of this fine travel site. He left Corporate America to begin traveling in 2006 and has been happily living from a rucksack since!