Vang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Haven


Vang Vieng!… Its all I’d been hearing while traveling around SE Asia. I like asking other backpackers about fun things to do, because they are the only reliable source, since they have just been there, and nearly every one I talked to said I have to go tubing in Vang Vieng. There was full moon parties on Kho panyang, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Tubing in Laos. Now, I was in Laos. After a beautiful five hour bus ride north from Vientiane, we pulled into the most beautifully back-dropped town yet. I was surprised that no one had commented on Vang’s beauty. The little town was nestled up against big green cliffs with the lazy river called Nam Song in-between. The weather was rainy and foggy, making the whole place very mystical feeling. It was amazing. vang-vieng

This feeling was soon faded as I walked from the outskirts of town into it’s center, in search of a cheap hostel. What I walked into was a town completely and utterly built around  backpackers. The streets were lined with $4 or $5 hostels, intermittent with what I would come to call “friends” bars and restaurants, with open grills out front, whose chefs would be cooking up whole chickens and other treats. They were called “Friends” bars for this reason: every single one of them had a large t.v, that all seats and tables were directed towards. That T.V would constantly be playing old episodes of “Friends”. I say “tables” for a lack of better words, but in reality they are more like platforms, a couple feet off the ground, covered in cushions and pillows, where every one sits or lounges, with a small table, maybe 8″ high, in the middle for drinks and what-not. Since all of these “friends” bars are open fronted, it was a common occurrence, and to be expected, for one to hear Joey or Feebie at all hours coming from the street as one walked around town.

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Also intertwined with these bars and hostels are “bucket” and “happy shake” bars, which I would get to know later on, and vendors selling not souvenirs per say, but things most backpackers would eventually come to need in this town, such as new sandals, sunglasses, shorts, and the famous, although unbeknownst to me, t-shirts and tank-tops all saying things like “I survived the tube”, or “tuuuubing” or “in the tubes”.  I would be getting familiar with these sayings as well.
Walking the streets that first fateful morning, I was mesmerized by everything I saw. I probably saw representatives from the entire United Nations there. Large groups of swedes, and Norwegians walking around, with their  “Tuuubing” tank-tops,flip-flops and large Reyband sunglasses, some carrying black and yellow truck inter tubes, some piling into tuk tuks with many tubes tied on top.  Nearly every European country, Australia, New Zealand, and even tubbbinAmericans joined the hub-bub. More westerners than local Laotians. Even many bars and hostel were run by them; backpackers whome had run out of money and where working for food and


Accommodation, or whom simply refused to leave. About one of every two of these western backpackers were covered in paint, in various colors and schemes, from head to toe, and where laden with many string bracelets, some covering half their arms. All the reasoning behind all this was a mystery to me as of yet, and I chalked it up to too much partying. I resolved not be one of these people.  I read later, in an Australia news paper, an authors description of Vang Vieng, it went something like this: ”If teenagers ruled the world, it would look something like Vang Vieng”. In other words, it was a backpacker’s haven.

About five minutes after settling into my room, I met a group of four Irish travelers, the most fun people I’ve ever met, and with their insisting, we headed out to the river together. They noticed I was sober ( it was 10 in the morning), and said they would just have to get me caught up. I rolled my eyes and said to myself that I would be taking it easy for the first day or two, get acclimated to my new surroundings before I did any heavy drinking. I did not however, know the Irish as I do know, and any and all plans I might have had, went quickly out the window and were transformed into an Irish agenda, as detrimental to ones health as that might be.
After I bought a little dry sack for my wallet and camera, we jumped in the nearest tuk tuk to head to the river. When there, we pulled up to the mouth of a rickety bamboo bridge that 006spanned the river towards what looked like a rave of a party bar. As we piled out, two girls walked up, one with bracelets for everyone, indicating we were to receive free shots all day, (now I know why everyone in town was wearing these) and the other holding a tray of shots of tiger whiskey. Have you ever tried refusing shots, while in the company of Irish folks? It’s impossible, I think. So, after a couple shots and a wobbly trip over the bridge, we were at the first bar, welcomed of course with more shot trays.

