Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Vang Vieng Tubing Deaths and Dangers

65

The dangers of tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos, are well-documented.  Most guidebooks say that a few people die every year. While in Vang Vieng, I heard an ominous (though unconfirmed) rumor that four people had died within the past two months.

Most of the time, people die in Vang Vieng because they drink too much or do drugs and then do crazy moves on the rope swings, hitting their heads on the rocks or drowning in the current.

It’s sad, and it’s awful.  Why should people be dying for such stupid reasons?

I witnessed one near-death during my time in Vang Vieng.

It was around noon and I was at Q Bar, the first bar on the river.  I was sitting with two Australian girls and we were watching people on the rope swing.  A guy went off the swing and landed in the water with a giant splash.

During the dry season in Vang Vieng, there is a little island in the middle of the river in front of Q Bar.  After landing in the water, the guy walked up to this embankment and stood there for a few moments.

Then the guy turned back and walked into the river until he was completely underwater.  He was submerged and floating vertically.

Then the bubbles started coming up.

At first, we thought he was doing it intentionally.  But after 15 seconds or so, the girls and I became concerned.

“Is he okay?” I asked them.

“I don’t know.”

“Should someone do something?”

Just as soon as we said that, a guy dove off the edge of the bar into the river and pulled him to the surface. His face was still underwater.  A second guy swam out and pulled his head back so he could breathe.

They brought the guy to dry land – and he appeared to be fine, thank God.  He seemed alert and was talking right away.

This could have ended worse.  Far worse.

As far as I could see, this guy didn’t appear to be intoxicated. He could have been, but he didn’t seem to be, and it was very early in the day.  The only unusual factor about his jump was that he landed on his face.

The point?  Even if you avoid alcohol and drugs, Vang Vieng can be a dangerous place.

How to Stay Safe in Vang Vieng

Above all, don’t be stupid.  While freak accidents happen, 99% of the time the injuries in Vang Vieng are related to bad decision-making.

1. Watch your alcohol intake. While binge drinking is never a good idea, no matter the location, it’s worse in an area without any safety guidelines or medical facilities.  Watch your drinking — and drugs are a really bad idea, for many reasons.

2. Be particularly careful on the rope swings, slides and zip-lines. Watch other people go on them for awhile before you do and make sure you know how to handle them properly.  Make sure to land somewhere that’s free of rocks.

3. Don’t swim in the river without a tube. This is dangerous for both scraping yourself on the rocks and getting caught up in the current and potentially drowning.

4. Don’t go in the river after dark — even with a tube. Nobody will be around to help you if you need it.

5. Watch out for others. Even if you’re doing everything right, someone drunk could fall into you and knock you off the edge of the bar, or land on you after you land in the water.

Here’s the truth:

I refused to go on any rope swings or slides while in Vang Vieng.

Yes, I was often met with a “But you’re not being adventurous!” from my friends (and believe me, that happens quite often and is annoying every single time), but I didn’t care.

The rope swings were bungees, not actual ropes.  If you didn’t have great upper-body strength, you’d be thrown off.

On the zipline, if you didn’t let go before reaching the end, you’d be flipped backwards hard and fast.

Even the slides weren’t safe – people would go down them without looking, and I witnessed a lot of collisions.

After seeing that kid nearly die, I knew that I had made the right decision.  I wasn’t going to become one of Vang Vieng’s sad statistics.

And that goes for you, too.

Comments

65 Responses to “Vang Vieng Tubing Deaths and Dangers”
  1. I wouldn’t have gone down the slides or on the rope swings, either!

    Watching your alcohol intake is important no matter where you’re traveling–you’re in a new place, probably around people you just met, and getting completely blackout wasted is a really bad idea.

  2. The Missus says:

    Good for you for sticking to your principles! And you ARE still adventurous!

  3. Amy says:

    Good for you! Don’t do anything that you don’t feel comfortable with. Don’t feel pressured by others to do things and don’t feel like you have to do anything because you’re there and that’s what people at home would want you to do. Way to hold your ground and your standards! And you are certainly adventurous! Just in a smart, safe way! :)

  4. Amanda says:

    Great tips, Kate! It’s sad to hear about all those accidents, which probably all could have been avoided if people weren’t so stupid.

