I Went to Vang Vieng and Didn’t Go Tubing: Fed Up with Tourists and the Takeover of Tourism

I Went to Vang Vieng and Didn't Go Tubing: Fed Up with Tourists and the Takeover of Tourism

After 31 days in Southeast Asia, I was fed up.

It had been 11 months since my move to Greater Asia, the majority of which had been spent living like a local in China. I had become accustomed to experiencing a deep level of culture on a daily basis, one which opened my eyes and helped me gain a much more global understanding about the way people live.

In China, everything I thought I knew was challenged on a daily basis.

I ate like a local. I drank like a local. I spoke like a local. I worked with locals and acted like a local. By that point, I was a local. I grew to love the idiosyncrasies of Chinese and Asian cultures and the range of customs that accompanied them. I fell in love with Asia.

Mountains of Laos

Mountains of Laos

But, after conducting myself within an Eastern culture for so long, I was completely taken aback by my entrance into Thailand. Where I was once a minority and people would snap photos of me sitting in a coffee shop or walking to work, I was now a member of the majority. Westerners were found on every street, eating in every restaurant, drinking in every bar. Locals tried to rip us off. People no longer wanted to be my friend because I was white (another interesting dynamic which merits discussion, but not here), they wanted what was in my wallet because I was white and, thus, privileged.

Foreigners were everywhere.

Moutains and fields beyond Vang Vieng

Moutains and fields beyond Vang Vieng

People have told me, “You’re doing it wrong. You have to get off the tourist trail! You’re just another silly backpacker!” This is a valid argument, though it’s difficult to implement such ideals when traveling with a time limit. In some cases, there just isn’t enough time to make it to the far reaches of a new country. And, by the time I reached Vang Vieng, Laos, I had truly had enough of the tourists. I wanted a more authentic experience, something I was having difficulty finding.

The tourists came here with one thing in mind: getting totally wasted and hanging out with each other. And I simply couldn’t get on board with that.

Small Laotian village

Small Laotian village

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good party, and I usually make it a point to be there when it kicks off. But after living like a local for so long, and then entering into a community of travelers and expats with seemingly no regard for the culture or the people, my perspective dramatically changed. Where are the travelers who want to learn? Where are the travelers who want to broaden their mind and experience the world and its customs, not just the inside of a bar?

This was not the real Asia. This was Asia taken over by white people.

Dirt roads outside of Vang Vieng

Dirt roads outside of Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng, Laos has reached a certain level of backpacking notoriety due to the ever popular tubing activities that take place on the Nam Song River. Once a hedonist utopia for backpackers looking to drink, take drugs and hook-up at one of the 30+ bars that lined the river, Vang Vieng no longer receives the same level of tourism. Due to a string of tragic deaths over the years, the authorities made it their responsibility to shut this dangerous activity down.

Rice fields of Laos

Rice fields of Laos

Vang Vieng is a small town which has come to rely heavily on the influx of tourism every year. But, now that the police have essentially shut down tubing on Nam Song, and there aren’t nearly as many tourists, the community as a whole is struggling. Neighboring shops literally fight each other for your business.

Is this really the lasting impression that we, as travelers, want to leave on the world?

Villages outside Vang Vieng

Villages outside Vang Vieng

In seeing the negative effects that tourism has had on this region, I felt an unfounded level of guilt even being there. Somehow, in traveling through, and by simply being a foreigner in Vang Vieng, I was contributing to the status quo.

I felt like it was time to get out, so I rented a beat up motorbike and headed for the hills.

My beat up motorbike

My beat up motorbike

I drove beyond the nearby villages where people still displayed signs in broken English, hoping to farm a couple dollars from the few tourists who made it even this far. I drove beyond the trodden roads and beyond the reaches of most anybody who visits Vang Vieng. I drove for more than two hours outside of town, over bridges, past rice fields, through herds of cattle and screaming schoolchildren.

Men worked in fields, naked babies played in the mud outside their homes. The women hung laundry to dry.

