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Warning: The following post contains photos of people half-naked and showing questionable judgement. The easily offended or biologically related to me should not proceed.

I’ve slept in a room in Malaysia that made me question whether or not the movie Hostel was in fact fiction. I’ve been on a cruise ship in Greece where I had a white-gloved butler with whom I felt so awkward we did not make eye once. I’ve been in situations where no one shared my language, country of origin or general background. And yet never in my life have I felt further from home than I did in the tiny town of Vang Vieng, Laos. Quite simply, Vang Vieng is on a different planet. A celestial body that I would name Planet Hedonism.

Never before have I been to a place where tourism is devoted almost exclusively to the act of making bad decisions (okay, so I don’t want Las Vegas to feel left out…), a place where laminated drink menus sit aside , a place where, as one crudely-painted sign so eloquently put it, “ANYTHING IS ACCEPTABLE.”

A day in Vang Vieng usually has a pretty late start, as everyone in the vicinity was partying until the wee hours the night before. The day will begin in any one of the nondescript guesthouses lining the border-town-esque streets of central Vang Vieng. The first levels of these guesthouses are made up of identical shrines to the American teenage stoner: low tables surrounded by hand-me-down cushions, endless reruns of unfortunately-captioned Family Guy and Friends, and a menu of barely-edible staples like hamburgers and french fries.

Here you will gather and wait for the troops to assemble for the activity that has made Vang Vieng legendary among party-loving backpackers everywhere: Tubing. We’ll get there in a minute. But first, do you have your uniform on? And by uniform I am of course referring to entire wardrobe one can purchase emblazoned with the questionable-grammar featuring logo, “.” Beware that you are legally obligated to buy one of these clothing items before leaving Laos. If you do not comply it will be very difficult for other travelers on the Southeast Asia Backpacking Trail to judge exactly how cool you are.

Vang Vieng town

Once you gather a large enough group for a day of debauchery, you can negotiate with a tuk tuk driver to bring you to the first bar along the Nam Song river. As soon as you leave the dusty town, you begin to see the beauty that first brought Westerners to this region.

As you reach the river and cross the rickety bridge to the first bar, there is no turning back. The river is lined by a series of twelve bars, which participants make their way down throughout the day. Travel between the bars is done by paths and bridges or by floating in a rubber inner tube. As tubers pass down the river, Laotian bar boys will throw out a rope to pull the partiers into each bar, and welcome them with a shot of Lao Lao whiskey and a string bracelet tied around the wrist. Viva Vang Vieng.

The owner of a local organic farm really had no idea what he was getting himself into when he bought a few inner tubes for his foreign volunteers to relax down the river in, back in the late 1990’s. Rather than spending their days picking mulberries, visitors to Vang Vieng today are more likely to be found enjoying their mulberries in a plastic beach bucket of mojito. Thousands of miles from responsibility and accountability; steps away from bikini-clad fellow backpackers, an array of dirt-cheap drinks and drugs, and a non-stop playlist of the America Top 40. The outcome looks a little something like this:

Warning: The following images show people behaving crudely and rudely, and exemplify every single “the internet is forever” warning speech my parents ever gave me in regards to future employment-gaining and political office-running.

There are a few things you might notice that most tubers have in common: the aforementioned tubing uniform, a bucket of alcohol in hand, and body covered in oft-explicit phrases written in permanent marker by fellow backpackers.

Days on the river are fairly intense. You have to juggle a busy schedule of floating mindlessly in an inner tube, deciding what flavor of heavily-laced bucket to order, dancing like a maniac, sucking down laughing gas balloons, and avoiding permanent-marker wielders.

As the only person in the group with a waterproof camera, I had great responsibility in documenting the hedonism of our tubing time. At one point it was agreed that I was not passing muster in this area and my camera disappeared for hours at a time. I was actually afraid to look back through the photos when it was returned to me. What I found left me laughing and cringing at the same time. If you’re interested in seeing a collage of photos that not safe for work, unless perhaps you happen to work in a brassiere factory, . This is a hint of what you will find:

During my four days in Vang Vieng, the area was noticeably low on tourists. It was low season, but Vang Vieng veterans and locals alike assured me that at this same time in previous years the river was booming. Does this have to do with the recently-released statistics on deaths in Vang Vieng? According to official reports, 27 foreigners died last year. A shocking number as-is, though the true death-tally may be much higher. Anyone who does not die on the spot is rushed to the nearest true hospital — four hours away via bumpy roads in the capital of Vientiane. In reality, it’s not a stretch to guess that nearly one backpacker per week dies in Vang Vieng.

