Pregnant women and those with weak hearts are advised to be careful when traveling to Vang Vieng from either Luang Prabang or Vientiane, it is going to be one heck of a bumpy ride. If you have a neck brace or helmet handy bring it along for the ride. We have never been on roads so bumpy, twisty or dusty and yet somehow, the drivers obviously feel right at home here and disregard the need for braking. However as the bus jumped and shimmied its way towards Vang Vieng, we were in for one of the finest bus views yet. There is so much to take in as the road cuts through karst cliffs, traverses over the mountain pass, through the stunning views, the eerily foggy cliff edges and stops at the little remote villages along the way. Thanks to being thrown around most of the time, we only got any visible photos when we stopped..
These little stops along the way provided us with some entertainment too, as locals look bemused as you walk over in search of water or a snack to take back on the bus with you. Not much tourism up on top of the mountain I guess. The journey remains the best few hours on a road we have spent so far in Asia and with the bumpy road you only have one choice when in transit. You can’t read or write or watch anything as your get bumped off your seat every minute, so you can only stick some headphones in and enjoy the ride.
Vang Vieng is famed for one thing and like many others I guess, is why we heard of the place in the first place. The tourist-orientated town somewhere around halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane has given way to thousands of backpackers and tourists over the last 16 years, since it became an unlikely party town. The explosion of tourism has been thanks to the activity which has seen hundreds die in the years gone by and for all it’s charm, it’s a shame that this is what it’s mainly known for…
River Tubing in Vang Vieng was a must do up until 2012, as travelers would park their lazy buts into a truck inner tube and lazily float their way down the river from bar to bar, all the while getting increasingly and dangerously drunk. Stops along the way would offer zip line frills, rope swing madness and party decks sprawling out over the river from the many bars trawling the sides of the river bank.
The tourist attraction which was undeniably the catalyst for Vang Vieng’s uncontrollable growth spurt between 1999 and 2012, is now all but closed. Now in the wake of the stampede of travelers that have made their way through, only a handful of bars and shops remain open, all pretty much squashed onto one small pub street. A few also remain on the riverside, but these aren’t what they once were, those remaining are now operated by the local police, so they can… well, police the river obviously. This is easily noticeable in the atmosphere that we saw from the banks, the river which was once flooded with tubers, beer in hand, soaking up the tunes and the sun as they floated on by – is now somewhat quiet and a lot more vacant than pictures from pre-2012 depict. It’s no doubt a good thing though, as in 2011 alone, the river claimed the lives of 27 travelers and additionally, the local hospital that year reported a record average of 10 incidents per day with travelers pouring in with injuries from the river. The main injuries were caused by accidents during zip lining, rope swinging and from hitting rocks in the shallow waters. We could easily see many jagged rocks protruding from the shallow river as we biked passed one day (we missed out on tubing thanks to food poisoning, another story for later), adding booze into the fray with a river that dangerous was always asking for trouble, on top of that, taking into account the rope swings and zip lines. Well the figures are not that surprising.
The tourist boom brought on an influx of new bars , restaurants, hotels and shops to the streets of Vang Vieng. But when river tubing was quashed in 2012 (it later re-opened and remains open to this day), and tourism noticeably repressed, the majority of these places began to close down and go out of business. The rapid rise and fall of the new kid on the block in Laos, was responsible for hard earned livelihoods being thrown away and leaving families down and out.
For those that did survive the blip in Vang Vieng’s short tourism life, there seemed to be two places to make money.
The small but loud bar street, where young and old flock to after dinner and party on through the night until the early hours of the morning and where one of the bars’ motto is:
“Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single!”
Or the backpackers area a couple of kilometres down the road , where the same crowd can be found chilling out on cushions in front of episode after episode of Friends all day. We found ourselves slumping there for a few hours after a heavy night where too much Vodka and too many cheap beers saw me crashing early and obviously not remembering how I got home or what had happened. Will I ever learn?
The nightlife can be loud, but we didn’t see any trouble there and hopefully the control now enforced on the river activities leads to a safer environment for travelers alike. The glaring after effect of the recent boom however is the attitude of some the locals. They have no time whatsoever for travelers and some can be extremely rude as we experienced. In some cases, and we definitely felt this to be true, they despise the hoards of westerners streaming through year by year. Rightfully so I guess, as since 1999 a little piece of Vang Vieng has presumably died year by year, as the town evolves to accommodate those in search of cheap alcohol and a place to let loose. Tourism hey!?