    Good for you for refusing to put yoruself in dangerous situations. It sounds like you had a good time anyway, even without the rope swings and slides. This is probably an instance where that old saying, “Better safe than sorry,” should be applied.

  5. Yvette says:

    I did a rope swing once- it wasn’t a bungy cord though, actual rope two years ago. I have the video somewhere around here that basically shows I shouldn’t be a trapeze artist. ;)

    One thing you didn’t have listed that I was advised when there was to not walk bar to bar in bare feet- either take sandals, swim, or tube. The reason for this is there are plenty of people who take glass bottles with them and they drop and shatter them in the water. Cuts on feet aren’t uncommon and it’s not like that water is clean to begin with!

  6. Glad to hear you didn’t attempt the swings and slides! I didn’t either. Seemed like a bad combination of shoddy construction and very drunk people. And during the wet season when the river is wilder, I can’t even imagine what it would be like! And seriously, good words of wisdom!

  7. Annie says:

    Very informative post Kate! I think people just want to have fun and they go in with a “it won’t happen to ME” attitude.

    I think that choosing not to participate is an okay option but it’s nice to have some smart guidelines for someone who does decide to join in.

  8. Nicolas says:

    Those are interesting tips, I can imagine that it’s alluring to go into the water without a tube…

    About the alcohol use, I found an article that presents the benefits of binge drinking, I thought you might be interested :-)
    http://gearybehaviourcenter.blogspot.com/2009/02/benefits-of-binge-drinking.html

  9. andi says:

    Yikes that’s kind of scary!

  10. While I did enjoy myself in Vang Vien, and had a blast flinging myself from the various rope swings, there was an inherent danger lurking just beneath the gleefully inebriated surface. I didn’t see anyone get hurt, but when that much alcohol is being consumed and people start climbing trees and launching themselves in the air you know it is just a game of averages.

    I am glad you kept it safe Kate… BTW do they still have the video bars playing endless loops of “Friends” or have they moved on to a different TV show?

  11. Chris says:

    Although you didnt actually go on any of the slides or swings, i do remember at least one occasion where you said “I SHOULD SO DO THE SLIDE NAKED!”

    Good decision

  12. Chichi says:

    Word to the wise, we’ll definitely take note of this. Although, we’ll still party like there’s no tomorrow once we’re in Vang Vieng!

  13. Priyank says:

    Hi Kate!
    Its good that you didn’t do it because you were not comfortable. Who cares about doing things worrying about what others will say?
    Priyank

  14. LaoBaby says:

    So the point of you going to Vang Vieng waaaas…..????….????
    You’ve gotta risk it for the biscuit! even if the biscuit is just for the fact you risked it! I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Laos and have met many people who have gone to Vang Vieng and Vang Vieng alone, and yet still claim that they’ve “seen Loas”. If you went to (only) VV and didn’t do any of the stupid contraptions then i doubt you took anything from the country (once again just taking from the experience of the average Laos “traveller”). VV is the enigma of Laos, it’s the exception that proves the rule. I hope for your sake you didn’t waste your time sulking in bar/restaraunt watching family guy/friends, as there a but a few (accessible) places in this world in which saftey regualtions, and the vocal minority, havn’t screwed. I’m sorry if i’m being harsh but I believe that if opinions and ‘advice’ such as yours became mainstream then in 10 years down the track, if not less, VV will become another boring, over regulated, shithole in which people assume no responsability for their own actions, renowned only for freedom mecca that it once was.

    • LaoBaby, if you’ve been following my site, you’ve known that I’ve been all over Laos, including some areas in the south that rarely see tourists.

