Its bizarre evolution into one of the world’s top party spots began in 1999, when Thanongsi Sorangkoun, a Vang Vieng native and organic farm owner that lived just north of town, aired up a few tractor-tire tubes so his volunteers would have a relaxing way to wind down after a long day.“After a month, every guesthouse and tour company [was] bringing tubes and starting from here.” Sorangkoun said.Locals were quick to capitalize on the influx of interest, creating a 10 village cooperative of over 1500 households that rotated renting inner-tubes every 10 days.
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” A guy asks us, pointing down river with a wrist full of dripping bracelets.
“It’s called the ‘Slide of Death’, some chick drowned there last week.” His right hand makes a launching motion then lands flat on his left. ” Tales of people dying or drowning followed my brother and I everywhere as we floated down the Nam Song River in Central Laos, ‘tubing’ from bar to bar, drinking Tiger Whiskey Red Bulls out of sand buckets, but it didn’t really change anything.
They were horror stories followed by a few moments of sympathetic commiseration until the next person offered us a free shot.
Legend has it the river was named Xong (bed) of Phra Nha Phao — or Nam Song — in 1356 AD, after the body of the deceased King was seen floating down the river. This was Vang Vieng, the town ruled by twenty-somethings that never aged. The same year some sources say 27 backpackers or more died on the river, causing a backlash that threatened to end one of the most controversial eras of the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit.
Vang Vieng is a bumpy eight hour van ride South of Luang Prabang and four hours North of Vientiane, the two connecting dots of the “Banana Pancake Trail” — so named for the ubiquitous banana pancake stands that can be found almost everywhere on the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit.
For decades it was a sleepy farming and fishing village popular with hippies and rock climbers drawn to its towering karst limestone cliffs, its caves, its idyllic farmland, its lagoons, and its peaceful location on the Nam Song River.
Music began to blare out across the rice farms and into the caves of the surrounding Karst cliffs as giant swings, slides, and ziplines popped up and signs advertising “Free Joint with Bucket” littered the docks of bars downriver. There’s no inspections, no control,” Sorangkoun said.
“Two years ago it was paradise.” The lack of government regulation (or perhaps their involvement) allowed the scene to explode as a place where anything was possible — and the backpackers came in droves.
My brother Sam and I arrived in Vang Vieng at the beginning of 2011 after hearing outrageous stories from other travelers. “There’s a bunch of drunk backpackers stumbling around.” As we made our way to our 5-story concrete hotel overlooking the two-street town jammed with bars, restaurants, tourist shops, and food carts, the laugh-track of poured out of the open-air “TV bars” while westerners lounged on raised wooden benches, occasionally lifting their heads from the piles of limp, sagging pillows to take a sip of their banana-nutella-coffee-milo shakes.