What causes these horrific statistics? Well, anytime drugs and alcohol are so pervasive it can lead to accidents. But throw in a rushing river filled with sharp rocks and lined by a dozen or so slides, zip-lines, rope swings and diving platforms, and the results can be, clearly, fatal. One such slide is known among backpackers as “The Slide of Death,” and some feature handwritten signs with un-heeded warnings such as the one that reads “Do Not Jump or You Will Die.”

Readers, I jumped.

Why did I do it, and why admit it, when so many other bloggers proudly take a proud stance not to? Well, I guess at the time I didn’t think too much into it. I was swept away in the fun. I was still feeling a little down and I was looking for an adrenaline rush. I got a little high out of doing something that most of the big burly guys in my group wouldn’t even attempt (maturer words were never written). I was going through the doing-stupid-stuff rite of passage of that is your early twenties.

Now, in my defense, I wasn’t on any drugs. I wasn’t even drunk. I watched dozens of other people do it first. It was still light out.* It was fun.

And I was far from the only one to take the plunge. There were plenty of others willing to be a living example of that stereotype about young people and their perceived invincibility.

The hours pass quickly and before you know it, night is falling. Beyond the pulsing lights and beats, a quick glance at the sunset is yet another reminder of what brought travelers to Laos back in the 1960’s, when it first warranted a spot on the hippie trail.

Back in modern day, that sunset marks the close of the river bars. You’d think after a day that wild, most people would be heading for bed, right? Not these party people. When the last river bar closes around 7pm, everyone hops in tuk-tuks to keep the party raging at the bars in town.

It all goes on until the early hours, when the final holdouts give up after more than twelve hours of straight partying and head to bed. After all, they’ve got a big day ahead of them tomorrow.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Since I first visited Southeast Asia, I have always wanted to visit this mythical land of Vang Vieng and try the tubing. I had conflicted thoughts about visiting, and they were not resolved after I left. But I admit, I had a great time. And how could I not? This is an artificially engineered environment and I am the target audience: a young, party-loving traveler with few responsibilities and a passion for trashy dance music. It’s a daytime version of the Full Moon Party or Sunjam… only rather than once a month or once a year, its every single day.

I had a few readers comment that since I loved Luang Prabang I probably wouldn’t like Vang Vieng. I disagree! While I admit it’s rare, I think it’s possible to be a museum-and-temple-loving, culturally-aware traveler who occasionally likes to let their hair down and party in a trashy place like Vang Vieng. There’s no need to put all Southeast Asia travelers into one of two boxes.

Now for the disclaimers. First up, a superficial complaint. I had a great time… for four days. I was pretty shocked to meet people who had string bracelets all the way up their arms, indicating they had been shacked up in Vang Vieng for months. I met a girl who’s first stop in her travels was Vang Vieng and hadn’t moved on four months later, not even for a weekend in lovely Luang Prabang! I met a guy who spends six months a year saving up in Canada and the other six blowing it all on the river. I met countless others with similar stories of being simply unable to tear themselves away from Vang Vieng. That, I simply cannot imagine. I love a good party, but to stay somewhere long-term I would need something more than that. That’s why I loved Koh Tao so dearly; it had the perfect combination of partying, diving, natural beauty and community.

Secondly, a more serious note… it goes almost without saying that there is an ethical dark side to the party scene that has taken over this tiny town in remote Laos. The way tourism has developed here has had a cataclysmic effect on the community, and there’s no way a traveler here can simply ignore that. I promise to delve deeper in an upcoming post. Today, I simply wanted to introduce you to the most bizarre place I have ever been. And to show you pictures of hot guys without shirts. You’re welcome.

