Droves of tourists were drawn to the tiny town of Vang Vieng in northern Laos, upon hearing tales of wild and wondrous adventures of ‘tubing’ down the Nam Song River with the idyllic and contrasting mountainous limestone karst backdrop.
An organic farm owner, Thanongsi Sorangkoun, claims he inadvertently prompted the craze in 1999 when he bought a few rubber tubes for his farm volunteers to relax on along the river, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Until 2006, middle-aged travellers seeking mild rafting adventures made up the majority of Vang Vieng’s visitors, but in just a few months an abundance of wooden bars were shoddily erected along the river and ‘tubing’ started to take priority.
Modern-day hippies flocked to the township in search of a nonconformist lifestyle, fuelled by illicit drugs such as opium and marijuana, as well as the local Beer Lao and infamous Lao-Lao rice whisky.
“I visited in 2008 with some friends while touring Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and the experience unexpectedly changed my life,” Canadian backpacker Graeme told e-Travel Blackboard.
“We drank and smoked, drifting aimlessly down the river, reliving war stories by an open fire at night, feasting on local curries and indulging in a hedonistic existence that seemed everlasting.”
In 2011 at least 20 unconfirmed deaths had been reported by worldwide news publications, while seven people – including two Australians – had died in 2012 before the government crackdown.
The dream was over, and in late August 2012 the Laotian government came through and destroyed the remaining bars along the Nam Song River, heralding the end of an era.
“It’s so sad that the stupidity of a few has resulted in the obliteration of what was once a paradise and haven for both travellers and local businesses alike,” Graeme said.
“It’s absolutely awful that people died, there’s no denying that, but in my experience those that were careful and displayed common sense came away unharmed and even more full of life than when they arrived.”
Although travellers may be disappointed by the conclusion of the tubing revolution, some local tourism operators are unapologetically displeased with the dissipation of this world famous attraction.
“Right now it is the low season, but it should be the high season,” Viengvilay Guesthouse owner Xai Anou said.
“There aren’t many people around and businesses are closing down because there are no customers… it is crazy.”
Despite this, ‘tubing’ still exists in Vang Vieng, albeit in a limited and heavily restricted capacity, with participants unable to purchase alcohol or stop at any bars during the 4km river route.
“It is bad for business – and there is less money for the children,” Tubing centre worker Touy Sisouat said.
Should ‘tubing’ be brought back or is Vang Vieng better off without this phenomenon? Comments below.