Warning: The following post contains photos of people half-naked and showing questionable judgement. The easily offended or biologically related to me should not proceed.
I’ve slept in a room in Malaysia that made me question whether or not the movie Hostel was in fact fiction. I’ve been on a cruise ship in Greece where I had a white-gloved butler with whom I felt so awkward we did not make eye contact once. I’ve been in situations where no one shared my language, country of origin or general background. And yet never in my life have I felt further from home than I did in the tiny town of Vang Vieng, Laos. Quite simply, Vang Vieng is on a different planet. A celestial body that I would name Planet Hedonism.
Never before have I been to a place where tourism is devoted almost exclusively to the act of making bad decisions (okay, so I don’t want Las Vegas to feel left out…), a place where laminated drink menus sit aside ones for drugs, a place where, as one crudely-painted sign so eloquently put it, “ANYTHING IS ACCEPTABLE.”
A day in Vang Vieng usually has a pretty late start, as everyone in the vicinity was partying until the wee hours the night before. The day will begin in any one of the nondescript guesthouses lining the border-town-esque streets of central Vang Vieng. The first levels of these guesthouses are made up of identical shrines to the American teenage stoner: low tables surrounded by hand-me-down cushions, endless reruns of unfortunately-captioned Family Guy and Friends, and a menu of barely-edible staples like hamburgers and french fries.
Here you will gather and wait for the troops to assemble for the activity that has made Vang Vieng legendary among party-loving backpackers everywhere: Tubing. We’ll get there in a minute. But first, do you have your uniform on? And by uniform I am of course referring to entire wardrobe one can purchase emblazoned with the questionable-grammar featuring logo, “In the Tubing, Vang Vieng, Laos.” Beware that you are legally obligated to buy one of these clothing items before leaving Laos. If you do not comply it will be very difficult for other travelers on the Southeast Asia Backpacking Trail to judge exactly how cool you are.
Once you gather a large enough group for a day of debauchery, you can negotiate with a tuk tuk driver to bring you to the first bar along the Nam Song river. As soon as you leave the dusty town, you begin to see the beauty that first brought Westerners to this region.
As you reach the river and cross the rickety bridge to the first bar, there is no turning back. The river is lined by a series of twelve bars, which participants make their way down throughout the day. Travel between the bars is done by paths and bridges or by floating in a rubber inner tube. As tubers pass down the river, Laotian bar boys will throw out a rope to pull the partiers into each bar, and welcome them with a shot of Lao Lao whiskey and a string bracelet tied around the wrist. Viva Vang Vieng.
The owner of a local organic farm really had no idea what he was getting himself into when he bought a few inner tubes for his foreign volunteers to relax down the river in, back in the late 1990’s. Rather than spending their days picking mulberries, visitors to Vang Vieng today are more likely to be found enjoying their mulberries in a plastic beach bucket of mojito. Thousands of miles from responsibility and accountability; steps away from bikini-clad fellow backpackers, an array of dirt-cheap drinks and drugs, and a non-stop playlist of the America Top 40. The outcome looks a little something like this:
Warning: The following images show people behaving crudely and rudely, and exemplify every single “the internet is forever” warning speech my parents ever gave me in regards to future employment-gaining and political office-running.
There are a few things you might notice that most tubers have in common: the aforementioned tubing uniform, a bucket of alcohol in hand, and body covered in oft-explicit phrases written in permanent marker by fellow backpackers.
Days on the river are fairly intense. You have to juggle a busy schedule of floating mindlessly in an inner tube, deciding what flavor of heavily-laced bucket to order, dancing like a maniac, sucking down laughing gas balloons, and avoiding permanent-marker wielders.
As the only person in the group with a waterproof camera, I had great responsibility in documenting the hedonism of our tubing time. At one point it was agreed that I was not passing muster in this area and my camera disappeared for hours at a time. I was actually afraid to look back through the photos when it was returned to me. What I found left me laughing and cringing at the same time. If you’re interested in seeing a collage of photos that not safe for work, unless perhaps you happen to work in a brassiere factory, Click Here. This is a hint of what you will find:
During my four days in Vang Vieng, the area was noticeably low on tourists. It was low season, but Vang Vieng veterans and locals alike assured me that at this same time in previous years the river was booming. Does this have to do with the recently-released statistics on deaths in Vang Vieng? According to official reports, 27 foreigners died last year. A shocking number as-is, though the true death-tally may be much higher. Anyone who does not die on the spot is rushed to the nearest true hospital — four hours away via bumpy roads in the capital of Vientiane. In reality, it’s not a stretch to guess that nearly one backpacker per week dies in Vang Vieng.
What causes these horrific statistics? Well, anytime drugs and alcohol are so pervasive it can lead to accidents. But throw in a rushing river filled with sharp rocks and lined by a dozen or so slides, zip-lines, rope swings and diving platforms, and the results can be, clearly, fatal. One such slide is known among backpackers as “The Slide of Death,” and some feature handwritten signs with un-heeded warnings such as the one that reads “Do Not Jump or You Will Die.”
Readers, I jumped.
Why did I do it, and why admit it, when so many other bloggers proudly take a proud stance not to? Well, I guess at the time I didn’t think too much into it. I was swept away in the fun. I was still feeling a little down and I was looking for an adrenaline rush. I got a little high out of doing something that most of the big burly guys in my group wouldn’t even attempt (maturer words were never written). I was going through the doing-stupid-stuff rite of passage of that is your early twenties.
Now, in my defense, I wasn’t on any drugs. I wasn’t even drunk. I watched dozens of other people do it first. It was still light out.* It was fun.
And I was far from the only one to take the plunge. There were plenty of others willing to be a living example of that stereotype about young people and their perceived invincibility.
The hours pass quickly and before you know it, night is falling. Beyond the pulsing lights and beats, a quick glance at the sunset is yet another reminder of what brought travelers to Laos back in the 1960’s, when it first warranted a spot on the hippie trail.
Back in modern day, that sunset marks the close of the river bars. You’d think after a day that wild, most people would be heading for bed, right? Not these party people. When the last river bar closes around 7pm, everyone hops in tuk-tuks to keep the party raging at the bars in town.
It all goes on until the early hours, when the final holdouts give up after more than twelve hours of straight partying and head to bed. After all, they’ve got a big day ahead of them tomorrow.
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Since I first visited Southeast Asia, I have always wanted to visit this mythical land of Vang Vieng and try the tubing. I had conflicted thoughts about visiting, and they were not resolved after I left. But I admit, I had a great time. And how could I not? This is an artificially engineered environment and I am the target audience: a young, party-loving traveler with few responsibilities and a passion for trashy dance music. It’s a daytime version of the Full Moon Party or Sunjam… only rather than once a month or once a year, its every single day.
I had a few readers comment that since I loved Luang Prabang I probably wouldn’t like Vang Vieng. I disagree! While I admit it’s rare, I think it’s possible to be a museum-and-temple-loving, culturally-aware traveler who occasionally likes to let their hair down and party in a trashy place like Vang Vieng. There’s no need to put all Southeast Asia travelers into one of two boxes.
Now for the disclaimers. First up, a superficial complaint. I had a great time… for four days. I was pretty shocked to meet people who had string bracelets all the way up their arms, indicating they had been shacked up in Vang Vieng for months. I met a girl who’s first stop in her travels was Vang Vieng and hadn’t moved on four months later, not even for a weekend in lovely Luang Prabang! I met a guy who spends six months a year saving up in Canada and the other six blowing it all on the river. I met countless others with similar stories of being simply unable to tear themselves away from Vang Vieng. That, I simply cannot imagine. I love a good party, but to stay somewhere long-term I would need something more than that. That’s why I loved Koh Tao so dearly; it had the perfect combination of partying, diving, natural beauty and community.
Secondly, a more serious note… it goes almost without saying that there is an ethical dark side to the party scene that has taken over this tiny town in remote Laos. The way tourism has developed here has had a cataclysmic effect on the community, and there’s no way a traveler here can simply ignore that. I promise to delve deeper in an upcoming post. Today, I simply wanted to introduce you to the most bizarre place I have ever been. And to show you pictures of hot guys without shirts. You’re welcome.
*I try to reserve judgement, but people who are still jumping into the river after sunset ARE INSANE. No one will see you getting swept away because it is dark, and no one will hear your cries for help over the Calvin Harris blasting from the speakers. Be careful kids. End lecture.