Caving Is Better Than Raving: The Party’s Over in Vang Vieng

1511336_10101558523523741_451292733_nVang 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.

18 thoughts on “Caving Is Better Than Raving: The Party’s Over in Vang Vieng

  1. This sounds epic: ” 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.”

  2. This is kind of one of those posts about societies that function on a different level than the west does. Using drugs and partaking in extreme activities only seems to be an invitation for a crippling injury or worse.

    Hopefully the tourism will rebound in a more secure manner and the area will benefit.

  3. I completely agree. Before, tubing in Laos was a prime example of the corrosive side of tourism, foreigners showing up to disrespect the land, people, and culture of their destination. Cleaning it up doesn’t make it boring, it brings it back towards “travel” instead of “party weekend.” There’s still plenty of party to be found, without the need to be quite such a jackass on the river.

    With regards to sustainable/ethical travel, there are lots of good organizations working on the subject, and Altruvistas (a sustainable tour agency) being two of my favorites. (Even before they hired me to write for them ;) )

    • I think so too. You can have a wild and crazy time anywhere, really. Vang Vieng has so much to offer all on its own! So I`m glad that`s the direction it`s finally headed now. Thanks for the web sites – I will check them out!

  4. So sad to read about those wild, dangerous parties… glad it’s worked out now and looks like you had a great time :-)

  5. This entry summarises the Vang Vieng situation so well, and with such a positive spin! I also love the water references in your writing; plug pulled, etc!

  6. I’m glad they fixed this place up. I might finally get there now. Lets hope they do something to koh phangan in Thailand where the full moon parties are.

  7. Your pictures show such a naturally beautiful place! It’s hard to image it filled with party-goers and people in a state where they couldn’t truly appreciate where they are…

  8. I went to Vang Vieng in early 2012 and it was a pretty crazy place. I returned last year and it’s a lot quieter, but you’re right, the area has so much going for it and the scenery is so good that it’ll eventually become popular again.

  9. Hi Alli, I went to VV in 2006 when the partying riverside was at its peak. Like you my experience was good as I stayed away from the alcohol. The scenery was spectacular and floating down the river in a tube pretty amazing. The pancake ladies at night; I still remember the taste of a perfect nutella banana pancake at midnight. I heard a while ago about the govt shutdown and was ok with it. I am pleased t ohear that VV has the opportunity to depart from some of the stupid backpacker antics and rely more on its surroundings than drugs. Great post. Tim

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Tim! Mmm Nutella banana pancake… :) The best! Regardless of anything, Vang Vieng is beautiful. Now it has a chance to be even more so :)

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