This is what I was looking for: the real Laos. The unaffected Laos. The Laos that still carries on in tradition.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I would like nothing more than to see the Laos economy develop and for the people still living in true poverty to expand beyond it. I didn’t like being a privileged tourist in a third world country, and I hated to gawk at it, but as a foreigner, what other choice do I have?

I wanted to see a new way of life, and I certainly did.

A Loatian boy staring at the white boy taking photos of his village

A Loatian boy staring at the white boy taking photos of his village

I left town feeling relieved knowing that not all life has been heavily influenced by tourism, but what I saw in Vang Vieng still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. With more access to global travel than ever before, tourism is taking over many small communities, and it’s making an impact.

Travelers have become less responsible in their escapades and local populations recklessly grow and cater to those same irresponsible tourists who drink, ignore the customs, and act with imprudence. With less tourists in town, Vang Vieng now wallows in a desperate attempt to sustain itself.

It’s a difficult line to cross, because I do want to see poor communities grow, but I also don’t want to see them change in a negative fashion because of tourism.

So, I end with a plea: be a conscious and educated traveler. Act appropriately and befriend the locals with humility. Eat the local food, smile and be a responsible adventurer. Travel with positive intentions and leave only a positive impact. This is the only world we’ve got and, if we want to keep exploring it, we have to take care of it.


READ NEXT: Taking the Slow Boat From Thailand to Laos (and Trying to Bribe the Border Patrol)

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26 Responses to I Went to Vang Vieng and Didn’t Go Tubing: Fed Up with Tourists and the Takeover of Tourism

  1. Paige Conner Totaro February 13, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    Excellent points, Jeremy. We really struggled with this throughout South East Asia, walking that line of wanting to see things (be a dreaded tourist) but not contribute to the negative effects of tourism. Thanks for putting these ideas into words (and actions) so effectively.

    • Jeremy Foster February 15, 2014 at 1:20 pm #

      Thanks, Paige. It’s good to know that there are other likeminded travelers out there!

  2. JourneyCount February 13, 2014 at 8:06 pm #

    I totally get you on this. I remember being in Vang Vieng when it was booming and seeing girls walking around in bikinis, ignoring the embarrassed monks who should have felt comfortable walking their own streets. It was horrible. We went tubing one day and did have fun, but it was enough for us so we took a tour of the surrounding area instead- I wish more people would do the same. Especially considering the beauty of the area. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Jeremy Foster February 15, 2014 at 1:22 pm #

      I remember that being a hot topic of discussion and seeing warning signs everywhere that pleaded with backpackers to be careful about what they wore. Still, I saw shirtless men and bikini-clad girls all over the place. I can’t fault them for ignorance, but it’s not a valid excuse, either.

  3. Sophie February 14, 2014 at 12:45 pm #

    Gosh, Laos is so stunning! I only could fit in 5 days there, but that was (obviously) NOT enough. Yeah, the tubing wasn’t for me either, but it’s practically been shut down now! I only saw one group of westerners with tubes, but a lot of shops/locals set-up for big crowds. It’s good that its stopped but I think the locals in Vang Vieng are now struggling from the severe decline of business! Tourism… what a double-edged sword, eh?

    • Jeremy Foster February 15, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

      Yeah, they are really having a hard time. I actually met the man who the locals in VV see as their foreigner liaison. He told me that they all believe he is the one who brings the tourist season to their town, and they love him for it (because it brings all the money), but that tourist season basically never happened this year, or the year before for that matter.

  4. Manouk February 14, 2014 at 6:56 pm #

    Hi Jeremy! Really interesting post :)! I went tubing twice, but your post really make me think about tourism in Vang Vieng (and in general)! Cheers! Manouk of Bunch of Backpackers!

    • Jeremy Foster February 15, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

      Thanks, Manouk! It’s definitely important to consider the implications of our presence and our dollars in other countries!