For visual sake, let me describe this first bar along the river. Really all it is is a giant wooden platform, half of which juts over the river. There’s a ladder going up to an even higher little platform where rope swings allow for drunks to show off their diving skills, and which unsurprisingly accounts for many injuries and deaths each year. There are a couple tiki huts 013offering beer and bucket drinks, and a few tables for beer pong and other games. Before you ask, I’ll tell you what bucket drinks are, of which I developed a love-hate relationship with. basically, it’s just a small bucket, which will hold about half a gallon of liquids, and that’s what they make your drink in. I ordered a vodka redbull bucket, thinking it would be small, since it costs a little less than $2. Nope. Out comes a bucket, a hand full of ice, then nearly half a fifth of vodka, topped off with about four redbulls. “holy hell”, I thought “it’s going to be a long day if I ever finish this”. 

Vang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Haven
Oh how wrong I was. It was so much fun mingling with people from 30 different countries, raving to house, trance and dub step, and  going generally crazy, that before I knew it, it was time for everyone to migrate to the next bar and I realized I had just finished my second bucket. Was I drunk? Sure, but the redbull fought with the urges to go lay in a hole somewhere and sleep, and kept us going 100 miles a minute.

Vang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Haven
As a group- all 200 of us- as if there was an invisible signal to move on, grabbed our tubes and floated, swam, and nearly drowned getting to the next bar, a mere 100 meters away. “Welcome, have a couple shots, and a bracelet”. The bar went from silent and empty, to raging and loud in minutes; the opposite for the first one. Buckets were re-ordered, mingling and dancing recommenced,  and it all started over. This bar was different in one way however, and here I found out why everyone was painted in different colors and designs. In one area of the platform was a table full of cans of spray paint and stacks of different stencils. Even after my vang-vieng-party2previous thinking that I wouldn’t be “that person”, I was. Girls had painted green stars, blue and white hearts and whatever else on each other.  Since I was the only American around, the words “crazy yank” and other racial things appeared on my legs and arms. Permanent markers also abounded through the crowds and by the end if the day I had about 13 different Facebook profile names written on my body, and little messages like “we love the yank” or “honorary paddy” or “we love you, The Aussie girls”. I was now what i had scornfully gazed upon, at my arrival in Vang Vieng. 

Thank god there were only three bars along the river, because I was convinced one could actually be “funned” to death.  there WERE three however, and after a few more hours, a few Vang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Havenmore buckets, it was float time again, and we left bar number two.  As a group we migrated down-stream, and again the raving, dancing, singing, drinking, socializing, started up. Buckets where consumed, minds were erased. After another couple hours, the crowds finally dissipated, one tuk tuk towards town at a time. I had consumed five buckets of vodka-redbulls, nearly 10 shots, puked twice, looked like a walking graffiti billboard, gotten in a fight and was walking like a drunken, one legged pirate by 5 pm.
As we neared town I thought yes! Time for a coma. I knew for sure that there was no humanlyVang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Haven way one could keep-on after a day like this. But it wasn’t to be. My new Irish friends directed me towards one of the “psychedelic” bars, for a relaxing meal. To them, taking a break meant having a beer instead of the hard alcohol,, and going to their favorite “happy shake” or “opium pizza” restaurants for a quiet one. I managed to stay away from the opium, but not so much the mushrooms. I must have drunkenly tried someone’s happy shake, because the effects hit me pretty good.
Vang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Haven
Arm in arm we all laid on the cushions of the platforms, staring at the walls that seemed to move. Cartoons and funny images were painted on the walls in neon colors, and all was transformed and came alive.  Elephants with big ears laughed at us, weird scary monkeys threw bananas and shoes at us as we yelled out-loud (probably to the great amusement of the bar staff), little blue and red cars raced and bumped into each other,  small green stick figures danced a jig arm in arm. All of this was imagined of course, and it makes me laugh at what the bar staff must have seen and thought of us, though in reality they probably thought- ”Stupid tourists”. We and whoever else was around, just laid there on our platforms, arm in arm, not talking, no music going on, yet we cried uncontrollably, laughed hysterically, and cringed in fear, clutching each other tightly as imaginary birds swooped down to claw us, yet we were to paralyzed to move. Every emotion, weather funny or sad or what-ever, was heightened to the max.
Vang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Haven
After a while, we would recover and be back to ourselves. By then it was about 7:30, and time for some sleep. With a short good bye, my friends told me they would come get me after a short nap, and we separated. I was by far done, and had no intention of waking up for two days if I could help it, and, while I had consumed about 5 buckets of vodka-redbull, and  who knows how many shots of cheap whiskey and beer, my Irish friends had probably doubled that, each, and I didn’t think they would be up any time soon. I fully intended on not seeing them until the next day, and sleeping until then. I had a lot to learn about the  Irish.

