Vang Vieng: from hedonism to sustainable tourism
You may know Vang Vieng as the former party capital of South East Asia. Chances are, you may have heard about it from friends, or even in the news. Likely about ‘another’ traveller’s tragic death. But after a strict government crackdown, the town has now shed its old reputation, has reinvented itself and seems to now have a promising future.
Half way between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, travellers from all over the world used to flock to Vang Vieng’s infamous party and tubing scene. Within a few years of it becoming popular, things got out of control. Alcohol and drug excess coupled with lack of regulations, turned Vang Vieng into a wild hedonistic town and a deathtrap, claiming 27 lives in 2011 alone. A year later the government stepped in and closed most of the riverside bars, where the shenanigans took place. Rumours that tubing was dead spread quickly and backpackers stopped coming. It was a blow for the local economy.
Fast-forward 5 tough years, and the town has a new lease of life from new enterprises that offer alternative, more sustainable, activities.
Vang Vieng in itself is not the prettiest of towns. But it sits by the Nam Song River and it’s surrounded by towering karst limestone mountains, caves and inviting lagoons. This dramatic landscape has helped in the rebrand of a decadent party town, into a place where the surrounding countryside is once again the star attraction and adventure sports are now the way to make the most of it.
Explore by mountain bike
There is a reason Vang Vieng became so popular in the first place – the spectacular surrounding landscape. You can easily explore it by bike, which you can hire in town for about £2 a day. Despite all the mountains, some routes are mostly flat, but they are not in great condition so make sure you get a mountain bike. You’ll also get a free map that points you in the direction of the Blue Lagoon, and dozens of caves and waterfalls.
Paddle down the river on a kayak
Nam Song River is the big attraction here. As soon as you step into your kayak you can see why. Tree-covered limestone karsts projecting into the sky and the quiet countryside make you feel that you are somewhere remote. It’s a relaxing way to get up close and personal with nature. But if what you want is peace and quiet, you’ll need to start in the morning to avoid the tubing crowds.
Tubing is still Vang Vieng’s favourite past time. But it is a much more relaxed affair now. There are no ‘death slides’ or precarious rope swings over shallow water, and only a handful of riverside bars remain. The fun tends to start from midday onwards and goes on till sunset, sometimes even later – although I wouldn’t recommend it. Not only do you get a fine if you return your tube after 6pm, tubing in the dark is plain dangerous. Hire a tube in one of the rental shops and get a tuk tuk to the starting point. Once there, jump in and let yourself go with the flow!
Tubing in the pitch black
I know I’ve just said that tubing in the dark is dangerous, but I’m talking about cave tubing. In Tham Nam (‘Water Cave’), to be more precise. Equipped with a headlamp and a tube, you pull yourself along with a guide rope as you float through this flooded cave system. Once deep inside the cave, the guide will ask you to turn off your headlamps. It’s a rare opportunity to experience pitch black darkness.
Getting high over the jungle
No, not THAT kind of high… There are two ways you can enjoy the jungle from above. Hot air balloon rides take you high over the town and mountains three times a day – sunrise, afternoon and sunset. I’d heard that safety is an issue and an accident is only a question of time, so I decided to skip this. A bit closer to the ground, zip lining is the preferred option for the more adventurous. There are a couple of sites where you can have your adrenaline fix, with different levels of difficulty, but equal measures of excitement. One of the courses can even be combined with a Via Ferrata route.
And let’s not forget partying Vang Vieng style!
In addition to a couple of bars along the riverbanks on the tubing routes, there are a few popular places in town. Sakura Bar offers free drinks from 8-9pm every night and also has beer pong tables and a dance floor. Kangaroo Sunset Bar is another classic in the Vang Vieng party scene. As the name suggests, it’s a great spot to enjoy the sunset.
After a few quiet years, Vang Vieng has slowly returned to life. It still has enough to entice backpackers to come back, but without the excesses of the old days. There is no doubt that Vang Vieng has worked hard to reinvent itself as an ecotourism destination. The transition from a centre of hedonism hasn’t been easy for the town. But residents are doing their best to make the local tourist industry future proof by trying to balance making a living and maintaining their culture.