*I try to reserve judgement, but people who are still jumping into the river after sunset ARE INSANE. No one will see you getting swept away because it is dark, and no one will hear your cries for help over the Calvin Harris blasting from the speakers. Be careful kids. End lecture.

  • Hmmm…that is SO not for me, but it looks like everyone had a fabulous time! You looked gorgeous as always.
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 20 2012

      Nope, Vang Vieng is DEFINITELY not for everyone! I have a feeling that someday it won’t be for me either. But right now I’m enjoying soaking up all the places that only seem charming when you’re young and silly πŸ™‚

  • Dad
    July 20 2012

    This is your Father speaking: OK, I am counting among my blessings that you only spent a few days in Vang Vieng not months or weeks like some of those you encountered. However, it does strike me that scenes like this along side what we see in the paper everyday of suffering around the world among people living in poverty, war and oppression makes this seem quite trivial and, as you titled this blog, hedonistic. I hope first time readers of your blog do not mistake this for a theme. Enough of the fatherly comments.

    • Meihoukai
      July 20 2012

      Well, it would be easy to pretend I went to Ibiza just for the diving or that I went to Vang Vieng for the hot air ballooning (post to come!) or that I went to Vegas just for the…. well, never mind. My point is it would be easy to present a one-sided view of myself on my blog so that people would worship me as a pinnacle of responsible, enlightened tourism. But I’m just keepin’ it real.

      Also, I would argue that all the poverty war and oppression in the world doesn’t stop people from letting loose. From what I’ve read about Bangkok during the Vietnam War, it might be the opposite! All around the world there are places like this (Ibiza, Cancun, South Padre Island) and I have no problem with them in general, but in this case the party is located in the midst of a conservative society that doesn’t necessarily welcome the ravers. So that’s where my conflicted feelings came in.

  • When I first started reading about Laos a few years ago, Vang Vieng was a place I desperately wanted to visit… mostly because the idea of lazily tubing down a river just sounded completely irresistible to me. The more I read (and see), however, makes me think that it’s really not a scene I would enjoy very much, because while I’m all for tubing, the raucous party scene is something I know I really wouldn’t like. Then again, I am closer to 30 than 20, so I think my days of marathon partying and running headfirst into foolhardy activities are squarely behind me. It looks like if you know what you are in for and you are in the right frame of mind, you will have a good time, but obviously it is not the place for everyone!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 20 2012

      Steph, you might enjoy the scene at the Four Thousand Islands in Laos more…. I’ve never been but it seems like a laid-back riverside area. However its definitely possible to visit Vang Vieng and not take part in the tubing… in the next few days I’ll highlight the other things I did there!

  • Sarah Somewhere
    July 20 2012

    Glad you had a good time. I would have loved it at your age too πŸ™‚ We were curious about VV, went along, but weren’t interested in getting wasted (not that there’s anything wrong with having a good time!). I was astounded by the natural beauty of the place, the caves, lagoons, river and jutting karst formations were gorgeous. I don’t think the situation in VV is black or white. Yes, it is pretty trashy, but the locals are providing such a place for young people to behave that way. Close the bars, and they wouldn’t come. Perhaps a different type of tourist would (and should!), but the locals are not willing to take that risk. I wonder where VV will be in ten years, or whether the death toll will encourage change… I guess you can say you were there (and got the T-shirt!!) πŸ™‚

    • Meihoukai
      July 21 2012

      You bring up so many good points here. First, yes Vang Vieng is stunning (I have two posts coming up to prove it!) and definitely has the potential for an adventure tourism scene. As for the current situation, I sensed some serious ambivalence in the locals, who perhaps feel they have created a monster… they seem disgusted by what is going on but are so economically dependent on it that they don’t know how to change.

      And yes… this is a place that I think will change beyond recognition in a decade (well, I guess you can say so about much of Southeast Asia). I was shocked by how deserted it was when I was there (many of the bars were shut completely) and I don’t know if that’s a temporary blip or a sign of things to come.

