A 19-year old Australian tourist went missing while tubing down the Xong River on January 23 and it took three days for his body to be found in the deep part of the river. His name was Daniel Eimutis and he was on holiday in Vang Vieng, Laos with six of his friends. Earlier last month another young Australian died after jumping from a platform into the same river. These were not freak accidents for as many as 22 foreigners died here in tubing accidents in 2011.
This town is a well-known destination for backpackers, largely due to the popularity of riding an inner tube down the Xong River and stopping at a number of riverside bars along the way. Added attractions are swings and zip-wires that can be used at no charge if you stop for drinks, food or drugs along this 2km stretch of the river. During the rainy season the river can be very fast flowing and in the dry season it can be shallow with rocks close to the surface. The result has been tourists becoming intoxicated on alcohol and drugs and incapable of looking after themselves.
Vang Vieng is about half way between Vientiane and Luang Prabang and the highway that connects them is called the most scenic drive in Southeast Asia. This is an area of stunning beauty. The river runs through the town itself and limestone karsts rise dramatically behind it.
The town caters to backpackers, offering inexpensive guesthouses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes and stalls selling everything from suntan lotion to t-shirts embossed with tubing slogans. According to a recent survey, most backpackers are 18-25 years of age and looking for an inexpensive experience in a party atmosphere with travellers like themselves. Many said they travel here from one of the Thai ‘party islands’.
The local community started a cooperative business to rent the inner tubes and 1,500 families are involved. You rent the tube in town, get it strapped to the roof of a tuk-tuk, and then it’s a 6km ride to where the tubing starts.
The district governor, in an interview with the Vientiane Times, said the safety of such activities is compromised by bar owners serving not only alcoholic drinks but also hallucinogenic mushrooms, and “recreation venue operators” who fail to comply with the regulations.
There have been on-line discussions about this. Someone suggested westerners should volunteer as lifeguards, which brought reactions from those just tired of the whole scene. “Who will be willing to sit around—on their holiday—doing lifeguard duties, remaining sober in a sea of pissed idiots,” was one comment. “Why continue to attract people who share a glass of water with 5 straws,” said another.
Locals are also unhappy with the rowdy behavior, the young people vomiting in the street and walking around in just a bikini or swim shorts. This is a very conservative society. There is also concern that the town is losing its charm.
Not all young backpackers behave irresponsibly, of course. On the bus I was travelling on to get here most everyone planned to go tubing but they were going to look out for one another and weren’t going to take drugs. Everyone knew about the recent deaths but they were confident they could do it safely. When I went to the site it was early so I waited for the first tubers to arrive. Who should it be but a middle-aged Brit who looked all around and with a big smile said, “Where’s the rave?” All these early arrivals wanted me to take their photo: It was definitely a ‘been there, done that’ sort of thing.
Everyone, however, seems to agree that something needs to be done. The solution has to be practical for Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. This is a country with little infrastructure and it is unrealistic to think western safety standards can be applied.
A sustainable tourism study (www.stdplaos.com) made recommendations that sound promising such as charging tourists an entry fee and using the revenue to improve safety; providing tourists with information about behaving responsibly and respectfully; and escorting visitors that become drunk and incapacitated from the river.
It is dark as I finish writing this and I sit by the Xong River for a few minutes to watch three Lao teenagers who are fishing. They are all standing in a long, shallow boat. The teen on the end holds a long oar and shifts his weight from side to side to keep the boat from flipping over. His two mates are casting nets, pulling them in, dumping their catch, throwing their nets back out again. This is Laos and it is a wondrous place. Let’s not spoil it with our western shenanigans.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2012