Vang Vieng, Laos: This One Time…
Wait, that can’t be right, I thought to myself as I checked my bank balance on a computer in my Bangkok hostel, ‘the money should have cleared by now.’ This was how Vang Vieng started.
You see, I’d received a tax refund cheque from the UK government shortly after I’d left London a few weeks before. I’d booked my first trip to Thailand pretty spontaneously and was on a pretty tight budget, so it couldn’t have come at a better time.
But as it turned out, my name had been spelt incorrectly on my cheque and my Mum was unable to cash it. All I could do was ask for it to be reissued, which would take weeks. However, my most pressing concern was that I’d significantly loosened my purse strings in anticipation of my windfall and the Thai islands had left me close to broke. I still had over two weeks left on my trip.
I managed to borrow a little money from my Mum and furiously worked on a new plan. I decided I’d head to Chang Mai before hopping across the border to Vang Vieng in Laos.
Vang Vieng is a small town that had become one of Asia’s biggest backpacker attractions. Its main draw was ‘tubing,’ where people would sit on a large, tractor tyre inner tube and float between bars along the river. I’d heard of tubing before I arrived in Asia, but had never heard of Vang Vieng until my time on the Thai islands, where I was constantly being urged to visit by people I’d spoken to. Many went as far as saying it was the best place they’d ever been. My diminished funds, combined with the fact that Laos was cheaper than Thailand, made it an ideal place to finish my trip.
I travelled up to Chang Mai by train where I spent a few days reading, writing and exploring before booking what would turn out to be a 20-hour, overnight bus journey to Vang Vieng. Leaving at around 7pm, I arrived in Vang Vieng just after 3pm and found a hostel before heading out to explore. It was a nice, little, riverside town, beautifully set against stunning limestone hills. The searing, mid-afternoon sun beat down on us, causing ripples to appear on the horizon as I looked down the wide, dusty road that ran through the town and into the distance. It reminded of the Wild West.
Finding out it was possible and fairly straightforward to work wherever I went opened my mind to a wealth of possibilities.TM
Around midday the following day, a few people from my hostel and I headed out and found a place to hire tubes for the river. It cost about £5 to rent the tube as well as a £6 deposit in case you didn’t return the tube by 6pm. Our tubes were loaded onto a tuk-tuk that took us down to the river where we were dropped off close to a swinging bridge, which we had to cross to get to the first bar. I turned to face the river as we crossed the bridge and saw the most unlikely strip of bars on the planet.
Loud music blasted out of the bars on both sides of the river. Each one was a rickety, wooden structure furnished with rugs, cushions, tables and chairs. Many were multi-leveled with man-made platforms and pontoons that sprang up from the river. Each had a Laotian guy who stood on the riverbank and threw out a rope to people floating past on tubes. Upon catching the rope, they’d reel themselves in, park their tubes and head up to the bar.
Some of the bars had a ‘feature:’ some contraption that could be jumped off or onto. One of the bars had a huge rope swing, while another had a bouncy castle for people to jump onto. The bar directly across the river had two features: a giant diving board and a zipline.
The first stop, Q Bar, had no feature, but did have a Christmas tree made of beer cans. It threw me initially before I remembered it was the 23rd of December. The bar was busy, with some people involved in drinking games, some playing beer pong and most simply sitting around drinking. We grabbed a couple of beers and sat on the edge of the bar overlooking the river.
At the second stop, Star Bar, I was served by a westerner, which piqued my interest as it was the first time I’d noticed one working in Asia. I asked how he’d ended up working there.
“You want a job?” he asked in response to my question. “I think Mojito Bar is hiring if you’re interested,” he continued, pointing to the bar across the river and advised me to find a guy named Davo. I hadn’t considered the possibility of finding a job in a place like this, but considering my situation, it sounded like a good idea.
We crossed the river with our tubes to reach Mojito bar, our first time in the water. I discovered just how deceptively strong the current was. It should have been a simple wade across shallow water, but it took considerable effort to get across as the current tried to persuade us to follow it downstream. How would someone cope with this if they were drunk?
Mojito Bar was the largest bar on the river, with a main area and several additional platforms that cascaded upwards to a second bar at the top. I found Davo sitting behind the bar. He was English and wore a loose black singlet, black shorts and a red bandana. He also appeared to be wearing eyeliner.
“Yeah mate, you can start tomorrow if you like,” he replied when I asked about working there. He explained that I’d be required to promote their bar in town at night as well as work on the river during the day. In return, I’d get as many free drinks as I liked and two meals a day. It sounded fun and would help me save money, so I accepted.
