If I was asked to summarise Vang Vieng after my time there in 2011, I would simply state that it is a place of two extremes.
It has its angelic side featuring calmness, culture and an abundance of natural brilliance within its landscape. Yet, it also has a darker devilish side promoting hedonistic partying on a river fuelled on alcohol, mushroom shakes and grass.
I was lucky enough to experience both sides of this backpackers’ haven and in all honesty I enjoyed both. I’m certainly in no position to judge or comment about what is right or wrong with the partying scene in Vang Vieng because when I was there I totally embraced it all.
However, through meeting local people I did gain a greater understanding of the effects ‘Tubing’ was having in the region and I was able to see the bigger picture.
The party on the river is referred to as ‘Tubing’ simply because each person jumps in a big rubber inner tube, floats down the river and is then thrown out a rope to be pulled into various bars. It’s like the bar staff are fishing for humans and when they catch them, they get them highly intoxicated and throw them back in. A wild and crazy scene!
Vang Vieng developed as a backpacker destination because over the years it became a half way stop off between Laos’s biggest cities – Vientiane and Luang Prabang. However, with the growth of tourism and tubing, Vang Vieng became a destination in its own right for wanderers on the South East Asia circuit.
I arrived there with my ex girlfriend and we arranged to stay there for five days. We knew it had a great reputation as a place to party with the ‘tubing’ and we grasped that we could do some cool exploring activities.
We were also fortunate that my friend Matthew was volunteering in a village nearby and therefore we would have access to some local guidance.
When I first arrived at the river to go ‘tubing’ I was excited, a little tipsy from a few cans of Beer Laos (the only beer available in Laos) and ready to throw myself head first into this mind bending party.
Carrying our inner tubes on our shoulders we had to walk across a wooden bridge to the first bar. There were two local youngsters on the bridge handing out free alcohol shots.
‘It’s Lao Lao Whisky, made here, cheaper than water and free in all the bars’ Matthew explained as we guzzled a shot, and walked across the bridge.
As I stood in the centre of the bridge and looked directly down the river, I instantly understood what all the fuss was about – this was one hell of a party. Wooden bars on stilts built at each side of the river, booming music, bikinis, boardies, buckets of booze and dodgy looking zip wires from shaking ladders.
We partied on the river until the sun went down; danced to the music, drank the buckets of whisky and red bull, smoked the shisha pipes and threw ourselves off the zip wire lines.
The year I was there they recorded 27 deaths on the river and the following year they shut the bars down.
Why was such an extremely dangerous river party so appealing to our generation? Maybe it’s because we were brought up in a western world that smothers itself in the red tape of rules and regulations. So much so, that personal responsibility is almost removed from the equation.
South East Asia in general is different from this; it’s not over regulated (because their governments have probably got more fundamental issues to face), there are activities that are dangerous and there is an ‘anything goes’ mindset in certain regions.
However, responsibility is put onto the individual. Nobody is forced to get sky high and float down a river, it’s a choice. Western society has developed a huge ‘blame’ and ‘compensation’ culture when really most decisions are made personally and therefore people must be responsible for their own actions.
Over the following days we discovered the angelic side of Van Vieng and it more than satisfied my appetite for adventure. We kayaked down the Nam Song river, crawled into numerous caves, hiked (and at times were forced to climb) in the rainforest and visited Laotian villages on a motorbike.
We also spent some time at the Sae Lao project where Matthew was volunteering. It was here that I met Bob, a Laotian who had been educated in Canada; he was running the project. He explained that although tourism within the region had flourished, local culture and the state on the natural rainforest had deteriorated. Sae Lao was helping educate local communities on more sustainable development and methods of working.
He guided us on a tour in the rainforest and we discussed the ‘tubing’ attraction. He explained that although it generates money it also brings negativity to the villages. The river played a fundamental role Laotian community life but since there have been reoccurring deaths many locals avoid it. The reason for this is that, like most of South East Asia, Laotians follow Buddhism and believe the deaths represent bad karma and energy.
He also pointed out that drunken debauchery and walking around semi naked is against the local culture and disrespectful.
Vang Vieng was generous to me showing me both her sides; I danced with devils and hiked with the angels. I thoroughly enjoyed them both!
However, being a little bit older and wiser now, I’d conclude that it’s probably a good thing that the tubing has closed down, not because it was a high risk, dangerous activity (that’s part of what South East Asia is all about) but because it was having a negative effect on local Laotian communities. The big western conglomerate machine is doing enough damage to the world as it is!