Why Are Backpackers in Southeast Asia So Stupid?

Dumb backpacker in LaosDear Backpackers of Southeast Asia,

We need to talk. I love you. Truly, I do. I’ve been a backpacker for a long, long time now. I love being one and probably will consider myself one for a long time to come. But while backpacking through Southeast Asia over the last few months, I’ve noticed some disturbing behavior that we really need to talk about.

To be blunt—why do you act so damn stupid sometimes?

I’m asking because I’m a concerned friend. It seems like when many of you fly to Southeast Asia, you check your intelligence at the boarding gate and decide that risking your life in the pursuit of alcohol-fueled, drunken excitement is a smart thing to do.

And that really concerns me.

For starters, let’s talk about Vang Vieng, Laos. Now, I can’t walk down a street in Asia without bumping into a backpacker wearing that damn “I went tubing in Vang Vieng” shirt. And when I see it I wonder—why on earth would you think jumping into a shallow river while drunk is a good idea?

Twenty-two people died this year alone. You could end up like this guy who just died. Or the guy in this video who cracked his head open.

There’s also this guy. Him. Or her.

And those are just the examples I found on the first page of Google!

I mean, seriously, if we were back home, and I said, “Hey man, let’s go get blind drunk and jump into a shallow river. Oh, and if something goes wrong, there’s no real hospital anywhere to get help. It’ll be fun!” how would you react?

You’d look at me like I was crazy. And rightly so.

This is not a good idea. Nothing about it this seems remotely like a good idea. Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with getting drunk on some lazy river or partying at bar near a river. Heck, crack me open a Corona and sign me up for both. But this? Foolish.

There’s also something called “The Death Slide” next to this river. It got the name due to all the people who have died using it, which begs the question—why are people stupid enough to keep using it?!

People say it’s a tragedy when something terrible happens in Vang Vieng. No. A tragedy is a car accident or a house burning down. What happens in Vang Vieng is sad, but it’s simply Darwinism. I have no sympathy for someone who decides to do this and gets hurt. When you play with fire, you’re going to get burned. And since you’re my friend, I don’t want to see you get burned.

And while we’re on that subject, let’s talk about fire.

I love fire as much as the next person. There’s something primordial about it, but I don’t like putting myself in situations where I’ll get burned. Why do you? Throughout Asia, I see backpackers jumping the “fire rope.” You know, the rope that locals light on fire with gasoline and have you skip across like we’re in the 5th grade and playing double Dutch.

Here’s a tame version of what happens to some people:

You may be the world’s best jump roper, but the drunk guy who decides to join you might not be. While you’re skipping rope, a bunch of drunks decide to join you and pretty soon, you’re on the ground scrambling away from the fire in hopes of not getting your face burned. I recently watched a guy get the rope wrapped around his arm. All the skin burned off, and he was rushed to the hospital. I’ve seen people fall on the rope and burn their face, hair, and clothes. I’ve watched people trip on the rope and land in the gasoline.

Fire + alcohol + random drunks = bad idea.

A second-degree burn is not the memory you want to keep from Southeast Asia.

Finally, let’s discuss your ability to drive a motorbike—or lack thereof. Everywhere I go I see people with injuries: bandaged legs, huge exhaust pipe burns on their calves, and broken limbs. When I ask what happened, it’s usually the same answer. “I got into a motorbike accident.”

Back home, you wouldn’t drive without a license, so again, why do it here? Sure, the bikes have small 150 cc engines and are pretty slow. On a nice and easy road, you’d have no problems.

But driving in Asia is not like driving back home. Here, drivers overtake people on tiny one-lane roads, they don’t look, they stop short, and they speed like they’re in Nascar. The roads aren’t in good condition, either. They’re often windy, steep, take sharp turns, and are filled with potholes. Plus, besides the crazy traffic in Asia, you have to deal with all the other backpackers who decide it’s a good idea to rent a bike they have no idea how to ride.

I’ve seen too many crashes and near misses here in Asia.

Sometimes I wonder—who the heck are you traveling with who lets you do these crazy things!?

Sure, I’ve done a number of stupid things while traveling. Things I’m not going mention because my parents read this website, but I’ve never done anything stupid enough that it would jeopardize my life or health.

I love a good adventure, but I also like to be alive. These aren’t things you would do back home, so don’t do them overseas. Sure, it may seem like a good idea at the time. Most everything does when you’re drunk. But when you end up like all those people in Laos, or get second-degree burns, or scars from a bike accident, it suddenly isn’t such a good idea, is it?

You’re my friend. I like hanging out with you. I want to keep hanging out with you.

But can we cut the stupid shit? It’s incredibly dangerous and makes all of us seem like drunken idiots.



  1. I think a lot of people get the idea in their head that because they’re traveling they want open themselves to as many experiences as possible. In some cases, this is great. You might try a certain type of food or learn some phrases in a new language – which is awesome! However I think these same attitudes lead to stupid behavior like this. They have their guard down while traveling which allows them to try things that at home they would otherwise deem uncomfortable, challenging, or (unfortunately in some cases) downright stupid.

  2. Well done Matt – I’ve been thinking the same thing myself – but I’m 49 so what the f*k would I know?

    I know that its always been “buyer beware” in SE Asia. I nearly drowned tubing in Sumatra back in 89. I can write this now because my mother is long gone. It was the thing to do. I was entirely stupid – I went with someone who’d just met. I didn’t have a lifejacket. The tube flipped and pushed my under on a corner – I couldn’t get back to the surface – the current was too strong. I learned later that if I’d gone unconscious – I would have popped back up a little further down.

    In those moments of panic I considered that a) my companion wasn’t fluent in English or Bahasa b) I wondered if he knew CPR c) I wondered if he would try to find my passport and let the NZ embassy know what had happened.

    And then I got my head above water.

    I was lucky. I have no idea if others died at the spot – this was long before youtube or the Internet – which is some sort of excuse I suppose.

