The tubing haven of Vang Vieng in central Laos is an example of tourism gone wrong. This sleepy town on the Nam Song River became a famous party mecca for backpackers, who would float down the river on inner tubes, stopping off at bars along the way. Drunk revellers would dive into the river from rope swings and down the famous “Death slides.”
The cocktail of free alcohol and drugs on offer, along with dangerous slides and swimming, meant that there were more and more deaths every year. Eventually, after 27 deaths in 2011 alone, the government stepped in and closed down all the bars.
Vang Vieng is in the most stunning setting, karst limestone cliffs rise up amongst the paddy fields, the river flows gently through the town and stilted wooden houses line the riverbank. Lao people are very laid-back, peaceful and quite conservative – it’s difficult to imagine how it got so out of hand.
What’s it like today?
We visited 4 years after the bars had been shut down and found a quiet, jaded town. There are still backpackers turning up hoping for a piece of the “good old days” but the tubing is much more subdued and only a couple of bars are open on the riverbank. The famous “Friends” and “Family Guy” bars were still running the shows on repeat, but they were more than often empty.
Everywhere in town now shuts before midnight and the tourism angle has changed. There are more and more boutique hotels opening up and eco-tourism and adventure activities seem to be taking over.
And the tubing?
We didn’t do the tubing in the end. We hired bikes and cycled through the countryside and small villages in the surrounding area. It was absolutely beautiful, the real Laos that we’d been hoping for. Hopefully now Vang Vieng is moving on and can make the most of its stunning natural beauty.