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Vang Vieng Laos – by Jason Blackwell

Interesting article on Vang Vieng Laos by friend and colleague Jason in Vientiane.

Seasons greetings from Vientiane Laos.  My name is Jason and I am Adventure Travel Manager for Viengchampa Tour in Laos. I was asked by Mark a considerable time ago to contribute something about Laos to his excellent blog.  Having been caught up in high season here, and the famous backwards pace of life, I have only just got around to it one month on.

With the festive season fast approaching I will, of course, have some time off.  One of the things I will be doing is driving 3 hours north of Vientiane with some Lao friends to the famous backpacker hang-out of Vang Vieng. Amongst all the destinations in Laos nowhere is opinion more polarized than in the case of Vang Vieng!

The town situated on the banks of the Nam Song river is surrounded by stunning karst scenery hiding numerous cave networks.  It is a truly beautiful location.  However, it is perhaps the first destination in the whole country to have been truly overwhelmed by tourism.

After starting its tourist life as a quiet 1 night stop over on the original backpacker Chiang Rai – Houay Xai – Luang Prabang – Vientiane route, (or perhaps 2 nights with a day leisurely tubing down the river), it has now become famous for a different type of tourism.

Floating down the river in a tube is described as a “South East Asia backpacker rite of passage”, by a certain well-known guidebook, but now the tubing is not the quiet, peaceful nature experience it once was. Bars now line both sides of the river thumping out extremely loud and generally terrible music that can be heard miles away, and backpackers are encouraged to consume copious amounts of Beer Lao sometimes supplemented by a magic mushroom shake, with huge rope swings to add to the entertainment, (and danger), factor.  If you’re in Laos looking for the quiet cultural experience Vang Vieng is now not for you.  If you are 18 and are going backpacking for the first time this is probably somewhere close to heaven!

However, the argument is that this has had a genuinely detrimental effect on the town.  When I first visited as a backpacker 5 years ago, it was still fairly quiet, tourist volumes were quite low, and there were only a handful of bars.  There has literally been an explosion over the last 4 years and the main street now resembles Khao San road in Bangkok!  Homogeneous bars showing endless repeats of ‘Friends’ or ‘Family guy’, serving the same Western-influenced bland food.  Of course, significant wealth has been brought here and most locals involved in tourism will be significantly better off, but at what cost?

There are now many bars and nightclubs open late, and still plenty of bars that have a ‘happy menu’, serving anything from cannabis to opium – still extremely easy to get hold of.  (And extremely easy to get caught with!)  The local police switched on a long time ago and are now pretty efficient at catching under-the-influence backpackers, throwing them in jail for the night and imposing a cash fine of $500-$700.  A great income for a local policeman, but a traumatic learning curve for a young backpacker.

Vang Vieng Laos

But having said all this, and not being too over the hill yet, I still do occasionally visit for a night or two for a bit of nightlife.  It is also now a very popular destination for well-off Lao people to visit during public holiday. (Same as Thailand’s Pai where BKK weekenders now far outnumber Western backpackers). In fact,the last time I visited was during a national holiday when I visited with my then-girlfriend and friends.  There was a carnival atmosphere and a good mix of Lao and foreigners having a good time, and I’m expecting more of the same for my next upcoming visit.

I’ll report back again in due course.

Cheers, Jason

(Note: we need to point out that Vang Vieng is unique in Laos and fortunately not remotely typical of any other destinations in that country! All Points East offers a wide range of tours in Laos but we dropped Vang Vieng, for obvious reasons, years ago! )