    But there is no excuse these days – people don’t be stupid out there.

  3. And because you are intelligent enough to get these simple facts, you are able to continue travelling long and far. Those others will likely head home and never backpack again…if they are lucky to survive the adventure. Darwinism…natural selection says that you will be still be exploring when you are in your seventies should you choose to. Thank you for giving them a heads up on reality. That IS a friend!!!

  4. oh..and I nearly drowned once on a tubing adventure when we decided to body surf the rapids in the 80s…not smart. Got caught in the white turmoil and couldn’t telll which way was up when running out of air. VERY frightening. VERY very nasty.

  5. SuHu

    Pardon me, I get so distracted by usage errors. It should read “raises the question”. “Begs the question” is something else entirely.

    I’ve recently become hopelessly addicted to this blog. Please never take it down.

  6. Amer

    Great post Matt. Sometimes I feel sad too watching many backpackers doing silly stuff in my own backyard. Sad because I know they only do stuffs like this away from home. I’ve lived in the place they call home and they seemed to be extremely civilised compared to us ‘uncivilised’ people over here. Yes, there’s no harm of having fun, but sometimes I feel a lot more people need to think what local people are thinking too. Have fun and safe travels.

  7. Matt you took the words right out of my mouth! I loath this kind of careless, douchy behavior and sadly much of the backpacker trail around SE Asia is now catering for lunatic behavior! I think it’s sad, I feel like these days more and more people see traveling just as getting drunk all around the world, one big party where the only lesson to learn is which nasty drink is going to force you to get your stomach pumped the next day. It ruins it for all us traveler’s who want to experience authentic culture.

    I’ll be heading to Laos again in a few months and I was really seriously considering leaving Vang Vieng off my itinerary but talking to some of my friends they’ve assured me that there are some great places around that no one goes to because they’re all getting drunk on the river!

    Now I myself love a good party but please people can we have some balance and maybe some regards for safety and the local culture!

    • NomadicMatt

      My friends say Vang Vieng’s countryside is beautiful. I too will be exploring the rice paddies while people die on the river.

  8. Ha, nice one. I find that SE Asia is a classic example of how when people think that travel is dangerous it’s mainly because almost every bad story you’d hear happens when you do something you’d never do at home. Riding a motorbike without a helmet, walking down a dark alley at 2am, trying new drugs from sources you don’t know, etc etc are all things that people would never do normally, but somehow in an exotic country it’s ok? Never got it.

    I first went to Vang Vieng three years ago, did tubing one day but literally just did the go on an inner tube from bar to bar and none of the jumps cause even at the time they seemed deadly I think they have far crazier ones now than there were then but the Death Slide was already there- I remember it because several people tried to pressure me into trying it and there was NO WAY I was going to. If nothing else, it’d be beyond embarrassing to have friends and family know I died doing something so stupid.

      • steph

        Matt, I fully agree with your original post. Please, backpackers, consider “would you do this at home?” before you do something crazy. Too many lives are lost or shattered, by people doing crazy stuff that they simply wouldn’t even consider doing with the “home” brain screwed on.
        But for many backpackers, by the nature of who they are, the answer to that question is actually “yes”. They are free spirited, and live for the moment. And if they weren’t living in this way, they wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘living’ at all – just existing.
        Can you really judge how ‘smart’ someone is, by whether they choose to take risks? Maybe it’s actually ‘smart’ to *live* while you’re alive? Let’s face it, life’s short, no matter how long you live. And you’re a long time dead, no matter when you die. Just do it within the boundaries that you would with your “home head”.

        One of the smartest people I know, died in a motorbike collision in SE Asia. In all fairness to both him and to you, he doesn’t exactly fit the description in your post, as he does ride at home too. However, as you say, riding in Asia is not the same as back home. But choosing to do so does not always make somebody less smart. Just that they have a fun loving sense of adventure, and a belief that life is all about the adventure. Without the adventure, they wouldn’t be the person they are

        I also know other backpackers in Asia who do stupid, life endangering, stuff on a daily basis. Sometimes they’re drunk at the time, sometimes they’re sober. But even when talking about it sober, they will justify what they do on that same logic that life isn’t worth living unless you’re doing what you find fun. And they have made a conscious decision to risk their lives in order to do some of these thing. I’ve even met some of their parents, uncles etc, who, while being “older and wiser” and not backpackers, still embrace that same view of life and live by the same sentiment.

        That said, i’m the one who begs everyone to not drink and drive out here. I’m the one who makes everyone wear helmets, and jeans + proper shoes, when riding (yep, I learnt the jeans/shoes thing the hard way in cambodia, and still rock the scarrs 18 months later). I’m the one who didn’t do the Death Slide. I’m the one who only had a couple of drinks while on the tubes. So the only bit i question here is your ability to judge how ‘smart’ somebody is. As for your original post – i fully agree!! And appreciate somebody raising awareness of this! Well said.

  9. Fitting since I’ve discussed two of these three with my friends since we got to SE Asia on the 29th of December. I’ve seen SOOO many bandages from motorbiking accidents, it’s not even funny. And I’ve seen a few people fail at jump roping with fire.

    I have to admit..the Laos thing sounded fun. But I haven’t done any research as to the details of what is involved or how dangerous it is. Thanks for the heads up…maybe I’ll think better of doing that now..

  10. Nat

    Matt, great post…could I add complete lack of respect for the conservative cultures of South East Asia with the inappropriate clothes you see so many backpackers wearing, men and women.

    I was at the Killing Fields in Phnom Penh last week and the amount of girls walking around with string vests and hot pants was quite rediculous!

    Phnom Penh is a major city, not a beach resort. Not to mention the fact that the Killing Fields and S21 prison are two of the most harrowing, emotional and touching places you can visit. Walking around dressed like you are on a beach in Ko Samui is beyond disrespectful!

    It is disgusting to say the least.

    Please show some respect for the countries we are guests in and stop giving the rest of us a bad name.

