Vang Vieng: A Backpacker's Paradise

Zip lining is part of the party in Vang Vieng (Photo: Heather Foster)Fancy a lazy river? Try the party river. Laos’ party mecca Vang Vieng is the hub for travellers in Southeast Asia looking to unwind and have a good time. There is no shortage of good food, cheap accommodations and raging bars, but most travellers come for one reason: the tubing. Set amidst the rugged mountains of northern Laos in the breathtaking forests of Vientiane Province, you embark onto the Nam Song River by inner tube to leisurely float downstream at your own pace. Sounds relaxing, right? Well, now add about a dozen riverside bars and you’ve got a whole new experience like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Each bar is brimming with lively music, bikinis and drinks, oh, the drinks. Keeping in tradition with the low-cost nature of Southeast Asia, it’s no surprise that drinks flow cheaply here and are, sometimes, even free.

Many people arrive in Vang Vieng late at night after surviving what is affectionately deemed 'the bus ride from hell': a four-hour journey on a bumpy, winding road through the mountains. Laos has come a long way in terms of infrastructure, but even so, a considerable number of roads is still not paved or in proper driving condition. The one-lane 'highway' - a grandiose term if ever there was one! - from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is certainly a trial for even the most resilient stomachs as the bus flies around bends and jolts over potholes the entire ride. As it is impossible to sleep through this ride, my travelling mate and I had no choice but to stare out the windows and hold our breath every time the bus fearlessly rounded another mountain curve with no guardrail to protect us from plummeting to our deaths. Unfortunately, this road is the only one connecting these cities, so you have little choice than to just hold on tight and trust the driver. We opted for the bus, but there are also minibuses and private cars available that travel this same route.

With a feeling a relief, we got off the bus and went searching for a guesthouse. The main drag is full of affordable options, so it didn’t take long before finding a clean, friendly guesthouse. There are plenty of small, local businesses around town that will provide you with the usual items: sunglasses, clothes, flip-flops and swimsuits, to name a few. Be sure to shop around because most vendors sell the same things at varying costs. Even though it’s clear this is a place catering to travellers, there is still a great atmosphere. Once a small farming community, Vang Vieng recently exploded in popularity amongst budget travellers, and tubing is definitely their claim to fame.

So here’s how it works: grab a tube, a dry bag and a party spirit and head upstream to the river. The tube rental is affordable, but you also have to put down a deposit that you can get back if you return the tube by 6:00pm. Note that this isn’t some arbitrary rule, it’s for your own safety. You’ll then get loaded into a tuk-tuk and shipped to the starting point. I suggest starting early as it’s easy to lose track of time. Of course, the other option is to hire your own tuk-tuk to get upstream and skip the tube altogether. This would free up the time restraints and you can always walk between bars, though you'd miss a great deal of the fun to be had.(Photo: Heather Foster)

Once mounting your tube, float downstream to the myriad of energetic bars and choose your adventure. See a bar you like? Grab the floating plastic water bottle that some enthusiastic barhand has no doubt sent flying your way - or straight at your head! - and reel yourself in. Here you are greeted with any combination of free shots, body paint, booming music and future friends. You’re on your way! Every bar has its shtick, so find one that works for you. Or try them all! There are some with rope swings, water slides, zip lines and roller coasters. Okay, I made that last one up, but almost everything else imaginable is here to help make this a most memorable excursion.

It’s also important to remember to exercise caution here, fatalities and injuries are not uncommon. Most of them could be avoided by using good old fashioned common sense. Drunk swinging from a rope and landing into shallow water, for example, is perhaps not such a good idea. Tubing down an Asian river after dark, when it's full of creatures human and otherwise, is also not such a good idea. We ended up staying at the bars past the six o’clock rental deadline, so we shared a tuk-tuk back to the tubing rental office instead of riding down the river in the dark. We lost our deposit, but we arrived alive.

Since the influx of Southeast Asia backpackers has flown through this small town, it has undergone some drastic changes. Laos authorities have given almost free reign to partying tourists, but this doesn’t mean visitors shouldn’t show their due respect. Many places ask patrons to abide by a certain dress code or refrain from certain activities. Such showing of respect and consideration is worthwhile to all, as is the case when touring any culture.

Besides tubing, of course, Vang Vieng is a great place to relax and meet some fellow travellers. Every hostel is teeming with people and most tend to stay awhile so there’s always a familiar face around. Yes, it’s a touristy place, but it’s also warm and inviting, thanks mostly to the locals. We frequented many restaurants with comfortable floor-pillow seating, friendly staff and endless Friends and Family Guy episodes playing in the background. Vang Vieng is definitely a place where you come for a day and stay for a week, if only because you can’t recall the exact day you arrived, or when you've had so much fun.

Jill McCullough is an English graduate from the University of Toronto in Canada. She has spent her last two years living abroad and teaching English in South Korea. She is currently doing freelance editing work and plans to return to school to earn a certificate in Marketing. She loves to travel and experience new things.

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 Full name: Lao People's Democratic Republic

click here  Population: 6.59 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Vientiane (Viangchan)

 Largest city: Vientiane (Viangchan)

 Area: 236,800 (91,429 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Lao, French, English,  Other

 Major religions: Buddhist, Christian, Other

 Monetary unit: Kip

 GDP per capita: US $2,700

 Internet domain: .la

 International dialling code: +856

 Source: CIA World Factbook