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April 29, 2012

Vang Vieng, As Seen From My High Horse

Dear readers, please allow me to get a little self-indulgent here. This blog is subjective and I wanted to jump up on my soapbox or high-horse or whatever for this one.

Firstly, here are some nice pictures from around Vang Vieng:

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I knew coming to south-east Asia meant visiting Laos, and I knew that meant Vang Vieng – a place I had mixed feelings about visiting. In the early 2000’s, I heard such exciting things about this place, but recently the news has all been bad.

There is a lot to like about Vang Vieng, but there is so much more to loathe. And its so much easier to write about what’s wrong. So here goes.

The place is really spiralling out of control. Vang Vieng has been famous amongst travellers for more than 15 years, because of one thing: tubing. Someone in the 90’s had the great idea of floating down the Nam Song river in an inflated tire tube, and it turned what was just another town on the long and windy road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang into a tourist meca. The Nam Song is a gorgeous river that drifts right beneath the cliffs of sky-high limestone carsts that rise up out of the rice plantations of the countryside. Soon a party scene developed, with riverside bars and Laos relaxed drug culture turning tubing into something everyone travelling to Asia wanted to do.

15+ years later and its getting out of control. Its like spring break on steroids. Massive wooden bars along the river teem with late teens and twenty-somethings on their first trip overseas. Home-made whisky costs $1.20 a litre, and is mixed with red-bull and whatever else and sold for nothing. A shallow river full of submerged rocks. Rope swings. Drinking games. Mushroom smoothies. Opium joints over the bar. Most people don’t even take a tube anymore, they just head out to the start of the tubing area where most of the 20 or so bars are and get hammered. Very few people make it down the river, they are here to get, as the ‘FU BAR’ proclaims, “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition”.

Vang Vieng is now becoming known for something else: Last year, at least 22 people died along this stretch of river – and that’s the conservative estimate from the local hospital, as many serious cases are sent straight to the capital. Sadly, its no surprise at all. More young Australians will die here.

We went tubing, and had a good time. We hired tubes and headed for the river early. We stopped at a few bars, had our ‘free’ shots of Lao-Lao (homemade corn or rice whiskey that tasks like metho), had a few beers, got abused by a bunch of 20 year old english kids who “volunteer” at the bars for daring to leave their bar and tube down the river. We were on the river before the hordes arrived, and while the water levels were pretty low, we made our way down the river for 3 or so hours till we reached town. It was good fun, but we were exhausted and had serious headaches by the time we went to bed at around 6pm – hate to think of the condition of people who had been drinking buckets of lao lao all day.

What really got me about Vang Vieng is how horrible the town itself is – at least the touristy part. The part of town where the locals live seems really nice. But the rest of it – its like someone decided to take one of the most naturally beautiful places you can image, and built the worst conceivable town.

The stories of restaurants and bars with plasma screens that just have Friends on repeat are true – and they are all pretty busy. The town caters solely to the drunken masses – this isn’t tourism that is created meaningful jobs, building community – nothing about this is sustainable. From 5pm in the afternoon, the kids start arriving back into town from the river bars. Drunk, drugged, spewing, bitching, fighting, wandering around like zombies. Walking down the main street in bikinis – something that would defy belief in any other part of this conservative nation.

The rudest, most in-your-face aggressive touts we have seen on this trip aren’t tuk-tuk drivers or street hustlers in Bangkok – the British/European/Australian touts working for the local bars, who get in your face trying to get you into whatever club they are spruiking are far worse than anyone we have seen in Asia so far.

Corruption and extortion are rife in the town, and with so many easy targets its no wonder why. Local cops own the bars, sell the drugs, make the arrest, and take the bribes.

The day after tubing we headed for the blue lagoon – a swimming hole in a clearing about 7kms from Veng Vieng. For the first time since our arrival from Luang Prabang we unwound and enjoyed ourselves. Heading there, we saw the otherside of Vang Vieng – where the local people live, and got a glimpse of what it must have been like a while ago. The countryside out of town was beautiful, and the cold waters of the swimming hole were the perfect antidote to the heat of the day and the stench of the town.

I hear older people looking down at my generation as being hedonistic, with an air of entitlement but no sense of responsibility. As long as we are having a good time, screw everything else.. Young rich kids who know all their rights and none of their responsibilities. After visiting Vang Vieng, I think I know how they see us.

To be honest, what happens at Vang Vieng isn’t very different to what goes on at Koh Samui or Phuket or Bali or any place that has full-moon type parties in this part of the world. Perhaps its because there isn’t a beach for hundreds of kilometres (Laos is landlocked), and its happening in the middle of rural Laos, in a once peaceful little village set amongst a valley of rice paddies and subsistence farming, that makes it seem so wrong. The wild excesses of booze, drugs and destruction just seem so much more excessive in this place.

One Comment on “Vang Vieng, As Seen From My High Horse

Sherree_olsen
May 3, 2012 at 4:32 am

Ryan, what a great article!! This place was in the news recently when someone died there. Have you thought of sending this to nespapers?

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