Vang Vieng, the quiet mountain town of Laos, is one of the most picturesque places in all of South East Asia and is fast becoming one of the most popular destinations along the infamous ‘banana pancake trail’, the name given to the well-trodden route through this part of the world.
With beautiful blue-green limestone mountains creating the backdrop, and the Nam Song River running parallel to the town, you could be mistaken for finding yourself in travelling heaven. However, the town is full of sinners rather than saints and Vang Vieng has become a hell for locals. There’s only one reason for this – tubing.
Tubing was very different seven years ago to what it is today. You used to sit in an inner-tube, float down the river and take in the stunning surroundings. If the feeling took you, you would stop off for a beer at one of a few bars along the river bank. It was new. A novelty. It was a stop-off point on the way north to Luang Prabang. Something for you to do for a day. It was more about meeting the locals, experiencing a place so tranquil that it was easy to get caught up for a few days. Now it rivals the ‘Full Moon Party’ in Thailand, with hundreds of people tubing every day, but the risks are even higher.
I’m here to discover what is the heart and soul of Vang Vieng, and whether the dangers involved are worth the risk.
As tubing becomes more and more popular each year so do the dangers involved. People suffer from an endless list of calamities, each becoming worse; alcohol poisoning, drug induced episodes, violence, theft and rape. Young adults die so often in Vang Vieng that it is no longer a shock to anyone, let alone the locals. When I was there three people died in three consecutive weeks.
Today’s tubers are young backpackers looking to get loaded on anything at hand. The event starts early with ‘Bar One’, the aptly named first bar that people flock to. It’s full of revelers drinking whiskey buckets and dancing on tables. Bar promoters, always Western, tie a coloured-band around your wrist to encourage you to go to their bar in the evening. They then throw a couple of whiskey shots down your throat to raise the spirit levels. Tiger whiskey and Lao Lao (the local alternative) is cheaper than bottled water in Laos and it is treated as such.
People either walk or tube along the river to the next few bars. Scantily-clad girls sit in tubes, barely able to stand, floating down the river, waiting till a local throws a safety line to pull them into the bar. A whiskey bucket, usually around 400mls Tiger whiskey, Redbull, coke and ice, costs 20,000 kip, or £1.70. It isn’t expensive. A beer will set you back £0.75. There is one aim on the agenda and that is to consume large quantities of alcohol and to have as much fun as possible.
Each bar has a unique attraction in an attempt to keep punters at the bar. ‘Bar One’ has a 15 meter-high rope swing. ‘Bar Two’ has a zip-line. ‘Bar Three’ has a diving board. Reality is suspended and hedonism reigns. Anything seems possible and a false confidence generated by liquid courage of “it won’t happen to me” courses through the town. Of course, it does happen. People do die. Fuelled on alcohol teenagers throw themselves off these dangerous attractions without batting an eye-lid.
I watched one American, aged 21, being minutes, if not seconds, from drowning. He used the rope swing at ‘Bar One’, crashed into the water at the wrong angle and was immediately taken away by the current of the river. The locals couldn’t pick him out and and he bobbed down the river, going underwater on countless occasions. It was immediately evident that he couldn’t swim. Every time a local tried to throw him a safety line he missed it, and even if he did catch it, there was slim chance of them being able to pull out the dead-weight of a man twice their weight. All of his friends continued to party whilst this was going on, oblivious to their friends plight. If it wasn’t for a kayaker who rescued the American then he would have died and no one would have known.
One local, Nit, commented: “These people are stupid. They drink and they drink and they drink. Then they go swimming. It is stupid.”
Tubing finishes at 6pm. Party-goers head back to Vang Vieng and stagger back to their hostels. I wish I could say that is the end of the night but it isn’t. People come back out again at 9pm to get back on it, heading to ‘Sakura’, ‘Q-Bar’ or ‘Bucket Bar’. Often people take a break from booze and opt for a mushroom shake instead, as if this is the wise option. The festivities continue until 3am, or until people drop. The stamina that these kids have is stunning.
Vang Vieng is a bubble. It borders on fantasy. People are happy to forget their worries, to kick back and have a good time. However, the dangers are high and it won’t be long until something is done about it.
The locals are partly to blame for encouraging this level of hedonism but there is a profit to be made. New guest-houses are being thrown up in rapid time and bars along the river are becoming more stable, being upgraded from the shack they once were. They turn a blind-eye to what happens to Westerners and are only interested in making money, and who can blame them? There is an air of permanence around tubing, as if it is here to stay, but is this a good thing?
Tubing itself is great fun, one of the best activities along the trail, but it overshadows Laos. Laos, in my opinion, is the most interesting of all the South East Asian countries, boasting hundreds of sites, yet people still only come here for one thing, and that is tubing. There is more to Laos than tubing. There is more to Thailand than the ‘Full Moon Party’. If people want excitement, then get out of Vang Vieng and actually experience Laos. You’ll be surprised by what you find.