Oh Vang Vieng, for all your natural beauty you’ve certainly developed a bad reputation of late. Just google the name and articles regarding the annual death and injury count are abundant. Even better youtube it. It’s a backpacker right of passage, to rent a tube and bob your way down the river. Not so bad, given the stunning scenery of impossibly high green saturated lime stone cliffs that make this a postcard perfect destination. But because it’s a developing country with limited regulations, and because some young backpackers have a inclination toward debauchery it has become something akin to a non stop rave. Enter a bar on “the island” and you’ll be handed two menus. One is the regular one, the other, your choice of illicit drug. Everything is available here. So you combine no regulations, cheap and plentiful beer and drugs, a river, and your bound to get more than a few injuries. Every year people die here. It’s a wonder it still exists. Locals, in an attempt to capitalize on their sleepy town turned frat party destination have erected zip lines, rope swings, diving platforms, and the appropriately named “slide of death.” Resulting in intoxicated teenagers and twenty something’s to plummet into shallow water where sharp rocks are plentiful. And then, there are bars all along the river offering free buckets of liquor, or food, or anything to keep you drunk and spending money. Every corner you can buy a tee shirt that indicates your survival, and “necessary” completion of this legendary activity.
Sound appealing? We didn’t think so and had originally planned on avoiding the whole scene. As another American girl I met traveling who is also twenty five stated, “I’m getting too old for this shit.” But then we read up on how beautiful this place is, and how with even a little bit of effort you can easily avoid the tubing scene. It is after all the adventure capital of Laos! So, we jumped on a minivan and headed south. The ride itself is worth the trip, if highway one were transplanted into Laos I’m pretty sure this is what it would look like. It’s a weaving road with stunning drop off views of rolling lush rainforest. You could easily spend the six hours starring at the scenery. Not that you have much choice, the road turns so much you’d likely be nauseous if you tried to do anything else.
We spent the first day exploring the tiny city, observing with fascination as clearly hung over backpackers sat slumped behind low lying tables, sitting against cushions on the floor zoned out to family guy, or friends on loop. It’s what we expected, but still strange to see. In one field of vision is this, on the other behemoth cliffs jetting up from lush rice paddies, the river snaking through it all. Fishermen use bamboo and nets to catch their fish, children run screaming, playing in the small streams that feed the river. It’s a new sort of juxtaposition, and not one that favors the western traveler. We chose to stay on the other side of the river, forgoing bumping clubs at four in the morning to fog blanketed sunrises overlooking a rice field with cliffs in every direction. It’s another world across the river. It’s basic to be sure, a bed, a fan, a bathroom. But there’s a porch where you could idle away hours of the day. Just watch out for the bugs, there are many, many of those.
On the first night we were awaken several times to the sound of what seemed to have been a displaced waterfall now situated above our bungalow. It was so loud I was worried the roof might not hold. In the morning it had slowed to a slow trickle. We had scheduled a kayak tour of the river and would be going regardless. It ended up being a very pleasant day. The river doesn’t really have any rapids, but it felt like home to sit in a kayak gripping the paddle in my hands. I grew up on the river, and kayaking or rafting with my father is one of the fondest memories of my childhood. So naturally I experienced a pang of nostalgia. Of easy summers before the complication of adulthood, sleeping on the beach under the stars, or the adrenaline rush of speeding my little boat into a grand rapid. I’ve always had a deep respect for water, and feel great joy being in its powerful presence. Add to that the stunning beauty that surrounds this river and it made for a wonderful morning. We had also stopped to explore one of the caves, though because it’s wet season it was flooded and we couldn’t go in.
The afternoon was spent lazily reading and sipping noodle soup with friends. I’m glad we came and gave Vang Vieng a chance. It has not disappointed. And although the backpacker scene is very present it’s easy enough to avoid with the plentiful outdoors activities it would be easy to spend weeks (and a lot of money) hiking, climbing, swimming and cycling the surroundings. Though we chose not to go,it is possible to go tubing while avoiding the whole scene. Going earlier in the morning would give you the entire river to yourselves given most people are still sleeping off their hangovers.
On our second full day we rented mountain bikes from a near by shop and headed north for a lunch at Mulberry Organic Farm situated next to the tubing drop off point. We had heard they made their own goat cheese so we bought a baguette and ate the cheese with cucumbers and tomatoes. Better than I expected, the cheese was also herb crusted.
After we headed back south in search of the Blue Lagoon. We had heard that the locals had set up signs to detour tourists to other, fake blue lagoons. Our hotel told us to just go straight until you can’t and turn right. And without fail we managed to get there. The ride itself is fantastic, a dirt road takes you through farm land where rice paddies extend to the base of cliffs and cows meander about, occasionally followed by a young farmer. I had thought Vang Vieng to be beautiful when shrouded in fog, but when the sun broke through, the light amplified the already brilliant colors while the vibrant blue sky contrasted them creating an almost unreal super saturated view. You’d think it had been photoshopped. We both agree, this place is one of the most beautiful we’ve seen in the world. Hands down. I couldn’t stop marveling and verbally announcing my awe, it doesn’t wear off. I had to stop myself from taking pictures.
The lagoon wasn’t blue today, for whatever reason. But it was inviting. But before jumping in we ascended the steps to the adjacent cave that held a reclining Buddha. I had been craving physical activity, and that climb did not disappoint. By the time I reached the top I was literally dripping sweat. I’m usually not one for caves but given that Alex really wanted to explore I followed him into the what turned out to be giant cave. In the center, after sliding down a few paths of wet stone is a giant open cavern, housing a reclining Buddha where monks were worshipping. It was worth it just for that. You could continue on much, much further into the cave, and Alex went part way but the heat and potential to fall eventually encouraged our departure.
Next, the lagoon. Really, it’s a swimming hole, complete with rope swings and branches built to climb out on and jump off. The water was a perfect temperature and we spent over an hour there with all the others who showed up swinging, swimming, and jumping into the water. It was a perfect way to finish our time in Vang Vieng. Though we decided not to go tubing, this was our substitution, in part because that scene isn’t really our thing, and in part because we don’t quite know how we feel about supporting a questionably ethical activity. Not to mention, nothing really ruins a peaceful float down the river like rave music and drunk people.
To be fair, I don’t actually mind the craziness that occurs here. I don’t judge the people who partake, it’s their choice, their lives, not mine. And while I don’t find it appealing I can understand why others might. However, it does bother me that this is how the west is representing itself here. And even though people here know that by wandering around in bikinis or shirtless they are offending local sensibility they don’t care. There are signs everywhere asking westerners to cover up once off the river, but it doesn’t really happen. That level of disrespect for the culture in which you are visiting is certainly upsetting. And the questionably ethical implications of what has happened to this town is difficult to ignore, and a bit sad. Even the original tuber who started the whole movement lamented that he wished he had never done it. Hopefully there will be more strict regulations and a high emphasis on the incredible nature oriented activities Vang Vieng has to offer. Tubing isn’t to blame, in fact I would love to go, but the culture needs to go.
I actually think its important to visit, to support the tourism that isn’t geared towards debauchery in hopes that it will flourish and deemphasize the party culture. As for the myopic teenagers who just want to party, I wish they would just stay at home and stop harming other cultures and misrepresenting the west just so they can get high with abandon in a foreign city. There’s nothing wrong with having a good time, so long as you’re respectful of the culture you are visiting, which is clearly not happening here. A clear cut case of how tourism is quite the double sword. However, regardless of what I have seen, and wish didn’t exist I thoroughly enjoyed my time here and feel lucky to have seen such a beautiful place.