While scruffy Vang Vieng remains blighted by its unsavoury past, it is visibly charging into the future.
In 2014, popular Korean TV show Youth Over Flowers sent its young, handsome male protagonists to Vang Vieng to explore the breathtaking scenery that originally drew western backpackers after Laos started encouraging tourism in the late nineties.
EditA new army of backpackers duly arrived.
The Korean tourist boom comes after a government crackdown on Vang Vieng’s infamous Nam Song River tubing adventures. Inner tubes would carry western backpackers between 20-30 riverside bars selling alcohol by the bucket and opium on the side. Rickety ziplines and swings would catapult increasingly wasted tourists back into the muddy river.
Following 27 deaths in 2011 and intense international scrutiny, a maximum of 2 bars are now allowed to open at one time. You’d imagine the one reputedly owned by the Chief of Police would frequently be serving tubers. Drug taking is strictly prohibited.
Meanwhile, huge hotels are going up all over town to service the new Asian arrivals.
Our own post-crackdown trip on the river isn’t without incident.
“A guy died on the yellow route last week,” says our guide on the reputedly more ‘chilled out’ of the two tubing options. The ten of us, mostly Brits, bounce and sway as the tuk-tuk makes its way to the starting point. He’s very matter-of-fact about it.
“Norweigan guy. Big black dude.”
“How did he die?” we ask, almost with one voice.
“Oh, motherfucker too drunk to swim. Fell out of the tube. It’s good you take the red route. Have guide. Yellow route don’t have guide to save him.”
We launch into our rubber rings, shock at what we’ve just heard dulled by that instinctive supressant, bravado.
After barely 3 minutes of drifting, we are ensnared by a blue rope tied across the river. We are fished out to flop into the first bar. It’s a floating platform with a high diving board at one end. At the other a girl (who cannot be older than 7) charges over twice as much as in town for Beer Lao, whiskey and so on. Music suddenly booms out of large speakers: Ed bloody Sheeran again.
Our guide heads to the diving board end and pees into the river before slumping onto an inner tube seat. He looks exhausted. Meanwhile, still drinking the free beer we got in return for signing away our right to sue back at the office, we swap travellers tales with the other tubers.
“Are you cutting your own hair while you travel?” someone asks.
Over Kaili’s laughter I tell them about my recent trip to a Lao barber.
An early afternoon downpour comes and goes, and finally more tubers appear. A group of 6 lifejacket-sporting Korean girls are proceeding in a chain, each grasping onto another tube. The links are cut as they drift into the blue rope. At the bar they mill around, unsure what they are supposed to be doing here. This is our cue to move on.
A layer of white scum covers the water floating around my swimming shorts on the inside of the tube as we continue down the river, trying to spin each other round and reach over our tubes for a smooch. Meanwhile, Mr Sheeran fades out and jungle sounds take over. Magnificent karst outcrops loom over us.
This being rainy season, the current is purposeful, quietly relentless. It’s barely half an hour before the tubes float round a bend and we spot the second bar. It’s a large wooden structure built high up above the river to our right. A Chainsmokers song fills the air. I’m trying to think of the title when I realise that rapids are taking us to the left away from the bar, towards an unwelcoming island of jagged rocks ahead.
“Paddle paddle!” comes the megaphone amplified shout from the right-hand bank. However, we’ve no chance of defeating the currents and paddling across the wide river. Our tubes pass within a foot of the rocks as the water sweeps to the left. We just keep arms and legs in and hold on. Once we are past the island, a plastic bottle attached to a rope is thrown towards Kaili. It lands about 3 feet away from her.
“Take the bottle!” shouts the man through the megaphone.
She can’t reach it.
We are swept on, the bar and the Chainsmokers starting to fall behind us.
A boat pulls up beside us. It’s basically a wooden canoe with an outboard motor attached.
“Hold onto the boat.” says the passenger. I recognise the voice from the bank. “Don’t let go.” We obey, gripping the thin edge of the low vessel tightly. Another kid is at the helm. The water swells and floods my tube as the boat chugs against the current on its way to the bar. We cross the river in this awkward, desperate fashion and finally come to rest in the muddy shallows on the far bank.
“Closer” says Kaili.
“This song. It’s called Closer”.
I need a beer.
The sun comes out, and the guide leads us to a table all set up for beer pong. A steel line travels from a platform over the wooden fence across the river. A horizontal bar is attached to it. Beer pong round 1 ends, so the first to puff out his chest and ride the zipline back into the river climbs up to the platform.
At length the Korean girls arrive. After a brief wander around, they settle on plastic chairs facing away from the beer pong and the bar. There they stay for the 3 hours it takes our pickup to arrive.
I eventually give in and head up to the platform. The green-brown water gives me a slap as I drop into it. I swallow some, wipe my eyes, and then get on with the swim to shore before they call the coastguard out again.
“Are you going in?” I ask Kaili, passing the peer pressure around.
“No way,” she says “that water’s filthy.”
I glance at the Koreans, who are presumably thinking the same thing. Up on the platform, the guide pulls an Irish lad’s swimming shorts down just before he swings out over the river.
“What would they have to do to make this appeal to Asian tourists?” I ask Kaili.
“Make it bigger, classier” she says, gesturing to the bar. “Give us something to do. More food options.”
Given we are vastly outnumbered by the Koreans in town and in the surrounding countryside, we’ve concluded that it will only be a matter of time.