Vang Vieng…Going Down The Tourist Tube

On a recent trip to Laos I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful Vang Vieng. The town and its surrounding country side are stunning, and well worth the bumpy bus ride, however traditional culture is now hanging by a thread as a result of the growing popularity of ‘tubing’.

The gentle sounds of young locals fill the air as they bathe in the flowing river, while local merchants immerse themselves in various handicrafts and street stalls. Hordes of tourist buses take their turn hurtling down the town’s rugged terrain, though nothing will disturb the silence of this quiet sanctuary-a potent reminder of the sheer beauty of nature, if only for half a day.

As the sun sets behind a range of glorious mountain tops a cluster of stars can be seen illuminating the unblemished night sky.   Suddenly, the music rises in a crescendo of bass and electronic beats as the animals come out to play. Local residents retreat to their homes as the streets begin to buzz with the excited screams of half-naked back-packers carrying an assortment of rubber tubes. The picturesque countryside becomes a blur of flashing neon lights and the only trace of traditional culture can be found on the sign of the local pizza shop, reading “Home grown traditional weed for cheap price.”

This is Vang Vieng.

In most countries around the world, particularly the emerging nations of Southeast Asia, the word ‘tourist’ is perceived in a positive light-as an intrinsic part of economic growth, a valuable source of multiculturalism and (perhaps most importantly) a way to share and exchange cultural values and beliefs.  However, to the local people of Vang Vieng ‘tourist’ has become a dirty word. It has become a reminder that their traditional farming village, surrounded by stunning natural scenery and sitting on the Nam Song River, has become a cultureless scene of opium topped pizzas, beer bongs and debauchery.

So how has this sleepy farming village transformed so dramatically?

Initially, adventure junkies began arriving in Vang Vieng to scale the spectacular mountains and explore the many caves that line its picturesque country side. Or they would come to relax in the quiet, traditional lifestyle of Laos and its people.

The town is not so traditional now, nor is it quiet.

It is widely believed that this sudden influx in tourism was an accumulative result of the popular river activity ‘tubing’, which was accidently introduced to the world in 1999 by local farmer Thanongsi Sorangkoun, who bought some tubes for his workers to float down the river with after a hard day of work.

Little did he know that this gesture would soon become a world-wide tourist phenomenon.

It took local guest houses a little over a month to appreciate the value in this simple idea, and it wasn’t long before flocks of tourists could be seen gliding down the once quiet Nam Song River in rubber tubes.

Cambodian born Vanny Mann has been leading tour groups through Vang Vieng for eleven years, and he believes that the effect of tourism on the town’s culture has been enormous.

“Tubing is a good idea and it is easy to see how travellers enjoy this activity. It brings lots of money to help with the development of Vang Vieng and Laos but it has exploded. People are getting too drunk and destroying local culture and themselves,” says Mann.

The tubing office in Vang Vieng says that during peak season there are over 500 tube rentals per day, and it soon becomes obvious that once on the river all bets are off.

The number of deaths that have occurred are varied according to whom you speak (and with the amount of revenue it brings this is not surprising), however some sources claim that the number ranges from twenty to twenty five people each year.

Despite what the actual figure may be it is clear that with rickety wooden riverside bars, pumping rave music, free shots and flying foxes over hanging hidden submerged rocks, Sorangkoun’s initial idea has taken on a life of its own.

“Vang Vieng has changed. Ten years ago it was a quiet town where tourists would come to relax and enjoy the Laos culture, but today it has become a place for drugs, alcohol and sex,” says Mann.

It has been written that “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng”, and with good reason. For every bikini-clad Barbie there is a beer toting Ken just around the corner, waiting to whisk his prize away to a dirty dorm room or the next obnoxious bar.

However, it would be rash to blame the problem entirely on cheap alcohol and drugs. Of course these are contributing factors, but as locals say, TIVV-This Is Vang Vieng. And when coming from a relatively expensive (and regulated) country such as Australia the allure of this accessibility and affordability of illicit substances is unsurprising.

What is surprising is Vang Vieng’s complete lack of regulations and policing. In Australia we have regulations, and then we have regulations for our regulations, with an overwhelming fear that ‘something’ could go wrong and a need to prevent this.

However, it seems that authorities in Vang Vieng do not share the same ideologies as we do in Australia. Despite the zombie-like creatures slurring their words as they ride on the roof of a tuk-tuk; despite the numerous deaths that occur every year (whether through substance abuse or river carnage) and despite the abundance of marijuana and opium based pizzas being handed out like skittles, the police are nowhere to be found.

As a local restaurant owner, Nang Sysavath admits, “Law as we knew it has left Vang Vieng. We now live by a new law-the law of the tourists.”

Though while many locals protest against the loud music, disrespectful Westerners and the degrading of their traditional culture, there is also rejoicing in the job opportunities that have become available as a result of this sudden influx.

Mann says that in the last ten years an increasing number of people have been packing their bags and opening guest houses or bars in Vang Vieng, and in a developing country where the majority of the population are restricted to working in rice fields or labour-intensive jobs this has provided great opportunities for the country’s people.

“New guest houses and bars open every month, and these are run by both the Laos people and foreigners,” says Mann.

“Many who own these guest houses or bars say that it gives them new opportunities to make money and support their family, but watching the change of Vang Vieng I ask, “At what cost? ”

The views surrounding Vang Vieng’s sudden notoriety are as assorted as the collection of beer cans and empty coloured buckets that now line the shores of the Nam Song River. Though for the moment it is clear that the tubes will keep coming and the whisky will continue flowing, until the river runs dry.

For those that have been (or are planning on going), what are your thoughts on this? Is the loss of traditional culture a necessary evil for a third world country to develop?