    • NomadicMatt

      I hate when I see girls here topless and in bikinis (Ok, I like it but that is for personal reasons). These cultures are very conservative and it’s very disrespectful to be flaunting your stuff around.

      • Dave

        RIght on, Matt.

        It amazes me, from 30+ years of Asian travel, to watch travellers who expect that their own customs be respected turn around and dump on local customs (for women, it’s going topless, wearing thongs, for men, usually over the top drunken and intolerant behavior).
        Yes, the idiot behavior does seem to be getting worse, but is often supported by more and more locals (like at Vieng Vang) who couldn’t care less about what happens to the stupids but sure make a lot of money from it. It’s ugly behavior and disrespect that, like you say, wouldn’t be tolerated ‘back home.’

  11. Definitely on to something here Matt. I haven’t done Laos yet but will be sticking to just the tube and maybe talking to a girl or two. I did the jump rope, got an infection and my knee swelled to twice its size and missed 4 days of work. I think I did it because: 1-I was finally away from home and wanted to do something totally different 2-wanted to have a good story 3-most people do it without getting hurt so you just assume you will be fine. Shouldn’t really blame it on buckets, if you are old enough to travel the world, you should be old enough to realize what is and is not in your best interests. Great blog overall.

  12. Great piece, this is beyond stupidity, this is sickness. I’ve also read the articles you mention and I see a general blame of the lack of first-aid facilities and teams. I agree with that, but if (when you are still sober) see there is a lack of first aid, why do you get drunk in the first place? I will never understand stupid behaviors which, by the way, show a total disrespect towards local cultures.

  13. Never been to Southeast Asia, but I hear it is quite the party atmosphere in the well-trodden places. I certainly see some stupid backpackers in Latin America though. I like to think that it is not just my age that makes me look at them with annoyance and pity… surely I wasn’t that stupid when I was in my early 20s :-)

  14. The weird thing is that when you are there in Vang Vieng or Koh Phangan, everyone is so enthusiastic about these things that you start to feel like YOU are the crazy one for not wanting to do them! I think there’s some sort of bizarre sociological phenomenon when you get that many young people together with a ton of booze and drugs. It IS kind of scary and I think you put it in much better words than I was able to. There’s so much amazingness in SE Asia, why are people screwing around with this stuff?

  15. Chris Coughlan

    I think the key here is the alcohol abuse isn’t it. As you mention it’s loads of fun at the riverside bars chilling and socialising with other backpackers, but the onslaught of shots, beers, whisky leads people to make poor decisions and lose inhibitions and fears for things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

    Having been to Laos, I’ve done some of these things and it’s only really on reflection and when tragedy strikes that it really hits you how dangerous it is.

      • jack

        you sound like one of those annoying ngo volunteer types mate… i have backpacked through se asia, philippines, china australia etc doing all the off the beaten track, cultural excursions etc, but i also like to step outside of my comfort zone and have fun and try new things… i really hate the “holier than thou” attitude of you supposed veteran travellers so i suggest you just write and not preach mate

        • pasason

          So you would like it if foreigners (non whites) went to your country and started acting like assholes and bothering you your family and friends? I hardly believe it to be true. I am very certain Americans at least would tell any foreigner disrespecting their rules and acting stupid to leave and not have any problems saying it.

          It’s almost like white people believe they have an imaginary pass to act stupid in other peoples countries and believe it is perfectly fine.

  16. Many consider that gap year or those couple of months in SE Asia as the last time that they can act immature. When they get back home, most of them will get a “decent” job, a couple of kids and a mortgage within very little time.
    It’s the last spring break, the last chance to drink, fuck and act stupid before adulthood starts.
    I think that’s where it goes wrong…

  17. Somehow I tried to avoid all places where moon parties happens as I don’t see much fun to be in one place for a week and get wasted each day.

    • NomadicMatt

      While I actually like the full moon party, it is contained on a small section of the island and you can get away from it whereas in Van Vieng, it is all around you.

  18. Betti

    one good thing about SE Asia is that these absolutely crazy scenes are confined to really well-defined areas and if you don’t want to take part, it is very easy to avoid them. at least they are not spoiling it for all of us.
    but I really wouldn’t want to know what the locals in Vang Vieng think about our culture and “civilisation”, not having a lot of other exposure to western culture….

  19. I have heard a lot of people in Vang Vieng also die of overdoses from the “special” drink concoctions sold there. Is there truth to that? There’s certainly a difference between being adventurous and wanting to try new things vs. jumping drunkenly into a shallow river. One doesn’t have to risk one’s life for some excitement. Good points made here.

  20. Bigger picture? Many years ago I began renting out properties in Tenerife in Canary Islands, and the best piece of advice anyone ever gave me was, “First thing to know is when people are on vacation they leave their brains at home.” Proved true on the very first letting to a (supposedly) successful & wealthy “businessman” – won’t bore you with details …… but the advice was true. I’ve lived almost all of my life in tourist places and people lose all sense of responsibility, decorum, common sense, whatever. It’s shameful and scary to realize that people are only kept in check by the laws of their country, that when they are elsewhere they don’t feel so responsible or intelligent as at home.

  21. Wow, nothing like watching stuff go in and out of the top of a guy’s open skull! I’d normally say these are people destined to be finalists for the Darwin Awards, but they aren’t even being very creative in their methods of removing themselves from the gene pool. Too obvious.

  22. Sd

    You are actually being very kind. Just even the fact considering going to laos to see vang vien is such a joke. That s where stupidity shows, not in the dangerous behaviour those will get into.

    • nikki

      you imply VV isn’t worth seeing? Have you been? Stupidity, to me, would be shown in ruling out visiting a place, just because of some of the things you’e heard. VV shares just as much beauty as the rest of Laos.