  5. Derek4Real February 15, 2014 at 1:14 am #

    Couldn’t agree more brother. It’s the notoriously popular “hotspots” which I despise with a passion and refuse to write about — at least not with the same glittering praises that all the others do. Let the ignorant masses have them. (I’ll save the ‘how tourism is killing local traditional cultures’ speech for another day.) If I traveled only for alcohol, drugs, woman, and/or conversations with fellow white people, well f me I would have just stayed back in my home country.

    • Jeremy Foster February 15, 2014 at 1:29 pm #

      Pretty much, Derek! I think it’s OK to enjoy those places, and they definitely have value for new travelers who struggle to understand and fit within different cultures, but there is a point where it becomes too much and tourism becomes too prevalent.

  6. Jeremy Foster February 15, 2014 at 1:23 pm #

    They are both wonderful places, but also both quite touristy, especially Luang Prabang. The party scene in Vang Vieng just happens to be really big.

  7. tina February 15, 2014 at 4:36 pm #

    aren’t you just drilling new routes? in a year or two you’d need to ride
    further.. and something else; what about vice-versa; if those same
    people were to explore your houseyard? can they at all? i think that in
    todays world all are tourists the moment you leave your house to sleep
    elsewhere. industry is called travel and tourism”- it’s just another niche. no offense

    • Jeremy Foster February 18, 2014 at 12:44 pm #

      I don’t think I’m drilling a route if I’m just randomly exploring the outskirts on my own. I would be creating a new route if I started running a tour which took foreigners to the far reaches. But sure, there is always the risk of tourist regions expanding.

  8. World Travel Chef February 15, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

    We spent nearly two weeks in Vang Vieng with our two children. They spent most of the time playing with the locals in the river, including jumping off the bridge. We loved it, as did our kids. Having spent time in Asia in both 2001 and 2013/14 the change across the whole region has been huge, including mainland China. Tourism is not a beast you can control even when it needs to be, such as the tubing/partying. Who knows what the answer is but to abandon VV and withhold tourist dollars they now rely on doesn’t sit well with me. That aside your pop up ad on this page is hot air ballooning in Vang Vieng?

    • Jeremy Foster February 16, 2014 at 11:25 am #

      I never said that one should abandon Vang Vieng or withhold their dollars and not spend money there. That is entirely not the point of this article.

  9. The Guy February 19, 2014 at 9:15 pm #

    I’ve got to agree with you Jeremy. Modern day, youth tourism is killing the essence of travel and exploring. Is it really travelling to go somewhere new and live as if you are at home? Hungover with sunburn, is that really the experience of going to some far flung land?

    I credit you for trying to get away from it all.

    Your reflection on the commercial side is also a reflection on how dependent people in the tourism industry become.

    • Jeremy Foster February 20, 2014 at 2:02 pm #

      Pretty much! My sentiments exactly! It’s a fine line.

      I just hope people on both sides can get their act in order before it’s too late.

  10. MightyTravels April 23, 2014 at 12:03 am #

    Great post – I love seeing the ‘real’ Asia!

    Btw, I just noticed, where it says ‘Join Me’ on the right of your blog, that Twitter link is wrong. The one further down the page is correct as I just added you 🙂

    Torsten @ http://www.mightytravels.com

    • Jeremy Foster April 23, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

      Thanks for the heads up, Torsten! I’m not sure how that happened, but I’ve fixed it now. Hope you’re enjoying your travels, wherever you are!

  11. Katie February 19, 2015 at 2:49 am #

    Interesting points. We went to VV last month. The tubing (which we spent one day doing) is still there but I was heartened to see there seems to be a new influx of more mature backpackers who, judging by their attire, come to do activities in the countryside rather than get wasted.
    I also saw a few signs up reminding tourists to attire properly in town. With a couple of exceptions, most seemed to respect this (to a certain extent anyway). I admire the folk of VV for being prepared to stand up and push back against the kind of tourism and visitors that trample on their values.

