How a Remote Laotian Village Became Asia's Cancun
Mar 18 2013
Photo by Florence Earle
Vang Vieng is a small town of 25,000 nestled in the jungles of northwestern Laos, on the banks of the Nam Song River. It’s home to caves, lagoons, and lush green hills—a landscape that up until recently had me believing that Laos, my mother’s native land, was mostly free from crass Western concepts like “partying.”
Since the early 2000s, however, the bucolic hamlet has become a destination for drunk Europeans backpacking through Southeast Asia. And today Vang Vieng is near the top of the list of tourist destinations in Laos. It has provided a much-needed boost to the nation’s tourism industry, but in the process altered itself to cater to out-of-towners.
The town’s main street, for instance, is full of bars screening reruns of Friends and Family Guy. Bars offer whiskey-taurine cocktails served in beach buckets. It’s also easy to score opium, magic mushrooms, methamphetamines, and other substances that could get you thrown into a Laotian prison. There are also a handful of underground clubs run by Vietnamese gangs. Curiously, when my sister Florence went to visit Vang Vieng for the first time in 2005, after she returned she told me there were no police in sight. “At any time,” she said, “tourists can buy hard drugs freely, although it’s recommended to avoid heroin or cocaine.” The restaurants sell cannabis and opium at 80,000 kip per gram (about $10), as well as tourist-oriented foods like pasta or pancakes “even if Laotians don’t know how to cook them.”
I’m sure some locals get annoyed by constantly being surrounded by young people who are perpetually drunk and high, floating down the river in inflatable tubes, but most residents don’t complain and view the influx of backpackers as an opportunity to make money. Some rent inner tubes ($1 for two hours), usually asking tourists to sign a document exonerating them in case of serious injuries or death—and deaths happen. In 2011, there were 27 recorded fatalities as a result of drowning or diving into rocks and, according to one doctor’s estimate in the Guardian, five to ten tourists are brought to the town hospital every day, mostly for deep cuts, broken bones, or illnesses brought on by drinking and drugs.
In 2012, the Vientiane Times, Laos’s premier English-language newspaper, reported on the implementation of a curfew and the widespread closure of illegal bars following serious accidents and complaints from the townsfolk. This comes as no big surprise because international tourism is a touchy issue in Laos, which was a French colony for many years. During her childhood in Luang Prabang in the 1950s, my mother never met a tourist in her life. “At that time, everyone knew each other,” she said. “Apart from a few officials and some diplomats, nobody went outside the country.”
The United Nations has asked the authorities to protect historic and cultural landmarks in Laos, but there are very few of these in Vang Vieng, which seems to have permanently turned into a tourist cesspool. The problem, as the town is finding out, is that once you’ve started attracting tourists, it’s sometimes hard to get some peace and quiet every once in a while.
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