Sex, Drugs, Death and Backpackers in Vang Vieng, Laos.
Above Photo: A woman in a bikini swings out over the Nam Song River (© Aradboaz, Flikr – he has some outstanding photos of Vang Vieng on his site, capturing the mood of the partying along the river).
I base some of my backpacker-Vietnam War crossover novel BACK in the party town of Vang Vieng in Laos. Below are some of the reasons why I did that, although the backpacker drugs scene in Vang Vieng has changed a lot since I wrote the novel.
For many years the formerly sleepy fishing and rice-farming town of Vang Vieng has been a jewel in the crown on the international backpacker circuit, as partying teenagers looked for un-policed, hedonistic fun in the wilds of Laos.
Conveniently located on the road between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and surrounded by stunning white limestone mountains, Vang Vieng is an outstandingly beautiful place to spend a few days, but it is also well known for other activities which may have prompted a recent clampdown on the more extreme forms of backpacker partying the town has become notorious for.
Why am I even writing about it?
Well, because I have visited Vang Vieng many times over the years and it seemed the perfect place to locate some key chapters in my Backpacker novel, BACK, which is why I made my last visit a few months ago, when we deliberately booked into a noisy, busy, cheap backpacker hotel on the main road leading into town, to help with my research, before moving to a quieter, riverfront hotel.
Whilst Vang Vieng has become popular for its well documented focus on drink, drugs and debauchery, it may have been ultimately laid low by another “d” word, and one that forced the Laos government to act, namely deaths of international backpackers; and well publicized ones at that.
As well as all the partying, drugs and booze being sold dirt cheap to backpackers in the town, a whole area of bars grew up along the river where wooden platforms were constructed for revellers to swing out, dive or slide into the Nam Song river.
Given the ready availability of strong drugs and all kinds of booze mixed with some surprising additives, like ketamine, the tubing and river jumping became increasingly dangerous, with many young lives lost over the past few years.
The authorities by and large managed to keep the drug-related death toll under wraps, where people overdosed or were poisoned by bad batches of drugs. These cases were often transferred to Vientiane, but rumours in the town and also comments in press reports frequently refer to these fatalities as well as the ones that frequently occurred as backpackers broke their necks or drowned after a day of drink, drugs and fun on the river.
When I was last there a few months ago, the riverside bars which really did seem like something out of a film set, stuck out in the middle of nowhere, had all been torn down with the Laos government’s usual efficiency for ‘disappearing’ things (and, unfortunately, people) they disapprove of, and a new sets of guidelines had been published for improving safety on the river.
I immediately noticed that newer groups of tourists had discovered Vang Vieng – retiree French tour groups and other people who didn’t quite fit the old profile of horse tranquiliser-guzzling, opium shake-slurping teenagers.
I was even able to relevantly write these new tourists into the Vang Vieng chapters of BACK.
I also noticed that the town centre still catered for the drug-based food and drink requirements of backpackers, only a little more discretely than they used to.
I like the town, but I’m glad it is trying (perhaps being forced) to move on to the next stage of its tourism development. Whether it will be entirely successful, given its former reputation, will be something to observe in the coming years.
I have selected two short Youtube videos, both showing aspects of Vang Vieng and the fun people of a certain age can (or did) have there.
Looking at these videos, you might get an idea of why I was so keen to find a crossover between this modern-day backpacker world and the world of Wartime Laos, especially in Vang Vieng, in my novel.
The first video is basically a lot of young women getting hammered to music (you can see how expertly the cameraman focuses on girls not guys in the shots). I sent it to someone who’d served in Laos and he was more than a little surprised to see modern-day life in tourist Laos.
[This video has been deleted off You tube sicne I posted this article]
And this one is very well put together and gives an idea of the swings and towers and river activities. Again, it’s easy to see how Vang Vieng attracted the adventurous backpacker following it amassed in recent years.
Finally, below, in italics, I have added an edited version of an excellent article on a traveller’s blog http://sarita331.wordpress.com, (reproduced with permission) in which the writer describes Vang Vieng, and why she hated the backpacker scene, but liked the town; a sentiment I would concur with, although it was the perfect place to set important backpacking scenes in my novel.
