Thursday, September 19, 2013


Downtown Vang Vieng, haven for hard partying backpackers
The sights are familiar to anyone who has attended a western university. Sunburned, college age kids, wearing shorts and bikinis. A long strip of riverside bars, with volleyball nets and cheap drinks. Dance music pounds loudly from amplifiers. Alcohol is imbibed in large quantities. Some young adults here are even taking drugs. This isn’t a wild spring break beach party, and this isn’t ‘The Jersey Shore’ either. 

It’s Laos.

Well, a small part of Laos. Vang Vieng to be exact. In a country where the culture is so conservative, and the government’s hold on power is tight, this is an island of western decadence in East Asia. Since the government is publicly against drugs and western music, I’m astounded this kind of behavior is allowed. Vang Vieng is the exception in Laos; the one place where decadent foreign influences run wild. 

Away from the wild partying river, I take a walk down the streets of Vang Vieng. This town isn’t a tourist trap in the classic sense; there are no families here. Although it has morphed into a playground for adults, it’s nothing like Las Vegas. There are neither casinos, nor fancy hotels. This town is a haven for only one kind of tourist: young western backpackers, looking to party for cheap. Some of the bargain hotels or guest houses here offer a bed for as little as four dollars a night. Just don’t expect any air conditioning. 

With business catering to the cheap backpacker crowd, businesses on the main strip are predictable. Both sides of the main street, are packed with cheap guest houses, open air restaurants, bars, internet cafes, food carts, tour companies and tee shirt shops. 

How things have changed for tourists in Laos. Back in the country’s post-war years, westerners were expelled, and the country became isolated. Foreign tourism here was virtually non-existent. 

Vang Vieng restaurant/bar, where you can watch episodes of 'Friends' for hours on end...
But then the cold war thawed in the 1990’s, and neighboring Vietnam and Cambodia began cashing in on tourism. Soon after, the Laotian government decided to hop onto the tourist bandwagon. Visa restrictions were dropped, and borders were flung open. Now this communist country welcomes foreign visitors, anxious to take their tourist dollars. Better late than never. 

The backpackers here are mostly young adults of university age, from western Europe and Australia. Every afternoon they can be seen lounging inside the main strip’s open air restaurants, watching DVDs of American sitcoms for hours. These run all day long, as many backpackers are recovering from a hang over. Perhaps they come here because their guest houses are too cheap to install TVs in their bedrooms. 

Some young women wear skimpy beach attire, and some young men go shirtless. This is nothing to Americans, but conservative Laotians find this scandalous. Showing so much skin is taboo everywhere else in Laos, but here the massive backpacker presence has overwhelmed local culture. 

These frugal foreign travelers were originally drawn to Vang Vieng for the lovely scenery. There are beautiful mountains, caves to explore, scenic rural villages and Buddhist temples. As the first visitors came, tour companies sprang up, selling trips for hiking, canoeing, kayaking and mountain climbing. But those are really just side shows now. Most backpackers come here for two reasons: the partying, and the tubing. These two intertwined events have made Vang Vieng infamous, and even dangerous. Backpackers anywhere in Southeast Asia, are often seen wearing tank tops bearing the same message: “Tubing on the Vang Vieng”, the number one activity here. 
Like this bridge, more than one drunk backpacker has not survived the Nam Song River

I take an afternoon to check this out for myself, and after paying six dollars, I’m given a large truck inner-tube. Then I pile into the back of a crowded tuk-tuk, and we’re driven a few miles north of town. Arriving upriver, we’re dropped off at the first of many cheap riverside bars. Here I encounter a scene I haven’t seen since college. Throngs of rowdy western college kids are drinking cheap beer at several flimsy bamboo bars on the river bank. Many are dancing and carousing to loud popular music. Some have been here for hours already, and are already heavily drunk. One bar is giving away snake wine and scorpion wine for free; I grab a Beer Lao instead. 

Dotted among the riverside pubs are rope swings, water slides and zip lines for thrill seekers. Several circus style trapezes drop revelers from on high, where they shriek as they fall before splashing into the Nam Song river. There is also volleyball, and a muddy tug of war for those who prefer exercise on land. Feeling energetic, I head into a game of 4 on 4 mud volleyball. I get thoroughly filthy in a losing effort, but enjoy the fun. After the game ends, the players scatter to explore other diversions. I’m anxious to get the mud off my face and hair, so I pick up my inner tube and head into the river. 