      • LaoBaby says:

        No I have not been following your site. This page in particular was shown to me by a friend in Vang Vieng. Recent events in VV, namely the closing and probable re-distribution of the island, have caused mild amounts of panic among VV residents and traders, whose livelihoods depend on the tourist dollar. VV is an abnormality within Laos paying mostly to the conservative nature of the average Laos national. Whilst the township is accepted by its local inhabitants it is merely tolerated by others. Rare incidences such as families of deceased idiots suing bar owners bring unjust and bad attention to the town. The snake that is Vang Vieng may be eating its own tail but misguided ‘Buyer Beware’ articles such as yours will only speed the process up. A couple of dead (usually stupid) farang are hardly worth the human cost if the VV we know today is forced by its mother country to disappear.

    • DAVID NICHOLLS says:

      So from what you saying in your post, if you didn’t do any of the rope swings or zip lines you didn’t experience laos. I myself did do the swings and zip lines and look back on the whole experience and wonder how i didnt injure myself. Vang Vieng has fallen into a tourist trap, it wouldn’t suprise me if the bars are now owned by foreigners who cashed in on it. As in most places in SE asia you meet the most humble people in places that aren’t developed into tourist shacks, these people are happy with what they have and live sustainably and this is where you will experience the real asia. So dont tell someone is they haven’t been on a zip line they haven’t experienced laos. In my opinion its a shame that this beautiful place has been spoilt by all these piss heads that cant hold there drink. Well done for sticking to your guns kate.

  15. jessicat says:

    Eh. Vang Vieng seems to me a working model of Darwinism. If you get wasted and misjudge your ability to handle a zipcord, it’s your own damn fault that you ended up in a hospital in a third world country. There’s no illusion of safety there. Everybody is well aware of the risks.

    That said, I was there twice in my SE Asian travel adventure, and both times I had so much fun it was ridiculous. I can’t wait to go back, and I hope people like you haven’t shut it down by the time I do.

  16. Laura says:

    Ooh, that would have been a tough call for me. I probably would’ve done both the rope swing and the slide but I love water sports and have a hard time saying no to anything related to them. However, with alcohol in hand I probably wouldn’t have done so.

  17. Jeremy B says:

    I don’t blame you for being safe. With rocks and alcohol involved, people can do some pretty crazy stuff. It’s better to be safe than sorry so you have to be careful when you don’t know what is underwater. We have rocks like that here in the rivers and it can be dangerous when people jump off. There is a difference between adventurous and ignorance and each person has to make their own choices.

  18. Odysseus says:

    Good for you in taking care of yourself rather than living up to someone else’s definition of “adventurous.” I’m sure you’re having plenty of adventures that are more exciting than going down a slide while drunk, anyways.

  19. Amanda says:

    Smart decision! When I was in Vang Vieng the river was extremely swollen and tubing was prohibited so we rafted it instead. We made the obligatory stop at the Slider Bar. Unlike you, I decided to be adventurous and try the swing. As I swung down I was to preoccupied with screaming in terror as to remember to pick up my legs and I hit the water, hard, somersaulting into the murky brown water. I didn’t know which way was up and for the first time ever I truly thought I was going to die. So like I said, you’re smart for avoiding them! And that’s for posting this, I definitely think people that travel to Vang Vieng should be a little more aware.

  20. Traveler26 says:

    What a very boring person you are, you have to take the risk sometimes
    to enjoy the experience! The whole point of tubing is to get as shitfaced as possible and to enjoy yourself! What what the point of travelling there to be a bore!

    • Ben says:

      I think traveling in Laos in general is inherently risky. Ever done the 6hr fast boat to Laung Prabang?
      You can still be adventurous without placing yourself at unnecessary risk.

      But hey, if you do want to risk it please go nuts. Judging by some of the specimens I saw crawling out of that river yesterday you clearly shouldn’t be breeding anyway.

      I’ll be tubing today and I don’t even drink anymore. I’ll be sober for rock climbing tomorrow too.

      Does that make me a bore?

  21. Daniel says:

    I was there two years ago with my girlfriend. As there then had been a deadly accident the day before we skipped the swings and went tubing down the river instead.
    We were completely sober but still got several bruises, cuts and a damaged toenail because of the sharp rocks we sometimes hit while floating down the stream. Maybe the river was exceptionally low on water that week though, because otherwise I would guess lots of people would get badly hurt every day.