  • Amanda
    July 20 2012

    Yeah, I also had really conflicted feelings about tubing! I had so much fun but also felt kind of guilty and embarrassed for how some of the tourists were acting. If I grew up in Laos and that was the only thing I saw of Westerners I would think Western civilization is due for an apocalypse or something haha
    Amanda recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 21 2012

      Amanda, you just got at the heart of one of my upcoming posts. I saw so many children running around the river and I couldn’t stop my brain from wandering to them… what must they think of us?

  • Natasha
    July 20 2012

    Meihoukai I love everything you do and your perception on those things that you do!
    Please keep doing what you do (making other people aspire to the dreams!)
    You are an inspiration!
    Natasha x

    • Meihoukai
      July 21 2012

      Thank you so much Natasha! What a sweet comment. Keep dreaming!

  • Kaylee Robinson
    July 21 2012

    And now VV is on my radar for a place to visit for a smidge of hedonism and debauchery. Thanks for the excellent read!
    Kaylee Robinson recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 21 2012

      If that’s what you’re looking for… Vang Vieng is the right place to go! πŸ™‚

  • Rob
    July 21 2012

    hey Meihoukaiandra,

    Good to see the pictures and read the story. I only missed the pants off on your head pictures of Sybe and me. I always like to read story’s keep on going! xxx

    • Meihoukai
      July 21 2012

      Rob, I promise that photo will be found on Facebook! Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

  • Margyle
    July 21 2012

    I really enjoyed this post, particularly your closing remarks. Everything going on in this looks like a wicked sweet party that no doubt would blow my mind, particularly depending how willing I was to indulge in it lol. That being said, your whole point about the ethical side of it really got me thinking – you and I consider these ramifications, but I’m willing to bet a lot of the patrons are either oblivious or reasonably indifferent to it all. Not to mention the toll it takes on your body to party it up for as long as you said some people do! Ooo.. I think I just felt my liver contract thinking about it lol

    Thanks for the post – love your adventures!
    Margyle recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 21 2012

      Yeah, you’re right — I don’t think many Vang Vieng backpackers are sitting around pondering the ethics of the all-day raving on the river. I mean, I could be wrong but I think if I were I wouldn’t see so many bikinis on the streets.

  • Erik
    July 22 2012

    I love that your dad comments on your blog.

    I agree with Andi, this is soooo not my scene, but it’s going to happen and continues to happen even with all of the serious injuries and deaths that have happened recently.

    Truth is, if it isn’t Vang Veing, it’ll be somewhere else.
    Erik recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 24 2012

      That is probably true… for people who live for this kind of thing, they will find it no matter where on Earth they need to go!

  • Daniel McBane
    July 23 2012

    This was a good post–a very honest assessment of the party scene in Vang Vieng. I was close to calling it a great post, but the ratio of shirtless guys to shirtless girls is simply too high to warrant such praise.

    I only wish this post had been around a year ago; no one told me I was supposed to get a β€œIn the Tubing, Vang Vieng, Laos” shirt. I saw them everywhere of course, but had no idea it was the official uniform. No wonder I didn’t get the most out of my Vang Vieng experience, although that may have also been down to the week of rain and temperatures in the low teens.
    Daniel McBane recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 24 2012

      Ha! Well, now you know what your mistake was. Always, always buy the T-Shirt!

  • Kenny
    July 24 2012

    You need to be sent to Luang Prabang for a week or two after all the partying here! πŸ˜‰

    • Meihoukai
      July 24 2012

      I visited Luang Prabang first πŸ™‚ I loved my time there! You’ll see a bunch of posts about it on my home page.

  • Grandma Burr
    July 24 2012

    Hope you receive this. My computer is acting up. I received my PRIZE BOOK. Thank you. Read Chapter One and enjoyed it. THANK YOU AGAIN. Gram E

    • Meihoukai
      July 24 2012

      You are so welcome! I’m glad you are enjoying it πŸ™‚

  • Rich
    December 1 2014

    I like how honest and open-minded you are. Thanks for this post. I wonder if a Southeast Asian tourist would enjoy this place the same way.

    • Meihoukai
      December 1 2014

      Hey Rich! Well for better or for worse, the tubing in Vang Vieng is pretty much shut down — from what I hear anyway. This little party universe no longer exists here! I’m sure it will crop up somewhere new soon, though…