A visit to the old party capital of Southeast Asia this past week confirmed that the rumors are true about the notorious river bar crawl being open again. Though Vang Vieng features some of the most beautiful landscapes in Laos, lying in a valley between stunningly beautiful mountains and alongside the peaceful Nam Song River, that’s not what the town became famous for. No, it rapidly gained popularity years ago in the backpacking world for its tubing party, which skyrocketed to the top of many young travelers’ bucket lists.
Hundreds of thousands of backpackers would pass through every year to float down the Nam Song River stopping at bars along the way and jumping into the river from cheaply-built ziplines, rope swings, and platforms along the riverbanks. But what set Vang Vieng apart from other places and gave it the notorious “party capital” nickname was the wide availability of cheap drugs and alcohol. Free shots of Lao-Lao whisky along with illicit drugs such as marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and opium were available at nearly every bar.
Though this type of mass tourism was bringing money into the local community, it was criticized for destroying the local culture/peaceful lifestyle and for the amount of deaths occurring on the river. In 2011, tourist deaths caused by drugs and alcohol soared above 20, as partiers drowned, overdosed, or fell onto the rocks. Local hospitals reported receiving 5-10 backpackers a day due to tubing-related injuries (broken bones, scrapes, alcohol poisoning, etc). Finally in August 2012, Laotian authorities closed down the riverside bars and tore down the ziplines, rope swings, and platforms, enforcing a rule that tourists could only float down the Nam Song with a lifejacket on and no alcohol.
Vang Vieng locals tried to promote adventure activities and the beauty of its surroundings to encourage positive tourism instead, but there was no way to match the sheer volume of backpackers that had come for the party atmosphere. However, last year some rumors started going around the backpacking world that tubing was starting up again. Not sure what to believe, I spent the past week in Vang Vieng and confirmed that the party is definitely still going on, though much tamer (and safer) than before.
So what happens currently along the Nam Song River? Loud music? Yes. Dancing? Absolutely. You still rent tubes and float to various bars, and you’re still given a free shot of Lao-Lao whisky at each bar. However, there were no (noticeable) illicit drugs at any of the bars (or brought to the river by tourists themselves) and the only platforms to jump off remain fairly low.
We drank, played volleyball, mud wrestled, danced, and played beer pong, but with the reduced volume of tourists, none of it seemed too out of control. At least nothing near what it was a few years ago… Will Vang Vieng ever regain its nickname “party capital of Southeast Asia”? Probably not. And that’s ok.
Looking for something else to do in Vang Vieng aside from partying? Try climbing Pha Poak mountain for great views, floating above the city in a hot air balloon, visiting the Elephant & Water Cave, or relaxing by the Blue Lagoon. The town has so much more to offer than just parties, so even if you just love stunning landscapes and outdoor adventures, make sure you give Vang Vieng a chance.
As always, keep on livin’ pura vida ✌