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Vang Vieng, Laos: backpacker mecca turned disaster magnet?

Vang Vieng gained a reputation for tubing. Now it's becoming known for something else.

Laos vang vieng 2012 02 11Enlarge
Vang Vieng, Laos. This photo was taken from flickr legally via attribution license. (Nick Hewson/Courtesy)

VANG VIENG, Laos — The young man kicks back a free shot of whiskey and begins to make his way up the towering bamboo ladder. He falters on a slippery rung — there’s a breathless moment before he regains his footing and continues up to the platform overlooking the river.

The crowd of backpackers, their half-naked bodies spray-painted neon and smeared with mud, lift up their bucket drinks and cheer him on. It’s 11 a.m.

"Jump, jump, jump," they chant loudly over the pulsating music. "COME ON! You only live once!," his buddy yells.

The young man hesitates, then leaps and lands with a hard splash in the murky waters of the Nam Som river. The crowd whoops and hollers.

Welcome to Vang Vieng.

Four hours north of Laos' capital city Vientiane, and nestled amid beautiful karst mountains and tranquil countryside, is Vang Vieng, a backpacker mecca of hedonism. Young travellers flock to the town to partake in what is considered a Southeast Asia traveler's rite of passage: tubing.

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The idea is captivating. People are driven two miles upriver, then float down the Nam Song on inflated inner tubes, stopping to party hard at bars that line the river route.

But the reality differs.

Two young Australian men are the tubing scene’s first victims of 2012. Lee Hudswell, 26, died on Jan. 10 after jumping from a tower into the river. Daniel Eimutis, 19, was last seen on Jan. 23; his body was found three days later. He is believed to have drowned.

Their tragic deaths have brought attention to a dangerous scene that has risen in popularity over the last decade.

The tales of accidents and close calls are staggering. Backpacker blogs and travel forums recount spills down stairs and off platforms, injuries — ranging from infected cuts to dislocations and broken bones — stories of pulling unconscious people from the river and near drownings.

Video from GlobalPost: Laos water wars

Luke Heffernan, of Dublin, Ireland, knows he is lucky to be alive. He almost drowned in July 2009, just before his 21st birthday. Heffernan jumped off his inner tube and was swept down by the river’s powerful flow.

Before taking to the river, he admitted to drinking from one of the infamous "bucket drinks," a cocktail of whiskey, soda and M-150 (a Thai energy drink) served in a beach bucket that costs around 30,000 kip ($3.75).

“I obviously didn’t realize how strong the current was and I started to get pulled,” he said in a recent phone interview, recounting the harrowing experience. “Then I got pulled under the water three or four times — and I started to panic.”

He struggled to stay afloat. At one point he tried to swim to a concrete block in the middle of the river but was unsuccessful.

“It was like the end of a movie,” he says of his rescue. “I just got pulled out at the last minute. I had gone under and then a hand came under. It was three, about 12-year-old boys, had come across on a canoe and intercepted me just as I had gone down under the river and pulled me up.”

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On shore, Heffernan coughed up water, debris and blood for 15 minutes. Then fellow backpackers carried him across a bridge and a tuk-tuk, or auto-rickshaw, took him to the town hospital. He describes the facilities and care as “absolutely awful” and paid for an emergency flight to Bangkok to get treatment.

Fast, unpredictable water isn’t the only danger with tubing. One foreign guesthouse owner, who has lived in Vang Vieng for eight years, is fed up with the drugs openly for sale and hearing of the deaths of young men. He asked to remain anonymous out of fear of the Tourist Police, which he calls “corrupt” and “powerful.”

“They are working with the people selling [the drugs]. Bars even give you a free joint and two minutes later, the police take you.” Those caught are threatened with jail time and forced to pay a $500 fine that is pocketed by the officers.

Here's video made by another injured tourist, who wants people to enjoy tubing but make sure they know what they're getting