Thursday, August 2, 2012


Kids play in a rice paddy just outside Vang Vieng, called "the world's least likely party town."
Vang Vieng is a nature lover’s paradise. Or at least, it used to be. 

Around this small town in central Laos, there are cliffs for climbing, caves for exploring, a river for kayaking, and unpaved roads through rice paddies for biking.
But then, there is Vang Vieng’s top tourist draw--tubing. 

Yes, that's "tubing," as in the state sport of West Virginia

Tubers, including Liz and Chris in the front, cross the river to begin their float trip down the Nam Song. 
On the backpacker circuit for several years now, floating down Vang Vieng's Nam Song River on an inflated tractor tire tube has become one of Southeast Asia’s “must do” attractions, at least for 19-year-old gap year students.

Considering the bucolic setting, the more surprising part is that the large majority of participants "do" the Nam Song while drinking and partying as if it were an MTV-hosted spring break in Cancun. One of England’s top newspapers even called Vang Vieng "the world’s least likely party town." 

While we came for the scenery, naturally...we figured we should at least take a closer look at this unique tourism phenomenon, for the sociological if not cultural experience.

People have lots of fun, that's for sure. We certainly did. What you see along the two-hour trip (without stops) can be shocking, both for its natural beauty, as much for the hedonistic scene that awaits you around every bend. 

The Nam Song roars downstream, particularly during rainy season. In dry season, the shallow water hides rocks and other hazards. Meanwhile, the drinks flow as quickly as the current nearby. Everything along the river happens with little to no safety supervision. Not surprisingly, participants are injured constantly. More shockingly, more than 20 international visitors die on the water each year, mostly from head injuries. Little effort has been made to improve safety. 

Despite the dangers, people keep coming, drawn by the party, as much as (or likely more than) the landscapes.
Liz and Chris float past a 200-foot cliff and yet another bar on the way to Vang Vieng.
In addition to bellying up to one of the bars numerous bars along the shore, you can lounge in a hammock for hours, jump on a trampoline, fly down a 50-foot slide, jump from 20-foot towers, as well as soar off of numerous rope swings, which is one of Kip's favorite things (once the water depth and safety of the rope are closely examined, of course...).

In the end, it's hard to beat safely lazing down a rolling river on a steamy afternoon, sipping an icy Beer Lao while sandwiched between rice paddies and 200-foot cliffs. 

And though it's hard to find anyone overtly concerned with safety on the river, we did locate one enterprising bar owner who says he's found a way to help local school his watering hole, there's a sign that reads, "DRINK to help CHILDREN: All profit goes to education!" 

The owner swears all profit from his bar go toward improving education for local kids. We were dubious, but either way, we had a beer and a toast, hoping for all involved that scenery, safety, and education become more of a priority in Vang Vieng.

Kip and Chris supposedly support children's education in Laos.

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