Vang Vieng has placed itself on the map for backpackers as a major hot spot to visit when traveling around Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it is for all the wrong reasons. Tubing in Laos is summed up like this: bar hopping along the river in tubes. It’s a drug-fueled party full of illegal bars and dangerous rope swings and slides . . . all of which become “accidents waiting to happen” the second you add alcohol.
Unsurprisingly, stupid things started to happen. After several hours of drinking and using drugs on the water, people returned like zombies to their hostels. But not everybody made it that far. Many would drunkenly slip on the rocks, breaking their bones. Others were injured while tubing or suffered from alcohol poisoning. In 2011 there were nearly 30 deaths, prompting the government to take action. In the summer of 2012 an army of police embarked on Vang Vieng, closing down dozens of illegal bars, and enforcing rules that tourists could only go tubing with a life jacket on and without alcohol. But marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and opium pipes were still available at every corner.
Recently, in June 2013, the almost inevitable moment came: the Laotian government ultimately decided that enough was enough. Tubing in Vang Vieng finally had its plug pulled. Within a couple of weeks, all the riverside bars were dismantled. The former party capital become a ghost town as many bars were forced to close down their doors.
My experience in Vang Vieng was, thankfully, a polar opposite of the usual criteria mentioned previously. I did spend time on the water but had a great time sans alcohol. We kayaked along the Nam Song River while taking in all the breathtaking scenery . . . and made it back to the hotel safe and sound. This kayak trip up the river showed how thoroughly the Lao authorities cracked down on Vang Vieng. The riverside bars along the tubing course have not only been closed – but most of them have been demolished.
Along with the kayaking, we also wanted to explore some caves of Vang Vieng. An easy way we did this was sit on an inner tube and pull ourselves through a cave with a tethered rope. The water was really cold but everybody was excited because we were in pitch black darkness the entire time.
Out with the drugs and tubing bars, in with the helium balloons.
Very prevalent now in Vang Vieng are balloons being passed around filled with helium gas. For party-hopeful tourists that still come to Vang Vieng desperate for some wild times, the bars hand out these balloons for people to inhale from as apparently there is a high associated with the inhaling of the helium. While watching people suck the air from a balloon or the actual helium can itself, I just thought they looked so silly. This is just one weird/wild thing out of several that tourists can still find. If people really wanted to, they could still seek out drugs and other wild activities to take part in, like flame limbo for instance. Previously in Vang Vieng everything illegal was blatantly and readily available. But since the shutdown, I didn’t notice a thing . . . partly because I wasn’t looking.
We also visited the Blue Lagoon for some swimming after our cave and kayak adventure, but still one of my favourite things while in Vang Vieng were the “pancake ladies.” In the evenings the streets would be lined with ladies and their pancake stations, ready to whip up an amazing fresh pancake of many delicious assortments: nutella, banana, coconut, chocolate, etc, etc.
I believe that this recent shutdown of drugs and tubing should not be seen as the end of Vang Vieng . . . but rather an opportunity to get back to what made it so great. The amazing natural and authentic setting is still there. In my opinion, it’s much better suited to caving than raving.