Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Tubing Phenomenon in Vang Vieng, Laos is Dead

Gorgeous view, but no tourists floating down the river
Let me take this moment to offer a eulogy to a phenomenon, started by a few hedonistic travelers and perpetuated by word of mouth by the millions of backpackers who have gone and made a mess of the otherwise quaint town of Vang Vieng in Laos.

Yes folks, there's no denying it, tubing in Vang Vieng is gone, kaput, dead.

Let me first clarify this statement. Tubing or floating down the Vang Vieng river is still going on, (although I saw less than 50 people doing it in two days). But the "tubing" or floating down the river totally stoned or drunk, while stopping at bars and drug joints or shackles along the river, is gone.

Tubing started when some of the locals floated down the river many moons ago. They were offered beerlao whilew floating down, and soon after, more locals followed suit. Foreigners passing through from Vientianne to the world heritage site of Luang Prabang heard of it and immitated the act. Soon, the phenomenon was passed around by word of mouth among travel circles and the tubing, as we know now, has its own following. This also gave the quiet town of Vang Vieng its own identity.

In the following years, guest houses catering to the crowds started mushrooming and they began offering other services. Name it, and they have it. Kayaking, caving, mountain trekking, and of course drugs.

This phenomenon has gone completely out of control in the past 10 years years, with at least one person dying every year, more, if you hear the local reports. You will often see heavily drunk tourist heaving and then passing out on the streets. There had been reports of robberies among drunk visitors as well.

Floating down the river using the inner tire tubes, is safe on its own but when you do it drunk or stones is totally a different story. Under the influence of alcohol or drugs, western tourists do it while trying the famous crazy swings and the slides of death, resulting in injuries, traumas and well, death.

Many wondered whether the Lao government will act on it, or it will keep its hands off attitude and just prolong the drug and alcohol-centered parties.

The empty Arena restaurant
Last year, authorities finally lifted their fingers and demolished the shackles of bars located along the river. Bars are now forbidden to sell drugs, ecstasy or marijuana to tourists, most of whom are in their late teens or early 20s. Since then, tourism in Vang Vieng has decreased dramatically.

I read the stories and heard the reports but I was in denial. How could something of a cultural phenomenon that's been going on since the 1990's be gone in less than a year. I have been dying to go there for years and I was sure that despite the ban, several others would want to go there as well.

Definitely, something will have to remain.

The feeling is gone 

Despite warnings, I trooped to Vang Vieng to see for myself what became of the town. What I found is still the gorgeous vista of the hills and mountains enveloping the town.

A warning inside Oh La Land bar
But everything else is different.

The town is completely quiet, with almost all guesthouses empty or not even half-full.

Kate, a British girl I was traveling with from Vientianne, noticed it immediately and declared what all of us in the traveling van were thinking. "This place is dying".

Very few tourists are in sight. The restaurants are empty and some of the stalls are being dismantled.

Still, I rationalized that March is a low season because of the lower levels of the river, but the locals I asked, said the drought in tourists has been going on since October of last year right after the drug ban.

another empty restaurant
Many restaurants and individuals are trying to keep Vang Vieng alive.

Oh La Land, one of the bars here holds beer pong, and a semi open mic night, but very few tourists are coming in.

TV restaurants, which show reruns of Friends and Family guy are open, but they too are feeling the ill effects of the recent government actions.

I checked out restaurants such as Arena and Chaleun and they too are almost empty.

There is also the Jungle Party held every Fridays. I went there to check if the party scene was wild as ever, but unfortunately, what I found is the same setting as that found in the main bars. People drinking beers, while sitting down, while techno music is going on.

A former restaurant being demolished
The party scene in Vang Vieng has often been compared to the Full Moon party in Koh Pangan, Thailand but what I witnessed is nothing close to that party. This has become a very lonely town indeed.

There are no rowdy tourists, high on drugs, since the party was being monitored by a few old men outside.