  23. Matt, this is easily my favorite post of yours…
    … and the stupidity? I think there’s a very good reason for it.
    Nearly everyone starts theirs travels Southeast Asia.
    Which makes sense. It’s super cheap, safe and wildly different from Western culture.
    So when you go through Southeast Asia after a few other adventures, you can’t help but notice the “rookie” mistakes being made over and over again.
    Of course, like many other commenters, I’m not casting stones. I did some exceptionally stupid things in my early 20’s… it’s a part of growing up.
    So I don’t think it’s a “location” thing… it’s just where young and “stupid” travelers learn lessons the hard way.
    Man… I feel old 😉

  24. Travel can be a great time when you have the right head on your shoulders! It’s a shame some people can’t keep their head on straight. The great thing about these tips is that they can translate over to just about any tubing spot around the World.

  25. Colleen

    THANKS for this post. In 2008/9 my teenage sons and I backpacked the globe for 12 months. On Bali, we went to a “beach” somewhere on the NW coast that was totally volcanic rock. The tide went out, the sun set and we were trapped. My eldest son tried to climb over a fence made out of the same rock to get us off there. The rock broke off and he fell 20 feet and landed on volcanic rock, bouncing off it the whole way down. We ended up at a hospital in Denpassar, a 1st world establishment built by a rich Chinese. We were there 3 days and had ample opportunity to observe the other kinds of people who were there in the waiting room and emergency waiting room. Bottom line: drunk westerners. This hospital’s bread and butter is drunk westerners who have accidents on rented motorbikes. Imagine: Some clever investor is smart enough to build a 1st world hospital to make a boat load of money off lame westerners who think they can drink and handle the pot-hole ridden crazy streets of Indonesia. Even if you are Evil Knievel at home, Asia has a completely different and chaotic motorbike scene. Another tip: don’t do anything risky in a 3rd world country. The medical treatment is primitive (except for the rare situation like above) and the people who run dangerous adventure sports DO NOT utilize the same level of safety standards routine in the west. I’ve spent 13 months traveling 10 different SE Asian countries. Believe me. Save your dangerous sports for places like New Zealand with safety standards.

  26. True true, I agree! Although, I have done those stunts in Vang Vieng (but I wasn’t drunk) it was cool and scary experience too. I still have to think if the water is deep enough for me or if not, I thought how should I land to avoid the accident as you see people with bandages everywhere there just because of stupidity.

  27. It thins the gene pool – I’m all for it.

    (I did my share of stupid things at that age: it’s only luck I’m still here to spawn another generation)

  28. Erin

    I went tubing in October 2011. Just a few days before I arrived they had closed the slide and rope swing because some backpacker died.

    I loved tubing. But I didn’t act stupid about it. I stuck to beer Lao only (one at each bar we made it to, so only 4 or 5), no drugs, and didn’t go on any of the crazy stuff. Granted even just being drunk and floating down the river in wet season might not be the smartest but I survived I guess. I had a great day. Would I be like these weirdos that do it for 100 days straight? Absolutely not. At home we call those people alcoholics lol.

    While I agree more effort should be made to make tubing safer and cleaning it up for the sake of the local community, I’m not in favour of shutting it down completely or not going at all. It was a great day during my travels, I bonded with lots of cool people, saw amazing scenery floating down the river, and danced like a bit of a maniac. It’s a truly unique experience I haven’t seen anywhere else. But that’s being young I guess.

    Apparently the guy who started it isn’t happy with what it has turned into. It started with him giving volunteers that worked on his organic farm tubes to chill in in the river after work. But now he doesn’t get anything from it. The bars seem to have enough money to control local decision-makers and drown out the voice of some locals who really dislike what’s happened to the town. Things should at least change for their sake.

    • NomadicMatt

      I don’t think floating down a river with a few beers is bad at all. Sign me up. It’s just the extremes of Van Vieng I dislike. I met a guy last night who spent 4 months there. 4 months! That’s a lot of drinking.

      And, as you said, the local population is getting the short end of the stick here.

  29. Great post Matt. I produce the travel safety content for worldnomads.com and I believe the more widely known the dangers of these activities the more likely it is that travellers will make safe choices….. we hope.

    Regarding the oft-reported claim that 22 people died river tubing last year…. (and you’re not the only person I’ve seen quoting it, so this is not a criticism of you) … it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
    Given that anyone who dies at Vang Vieng is almost always going to be a young westerner, it’s reasonable to expect each death would be widely reported in the western media, but I can’t find any, other than the Irishman who drowned on his honeymoon 3 years ago, and an Australian who died earlier this month.
    It’s unlikely an incident of this significance would go unreported. Too many people would be aware of it – family, friends, work colleagues – for it not to be picked up by a reporter.
    Foreign embassies would be involved, and they have an interest (duty) to publicise the danger associated with tubing, so why have there not been any reports? Perhaps because the “22” figure is not true.
    I’ve been following the case of the Australian who died there in early January, and it was a witness to his accident, a New Zealand backpacker, who was first reported as saying “22 people died last year”. Here’s a link to the report. http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/sydneysider-dies-leaping-into-river-while–tubing-in-laos-20120111-1puvk.html

    His off-the-cuff statement has been grabbed and has become a definitive statement from some un-named authority and oft repeated.
    In defence of our Kiwi friend, he may have had one or two shots of Lao whisky, was excited to be interviewed by the media and a little traumatised by what he’d seen, or he was repeating some snippet of gossip he’d picked up while watching “Friends” back at the hostel. In any case he’s the only source I can find who’s made this claim.
    Sifting fact from fiction has been the biggest problem while writing our travel safety advice for the world’s 197 countries, and it takes a great deal of effort and experience to avoid falling into these traps.
    This is not a criticism of your excellent post, and I only raise it because if those of us who ask our fellow travellers to stay safe are to be heard and believed, we need to get the facts straight. If our assertion that “22 people died last year” is bulldust, then can anything else we say be believed?

    Anyway, great post. Keep up the good work.

  30. I agree that people can sitll have a full and enjoyable experience without all of the craziness. You want to be alive to enjoy and travel more as you said!

    I am currently teaching in South Korea and am planning my own round the world trip in about 6 months.

