Poor Laos. It still seems so wrongfully overlooked among those travelling in Southeast Asia.
This seems, in part, because it acquired a certain reputation during the late 2000s — and even though it’s not at all accurate, some people still avoid Laos because of it.
A while ago I was messaging with a reader planning a trip in Southeast Asia who asked for my advice. She said she’s heard that Laos is just for rowdy European backpackers in their early 20s to go partying and tubing and drinking non-stop. Since she was more interested in culture, cuisine, and nature, she’d decided to skip Laos entirely.
And I was like, ‘nooooooo, you’ve got it all wrong!!’.
I immediately felt it my duty to correct her image of this wonderful country. Having explored a fair bit of Laos, it pains me when people still avoid it for the wrong reasons!
Here’s the thing: if you want to party hard, you should probably head to Thailand, Vietnam, or Cambodia (where certain places let you do just that). But if you want to have a quieter or more authentic experience, I think Laos is actually the place to go.
If you are not yet convinced, then let me explain where all the confusion comes from.
Partying in Laos in 2012
I first travelled in Laos in 2012 as part of my first backpacking trip through Southeast Asia, following the popular Luang Prabang to Vientiane route.
This was way at the start of my life as a traveller — and I didn’t yet know much about the places I was going. I had gone to Laos pretty much on a whim. And when I arrived in the town of Vang Vieng, I was completely oblivious to its reputation.
It turned out Vang Vieng was a pretty notorious party town!
In fact, Vang Vieng was known for having some of the most outrageous backpacker parties on Earth.
You could drink booze from buckets and binge on drugs like there was no tomorrow. Backpackers arrived in droves to Vang Vieng’s 24/7 riverside parties, where drunken revellers would pull off acrobatic feats like jumping off bamboo bridges, rope swings, and improvised water slides.
While that could sound like a whole bag of fun, keep in mind that this is a poor country with little regulation, so things quickly got out of hand.
It got crazy. Too crazy. People were dying.
If you thought Fyre Festival was a real clusterf**k, then it’s still nothing compared to Vang Vieng, although things there devolved in much more of a slow motion.
Every month, more and more drunk backpackers drowned or crashed themselves onto the rocks. The nightmare came to a head when 27 tourists died in 2011. Western newspapers started writing about Vang Vieng, setting perceptions of Laos for years to come.
But when I arrived in Vang Vieng in November 2012, it was already two months after the parties had been totally shut down. A few bars in the town itself were still open, but the river parties were gone.
I heard a few different rumours around town. Apparently, the son of an Australian diplomat had died while partying here, so Australia had threatened to pull development aid if Laos didn’t crack down on the parties immediately. Someone else told me the Laos military had arrived one day with helicopters, torching down all the riverside bars using flamethrowers.
Maybe that’s not quite how things went down, but the fact was that the old Vang Vieng was done.
I wasn’t sad to have missed it. But, to be clear, I did enjoy the nightlife quite a bunch while I was in Laos!
I was there in my 20’s and not wholly disinterested in having some mindless fun. I was with a small group of awesome people I’d met by chance on the trail and many of our evenings were spent drinking and going out.
In Luang Prabang, we hung out at the Utopia Bar (which I’m happy to say is still going strong), drinking copious numbers of Yellow Fever cocktails, playing card games, and enjoying the bar’s full-sized beach volleyball court.
When all of Luang Prabang would shut down around midnight, we would migrate en-masse to a bowling alley outside of town run by the communist government that still served cheap local rice whiskey.
In Vang Vieng, we ended up drinking and playing pool at the Irish bar pretty much every night. At one point, a friend and I somehow crashed a local wedding where we danced in a big circle with the locals.
But even then, I’d never have thought of Laos as an obvious party destination. Most towns officially have a midnight curfew, and there weren’t any backpacker party districts like you might find in Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City.
It was and is, for the most part, a very quiet country.
Getting to know Laos better
Maybe it’s just a matter of age and perspective, but I went back to Laos last year and got to know it so much better the second time around.
Back in 2012, I did see plenty of caves, temples, night markets, and beautiful landscapes — but my time was also often spent drinking and socializing. Back then, I wasn’t yet Mr. Serious Travel Man; my main goal was to forget about my career woes and just have a good time.
But on my second trip, I was there just for Laos. And I was a bit more thoughtful in my exploration, veering off the standard Luang Prabang to Vientiane backpacker trail.
I stayed in the trekking hub of Luang Namtha and in the zen-inducingly beautiful village of Nong Khiaw, which is surrounded on all sides by gorgeous limestone mountains. There I met a guy who volunteered at some of the remote villages, who invited me to come along to a homestay in a place unmarked on any maps, drinking rice wine with the village chief.
I stayed at the long-running Gibbon Experience ecotourism project, sleeping above the jungle canopy and waking up to glorious vistas of a misty rainforest.
In the south of Laos, I rented a motorbike and went road-tripping for several days, passing by traditional villages, gorgeous waterfalls, and an ancient Khmer temple that — unlike some of those in Cambodia — was utterly tranquil and nearly devoid of tourists.
I was completely charmed by Laos again.
I had liked its rural vibe the first time around, but now I was utterly in love with it. And I realized Laos may just be one of the purest and least spoiled out of all the mainland Southeast Asia countries.
Now, if you’re a younger backpacker going to Laos, then there is still plenty to entertain you in between all the sightseeing.
Vang Vieng resumed its river tubing a few years ago, letting you party by the river once again, just not quite in such crazy ways as before. Nowadays, Vang Vieng is increasingly known as an adventure travel hub, with many people coming there for outdoors activities like caving, kayaking, ziplining and hiking.
In the 4000 islands in southern Laos, the island of Don Det has plenty of backpacker bars with cheap booze, weed shakes, and happy pizzas — though all this closes down at 12 pm at the latest, and the 100-meter strip of bars is also easily avoided if it’s not your thing.
But when I think of Laos, truly the first things that come to my mind are its Buddhist calm, unspoiled nature, traditional culture, and beautiful landscapes. This was what defined Laos for me even back in 2012, and it’s what still defines it today.
So, if you’re planning a trip to Southeast Asia, I hope your ideas about Laos are not informed solely by some of the blog posts or newspaper articles you might find from 7 or 8 years ago. That’s not what it’s like at all.
Go to Laos. You won’t be disappointed.
Have you been to Laos and partied there back in the day? Or did you go to Laos and avoid the party scene completely? Share your experiences in the comments below!