Down the tube

Party's over ... Thanongsi Sorangkoun is dismayed by tourist behaviour in Vang Vieng.
Party's over ... Thanongsi Sorangkoun is dismayed by tourist behaviour in Vang Vieng. Photo: Larissa Ham

What started out as a way to relax after a hard day's work has turned into a tourist trap in Laos, writes Larissa Ham.

The man who claims he accidentally started the tourist craze of tubing in the Laos riverside town of Vang Vieng says its popularity is now hurting the town and its culture.

Thousands of tourists visit Vang Vieng each year - about four hours' bus ride north of the capital city, Vientiane - to float on a rubber tube down the Nam Song River and to party at rickety riverside bars.

Tourists crowd a riverside bar, by one of the towers used for leaping into the river.
Tourists crowd a riverside bar, by one of the towers used for leaping into the river. Photo: Larissa Ham

An organic farm owner in Vang Vieng, Thanongsi Sorangkoun, says the craze inadvertently began in 1999 when he bought a few rubber tubes for his farm volunteers to relax on along the river.

"After a month, every guesthouse and tour company bring tube and starting from here. And kayak," he says.

Now he says the bars that have been built on the banks of the popular tubing route - which begins just in front of his farm - are "very bad".

"They don't respect any law, regulations. There's no inspections, no control," he says. "Two years ago it was paradise."

The riverside bars play loud music for much of the day, disturbing the tranquillity of the farm and the surrounding area.

Sorangkoun says tourists leave rubbish and some are scantily-clad and kiss and cuddle in public - something not generally done in Laos.

Vang Vieng has its own tubing association but Sorangkoun says he hasn't been allowed to join because his farm is outside the town centre. He says this prevents him from accessing any of the profits to help clean up the mess left by tourists.

Sengkeo Frichitthavong, who owns a farm about seven kilometres out of Vang Vieng, is also shocked by the effects of tubing and tourism.

"It's just destroying the town and we are losing our culture ... the noise, the people naked, alcohol, people vomiting all over the place, sex," he says.

Frichitthavong says some children had been tempted to thieve from tourists.

Both farms are involved in the Equal Education For All project, providing 30 free English classes a week, taught by local and foreign volunteers.

Frichitthavong's farm also employs local people in farming and weaving and aims to use sustainable farming methods.

About 300 international volunteers have visited so far, helping on the farm and teaching English to local children.

"If you want to do some good, you could go to the other side of the river [where his farm is] and check it out," Frichitthavong says. "It's not like we don't welcome the foreigner."

As for Sorangkoun, he doesn't believe tubing is a bad activity but he wants to see police enforce regulations at the bars, which he says promote irresponsible drinking and unsafe behaviour.

He says the Laos government should educate bar owners and their employees to serve alcohol responsibly and adhere to safety regulations.

"I am a farmer, not a lawyer and I have no time to fight for everything," he says.

 

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