VANG VIENG, LAOS – Little evidence remains today to suggest that Vang Vieng was once The World’s Most Unlikely Party Town. In the mid-2000’s, the town was once lauded by foreign backpackers as a no-rules playground for adults. It definitely lived up to its reputation.
Vang Vieng is between Vientienne, the capital, and the picturesque Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Partygoers still nursing hangovers from Thailand’s infamous Full Moon Parties often mosey over to Laos to continue their fun. It’s all part of the “banana pancake trail” that many young Westerners follow on a typical backpacking trip in Southeast Asia.
I’ve have the opportunity to visit Vang Vieng twice, once in 2010 and in 2012. My first trip preceded the social media boom in travel, so there was no Instagram to show me where fellow backpackers had gone. Instead, I read about Vang Vieng in a photocopied version of Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring I picked up in Bangkok. Described as a lazy river lined with a few bars, it sounded like a nice place to chill and have a beer or two.
Well, it was all that and then some.
The way it works is this: you start midday and rent a tube (an actual inner tube for tires) in town for 55000 kip or roughly $9CAN, plus a deposit. You take a truck/tuk-tuk ride to the top of the river some 5km upstream and get dropped off. The only rule: be back before sundown or you won’t get your deposit back.
You can hear the club music blasting before you even pull up to the drop-off point, which turns out is a raging bar called Bar 3. The “bartender” is a shirtless Laotian man who offers you a free shot of whiskey. You take it… and then notice there’s a fermented snake in the bottle he poured from. The bar is overflowing with drunk, sunburnt backpackers who are playing drinking games. Just outside the bar is a 25-foot trapeze you can test your acrobatic skills on before plummeting into the water. If that doesn’t suit your fancy, try the zipline, but make sure you let go before the giant bolt or else suffer some knees flinging to your forehead. All this and it’s only 1:00PM in the afternoon.
Once you’ve got a good buzz going, you ride your tube down the river to the next bar. If you want to stop, you wave your hands and someone will throw you a line to reel you in. The subsequent bars offer: mud volleyball, a giant water slide (known as the “death slide”, which you have to take a shot before you are allowed on), a double trapeze (so you can take a friend), and endless dance parties. Feeling hungry? I’ve seen menus feature hash brownies, pot french fries, magic mushroom pizza, and something that could’ve been a weird typo for “opium” shakes. Not all that surprising, coming from bars brandishing names like FU BAR (an acronym for Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition).
I did not make it back for sundown, but somehow I went back the next day for round two.
Fast forward two years to 2012, same time of the year.
Vang Vieng is much mellower now. Larger accommodations have popped up, although many are half under construction. The day I arrived, there was a torrential rainstorm and the river was rather fast-flowing, which resulted in some death-defying tubing experience (I’m exaggerating a little, but I did go under some rapids). Rumours had already began that tubing in the Vang Vieng was coming to a close. The Australian government was putting pressure on the Laotian government over multiple deaths of its citizens on the river. My friends and I were told two people were fished out of the water just the day before. That didn’t really stop the fun, but I did notice a big drop in attendance at the riverside bars.
Fast forward again to 2016.
The short-lived town of debauchery is now officially defunct. Reports have been made by other travellers that the bars have been suspended and all acrobatic water activities have now been dismantled. Even the “death slide” has been demolished.
Today, Vang Vieng is rebuilding its reputation as a peaceful jungle town for those seeking nature-oriented adventures such as mountain biking, hiking, and rock climbing. Although, I hear you can still buy “Tubing in the Vang Vieng Laos” apparel in some of the shops…1