    Where in Asia are you now?

  31. Oh my god – that is so crazy!!! Looks like brilliant fun – but the broken skull – not so much!!! Guess that is where the Darwin Awards start to kick in!!!

    I broke my skull falling off my bicycle in a totally controlled environment – would I ride my bike again – of course!!! Tubing – would love to give it a try – while it isn’t a controlled environment, I can somewhat control mine!!! Crazy drinking and acrobats gone wrong – may give that a miss! Would rather remember the fun I had the next day than only remember through video!

  32. Crazy drunks don’t just do stupid things while traveling, they do them in their home too. Exhibit JACKASS on MTV.
    Drinking is fine and fun when you’re around fun folks but getting drunk in an unknown place is just plain stupid. The locals can rob you by charging exorbiant prices, make you do stupid stunts like jumping a burning rope so they can laugh at all the stupid drunk tourists, and make money off you while you go tubing down some diseased river without any life jackets. If you survive that tubing expedition, great but you may get some unexpected stomach “bug” in the days following b/c you accidentally ingested some water. hmmmm… not my kind of fun while traveling.
    I admit, I’m not an adventure seeker while traveling nor do I want to stand out among the locals anymore than I probably do. My idea of traveling is a lot more cushy and I attempt to blend into the locals by picking up some of their lingo and studying the map before I head out so I know where to go, etc. Anyways… just my two cents.

  33. This is why I hit the avoid button on SEasia. Dont get me wrong, there are some great places to see and nice people to meet, but gringo fests with non-stop bingeing gets old fast (unless I am the one doing it). But then again, I guess there will always be stupidity when you can drink in bucket form.

  34. I read a lot of blogs, I’m up to about 250 in my reader (I’ll be the first to admit that’s way way too many), but I can not believe how many stories I’ve read of Vang Vieng so many times I can’t even count them.

    When I was in college, Laos was still mostly closed to the backpacking circuit, and while I am glad for the people of Laos that their economic and security situation has improved, I’m also thankful that this wasn’t an option to me while I was in those years… could have been lethal.

    I would have guessed after the first few deaths that there would have been some cracking down on this scene. Apparently not. I can only hope that someone inside the Laotian government develops some sense…

  35. A couple things.

    It’s the freedom. Here (I live in Cambodia, but I think speak for other places in the region as well) you can do and get whatever you want cheap and easily. Some (foreigners) can handle that and have enjoyable times or even live fruitful lives here. Others can’t. Cheap booze, drugs, and thrills with none of the protections of “home” give many the chance to destroy themselves, either in a one off situation or over time.

    Too many idiots in one place can make doing really stupid stuff the norm, and doing really stupid stuff is really easy here.

    As far as motorcycle riding goes, everyone gets in accidents here. Not only foreigners. Not in the same boat necessarily as jumping into shallow water or jumping over fire.


  36. This is interesting and very alarming. I haven’t been to Vang Vieng. And even if I love traveling, I guess I wouldn’t even considering going there. It’s not the kind of ‘fun’ I want. It’s stupidity. I’ll share this post to others. Thanks for writing about this.

      • Jack

        The question should be “Why is it always Bogans?” Because they’re a sub-intelligent species and South East Asia is the only holiday destination that they can really afford. And now that they’ve discovered Hokkaido offers affordable skiing you should see what they’ve done to the place!

  37. I completely agree! Just because you’re in a foreign country does not mean that you can let go of all the safety rules you learned as a kid! It’s even more important abroad, because many places (like Mexico!) are just not built to the same standard as things are in the States. My poor husband was constantly on the look out for low hanging stuff in Mexico – he’s tall, they’re short and they have an almost fatalistic approach to life and believe that if you get hurt it’s your fault, not theirs. It’s stupid not to look after your own self!

  38. Dave

    yep I’m one of these stupid people… I have a huge muffler burn scar on my calf from my riding my motorbike in Saigon. I really wish I had worn pants that day! Luckily I’m back in the U.S. now where we have great technologies like laser surgery. A few hundred dollars and you can barely notice the scar now!

  39. Sharon

    Great post. When I was young, I lived on a farm, did a heap of crazy things (playing in wheat silos, jumping off cliffs into rivers, etc), but then you develop a sense of survival. These days kids are so coddled, they don’t seem to develop a “fear” sense until they’re much older! Hey, I’m only 40 now and I totally get off on adventure holidays, but if I’m gonna hurtle down a slope on a mountain bike, I’m going to have a full face helmet and armour on, not a tshirt and flipflops after a few beers. Big difference – can’t stop people being stupid, but I don’t expect anyone to look after me. If something looks crazy and stupid, yep – it’s probably crazy and definitely stupid!! Their choice. It’s not even about “standards” – that assumes that you can just fully let go of the responsibility of looking after yourself. Okay, some things like bungy and paragliding – go to the experts…. other stuff, trust your (sober) gut. :-)

  40. john obrien

    hi matt,thank god you have published this scathing article on vang vieng.my wife and i are in our 60,s and have been travelling in asia for 40 years.she is asian by birth and australian by choice.just look at the way people are dressed.great for the west but so insulting for asia.there is a large sign for everyone to read in town.but totally ignored specifically asking people not to do this and respect local people.another kuta beach in the making.

  41. I’d go as far to say that traveling in South East Asia is only about alcohol for the VAST majority of travelers, my question is why would anyone who has really traveled come back and backpack through this area again? We know what it’s about all already. I for one am done with traveling here, living here? Sure, it’s awesome. But traveling? Not a chance.

    • Phil

      I came across this thread through a google search and have found it very interesting. Johnny above don’t be done with travelling in South East Asia as there are many places where alcohol/drug induced chaos simply doesn’t occur.
      I have travelled allover SE Asia for the last 5 years and there are so many more places where culture and the normal way of life exists without hoards of out of control drunks, I think the worst place I visited for disorderly and down right disrespectful behaviour towards the locals was Kuta on Bali. I was thoroughly ashamed of the way that Australians (sorry to generalize but that’s what I found) behaved and mistreated the beautiful and respectful Balinese people.
      As for the other resorts, Langkawi, Samui etc they are thriving and yes there is alot of alcohol but I have not witnessed any of the degrading behaviour I saw in Kuta, or maybe I have just been lucky!