“You fancy a shot of this?” pointing to a jar full of straw-coloured liquid off to the side of the bar. Upon looking closer, I noticed it was full of huge bees.
“Umm, what is that?”
“It’s like, local whisky infused with these bees, it makes it stronger, or something,” he replied, pouring out two shots. “To our newest member of staff,” he said before we sank the shots. It was brutal.
We floated off from Mojito bar and visited the remaining bars. The highlights of which included one with a giant slide and Mud Bar, named for its terrain and for the fact that you left caked in mud. As the sun began to set, we crossed a bridge where a number of tuk tuks were waiting to take us back into town.
I arrived at the bar in town around midday the next day where Davo introduced me to everyone I’d be working with. There was a fairly even split of guys and girls, with the majority of them being English and the rest being from Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Scandinavia.
“Is this the new guy?” shouted one of the English girls as I approached, “get ‘im a bucket.” It was routine for two people to share a bucket, a half bottle of LaoLao whisky or cheap vodka with a mixer and lots of ice, before heading down to the river. Being my first day, I was required to have one to myself. I struggled through it with the help of lots of grape Fanta before we all piled onto a tuk-tuk. A few of the workers brought along a bucket for the road; they were finished before we reached the river around 10 minutes later.
My average day on the river consisted of challenging people to beer pong, organising drinking games and promoting the bar in town where I’d work at night. I’d also occasionally hold up a score card when someone launched themselves off the high diving board.
I was also introduced to the concept of a shotgun, where you drink a can of beer from a pierced hole in the side as quickly as possible. Some of the workers fashioned the used ring pulls into bracelets and chains, which they’d then wear. For a chain to be authentic, it had to have 200 ring pulls.
In addition to the makeshift jewellery, there seemed to be an unofficial uniform worn by all the staff in town. The guys were bare-chested or wore cut-up singlets that barely clung to their torsos, atop a pair of denim or board shorts. The girls tended to favour a similar singlet with a bikini top underneath and a pair of bikini bottoms adorning their lower half. None of them wore shoes and most had cuts on their feet from where they’d stumbled or caught their toe on something.
Disturbingly, a number of them had used a hot knife to neatly slice three thin lines onto their arm, like in the movie The Beach. One of my female colleagues had decided, for whatever reason, to carve the lines into her midsection instead of on her arm like everyone else. The result was a nasty, painful, infected wound that would leave her with a gnarly scar.
But despite how much I found myself shaking my head at the insanity that unfolded before my eyes, I loved the place. I got a kick out of my colleagues and working at the bar allowed me to meet people from all around the world.
I recall a conversation I had where someone asked if I was travelling alone. I replied that I was, but was happy to explain that I didn’t feel alone and hadn’t for a long time. I’d come to meet so many people that it was impossible to walk through the town without stopping for a chat.
After staying for 12 days, I caught a bus to Bangkok to catch my flight just after New Years. I’d already decided I was coming back to Asia later and would definitely return to Vang Vieng. But in July of 2012, I logged onto Facebook to find the town had been closed; people had died on the river. I discovered that three young men had passed away in January alone. One of whom was lost for three days before his body was discovered. It soon emerged that close to 30 people had died in Vang Vieng in 2011.
In the face of tragedy, damning statistics and increased scrutiny, the government closed the town. The bars in the town were shut down and the bars along the river were literally razed to the ground. But this wasn’t the end for Vang Vieng; merely a period of transformation, it would emerge from its chrysalis as a safer place.
I returned in December 2016 to find a calmer town working to rebuild its reputation. Whereas in the past it was a magnet for backpackers, it now attracts more tourists; particularly mild-mannered visitors from China, Korea and Japan. They favour kayaks over tubes, which they use to visit caves and lagoons instead of riverside bars. However, the backpackers are still to be found, albeit in smaller numbers. You can still tube on the river, on which a smaller number of bars eventually reopened, but there are no rope swings and diving boards to be found.
For me Vang Vieng, which appeared at the time to be a setback, turned out to be one of the most defining things that ever happened to me. Finding out it was possible and fairly straightforward to work wherever I went opened my mind to a wealth of possibilities. Money ceased to be the obstacle it was before and I’d go on to work in other Asian countries in the years to come. I’d have the opportunity to work with the locals in each place as well as hundreds of people from around the world. It gave me confidence knowing that as long as I was open to opportunities, I would be just fine.