I crashed about 7:45 pm, face down on my bed, all my clothes on, contacts still in, and didn’t even lock the door to my private room. At 11pm, I was roughly waken up by not only my four Irish friends jumping on me to get me out of my coma, but also a few swedes who had helped Vang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Haventhem find my room and whom of







which had a beer Lao ready for me. I felt like I had been thrown into a blender full of rocks, and had a IV of adrenaline in my arm all day, and my mouth tasted like warmed over dog poo. The last thing I wanted to do was get up, not to mention start drinking. I thought I was going to start swinging, but as I have a soft spot for cute redheads with accents, I resigned to peer pressure and let them lead the way.

First stop was bucket bar number one, where I told myself that I would take it slow, and just sip on one beer all night. That resolution lasted about 10 minutes. For a couple hours it was dub step, killer pool, karaoke, vodka-redbull buckets, Facebook exchanges and rioting. The damn bucket bars of Vang Vieng stagger their closing times, so when the first one closes, we, a drunken, singing mob, arm in arm, half shirtless or shoe-less, all painted and oblivious to our surroundings, make our way to the next establishment.

This went on until bar number 3 closed, around 4 am, where upon we made our way home. We would stand out in front of our hostels, eating greasy chicken sandwiches made by the late night street vendors, posted conveniently on each corner. Then, like the walking dead, I fell on my bed and hovered between unconsciousness and death.

Vang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Haven
Though I had drunk not only more than I had  ever drunk before, and also more than I thought humanly possible, and went to bed at around 5pm, my damn new friends woke me up for round two at around 10 am. Due to the massive consumption of redbull that kept me from collapsing after what equated to gallons of vodka, and multiple puke-and-rally sessions, I had the shakes bad the next morning. For an hour or two we watched “Friends” and ate what I thought was the greatest breakfast of all time, and my cure. After breakfast though, it was back to the river, and yesterday’s festivities were replayed over again exactly.

After about 15 days of what I call the blur, I could handle no more. The days had been one big blur, I didn’t know if I’d been here for 2 days or 2 years.  I had drank zero water, survived on one meal and a 4 am snack a day, drank enough vodka, redbull, tiger whiskey, beer Lao, and happy shakes to fill small pool (no joke), and probably puked an average of twice a day. I had a cracked wrist and black eye from the rope swings into the river, had bandaged hands from multiple fights, had lost 20 lbs, had about 7 layers of paint, despite showers and swimming, had about 40 “free shots” bracelets on one arm, and probably 20 new Facebook friends. I had watched two people I knew die, one in the river, the other in my hostel from an over dose. Four of my friends had been jumped by the corrupt police and robbed of all their money, and one of my Irish friends had had a minor heart attack from all the drinking (to which his country men replied “don’t be a Sally, now be a good paddy and switch to a different beer and let’s drink”). It didn’t help that I had happened to be In Vang vieng on St. Paddies day, and didn’t sleep for a drunken, rioting, hallucination induced 40 hours, along side my Irish friends.

Vang Vieng, Laos: Backpacker's Haven
One day I just shakily got on a bus and rode all the way to Bangkok. The English girl that came with me felt the same way;  we felt if we didn’t leave, we would die.All this time later, I imagine some of the people I met there in the Backpacker’s Haven, and for some reason i picture them still there, painted blue and  tubing the river.



Justin Carmack

Justin Carmack

Wanderer and diver at Art of SCUBA Diving
I've been on the road for 5.5 years now, visiting 80 countries, 6 continents and endless adventures. Divemaster and SCUBA addict. Travel junkie. World roamer.
Justin Carmack

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