Ever been to an empty nightclub during the day? Or a party where hardly anyone turned up? This is the kind of feeling you get when strolling through the town centre in Vang Vieng, a small mountain town between Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Northern Laos. Once a big party town, Vang Vieng is now relatively quiet (that is in comparison with other Asian cities).
For years, Vang Vieng was an essential stop on the "Banana Pancake Gap Yuh Circuit". After flying into Bangkok, the route would head north to Chiang Mai and then over the border into Luang Prabang and south towards Cambodia.
It’s a stunningly beautiful place; a village set among towering limestone karsts, the Mekong River and lush green paddy fields. It’s hard not to love places like this in the Laotian countryside. However, it didn’t have the ancient temples or wildlife that draws most people to visit.
Tourism in VV centres around tractor tyre inner tubes, which are rented out to travellers to float down the Mekong for 55,000 kip a time (about AUD$8). Knowing that their target audience was 18-25 year old backpackers, they realised that the perfect addition to rubber rings on a fast flowing river interspersed with rocks, was alcohol, marijuana and hallucinogens. These were handed out at several bars along the river. Later, others added the infamous rope swings; including into parts of the river that were incredibly shallow.
To finish tubing you are given three attempts to catch a plastic water bottle attached to a rope (this often flies directly at your face). It’s a pretty difficult task and perilous even when sober. Failure to catch this can result in tubing through a pretty dangerous stretch of the Mekong.
For years this little part of Laos was heaving with backpackers from all over the world going through a rite of passage: tubing down the river, wrist bands for every drink they bought and walking around a Laotian town in a vest proclaiming "In the Tubing Vang Vieng". To backpackers, Laos became synonymous with tubing.
However in 2012 the Laos Government tried to put a stop to all this. There’s a lot of rumours as to how this came about, but it was clear that they came under pressure for the increasing number of tourist deaths that occurred. Clearly rope swings, rock and rapids mixed with alcohol and drugs became too deadly for the government to turn a blind eye to.
The result has been dramatic. Only a couple of bars on the river are left now and the police presence in Vang Vieng is strong. Possession of drugs comes with a fine of $500 or a prison sentence (and no one wants to go to a South-East Asian jail). One of the restaurant owners told us that the police are so desperate to catch people that they now wait in trees along the river hoping that someone lights up whilst tubing.
Part of the fun of Vang Vieng is the myths that go along with the place.
There is no doubt that tubing is pretty dangerous. At the time we went (rainy season), the river was high and flowed quite quickly, so dodging the rocks that jut out all along the river was difficult. To get to the two bars that are left required someone on the shore throwing a bottle full of water with a rope line attached. You then hold on while they drag you to the bar. A good idea in principal, except that the people at the bars have perfected the art of accidentally dragging you over the nearest rocks before getting you to shore.
Now that most of the bars have been shut down, Vang Vieng is pretty quiet. There's a very strange feeling about going through a town that is full of empty bars all playing repeats of Friends and Family Guy to empty seats.
So should you visit? We say now more than ever. It’s an incredibly beautiful area with gorgeous hikes and other outdoor activities such as rock climbing. The tubing itself is well worth doing, it feels very serene floating down the river and the rapids in the wet season might get your heart beating a little bit faster too. We didn't visit in the 'heyday' but we're pretty grateful for that. After the second bar we didn't see another soul along the rest of the trip and it was all the better for it.
We've heard that since our visit tourist numbers have increased a bit but it's a very different crowd. Less young backpackers from Australia, Canada and the UK and more older travellers from other parts of Asia, keen to experience the natural beauty of the area.
Get there quick before everyone realises there is so much more to Vang Vieng than tubing! Unless you're an 18-21 year old backpacker you'll probably be very grateful to experience it now.
Have you been to Vang Vieng? Ever been tubing? Let us know in the comments section.