There are other activities in Vang Vieng other than tubing. You can do kayaking and caving among others, but without the fun atmosphere and partying scene, it's only a matter of time, until everyone stops coming.

One supposed consideration for the ban and the demolition of the riverside bars and clubs, is that locals are against 'tubing" and the rowdy crowds it attracts. But now, locals are singing a different tune.

The streets are empty too
A vendor I asked said they want the tourists to come back since the decrease in tourism revenues is hurting the village and their families.

I am in no way supporting the drug culture that comes hand in hand with tubing and the crowds it attracts. But I was definitely saddened by the near demise of this backpacker culture I have come to admire.

Like I said, tubing is not the problem but the crooks that took advantage of it. I wish the government did not demolish the river side bars and the slides, but they could have deployed marshalls similar to that in Koh Pangan, to avoid accidents and deaths.

It's not clear whether the Lao government will re-open the bars and promote tourism in Vang Vieng again, but until then, the future of Vang Vieng and its people is not looking very bright.


  1. Good riddance to bad trash say I...
    I think once the word is out far and wide, VV will begin to attract more responsible and respectful visitors, a little older and wiser--the kind of people who perhaps have avoided the place precisely because of the unsavory reputation the partiers brought. I know it sounds much more appealing to me now and I will likely visit for the first time after a few trips to Laos avoiding it.
    It make take a couple of seasons, but the rooms will start filling up again, the spot is gorgeous and has much to offer.

    1. Shut the fuck up cunt, you are everything wrong with the people in this world. Just because some people enjoy life in other ways that you don't, doesn't mean it shouldn't happen.

    2. Shut the fuck up cunt, teenagers getting messed up with booze and drugs and then killed is not a good thing by any scale. Just because they want to do drugs and be irresponsible and because they have money their parents probably made for them doesn't mean it should happen. Often they are arrogant and bad mannered and degrading towards local people. Your comment reflects that you are one of that crowd (look how butthurtedly and arrogantly you started your post and how defensive you are.)

    3. Wow guys whats with the language no need for all the fighting i was there twice in my early twenties and i partook in the booze but not the drugs and i was never abusive to anyone or passed out in the streets or anything like that and i can assure you the money i had was hard earned by me!! You will get bad eggs everywhere you go you cant tar everyone with the same brush, it is a shame that the tubing is gone it was a real right of passage in the backpacker community but the area does have alot more to offer.

  2. You just might get your wish. I was surprised to see a few older couple in VV. so the place may be attracting a different crowd these days.

    On the other hand, someone messages me in lonely planet that the drugs and the happy pizza are still available if you know where and how to ask.

  3. I was in Laos last year and skipped Vang Vieng because we had heard of the kind of backpackers it attracted. Tubing and stopping by a few riverside pubs and restos along the way sound like a pretty cool idea, to be honest, but doing it drunk and/or wasted, not so much. I hear the scenery in Vang Vieng is quite captivating though and the place itself is quite pretty, so I hope a new breed of backpackers discover it for the right reasons in the near future.

    Great post!

  4. I went there in 2012 and to be honest I had a real good time. But saying that, a more mature vibe would be a welcome change to most places that now attract backpackers.
    These places started attracting vistors in the first place for the best reason.. somewhere differant for a differant experience. Then it slowly becomes a lazy, disgusting version of itself for the masses and turns into the same thing you can find in your own country on every weekend of the year.

    Its probably a good thing, doesnt mean I won't miss it.

  5. bring back the partying, drugs and alcohol. ive wanted to go for ages... im finally going travellin in 2014. I hope they have lifted the ban and built back all the slides and rope swings in time for next april. it makes sense

  6. Vang Veing aka Tubing won't ever be the same!
    I was there in 2011.. I travelled Asia for 5 months and that was one of my top 3 places along with sihanoukville and nha trang!
    I heard tubing had gone, my mate was there when they were burning down the bars :( very sad day!

  7. Hi guys, any recent visitor to Vang Vieng? I wonder how it is right now



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