Laos is famous for fun, and the once-quiet mountain town of Vang Vieng has become one of the world’s party capitals. But there’s more to this town than getting lashed.
Located in the middle of northern Laos, one of South East Asia’s poorest countries, the small farming village has become an epicentre for backpackers behaving badly. It’s a firm favourite for one reason alone – tubing.
Tubing: a history
Tubing is the act of floating in an inner tube down the Nam Song River, stopping off and partying at a number of bars along the way. It first started in the early noughties, but it really rose to prominence from 2007 onwards where it became the place to be.
Much like the Full Moon Party has put Thailand on the map, tubing has done the same for Laos. Every year, thousands of backpackers in South East Asia travelled to Vang Vieng for the party of a lifetime. However, as it grew more and more popular, so did the dangers involved, and as with any mass alcohol-fuelled party there were a number of deaths.
This came to global attention in 2011, where it was reported that at least 27 people had died through tubing and alcohol related injuries, and many more were injured. At the start of 2012, the number of deaths continued to rise, to the point where foreign governments started to intervene. This eventually led to a crackdown in August 2012, and new rules and regulations were introduced to make it much safer for people.
Vang Vieng today
Today, you can still go tubing at Vang Vieng, and it’s now similar to what it was like ten years ago where you used to float down the river and take in the stunning surroundings.
Now it’s more about the people and the places as opposed to getting mindlessly drunk. However, at night Vang Vieng is still a party town fuelled by buckets and booze, and it’s easy to get caught up for a week or two without seeing the rest of the country.
Laos is without a doubt one of the most beautiful countries in Asia, and for those who have the inkling to get out of Vang Vieng, here are…
Five things to see and do in Laos (instead of tubing)
1. Luang Prabang: Luang Prabang is eight hours north of Vang Vieng in northern Laos and it is an absolutely stunning town, so much so that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It used to be the former capital when France ruled the country, and this is evident in the architecture and the slower pace of life.
Wake up early to watch the Buddhist monk’s alms ceremony, take a cooking course in the afternoon, watch the sunset from the top of Phou Si – the hill in the centre of town – and at night wander around the market, one of the biggest and best in South East Asia.
Outside Luang Prabang, explore the surrounding villages, discover Pak Ou caves, and go swimming at the striking Kuang Si waterfalls for a day to remember.
2. The Plain of Jars, Phonsavan: The Plain of Jars can be found at Phonsavan in the middle of northern Laos, and they huge stone jars that date back thousands of years. Not much is known about the Plain of Jars except that they were forged by an ancient culture, and the mystery and myth that shrouds the site makes it all the more fascinating.
There are hundreds of jars, some of which measure up to three metre tall, and you are allowed to walk amongst them, trying to work out what they could have been used for. If you get there early enough, you’ll have the site to yourself, making for a magical experience.
3. Hire a scooter, Tha Keak: Tha Keak, in central Laos, is home to ‘The Loop’. This is a small loop of roads where you can hire a scooter and zoom around the countryside.
Starting and ending in Tha Keak, you can ride off into the sunset, stopping off at the small villages along the way to get an insight into local life in Laos. One of the highlights of ‘The Loop’ is Tham Kong Lo cave – this is one of the longest caves in the world and it dissects a mountain. Here you can hire a boat and float through the cavern in what is an experience like no other.
4. The 4,000 Islands: If you’re looking for a place to kick back and relax for a couple of days then the 4,000 Islands are just the place. Found in southern Laos, the 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don) are a group of islands in the Mekong River.
The best thing about the 4,000 Islands if there’s not much to do, so you’re left with little choice but to laze around. Days are spent with a book in one hand and a beer in the other, but the more active among you will want to hire a bike and cycle around the countryside.
5. Pakse: Pakse is a small town in southern Laos and you’ll be surprised by how much there is to see and do here – it really is an underrated place. Wat Luang, the biggest and most beautiful temple of Pakse, is home to the Buddhist Monk School. Here you’ll be able to see the monk giving alms ceremony without the hustle and bustle that you have in Luang Prabang.
Just outside the town is Bolaven Plateau where you’ll find the coffee fields. Here you will get to see the coffee making process, and of course have a cup or two, before heading to the waterfalls in the surrounding area.
Laos really does have a lot to offer backpackers and travellers, and for those who explore the country are rewarded with sites that are so far removed from Vang Vieng it’s almost impossible to connect the two; all you’ve got to do is get yourself there…
To tube or not to tube, that is the question. Tell us what you think in the comments…
Author bio: Macca Sherifi is a travel writer, photographer, presenter, and industry expert. When he’s not writing about travelling, he’s usually talking about it. He’s spoken about backpacking and travelling at consumer events as well as number of schools, colleges and universities around the country. You can catch him on Twitter @backpackermacca
- How to See the Best of Laos & Cambodia in 3 Weeks
- The Best of South East Asia
- Tips for First-Time Travellers in South East Asia
All photos c. Macca Sherifi, except Flickr pics from Blackwing_de, ronancrowley, tak.wing and Kyle Taylor. Please note, all Flickr images were used under the Creative Commons License at the time of posting.