I read this post well over a year ago when we were researching about where to go in South East Asia. Upon reading about Vang Vieng my exact words were “that looks like my own personal hell, not a chance we’re going there”. I completely understand that everyone is into different things when travelling and there are tons of people who would love to spend their days completely wasted while floating down a river on a rubber tube and enjoying the odd coma inducing slingshot into the same river. Ok, that’s fairly harsh and a lot of people simply went to have a party filled few days with their mates in the lovely Laos countryside. It’s just not our thing and the sensible, old lady side of me thinks booze + backpacker + rock laden river + inner tube = a big mess. With much trepidation we ended up in the same town just a few weeks ago and my oh my how it has changed.
In November 2012 the government cracked down on the number of bars in Vang Vieng, terrifyingly 22 people died there just last year from injuries received when tubing, slingshotting etc into the fairly shallow water and the town was starting to get a pretty bad reputation. What very few people tell you about Vang Vieng is that it’s actually in a really beautiful part of the country and there are loads of outdoor activities (not involving alcohol) you can fill your days with. Herein lies the problem… the tubing/bars end of the town looks like some sort of post-apocalyptic backpacker ghost town. As we kayaked down the river one day we saw the remains of burnt down bars, the old signs advertising free drinks and the plinths the zip-lines and slingshots were once launched from. It was really quite creepy and is spoiling the otherwise gorgeous countryside.
Vang Vieng feels like it’s trapped between its old backpacker party rep and the potential to become a real outdoor adventure town. The problem is, unless it is given a real PR overhaul and the locals realise they need to seriously change their target market then I can see the tourist income from the town dying away. We did one tour which involved a trip to some temples, some tubing inside a cave and then a few hours kayaking on the river. The trip was great but one downside was that the guides then stopped at one of the few remaining bars for about 90 minutes when every single person in our group just wanted to be on the river, none of us were interested in drinking. To make up for the loss in beer revenue they could ramp up the adventure tour offerings to be more comprehensive and charge a lot more money. Our trip for the full day was only £12 and this included a substantial lunch.
I got fairly sick in Vang Vieng so was out of action for 3 of the 6 days we visited. However, I was desperate to get better due to the sheer amount of things to see and do. There are countless caves to explore, some of them are simply out of this world. You can trek in the countryside, go zip-lining through jungle, rock climbing, spelunking, kayaking. We spent one day at the lovely Blue Lagoon swimming hole with a bunch of tourists and local people enjoying the sun and the blissfully refreshing water. I had never even heard of most of these things before we arrived because the party side of tubing is all anyone ever talked about. I just hope tour company owners realise they can make a lot more of what is on offer.
We were visiting towards the end of the season but we spoke to a few locals who explained that even in the high season there had been considerably less visitors than normal. The people seem to be hanging onto the tubing legacy and that won’t produce the revenue they need unless the government has a change of heart about the bar scene. If not then a lot of people are going to be much worse off financially.
If you are like Paul and I, people who love the outdoors and any sort of adventure activity, then give the new version of Vang Vieng a chance. If you still want to go tubing then don’t skip Vang Vieng simply because the bar scene has died a death, you could still have a great time. You will contribute to potentially saving the town’s tourist income and may also be incredibly surprised at what you find.
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