What the Hell Happened to Vang Vieng?

Vang Vieng might sound like a scary pooch from Harry Potter, but it’s actually a backpacker’s paradise in southern Laos. Well, for some it’s a paradise. For others, it was literally a path to hell.

Laos is that country in Southeast Asia between Thailand and Vietnam which I mentioned in my recent¬†article on Vientiane. There aren’t any cheap flights to Laos so it doesn’t receive the mass tourism that Thailand does. On the other hand, it gets a steady stream of backpackers, many of whom are making their “border run” from Thailand, exploiting the country’s loophole in order to stick around for a few years. Not that I’m complaining; that’s why I went to Laos twice, too.

In the northwest of Laos, between the old and new capitals (Luang Prabang and Vientiane) is the small village of Vang Vieng. During the Vietnam War, the US placed the Lima Site 6 airstrip in the center of town. This was one of the staging grounds for their half a million bomb runs around the country. As horrible as the reason was, the town was quickly built up.

Airstrip in Vang Vieng

In 1996, a landowner in the town began giving tractor tire inner tubes to his hired help so they could float down the river during their relaxation time. The popularity of this quickly caught on with backpackers passing through the village, and the tourism boomed.

Nam Song River

Vang Vieng is surrounded by truly stunning countryside. Steep mountains thrust up all over the landscape offer some challenging hikes. Many of them also have deep caves for spelunking. Rivers running out of the mountains afford places to relax out of the sweltering heat, whether you want to swim, kayak or raft. Yet those things came in second to the top two attractions.

Drugs and alcohol in Vang Vieng

Laos has a long, sordid history with drugs. Opium has wreaked havoc upon the population for centuries, and it’s my personal belief that the US used the air traffic during the war to smuggle drugs to America (just as depicted in the movie American Gangster).

As more and more Millennials arrived in Vang Vieng, more bars materialized along the river. The fad was to get a bucket of alcohol at the first establishment, ride an inner tube down to the next bar, get a refill and keep going. Except that not everyone kept going. Some of the buckets had drugs in them too (requested or otherwise). Backpackers would fall off their tires in a drunken or drugged stupor, get tangled in the swings hanging in the river or simply not have the coordination to swim, and… The problem was, this apparently happened all the time. No one really wants to talk about death, but there are rumors that backpackers were dying every day. Yet still they came.

Finally, just before an international conference in 2012 that Laos was hosting, the government decided to do something about it. Nearly all the bars along the river were shut down or at least told to clean up their act. A long-term restaurant owner informed me that there are still three bars in town that have *ahem* gained authority to sell mushroom shakes. For the rest of the town, there are huge penalties for drug use (as they have always been illegal, just as in Thailand). In one hostel, a sign clearly said that anyone caught smoking weed on the streets would be fined 5 million kip (about $575).

Vang Vieng Walking Street

Now, the town has reverted back to using its stunning nature for tourism. Places like the Blue Lagoon are a must (even if not as impressive as the Icelandic counterpart). You can raft, hike, spelunk (explore caves), zipline or even ride a hot air balloon. Of course, you can still ride an inner tube down the river too, but do it without a bucket of alcohol and drugs.

Vang Vieng Blue Lagoon

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