    And my girlfriend also got a utinal tract infection by the way. The water isn’t so clean around some of the bars..:(

  22. Crash Carson says:

    Safety last!!
    But seriously…
    I have been to Laos and VV in particular 3 times (in fact I jst got back) and had the most hilarious travel experiences of my life…in the Tubing!!
    It is a shame that in only the last 2 years since I’ve been going there it is being totally over developped and “globalized” with land prices skyrocketing!!
    The crazy tubing rave party is really a blast but if you dont go to the surrounding villages (like Nathon near the Blue Lagoon for example) you havent seen anything…it’s really very beautiful!
    Another must see is Luang Prabang and tho I havent been to the south yet like the “Plain of Jars or 4000 Islands, it’s a beautiful country and the people darling…
    I agree that the water purity is an issue, as last year there was an outbreak of “pink eye” conjuctivitis surely from the river water…and having been to the far northern border of Laos, I’ve seen how they use their rivers as toilets!
    But use some common (or actually uncommon) sense and you’ll be ok…and try not to go over 50% shit faced ;-))
    Eric

  23. Mike says:

    When I was there with my girlfriend last year, I unfortunately pressured her into doing one of the rope swings, which incidentally was the highest one at all of the bars. She didn’t want to but eventually caved. She was covered in mud, as is everyone, and slipped off the handle right at the very top. It was a real stretch for her just to be able to grab it in the first place. I was in utter shock, she fell forty feet onto her back, missing the shore and rocks by maybe 3 feet; 3 feet to the left and she would have been dead. Be safe out there, it truly is dangerous. And yes I felt like one whopping idiot.

  24. Andre says:

    Lame!!! I was there over a year ago and had a blast. You certainly don’t need exceptional upper body strength for the rope swing or the trapeze. As long as you don’t have limp noodles for arms, you’ll be fine.

  25. Rich says:

    Another article– “Vang Vieng and Tubing with Grim Reaper” here :)

    good job Kate, I read yours long before i went!

  26. Potty says:

    Do your research folks before you travel

    http://news.sky.com/home/world-news/article/15384865
    Honeymoon Tragedy: Man Swept To Death in Vang Vieng

    Cheers

    Potty Training Books

  27. Ben says:

    Another story I just saw on ninemsn.

    http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/8402079/aussie-tells-of-laos-tubing-nightmare

    The river was slow and low when I went. Silly. Mr Darwin owns that river for sure.

  28. Rob Crew says:

    There’s no mystery here – shallow rivers like this go up and down in depth overnight depending on rainfall. It may be deeper one day – but the next day the river will have shallow rocks under the slings and jumps. This scene is shocking to see. Shallow rocky rivers are notoriously dangerous anyway – but in a third world country with no active safety authority? This place is an utter death trap.

  29. Melissa says:

    I went tubing in November of 2010 and I had a great time, although I did cut my foot open after landing in the water from the highest rope swing, and it got massively infected to the point where the local medicine didn’t work and by the time I got to Cambodia I had to cut my trip short and go home because I couldn’t walk anymore and I was worried about not having a foot anymore!! Haha. Kinda made me think twice about my decision not to take out travelers insurance… But it all worked out in the end. I had crazy amounts of fun, and even though I tried every rope swing, slide and zipline available, I did resist pressure being put on to my to do backflips, try the swings upside down and to go tandem. While I do think it’s quite lame to go tubing and not do any swings or even slides, it’s always best to stick to what your comfortable with and not give in to pressure. Then again, I believe backpacking should be largely about pushing your comfort zone and testing your boundaries. But eh, each to their own. I just hope to make it back there before it shuts down or becomes ridiculously restrictive and over regulated like everything else in this world!!

    • Melissa, I may have been your definition of lame, but at least I didn’t have to cut my trip short like you did!

