Evolving Vang Vieng: Hedonistic Party Town reformed?
Five years ago, Vang Vieng was the greatest party scene on the planet.
Backpackers from the world over flocked to this small yet picturesque Lao village just to float down the Nam Song river in inflatable tyre tubes, visit various riverside bars to sip buckets, eat ‘happy’ pizzas, zip-line into the river, chance the ‘slide of death’, dance to banging house and generally live a life of hedonism.
Admittedly, five years ago we probably would have been as keen as any young Australian to see what all the fuss was about; it sounded like backpacker heaven. We never made it, probably for our own good. Young, mostly western (dare we say it, mostly Australian) people started dying, on a worryingly regular basis - various reports suggest up to 27 deaths alone in 2011. With increasing pressure from Western Governments, the Laos and local Government had to act, and act it did, swiftly destroying many of the riverside establishments. The floods of that year did the rest.
The danger was gone, but so was 'the fun', and the town that had seen rapid growth from this hedonistic tourism had to reinvent itself.
Five years later, we finally made it to Vang Vieng. As we imagined, the place is absolutely stunning; think Ha Long Bay plonked into a land locked country. Rainforest adorns the karst cliffs, caves lie hidden, waiting to be explored and the river is clear, free of the rubbish which lines the Mekong.
On the surface, Vang Vieng has re-invented itself. Each tour company (it seems one on every corner) has large billboards selling their wares. It seems like an adventure lover's paradise featuring zip-lining, kayaking, caving, rock climbing, hiking, ballooning; the list goes on.
Looking around, it is also evident the town holds a weirdly strong appeal to the middle aged Japanese and Korean tourists who kayak down the river daily, life jackets on, experiencing the sheer beauty of the area.
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The riverfront is now full of newly completed high rise hotels, or skeletal frames waiting to be finished. Posh, or should we say, slightly more refined restaurants now sit alongside rickety cafes. Development, change and progress is in the air.
Yet if you scratch the surface, you’ll still find backpackers here in their droves. It seems, despite the change and stricter controls, Vang Vieng still holds appeal on the so called ‘Banana Pancake Trail’ - named for the gigantic banana pancakes offered at most hostels. Backpackers still sit in the TV bars watching Friends, relaxing until midday before partaking in an activity. They still consume ‘happy’ shakes or pizza from various restaurants, and they still party long into the night at the limited yet rammed bars on the main street. And you can still tube, albeit much more subdued.
These days however, the real appeal for backpackers seems to lie in the possibility of adventure; the thrill of zip-lining through rainforests, exploring deep caves or rock-climbing the karst cliffs. Backpackers still feel the adrenalin rush but in slightly safer environments. Of the backpackers we met, most enjoyed the slower pace and embraced the ‘new’ Vang Vieng.
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Honestly, the Vang Vieng we saw is still in a state of flux. Development is there, ready to welcome the new wave of tourists from Asia, yet backpackers still amble around. This was confirmed by the many locals we spoke to, who said that families are now visiting here keen to see what this area offers.
One expat, who did not want to be named, sang the virtues of the past;
“irresponsible dickheads fucked it up for everyone, including the locals. This place was party paradise and the locals made good money; now look at it”.
As we sat on the bus and made our way out of this picturesque setting, we agreed that somewhere this beautiful doesn't just disappear from the tourist trail. Vang Vieng is definitely here to stay but in what guise is anyone's guess.
Did you visit Vang Vieng in the 'old days'? Or maybe you have plans to visit it soon?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!
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This post was first written for, and published on, the Intrepid Travel Journal