    • Jeremy Foster February 24, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

      I saw some of those signs, too, but also saw quite a few people ignoring them, or just oblivious to them. I do hope that the people of VV are standing up to these tourists!

  12. Richelle August 4, 2015 at 10:49 am #

    I just stumbled on this post of yours and I totally agree! I’ve been living in China for over two years now and I’m pretty much a local here… at least half my friends are Chinese, I speak Mandarin, I work here, I eat almost only Chinese food etc etc. I’ve started branching out into SE Asia this year and it’s a huge culture shock for me! It’s weird being around so many foreigners, and I feel guilty for not speaking the language. I’ve found that my favorite place in SE Asia is the Philippines. It hasn’t been spoiled by tourism in the way that the backpacker route has. Locals are so friendly and are still excited to see you, especially on the islands. Most Filipinos speak amazing English so I found myself hanging out with other Filipinos for the majority of my trip. If you make it back to Asia be sure to check it out (especially Siargao, I loved that island)!

    • Jeremy Scott Foster August 5, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

      I don’t think most people understand what a large contrast there is between vacationing in places like Thailand or Laos vs. the REAL culture in those places. They’re very different, and coming from China, you can just how large the cultural divide is.

  13. Nina - Where in the World is Nina? May 26, 2016 at 4:30 am #

    I’m totally with you, dude! I went to VV with the notion already in my mind: I’m not tubing or getting shit-faced. It’s a gorgeous town, why do you want to be black out drunk the entire time?
    I won’t forget it… I was enjoying my regular fruit shake, and the group of tourists next to me (dudes had no shirts on, the chicks wore a bikini – only… in a restaurant…) were speaking so loudly about how they couldn’t wait to take their mushroom shakes and drink beers down the river. They were practically screaming this conversation. Their other friend finally came by with their prized mushroom shakes and beer – all from another shop, and brought it to this other restaurant to chug them and then leave. Of course leaving a mess for the restaurant that made no money on them to clean up.
    I spent my time seeing the villages and exploring the caves and admiring the mountains. It was so beautiful, unfortunately, many of the tourists there aren’t.

  14. Theresa October 29, 2016 at 3:26 am #

    Assholes gonna asshole, right? I agree with your point that responsible and sustainable tourism are terribly important to the development of communities all over the world. I disagree with your point that it’s the fault of irresponsible tourism that local cultures are dying. That removes quite a bit of agency from those who are choosing to promote activities that bring in much needed tourist dollars over their own local culture.

    As someone who happily dives deep into cultures that aren’t my own (I ran a business on the local economy in sub-Saharan Africa for several years and am now a professional expat), but also happily takes luxurious vacations on beaches where I can tip a waiter very well to bring me mojitos while I soak in the sunshine, I believe there’s a place for all sorts of travelers in this world.

    Making false distinctions between tourists and travelers doesn’t help anyone. I’d love to read more about what the residents of Vang Vien think about the difference between those who travel more sustainably (and frankly, spend a hell of a lot less money), and those who drop a shit ton of cash on escapist vacations. I suspect that they while they make like the former more on a personal level, they are perfectly happy to take the money of the latter, and may, in some cases, prefer it.

    • Jeremy Scott Foster November 11, 2016 at 7:35 pm #

      Hey Theresa. My guess is that you haven’t been to Vang Vieng, but unfortunately, for those locals who live there in poverty, there is not much of a choice but to accept the money tourists/travelers bring in. Without it, they wouldn’t survive, but in doing so their culture becomes diluted. As tourists/travelers trickle in, they bring with them their values. And for Vang Vieng in particular, a well-known hedonist hotspot on the popular backpacker route through Southeast Asia, tourists and travelers have a track record of being extremely disrespectful towards the locals and their customs.

      In a place where modesty is a cultural requirement, drunken white-skinned backpackers in bikinis do not belong. It’s downright disrespectful. And the locals turn their heads in shame, but still serve them a meal at their restaurant because, without the almighty dollar, they would perish.

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