      After I wrote this piece, my good friend Ste went down the “death slide” (you know which one I mean) and dislocated his collarbone. The doctors in Vang Vieng, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and the UK had no idea what to do. He’s stuck with a bump sticking out of his chest for the rest of his life.

      I am SO happy that what happened to you and Ste didn’t happen to me. And I owe it to the fact that I stayed off the slides and swings.

      I hope you learned how important it is to have travel insurance! It could have been so much worse.

  30. It is true, people die doing silly things on holidays. As young people we think we are invisible. I think the best thing we can do is look after your friends, guide them to make good choices and as this link shows, two Australians did die this year in a month at this spot, so don’t become a statistic.
    http://www.smh.com.au/victoria/melbourne-student-dies-in-second-tubing-tragedy-20120125-1qhqn.html
    Your parents will love to have you home!
    Lesley.

    • robert says:

      Anybody intending going to Vang Vieng and starting out of Chiang Mai, should consider buying this cheap booklet,60 Bath Named SLOW BOAT to Luang Parbang, available at almost all travel agents and bookshops in Chiang Mai. You will find many tips and hints about the whole trip starting in Chiang Mai, to Chiang Khong, than by Slow Boat to Pakbeng, Luang Prabang, Phonsavan and on to Vang Vieng. It will save you more money then the cost of this booklet, it may even save your life, the main reason I have written this booklet.

      • Robert, I’m only allowing one of your comments — promoting your booklet multiple times on a single thread is what I consider spam, no matter how cheap or important the product is.

  31. Watch out for the Lao-Lao whisky

    Another story to take note of.

    Laos tuber’s near-death ride – http://www.theage.com.au/travel/travel-incidents/laos-tubers-neardeath-ride-20120215-1t5p0.html

  32. Suzanne says:

    I have just come back from Laos on a Contiki tour and we visited Vang Vieng. I had heard about tubing from past Contiki travellers and its dangers so I half knew what to expect and warned others, so when we arrived we all got straight into the buckets and dancing, which soon led to going off the flying fox and after being the first chick to do it, I landed straight on my back, winding myself and feeling the most intense pain ever, getting out of the water I discovered instantly a huge purple bloody bruise developing along my back but thought nothing of it and a few more drinks cant fix, which then we moved onto the rope swing, you see these things and think, fuck they look so dangerous but your in the moment the music is pumping and your lovin life so I tried it anyway, I accidently let go too late and fell way too high up so came down in the water pretty hard, once again PAIN! but again more booze kept me going, kinda felt invincible……until the giant slide!!!!!! I always made someone go before me so they could tell me how to land properly so I knew what to do, so I get to the top of the slide looking down and its those moments where you have an angel on one shoulder and devil on the other both telling you what to do, in the back of my head im like DONT DO IT DONT DO IT, but I was known as the ”adventurous one” and I was ready to go so I pushed off and the speed gained, the preparation of how to land this thing went straight out the window as I realised how fast I was going and just prayed everything would be fine, I go flying off in the air trying to land in the bomb position but somehow I end up too far forward and come crashing down completely on my face…………..HARD! i remember being underwater for too long, so many meters down and thinking am I alive or dead, not sounding like an idiot but I swear i saw a light. and it was at the top of the water and someone was telling me to swim for it as I was not moving under the water so I slowly tried to paddle upwards until I reached the top finally, next thing I hear a few cheers then everything goes pretty silent, im trying to swim for the bar, im laying completely on my back with only my mouth submerged, but realising I can only move my hands and my body is going back under the water, I felt like going to sleep my head and face hurt that bad, then I hear people screaming my name at me to get up but I cant do anything but think of going to sleep under the water, next thing I have people jumping in to rescue me and pull me back to the ladder where I have to be held still for 30mins and have water poured down my throat, I wasnt even drunk but knew I was 100% done, I was in so much pain, I could hardly get a sentence out and was so dizzy so I rested for quite some time, ive knocked myself unconcious before but the impact from coming off the slide was so intense, felt like hitting a brick wall at 100kms an hour, it just didnt seem right as it looked relatively safe and deep enough, but being in the moment I soon got back into the partying, no more drinking or flying foxes and slides but I was banned by my friends from doing anything stupid, wish they said that to be soon as we got there.

