Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lao's Blemish: Vang Vieng

Overall, Laos was a beautiful experience. I have never been so relaxed in my entire life and I made some fantastic friends along the way. But that’s all for another entry. I didn’t want to take away from this incredible country by including Vang Vieng in my Laos entry, so this town gets an entry of its own. This also gives me an opportunity to vent about tourists in general and the downsides of tourist towns. Two birds, one blog entry.

Vang Vieng comes up fairly frequently in backpacking circles and in travel guides when considering Laos. It has become a hotbed of tourism, specifically, the frat-style crowd. The main attraction in town is lazy river tubing. When I heard about this, I was excited to suit up in some life jackets, hit a few rapids and cruise down a river for an afternoon. A drunk bar-goer in LKF, Hong Kong informed me that no, in fact, the tubing is bar hopping but on the water. I thought T was the naive, innocent one on our trip, but apparently I was the last to know about this.
free French Fries!
Basically the entire town is packed, year-round, with Western tourists who want to get on an inner tube and float from bar to bar to bar, drinking buckets of whiskey, Red Bull and Coke, and snacking on baguettes and french fries along the way. During the day, it is a ghost town with almost everyone out on the tubes. All tubes must be returned by 5pm if you want your deposit back, so the town fills up again between 4:30 and 5:15 pm. Again, things get very quiet until about 10 pm or later, as people wake up from their drunk naps/unconsciousness and head out to the bars.

I am not one to put down a little bit of drinking and bar hopping. Gili T was a bit of the same idea: tourism is the only industry and we Westerners hung out in the water by day and the bars by night. But the behaviour of the tourists while they’re in Vang Vieng and the hazards of tubing make it a particularly disgusting destination that I will never willingly revisit.

Tourists Suck

The main strip has been nicknamed “The New Khao San Road”, the backpacker alley in Bangkok that is packed with drunk white people morning and night, buying cheap t-shirts and eating street food. The parallels end there.

Khao San Road is already a pathetic display but the main road in Vang Vieng manages to be worse.

Despite notes in the Lonely Planet about how one should dress conservatively in Laos and both signs and a contract at the tube rental place stipulating that one must dress appropriately, bikinis abound. Women literally traipse through town in bikinis or practically bikinis. Cleavage, both of the breasts and bottom, is on full display at any time of the day at any location in town.

Restaurants and stores along the main street do nothing to hide their mandates: tourists are the targets. Conveniently, menus are always offered in English, not uncommon across tourists destinations in Southeast Asia. Less common? Many bars and restaurants play Friends or Family Guy, all day every day. So when you do go out during the day or before the clubs and bars are in full force, there are rows of white people sitting on pillows around tables, facing television screens, staring like zombies at episodes of American shows from over a decade ago.

And of course, people are drunk and embarrassing at any time of the day. Nikhil, T and I, deciding to take Vang Vieng for what it is, sat at a restaurant near the tube rental place at 4:30 to watch people returning from their day on the water. We saw an extremely drunk North American woman run down the street, wearing nearly nothing, with a local’s dinner on a china plate! Being polite, I think, so that the girl would save face, the Laos women chasing after her were forcing laughter and had smiles plastered on their faces. When they returned with the plate, it was empty.

It’s because of this that one can’t be entirely surprised that the service at some of the restaurants in town is abysmal. Many the people who have been to Vang Vieng will recall the restaurant on the corner before the tubing place. Getting served is quite the ordeal as often no one is around to take orders or if they are, they are blatantly, visibly ignoring the clientele as much as possible. We left once after sitting there for about an hour, asking for menus (which we eventually just took from another vacant table) and then being ignored when we asked to order. When they do interact with you, the staff (who you usually have to approach) scowl and roll their eyes, when ordering in English or Laos! I honestly don’t blame them, though. I have worked at places in Canada that have much less abuse or ridiculous clients (welfare, anyone?) where staff treat people like crap after becoming jaded and worn down.

Dangers of Drunk Tubing

People die every year in tubing accidents in Vang Vieng. Despite this, there are basically no safety precautions. If you cannot swim, they tell you to rent a life jacket. And then you’re on your own to consume free whiskey shots (no catch!) and consume buckets that include a full mickey of liquor.

Lined with rocks and with docks at every bar for people to dismount their tubes, many an inebriated tuber cannot resist diving, jumping or doing flips into the water. We witnessed a few people doing drunk backflips into the very low water.

My friend Aamon (who went tubing the day after us) had barely begun his day of tubing when someone jumped into the water from a zipline, instantly breaking his leg on a rock. He ended up having to jump in and help pull the guy to safety. Yes, ‘EMS’ in Vang Vieng consists of drunk people helping other drunk people to get into a tuk-tuk to the clinic in town.

The most recent death was from someone going down a slide face first and breaking their neck on a rock.

Despite these injuries and fatalities, there are no medical personnel and few sober people period in the vicinity. Slides, ziplines and swings over the water remain open year-round even though, if you happen to let go at the wrong moment or just have the misfortune of physics putting you in the wrong spot at the wrong time, you risk extreme injury.

Not All Bad

Vang Vieng does have its charms. T and Nikhil went rock climbing. The three of us rented bicycles and met Alessandro (who I ended up bumping into again in Vientiane a few days later, hanging out with some of my friends!) for a cave adventure. I kayaked from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, cliff-jumping at our lunch break –which doesn’t really count as Vang Vieng either, but I’m trying to throw it some love where I can.

T would also like me to add that tourism hasn't totally corrupted the Laos people, though. Unlike other major tourist destinations in other countries, the prices were pretty fair: you could get hotels for a decent price (even in the high season) and the food wasn't out of this world expensive.

on our way to the Blue Lagoon Cave

But overall, the town is full of drunk and offensive Westerners covered with bandages and bandaids. I cannot imagine what a child growing up in that town thinks of foreigners...


  1. As someone that just visited this town I agree with you 100% except I would not have been so kind about the Tourist the biggest group of idiots I met in all of Asia.
    It was clear to me that many of these back packers were not liked by the locals.
    Dreadlocks in this area of Lao pretty much meant you were a loud asshole that did not have any money

  2. Hey, I'm trying to research how many foreigners die each year in Vang Vieng (I went there recently as well...woah). Do you have a link to the story about someone dying on the slide, or was it just hear-say? While I was there, tourists and locals alike insisted that dozens of people die each year, but I've only been able to find two deaths in the news, both from the UK.

  3. it looks like they took some action