      • nikki

        Johnny, I agree with Phil. I travelled a few years ago around SE Asia, but very quickly. I only had 6 weeks total for Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia. Only enough time for me to realise how much these incredible countries have to offer.

        Then last Jan, I got back out again. I travelled first through India (9 weeks), Nepal (6 weeks) China (6 weeks), Vietnam (3 weeks). Then month 7, I Spent in Cambodia, and month 8 in Laos. I probably got drunk once in Cambodia and twice in Laos (yes, VV was one of the times). And yet I loved every minute of both months. Both countries have SO much to offer. A drunken night out (be it Siem Reap, Vang Vieng, or the bowling alley at Luang Prabang) is just one of the many things these countries have to offer. They are beautiful places, full of lush tropical landscapes, rice fields, beaches, jungly treking environments, and dusty brown villages. Even Vang Vieng. They are also filled with wonderful local people, with the kindest, most genuine, beautiful personalities. If you’re writing them off, you’re missing out.

        I then worked a year in Ha Noi, Viet Nam, and now work in China. And I plan to go travel some more in Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippenes in the new year.
        SE Asia really does have an awful lot to offer. Awesome parties when you do want a drunken night out, and culture and beauty in between.

  42. c123

    Re. <>

    Actually “death slide” is the British term for what you would call a “Flying Fox”. Did not know that before searching and landing on Wikipedia:


    Anyway, agree about to omuch alcohol and doing stupid things, and jumping into rivers/pools without first checking the depth (almost come unstuck doing that myself when I was young and abroad, but not drunk at the moment!).

    Thanks for your post.

  43. c123

    Did try to quote, that’s what the angled brackets are for…


    There’s also something called “The Death Slide” next to this river – it got the name due to all the people who have died using it, which begs the question — why are people stupid enough to keep using it?!


  44. Guess what – I landed here when googling for “stupid tourist”..
    You called stupid – as stupid is.
    Good points and what a fun read, Matt!

    I also write about another Asian island Taiwan.
    Though it’s not South East Asia, Taiwan’s culturally rich. And often times, a clueless tourist may tread on a taboo or two when experiencing the customs, people and lifestyle.

  45. Guest

    Almost every person I met who rented a scooter was in some sort of accident. Luckily I never got in one although I did do a 5 day loop in Mae Hong Song (Thailand) and South Laos. I do not have a license and never drive back home because it is terrifying to drive back home. I think the reason I could drive so much better in South East Asia is because driving has less to do about laws and more to do with common sense. Maybe it was stupid but I had a blast. I got to go to places where a foreginer was stil seen as a novelty (old ladies would grabbing me trying to pet my skin?). I got to get away from drunken idiots and disrespectful tourists who would wear revealing clothing while trying to shove a camera in some locals face. For 5 days at a time the only other foreigner I saw was my boyfriend i was with. So in the end if tubing and full moon party is not your thing I say throw caution to the wind and rent a motor bike and for god sakes wear a helmet!

    Great article though! I 100% agree with you that so many backpackers are extremley foolish. Went to the full moon party and watched a guy pass out ontop of the burning limbo pole….not sure if he died. Vieng Vieng was fun! I loved going off swings and jumping off platforms but I did end up having to leave after one night of douche bags saying horrible racist things about the laotians and watching insensitive girls walking around town in just their bikinis.

  46. makesMEsad

    Look at these drunken clowns , partying like they own the place.
    Well the locals are kind enough to offer you free alcohol , play and hang out on their property.
    So don’t abuse it,100 days straight !? WTF!? have these people no shame???
    Even if the locals didn’t mind it ,but these people disrupted the locals ways & CULTURE.
    Go back home and get drunk,party and ergh jump into a river?
    Oh that’s right i don’t think there is such a thing back home.
    Well neither did the locals think a crowd of backpackers would do this shit either.
    So learn some manners , respect and be thoughtful where ever you choose to go.
    In return you shall be tought of as :
    1 – A buncha backpackers came all this way to get drunk , jump our river and bum around to look stupid.
    2 – A buncha backpackers came to see & enjoy our country , how lovely.

  47. tim

    that crowd of posh London accent / fresh from a year of gap year of work in Australia euro-trash types in bright shorts and body paint wankers who cant handle there piss are the biggest jock cool kids in asia id rather be a scumbag cheap charlie sex tourist drinking Leo on Pattaya beach with the scum of the earth than hang out with those teeny bopping top forty’s hipsters.

  48. Anthony

    Reading all these comments makes hope i don’t get bitter when im older!
    I really hate all these “real” travelers, so “cultural”, so “respectfull” to the locals… (Who actually provide all these things you hate to young people)

    Gues what.. You sound like arrogant snobs!
    Looking down and judging young people having fun while while your in bed by 10pm.

    And yes, there are idiots in SEA, but hey, they are everywhere, just go out to your local pub at night and you will find one!

    So please people…Live and let live!

    • NomadicMatt

      There’s fun and then there’s disrespect. It’s not about being a “real” traveler, it’s about not being an asshole to the locals!

  49. Kay

    Great awareness, Matt. Drinking can lead to many things. Might I also add, the juggle rebels and locals that may not like the overwhelming strange actions. My parents were born and raised in Laos but been gone for years now. They finally went back to visit last year after 37 yrs. Hears stories from the minority villagers about attacks from rebels and bandits all the time. Just be careful everyone. Really. I hear people going missing there alot. I would not be surprised if deaths were not accidents. Even my folks would not walk alone in the country side at night.

  50. Ah – I had such a great time tubing in Vang Vieng 5 years ago. It was May and it wasn’t crazy or too packed. However, we were pretty wary about getting too drunk or jumping off anything and everything (I myself decided to “look after the bags and coats” as it were) and the people around us were the same. It’s just the odd few, as demonstrated in your article, who make it seem like the whole town are behaving like animals.

    What I found pretty awful was seeing the amount of people walking around in the evening as they returned their tubes dripping, wet, high as kites and with little clothes on and barefoot. You could see the locals looking at them wondering what planet they were from. It isn’t hard to wear proper clothes and cover up on the way home!

    I read somewhere that the locals call these people “zombies”. A fitting description!

  51. After looking at the posted video I just don’t get people who travel to another country to hang out almost exclusively with folks from their own culture while spending the day getting drunk. Stay home.

  52. nit

    why they have to go to Laos to Vang Vieng to do stupid things drink party take drugs, Laos is beautiful nice people and culture

  53. Dave

    It’s the standard evolution of a backpacker destination. First come the adventurers and lost souls who are genuinely looking for something different. They hook up with a local girl and open a guest house or bar.
    Then come the goatee and Thai Fishermans pants brigade, whose main concern is to be able to regale people with tales about how “You’ll never know *insert country name here* as well as I do because I was there before it became touristy and thus have a spiritual connection with the country that you will never have” who develope that spiritual connection by lying on the beach getting stoned and bartering the locals down to their last cent in anything they decide to buy.
    Once there are enough of these, the travel companies start to take notice and start establishing tours, budget flights and package deals. That’s when the dickheads who previously thought that *insert country name* was a dangerous place populated entirely by guerillas and mafia start to wedge themselves out of their comfortable suburban lives and (as long as they can convince no less than 5 of their friends to come with them) hit the skies in search of cheap beer, available drugs and easy women. It’s all downhill from there.

  54. Jack

    I always thought these destinations were quite self selecting. That is, the majority (not all) of the people that go to these places go with the intention of doing stupid things and thus aren’t that bright to begin with.

  55. jon

    I agree with this article about how we do crazy stuff when we are on holidays. But this is nothing compare to what some British (have died 4-5 people over the past two years) people do in Mallorca and other holiday destinations in Spain. Have you heard about the term “balconing”?

    Check this link out:


  56. Last month I was in Luang Prabang. Skipped tubing for a zillion reasons but loved the extra time in Vientiane. Culture is what I wanted to see in Laos, not half naked youth trying to collect stories or tokens for bravado. But then, I’m older. And a parent.

    So true about motorbikes, lol.

  57. It really depends on your approach to everything. Like many have said, you really want to open yourself to new experiences while you travel. If you are the always-looking-for-an-adventure type of person, bad things are bound to happen sooner or later. Now, I am not advocating getting drunk and jumping a gasoline soaked rope with other drunks but at the same time, if you are always too fearful of what “might” happen, you will undoubtedly miss out on some amazing experiences.

    Simply put, use your head, be aware of your current state of mind, be aware of your surroundings (and the people surrounding you), and have the time of your life. Would I give up swimming with the sharks because I “might” get bitten? Absolutely Not!

  58. Lee

    I have Vang Vieng on our list of possible stops because it appears so to beautiful – should we go?
    My husband and I (55/60 year olds) will be backpacking for 9 weeks through Thailand (Bangkok, Sukhothai, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai), Loas (Huay Xai, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane), Cambodia (Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Kep, Kampot), Malaysia (Penang), and then Thailand again (Hua Hin or Cha AM, Bangkok) this 21 October – 21 December.
    We are nature loving, non-partiers with limited resources, so I’m wondering if Vang Vieng is a GO or NO GO? Any thoughts for some old folks?

    • I’d say it’s a go. Many people say Luang Prabang is better, and perhaps so. But if you don’t have a ton of time and just want to take a bus from charming Vientiane, VV should be fine. There are plenty of non-21-year-olds there.

  59. TranQuil

    Soon I might get laid off and thinking about backpacking in SEA so started researching about it. I came across your website and it seems very entertaining/resourceful, but i’d like to point out that on http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-guides/southeast-asia-travel-tips/ you mention the following as one of the things to do:

    Go tubing – It may be super touristy, but tubing in Vang Vieng is also a lot of fun. Tube there, drink lots of alcohol, mingle with the opposite sex- it’s like Haat Rin on a river. Just make sure you get out to explore actual life in Laos and see how the locals life!

    And now you’re warning against it?

  60. Jett

    I am not a backpacker never have been never will be , I am here in Camobdia breaking up my journey down to Australia from the UK to see my family – And everywhere I turn there are backpackers getting pissed out of their minds ! Siem Reap/Phnom Penh and the worst of all Sihanoukville ! Where’s on my very first night strolling down serendipity road I was offered …Marijuana/cocaine/prostitution – No thanks – seems the backpacker community have turned this squalid little beach town into their own personal party venue ! What a dump !

  61. Kylie

    This post actually made me LOL. I am planing my trip to Southeast Asia as we speak (or as I comment rather) and it just made me think how stupid some travelers can be. Why is it okay to act like a fool in a different country? The answer – It is not. I love your work! Thanks for posting all the great advice, I just bought two of your ebooks and so far they are fabulous!

  62. pasason

    True Khamli,
    White people do not care when they travel to other countries like Lao and act like idiots and disrespectful. But you know what would happen if any race other than white went to their country and did the same, I’m sure it would be ‘ get out of here you dark skin asian black etc any other racial slurs or what the F are you doing here acting like that.

    White people still think this is the age of imperialist times,where whites could go anywhere worldwide and push the native populations around.

    If Kaysone and than souphanovong were still alive they would not put up with white people disrespecting Lao like that.

  63. amy

    i think it’s more about experiencing new and exciting opportunities as opposed to be a drunken idiot skipping a fire rope. when you go backpacking you go for a reason… to follow your bliss, find happiness, try new things and get out of your comfort zone. (at least that’s why i go)…

    people make mistakes and get hurt whether they are drunk and stupid or sober and smart.