    I guess our group couldnt have been any luckier considering when we finished the flying fox, 2 guys went down together which caused it to snap resulting in them falling from quite high and one man landing flat on his face, teaing his eye socket open and his eye was protuding out of his face.

    So as we finished I sobered up, got home looked at my back and as the days went on my thighs,arse and back turned from skin colour to black, purple,yellow and majorily swollen, the bruises combined into one major bruise, I could hardly even walk I was so hurt but had to soldier on but the size of the bruise was horrendous.

    So after returning home it seemed one week after the other there would be Australians dying from tubing doing the exact same thing I did, and it makes me realise how unbelieveably stupid I was to even attempt any of them, yes theres being in the moment but doing my research after all this makes me so damn lucky and so sick at the same time that I didnt end up with a broken skull or dead, so as fun as the events were I just hope people can be more carfeful when getting involved in this river of death!

  33. John says:

    Last year, according to a 60 minutes interview at the only medical center in the province, a Dr stated that fatalities were common and that there was 20 tourist fatalities in Vang Vieng last year. The death toll could be higher, but the figures would be hard to get, as the Laos Authorities would likely know the negative impact this could have on tourism.
    Have fun but please take care of yourselves, as there is no hospital, life guards, ambulance, or anyone else that could help you if you get in trouble.

  34. Geraldine says:

    I actually fractured a vertebra in VV about 2 weeks ago on the big inflatable blob. I was well aware of all the dangers of the river, but once you’re in the thick of it all, it’s easy to forget about them or think… bad stuff won’t happen to me, I’m in control. The blob didn’t seem like that big of a deal, but two big dudes jumped on it to launch me at the same time. The shock when they landed was so great that it caused a compression fracture of one of my vertebra. I’m so thankful that I didn’t get hurt any worst. While VV is obviously a lot of fun, you *always* need to remember that things can go from amazing to horrendous incredibly fast. Be beyond careful, keep an eye out for your friends and others, and just don’t take unnecessary risks (even if you would do this stuff at home). It’s not worth it there. And certainly, don’t do the blob! I wrote about my incident here: http://www.ilikeworld.com/a-bump-in-the-road/ Thanks for spreading the word, Kate.

  35. Joe says:

    The tubing itself isn’t dangerous, the swings and stuff look like they could be dangerous.
    I think the tubing gets a bad reputation due to the idiots who get completely wasted. They are a danger to themselves anywhere, be it in a city centre, a beach or on a river. We had a great time tubing, got tipsy but not out of control drunk, and easily survived with only one injury – a cracked toe-nail incurred whilst playing football.

    I wish this article was named something other than …’Deaths and Dangers’ because that only serves to put people off trying it. I admit, reading this before I went put me off but you have to experience things for yourself. Sure, listen to advice, but if you don’t try things for yourself, you will miss out on a lot of fun stuff – tubing in Vang Vieng being one example.

    • Erin says:

      It was my brother who died earlier this year on the zip line. I have seen photos and i too believe Laos looks beautiful. My brother was not drunk, he was only at the second bar. He just hit the water and came up not breathing. I guess the lesson to be learnt is there isn’t access to the healthcare we have here. We are not invincible and don’t put yourself in a position where you could loose your life. It has devastated our family. Lee was a beautiful soul and this life that has been lost is such a waste.

      • Erin, I am so sorry for your pain. I can’t imagine what it’s been like for you and your family. My thoughts and prayers are with you.

        Thank you for your comment. Since Vang Vieng, I’ve been working to encourage people to be SO careful. Thanks for helping make a difference, and I hope that you are able to find peace.

  36. jade says:

    hey! I’ve been to thailand 7 times and to hong kong malaysia and singapore! but this time I’m leaving on the 27th december to go to vietnam, laos, cambodia and philippines and thailand again! i can’t wait! i love travelling, going to live in australia for a year afterwards too! i love ur blog. I think I may start one after seeing yours! x

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