A while back I wrote a post about tubing the river in Vang Vieng, Laos. I feel an obligation as someone who has been here to educate future travelers in the most honest way possible. So I’m going to explain to you a little bit about how Vang Vieng was and how it came to be what it is now.
On a map you probably couldn’t point out to me which country is Lao. That’s not because it’s hidden somewhere remote, or because it’s particularly small in land mass. It’s mostly because Lao boarders 3 of the most popular countries for tourist travel in all of South East Asia: Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
The best way for me to describe to you what Vang Vieng was like is that it was a huge drug infested party town with no rules and no enforcement of any sort. Vang Vieng is 4 hour drive north of the country’s capitol city of Vientiane on pothole ridden dirt roads. The once small farming village grew into the perfect place for drugs and drinking for a few reasons:
Things happened fast
Tubing the river in Vang Vieng started in the early 2000’s and in a matter of a few years became a word of mouth sensation as a “must-do” for backpackers strolling though South East Asia. Just how popular had it gotten? At the peak of the tubing phenomena the population in Vang Vieng was said to be a 4:1 ratio of tourists to locals.
Every restaurant and bar wanted bragging rights
Restaurants and bars all over Vang Vieng proudly displayed huge signs above their establishment boasting they have the “strongest mushroom buckets”, “happiest shakes”, or “best opium”.
Everything was cheap
Not only was Vang Vieng overflowing with drugs and booze, but because Laos is a 3rd world country everything was incredibly cheap. I remember going to the ATM in Vang Vieng and the absolute maximum you can take out is 1,000,000 kip, which at the time equated to $123 USD. I paid $5 USD a night for my own room with a king sized bed and my own bathroom. I was paying $1 USD for even the most lavish meals. Everything was cheap.
Problems became too big to ignore
Suddenly the small and never noticed Vang Vieng was on the map as a tourist destination. As word of the land of overflowing drugs and lawlessness grew so did the problems. I visited Vang Vieng in 2011. In that year alone there were 27 tubing related deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Not only that, but more and more tourists began overdosing on “bad batches” of the many serious types of drugs being sold in Vang Vieng. The honest truth is that the authorities in Lao knew exactly what was going on in Vang Vieng, but chose to turn a blind eye to it. Eventually the casualties of this party town started to gain international attention. The problem had become big enough that the Lao Government could no longer ignore what was going on.
By the end of 2012, a different story was being told in Vang Vieng. The authorities came in, and almost over night, put an end to the ridiculous culture that had taken over Vang Vieng. Dozens of bars were forced to close. Slides and rope swings that littered the river were taken down and although you can still tube the river, the way you go about it is completely different now.
Tourism in Vang Vieng is down compared to when tubing and drugs were at their peak, but from everything I’ve heard, Vang Vieng as a whole is way up. There may be less people coming to be belligerently drunk and strung out on drugs, but the people that do come are seeing Laos for what it really is: a beautiful country with a lot to offer tourists who want to visit.
Vang Vieng is like the party boy who finally got busted and was forced to get clean. And only after he got clean did he realize how good he was at other things besides getting drunk and doing drugs. Tourism can and does go bad, especially in small under developed counties that face governmental corruption and extremely poverty like Lao does. Vang Vieng is now a success story and a beacon of hope for when tourist destinations hit rock bottom.
some more great reading about Vang Vieng before:
great reading about Vang Vieng now: