Jan 20 2013
Vang Vieng was until recently known as the party mecca of the Southeast Asian backpacker trail, with thousands of youngsters flocking to the central Lao town for unlimited drinking, dancing and tubing down the Nam Song. But all that changed in August last year when government authorities stepped in to shut down the bars lining the river which were seen as the primary cause of so many of the ills befalling the town.
Although exact figures are hard to come by and it depends on who you talk to, up to 22 people died on the river last year and many more were injured. The government action was so swift that it caught many travellers by surprise — it’s not clear what finally triggered the action, though it’s possible media reports or even pressure from the embassies having to deal with the dead played a role. Now, word has well and truly spread throughout the gap-year community and a shift has occurred in the demographic of people visiting this idyllic town set among some of the most stunning karst scenery in Southeast Asia.
Taking a walk around Vang Vieng now is a much different story to that of just six months ago. You’ll rarely meet a drunk person stumbling the streets during daylight hours whereas in days gone by, hundreds of people would exit the river intoxicated, either bikini-clad or shirtless, and continue to kick on in one of the town’s many bars. That has all stopped. Truth be told, you’ll rarely see a bikini at all except on the river itself now.
Tubing down the Nam Song is still an activity offered, but it’s not the same as it was. The bars are gone and it’s more a leisurely paddle down the river with a bunch of friends rather than a party of epic proportions.
In town, things have also changed. There are no longer hundreds of 18 to 24 year olds wandering the streets, hooting and screaming and generally having the time of their lives. Now the streets are filled with travellers who in years gone by shot through to Luang Prabang after deciding that Vang Vieng was not the scene for them — they’re now staying for three or four nights and soaking up the serenity. Large groups of Asian tourists are also arriving to savour the natural beauty of the surrounding countryside. And what of the bar scene?
Bars are now usually closed at midnight. Those that choose not to close are forced to turn down the music and the atmosphere is much more subdued than in years gone by. People are gathering to share a few beers, shoot some pool and listen to some music, but they’re not going overboard and they’re not interfering with the enjoyment of other guests by being rowdy.
So what is the vibe like in Vang Vieng right now? It’s laidback, with the option to get out into the countryside to some caves, go rock climbing, paddle down the river in a tube or kayak or simply rent a bicycle and get lost on one of the many dirt roads around town. If you want to get drunk with your mates, well you could do that too, but you won’t be doing it in a bikini or without a shirt on and you won’t be partying all night long.
Vang Vieng is returning to its roots as a place where people came to chill out, have a couple of beers and take in the natural beauty of the surrounding area. If you were tossing up over whether to come or not because of Vang Vieng’s reputation, don’t deliberate any longer. Vang Vieng is now back on the map as a top spot for those seeking to experience the natural beauty of Laos and interact with the local people. But for those seeking a serious party — the party is over.
Travelfish.org always pays its way. No exceptions.