My next stop is one of the larger drinking holes on this river of debauchery. It’s called the 'Slide Bar'. It has a fairly modern, elevated water slide lined with bath tiles! I pull in, stow my inner tube, and grab some lunch. Then the rain starts. As this is rainy season, the river's running fast. Coming down lightly at first, it’s soon a monsoon. The fun continues, since all the revelers are already wet from the river. As I eat, I view the surrounding action. 
An Argentine died in one of these area caves

Above me, a young man flies off the end of the high water slide, dropping ten feet into the river. He lands right next to an unsuspecting lady tuber, nearly landing on top of her! Both were lucky, it was a near miss. I soon realize, that the emphasis here is on fun, with little regard for safety. As I watch the water slides, trapeze and rope swings at the bars, I see no safety systems in place, no lifeguards. There's little to keep young drunks from falling off high muddy ladders onto the shore, or to keep rope swingers from falling onto other tubers floating by. Nobody wears lifejackets. Swimming drunk in a murky, fast moving, unfamiliar river could easily turn deadly. I hear later that cuts, concussions, and broken bones are a common occurrence when tubing in Vang Vieng. 

The rain lets up, and grabbing my inner tube I continue down river. The shores grow quieter, and bamboo bars give way to tree lined shores. Finally, I stop at a pub known as ‘Last Bar’. I paddle my tube into an eddy, while a couple Canadians float up behind. Standing in shallow water, one spots a dark lizard attached to an overhanging tree. He captures it by hand, and we climb a long flight of stairs to the dumpy little shack bar high over the river bank. As we grab a bench seat, the Canuck plops the reptile on the table. At a foot and a half long, the lizard looked ill or injured. It was breathing, but barely moving. 

An old Lao woman with blackened teeth approaches the table. Her dark teeth are caused by betel nuts, her drug of choice. (The locally grown nut is chewed as a mild stimulant.) The woman points towards the lizard, and motions with her hands that it makes for good eating. She then opens a little bag. Apparently, she was ready to barbecue the reptile right here and now. The Canadians pondered this offer for a while, but the more they discussed the lizard, the more they got attached to it. They declined her offer to cook their newfound pet. 
7 foreign tourists have died in Vang Vieng, some drowned under the influence of drugs or alcohol

While I order my second and final beer, the Canadians order marijuana. They are soon lighting up, disappointed when I turn down their offer to smoke with them. This pair were hoping to hang out with some heavier partiers. Soon after, they found some. Down by the river where we’d arrived, three more westerners pulled up in their inner tubes. These young men had partied too hard already, and never made it up the steps. 

“Hey! We need help!” One of them shouted, “we have to get to a hospital!” The vocal backpacker’s two friends were very stoned; one was so far gone, he was completely unconscious. Soon one of the Laotian bar staff descended to the river bank, loading the three druggies into his long tail boat. Then they were off downriver, just another backpacker overdose headed for the local band-aid station that they call a hospital. 

It’s quite a racket this bar has going. Not only do they make money by selling drugs to backpackers, but they also make additional money from backpackers by turning their boats into ambulances when they overdose. I noticed the boat driver wouldn’t leave for the hospital, until he saw the cash in hand from the backpacker to pay for the trip. 

I don’t know what particular drug his friend overdosed on, but he’s far from the first foreigner to need medical attention in Vang Vieng. In recent years at least seven foreigners have died in this permissive tourist town. Shortly before I arrived in Vang Vieng, an Argentine tourist died in a caving accident. He had been exploring a local cave alone, never a good idea. Other tourists here died from overdoses, drowning, or from driving drunk on rented motorbikes.

A couple weeks after I left Vang Vieng, there was another death. An Irishman who came to town with his newlywed wife drowned in the river while tubing. His poor widow was left to organize the search for his body on her own. It cost her $1,000 out of her own pocket to pay for the search. They finally found his corpse down river, three days later.

1 comment:

  1. Hi. Like your blog overall but just wanted to comment on what you said regarding westerners being expelled from laos during the post war years. The fact is that the expulsion was directed to all foreign missionaries rather than just westerners in particular. Have a good day.