What’s Up With Tubing And Vang Vieng, Laos?

Friday, September 23, 2011

I’ve never been to Laos, but it seems like everyone who has inevitably spends some portion of their trip tubing in Van Vieng, a town in Vientiane Province that has begun to take on the dreaded moniker: “Backpacker Ghetto.” And when I hear this I ask why they ended up going. Was floating down a river while getting intoxicated and watching episodes of Family Guy in bars along the way some sort of ancient tradition by the Lao people?

Of course not. It seems the simple answer is that everyone else does it. My guess is that some enterprising bar owner in this once sleepy town (better known a few decades ago as home to an American military landing strip) decided to start peddle tubing from his riverside bar to attract new backpackers who’d started to include Laos in their travels. One of these backpackers probably ended up being a Lonely Planet guidebook writer, the town got picked up in the next edition, and the next was history.

But as was pointed out by the NZ Herald, “Saying you’re going tubing in Vang Vieng is like claiming that you’re going walking when you’re really about to head off on a pub crawl.” It seems that in the midst of village-hopping and temple gazing, there is a very real need for backpackers to unwind a bit in a more “traditional” manner while traveling in Laos. This has its consequences too. Anecdotal stories from travelers have revealed tales of gashed heads, broken limbs, and as the above story points out, even drownings.

So it begs the question: How does a town become a “backpacker ghetto?” Why do certain countries/islands suddenly become requisite places to visit on the backpacker trail? Why does tubing with a beer in my hand in Southeast Asia sound much better than sitting here in rainy New York, despite the very real danger of physical harm?

This and other questions answered in future posts. Or feel free to leave your own ideas below.

[Tubing in Vang Vieng by TommyTastic/Flickr]

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