  64. I couldn’t agree with you more. Tubing in Laos and jumping the rope are very dangerous, but I wonder why backpackers can’t do less dangerous things when they are drunk? I don’t think a cracked skull is a nice memory from Asia, either.

  65. Guy

    wifey was pregnant so had to go tubing alone
    saw all those drunk people at the start but got on the tube quickly and
    while floating away from the crowd, I simply enjoyed the tranquility and natural beauty while being sober.

    drunks miss all of that !

  66. HAHHAHAHA … i gotta agree with you Matt. They act like bunch of hooligans. It’s this very reason why Bali bombing happened.

    Anyways, they dont behave like bunch of Jackass-es at ALL Asian countries .. just the “party” places like Laos or Thailand.

    In Malaysia (since it’s a Muslim country), they seemed to behave better due to the strict rules (hang penalty too for drug trafficking). Anyhow, this shouldnt put off the rest of the backpackers who are the “smarter” ones … PARTY HARD, BUT PARTY SAFE 😉

    Here’s a tip … TIOMAN ISLAND in Malaysia is pretty decent party zone *wink*

  67. Johny

    I think you got it a bit wrong and judge to quick this poor backpackers :) . People at home do also stupid stuff when they are drunk. What do you expect from people when they go on holidays? That they stay in their hotel room and read the local newspaper? No Sir, you party hard and give yourself a feeling of being alive. Kiss and greetings Joko

  68. Stephen

    Tend to agree, though I’d like to temper the sentiment with the observation that only the real brainless antics are noticeable, whilst the majority of travellers around this region quietly do so without any fuss or disasters.

    To this I’d like to add a cautionary tale to anyone taking up with a fellow traveller for some journeying together. Be careful who you chum up with. A friend of mine travelled with two other men through several SE Asian countries. After a time one of them revealed that he was in fact carrying drugs, enough to get all of them lengthy jail sentences or worse. One might not expect the ‘Hey – they’re not mine..I didn’t know anything about them’ excuse to wash very much with the local enforcement people.

  69. Great article. It’s a shame really, I went backpacking for the first time last year and was surprised how many drunken idiots were around.

    Maybe because I’m getting older and (arguably) wiser but I couldnt wait to get away from all the partying and whatnot. I get it’s a holiday and freedom etc. but c’mon, go to Magaluf if all you wanna do is get drunk and act like clowns.

    • Miguel


      If all you wanna do is party and get drunk, go to the clubs in Ibiza, leave the paradise locations of SE Asia to people who can actually appreciate their beauty and culture.

  70. stevie

    I’ve grown to loathe the sight of backpackers arriving in Bangkok.(news flash, rolling suitcases have been around for some time now) and what the fuck are you carrying that requires carrying those big ass BP’s around? I’m well past middle aged and can go on extended trips with a single carry on pack-pack with wheels. They get exactly what they deserve here in Bangkok, overpriced shitty food and scam artists all over Kosan rd. And then head off to dirty up beaches for so called full moon parties. Ya, I was young and stupid once, but selfish, no, not in the way these new backpackers are. P.S. also the world’s cheapest fuckers, it’s all for them and no one else. The Thai loathe them and I’m beginning to understand why.

  71. andrey

    Great article. To me travel is about doing and seeing as much as possible while minimizing what is already a very high risk activity. Over the last 30 years it seems that partiers have halfway taken over the backpacking travel community. I don’t really get it either. If you want to get drunk you don’t need to fly half way around the world to do it. Well I always thought the same though for people who stay in a posh hotel and sit on the beach all day. I guess these things gradually sort themselves out – but glad somebody said it like it is.

  72. I almost drowned in Nov last year at one of the most well-patrolled beaches in Phuket, Karon. There was a lifeguarding chair but no-one in it. It was a sunny day, beach was packed – but people came out of the ocean like drowned rats. One child I saw was a mess – crying for a solid hour afterwards. So yeah – you need to be on your guard a bit more than in some more developed places. That said, one of the best experiences I had in SE Asia was hanging out of the back of a bus at 100km/hr belting down the highway near Chiang Rai under a full moon. Travel is about adventure – adventure is about taking risks. But within limits, I think.

  73. Bree

    Love this post! You are honest, and I agree with what you said. I like how you posted videos to back up what you are saying. This makes me kind of scared to go to Asia though. I need to watch out for backpackers mostly haha But yes, I don’t understand how they think it’s ok and safe to get so drunk and do the things they are doing.
    I love your honesty though!

  74. Hi Matt,

    This is a great post! Given that it is from a couple of years ago, how do you think you would write this now? Do you think attitudes have changed and people are more aware of the dangers/more cautious or is it still something you see a lot?

  75. berns

    Great post!!!OMG, been looking for a term to call them. sorry but there are some guys/gals who think theyre so cool.. trying to be adventurous, this and that..blah blah blah..
    I told them that bein adventurous is way way way…different form bein stupid.

  76. Miguel

    MATT I so agree with you

    There are so many idiots ruining the beautiful paradise locations in SE Asia

    I honestly don’t get it. When I see something so beautiful like Vang Vieng or the islands of Thailand and I see all the ridiculous partying, the trash people leave behind… I mean this is f**** PARADISE, you’re gonna leave it a mess for “partying”?

    Anyway, there will always be dumb people who can only enjoy their holiday if they are drunk 24/7 or something near that. They try way too hard to be cool and can’t enjoy themselves sober… sucks for them. Then yes they do end up dead or injured… and like you said, they’re just asking for it by acting so dumb and careless.

  77. Mikkel

    i did a back flip through a ring of fire at a full moon party a year ago my food hit the top of the ring i broke the ring and my arm got burnt pritty bad, still have a mark on my arm. but was still a fun party and don’t regreat it, it was my own chocies to do so is my own fault. what im trying to say is not arybody wonna live a life with no risks.

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