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
Back Parts 1 and 2:
Reviews: Amazon.co.uk: Customer Reviews
Article on Vang Vieng from sarita331
“We were warned not to go to Vang Vieng as it was described as “drunk twenty-somethings ruining the country and being disrespectful to the locals.” Come on, I thought. People always wring their hands about tourism ruining everything, especially in rural areas, as if poor villages should be preserved in formaldehyde so we can continue to observe them unaltered like in a museum, ignoring the economic benefits and desires of the actual people living there.
Not to say that tourism isn’t problematic and that there isn’t a responsible or better way to do development. I just think it’s more complicated than people’s knee jerk reactions against it.
Anyway, with regards to Vang Vieng, I’m with the hand-wringers. The drunken, lusty frenzy, and the lack of conscientiousness set with a backdrop of traditional, conservative Laos is mind-numbing.
I was excited when I heard about tubing on the river because I pictured something similar to tubing in Austin, Texas. A bunch of people relaxing on a river for a few hours, drinking beer, singing, chatting, swimming…that kind of stuff.
Oh no, no no no no. It was more like Khao San Road intensified and wearing a bikini. As our tuk tuk approached the tubing starting point, we heard a growing roar, which turns out to be a number of bars along the banks of the river crammed together, all loudly playing really fast and really bad techno music. Tourists in swimsuits (or the standard uniform of flip flops, shorts, and a Bangkok/Laos t-shirt) are standing around and jumping off huge platforms into the water. Once in the water, it’s like you’re being bombarded with backpacker bombs. It’s Apocalypse Now meets MTV Spring Break.
We thought the madness would end, but bars line the river banks for nearly the entire 3 hour tube ride. One amusing thing was to watch the bar workers go tourist-fishing. They throw bottles attached to ropes at tubers and reel them in when they get a catch.
The streets of Vang Vieng weren’t much different. Bikini-clad girls wandering around shoeless (where did these people put their damn sandals?), obnoxious guys talking loudly about their previous sexual exploits and their need to repeat these in the near future (note: the louder the bragging, the less likely it’s true), and numerous loud bars seducing customers with free buckets of booze.
We saw a dude wearing a shirt with a picture of a topless woman on it. She appeared to be in the process of taking off her pants or maybe touching herself. This in a country that blurs out cleavage in it’s commercials! Oi! Family run restaurants even offered drugs on the menu. Pepsi, margarita, opium, mushroom shakes, weed joint. No need for the usual euphemisms like “happy pizza”.
Actually this whole thing isn’t that different than a lot of the islands in Thailand or even a spot or two in Vietnam, but somehow it felt creepier. I can’t put my finger on why it turned me off so much more here – I felt like an old lady the whole time wagging my disapproving finger at the drunk teenagers, even though I’m not exactly a stranger to similar party scenes.
I think the difference for me was that this scene appeared to be the focal point of Vang Vieng, while it’s sort of just an option in Thailand. It highlighted everything that people hate about backpackers, and I understand better now why they have such a bad reputation and why expats try to distance themselves from the label…it’s not all just snobbery. It’s embarrassing to think about the general impression the locals must have of Westerners after that spectacle. Although, it wouldn’t surprise me if most of the chill Laotians are indifferent.
Whine whine. Lest I leave you with a terrible impression of Vang Vieng and my trip, despite the above complaints, we really did have a good time. We were smart enough to stay in an ecolodge located about 15 minutes outside of town. It was gorgeous.
There are similar places in the area as well, so there are options outside of the madness. And if the whole peace and nature stuff eventually bores you, you can go join in with the drunken masses. If you are looking for an STI, parasite, hangover, and blurred recollection of Laos, Vang Vieng is your town.
Ok ok, if you’re not turned off, it will be a lot of fun. It’s seriously hard not to enjoy the hell out of tubing, even with drunken people falling from the sky. And the locals who live and work there are as lovely as any I’ve met. “
Full article : http://sarita331.wordpress.com