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.