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]

  • The swings and ziplines had been taken down when I was there in June, 2011. Rumors were circling that the British embassy had taken it upon themselves to remove the rides after 5-9 (stories varried) of their citizens had died on them in the past couple of months. Who knows if thats true, but all that remained of the swings and ziplines at that time were frayed nubs on branches. (I’ve heard from people there recently that they’re now all back up and running.)

    I think the draw to Vang Vieng has to do with the backwoods nature of this “trippy little town” where something as dangerous as tubing down a rapid river while taking shots of Sang Som is not regulated by the government. This type of activity would never fly in the United States, and although it’s about as culturaly significant as a ping pong show, I’m still glad I experienced it.

    Vang Vieng, despite becoming a backpacking attraction, is still a really small town and if you take your motor bikes off the two or three main roads, you quickly discover tiny villages of friendly locals and incredible landscape to explore. I still recommend it as a stop in Laos, but be careful on those swings!!

    (and read my story about the fun and dangers of Laos at http://sotcblog.com/2011/06/27/adventures-in-laos-enjoy-and-beware/)

  • kemy

    vang vieng is one of the coolest layed back places i have traveled to, from an unbeleive back drop of mountains to not remebering how i got home every night! this place just takes u in, the people there are very friendly, the acommidation is extremly cheap and of coruse friends/ family guy on tv all day plus the bigest menus u have ever seen…… soccter and push bike hire is avaliable, tooc toocs are everywhere.
    the tubing can start from as far as the blue lagoon where u travel through the mountain caves down the river untill u hit the famouse bars and then the drinking starts… note there is always a bottle of home brew at every bar with shot glasses around it for everyone to drink for free (as soon as the bottle is empty a new one comes out)
    there are zip lines, swings and slids at every bar although i heard the they got pulled down around mid 2011 (if anyone knows if this is true or are still there plz post) 
    at least give the place a week or two i am shore u will enjoy…
    (dont smoke weed in public there also as under cover police patorling around day and night if u are cought they ask for ur passport and will not give it back untill u pay around $500 US)

    have fun!!

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