“Viva Vang Vieng” tattoos used to be an all-too-noticeable sight on the arms and thighs of backpackers on the South East Asia circuit. Buried deep into Laos on the Nam Song River, the town was one of the last places you would have expected a den of drink, drugs and debauchery.
Way back in 1996, a man by the name of Thanongsi Solangkoun set up Lao Farm – a place where volunteers could come and help grow the organic produce used in his restaurant in exchange for cheap room and board.
After a hard day’s work, his helpers were allowed to lounge in the pea-green river using the inner tube of a tractor tyre as a float. The practice of “tubing” caught on, and before long it was a rite of passage.
A decade later, freed from the strictures of their lives back home, groups of 20-something travellers were flocking to Vang Vieng in their thousands. Ramshackle riverside bars sprung up en masse, catering to even the most illicit of the drifters’ requests.
In 2011, 27 people died there, most of whom were under 25. The government was compelled to step in and force the town to clean up its act. Now, in 2023, Vang Vieng is almost unrecognisable.
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Gary’s Irish Bar – also known as The Rising Sun – has been a mainstay in the town since 2008. Gary O’Donaghue started the joint and has run it ever since. He’s seen it all in that time, and he doesn’t miss the old days.
Speaking of the town today, he told Express.co.uk: “It’s just a nice place to live, and you know I don’t think I’d be saying that back in 2010. It would’ve been very difficult at least, because I was kicking people out of the bar on a daily basis.”
He described how throngs of backpackers from Australia began coming every summer, in the same way young Brits would descend upon Magaluf or Marbella.
Their visits were “more of a piss-up kind of thing than travelling really,” revolving around tubing and a thrill-seeking go on the “Death Slide”.
He said: “In 2008, 2009, 2010 I was 90 to 99 percent relying on tours of young backpackers on a shoestring budget.” Things are very different now.
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Tubing down the Nam Song is allowed once again, but the rave joints, rope swings and potentially fatal slides into ankle-deep water are gone. There are still places to let loose and have a rip-roaring time of course, but nowadays there is a lot more going on.
Gary said: “It’s extremely beautiful, the scenery is gorgeous. We’ve got hiking, trekking and loads of lagoons. So we don’t just get backpackers here anymore, we get lots of families too.”
Visitors can rent motorbikes from the town with ease and set off on one of the most scenic tours in all of Asia, marvel at the Kaeng Nyui Waterfall or spend a day splashing in the turquoise waters of one of Vang Vieng’s five lagoons – landlocked Laos’ answer to Thailand’s beaches.
In 2023, lazily lounging on the river with a tipple has been supplanted as the town’s top-rated activity on TripAdvisor by hot air balloon tours. The views of the luscious green Laotian countryside are naturally second to none.
As its clientele matured, Vang Vieng did so too. High-end accommodation has supplanted budget haunts, and the mood is much friendlier.
The Rising Sun had to close for two years and three months during the pandemic, reopening only last July. Gary’s 16 staff were only able to keep their jobs thanks to his business smarts.
Positives, however, would follow the country’s strict lockdown period. He claimed the infrastructure used to be “horrific” and getting to the capital of Vientiane – where Laos’ major international airport is – was a “nightmare”.
He said: “There’s a highway now from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, so getting here takes an hour instead of four.” A Chinese-built high-speed train also passes through town since December 2021.
Improved connectivity and the diversification of the local tourism industry have more than made up for the loss of its party Mecca status. The past 12 months have been Gary’s most profitable in his 15 years in Laos.
He said: “Because people aren’t as drunk as they were we’re having so much more fun, you know, people are a lot more friendly now it’s not just big groups coming together and sticking amongst themselves.”
With the overly-permissive atmosphere gone, Vang Vieng is also much safer. “We might have a little fight maybe once a year in the bar. And that’s normally between backpackers that are friends back home,” Gary added.
With safety in mind, Gary had one parting word of advice for anyone tempted to make the trip and try the modern, more wholesome version of tubing for themselves: use a life jacket.
Nothing quite encapsulates Vang Vieng’s recent transformation like the town’s most famous barkeep advocating for flotation devices to replace a Tiger whisky and Red Bull.
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