“YOU SEE THAT GIANT SLIDE OVER THERE?” A guy asks us, pointing down river with a wrist full of dripping bracelets. “It’s called the ‘Slide of Death’, some chick drowned there last week.” His right hand makes a launching motion then lands flat on his left. “Whack!”
Tales of people dying or drowning followed my brother and I everywhere as we floated down the Nam Song River in Central Laos, ‘tubing’ from bar to bar, drinking Tiger Whiskey Red Bulls out of sand buckets, but it didn’t really change anything. They were horror stories followed by a few moments of sympathetic commiseration until the next person offered us a free shot.
Legend has it the river was named Xong (bed) of Phra Nha Phao — or Nam Song — in 1356 AD, after the body of the deceased King was seen floating down the river. Nearly 700 years later, the bodies kept coming. This was Vang Vieng, the town ruled by twenty-somethings that never aged. It was Neverland, 2011. The same year some sources say 27 backpackers or more died on the river, causing a backlash that threatened to end one of the most controversial eras of the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit.
The birth of a backpacker’s paradise
Vang Vieng is a bumpy eight hour van ride South of Luang Prabang and four hours North of Vientiane, the two connecting dots of the “Banana Pancake Trail” — so named for the ubiquitous banana pancake stands that can be found almost everywhere on the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit.
For decades it was a sleepy farming and fishing village popular with hippies and rock climbers drawn to its towering karst limestone cliffs, its caves, its idyllic farmland, its lagoons, and its peaceful location on the Nam Song River.
Its bizarre evolution into one of the world’s top party spots began in 1999, when Thanongsi Sorangkoun, a Vang Vieng native and organic farm owner that lived just north of town, aired up a few tractor-tire tubes so his volunteers would have a relaxing way to wind down after a long day.
“After a month, every guesthouse and tour company [was] bringing tubes and starting from here.” Sorangkoun said.
Locals were quick to capitalize on the influx of interest, creating a 10 village cooperative of over 1500 households that rotated renting inner-tubes every 10 days. The construction of bars along the river took off to lure in thirsty tubers. Music began to blare out across the rice farms and into the caves of the surrounding Karst cliffs as giant swings, slides, and ziplines popped up and signs advertising “Free Joint with Bucket” littered the docks of bars downriver.
“They don’t respect any law [or] regulations. There’s no inspections, no control,” Sorangkoun said. “Two years ago it was paradise.”
The lack of government regulation (or perhaps their involvement) allowed the scene to explode as a place where anything was possible — and the backpackers came in droves.
The party’s on
My brother Sam and I arrived in Vang Vieng at the beginning of 2011 after hearing outrageous stories from other travelers. We crammed into a minivan with twelve other mostly white Western backpackers from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and arrived at the former Air America airfield — a remnant of the USA’s “Secret War” in Laos — just outside of town a couple hours after sunset.
The dusty potholed streets were filled with smoke from the food carts that dotted the road, with little pools of light advertising twenty different combinations of sandwich or pancake. Drunk kids in bathing suits fluttered around like moths drawn to the fluorescent light, ordering chicken bacon cheese sandwiches with egg — their skin, now lit, revealing blue finger-painted penises and various iterations of “Why Not?” covering their torsos.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“It’s like any other backpacker town,” Sam said. “There’s a bunch of drunk backpackers stumbling around.”
As we made our way to our 5-story concrete hotel overlooking the two-street town jammed with bars, restaurants, tourist shops, and food carts, the laugh-track of Friends and Family Guy poured out of the open-air “TV bars” while westerners lounged on raised wooden benches, occasionally lifting their heads from the piles of limp, sagging pillows to take a sip of their banana-nutella-coffee-milo shakes.
Unbeknownst to us, we had arrived during the resting hours, the few hours in the evening when most were recovering from a day on the river and preparing for the night ahead.
Our plan was to stay four nights but that quickly turned into seven, then eleven, as one day of exploring caves and verdant countryside turned into the next day of tubing, drinking, and lounging with groups of backpackers trading stories as we passed around a joint. After a few days on the river, we stopped renting tubes and just took a tuk-tuk up to the bars. We were stuck, like so many others we talked to, in extended adolescence.
Trouble in paradise
Though the town was sprouting new hotels, bars and restaurants by the week, not everyone was a fan of the growth at all costs, thanks to the juvenile behavior and disrespectful lack of modesty now running rampant around town. According to an interview with guesthouse owner Sengkeo “Bob” Frichitthavong, tubing was wreaking havoc.
“It’s just destroying the town and we are losing our culture,” said Frichitthavong. “The noise, the people naked, alcohol, people vomiting all over the place, sex.”
This type of cultural genocide is a common theme throughout the world, but especially in places like Laos or Thailand that are attractive to young westerners as an inexpensive place to party — a pastime not very conducive to respecting cultural sensitivities. Once word of mouth spreads about a place (now at unprecedented rates online), it is only a matter of time before it becomes something else, something other than what it was popular for in the first place. It becomes another tourist engine, serving up comfort and good times for all.
But Vang Vieng, in it’s hedonistic heyday, was popular because it had changed into the backpacker paradise. Most didn’t go there for culture. They went there to party.
“Lao people are very peaceful and tolerant; we don’t complain,” said Frichitthavong, “Backpackers think we don’t care how they behave because we’re making money from tourism, but there are many dark sides to what is happening.”
Throughout the summer of 2011, depending on who you ask, there were at least 27 fatalities on the river from drownings due to the use of drugs and alcohol combined with slides, swings and ziplines over shallow water.
Devastated parents like Jan Meadows, mother of Lee Hudswell, a 26-year-old Australian backpacker who died using a zipline on the Nam Song, began to pressure authorities to do something about the blatant lack of regulations.
“It was totally and utterly unregulated tourism,” Meadows said.
Embassies began to ask the local authorities why their citizens had died and the Laos government responded by assembling a task force made up of senior tourism, health, and public security officials who were sent to Vang Vieng.
The response was swift. Within three months, twenty-four riverside venues were shuttered and some torn down after finding they were “being operated in contravention of regulations, including the provision of unsafe drinks to customers, while some also had no business licenses,” the Vientiane Times reported. According to the report, many of the bars were serving tourists alcoholic drinks laced with opium and hallucinogenic mushrooms, known as “Magic Shakes.”
“We have set ourselves the target to bring a new face to Vang Vieng district by October,” said Boualy Milattanapheng, the leader of the task force. That “face” being ecotourism. Measures were then put in place to limit accidental tubing deaths.
“In an effort to enjoy the river safely, the committee has stipulated that those wanting to use kayaks and tubing services must wear life jackets and these facilities are allowed to operate only between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.,” Milattanapheng said.
By the end of 2012 almost everything was demolished and the town took a hit. Tourism was down and business was slowing to a crawl as rumors got out that tubing was done for, and that there was now no point in going to Vang Vieng as a backpacker. Both of which were untrue, as the tubing continued, though more regulated, and the natural beauty of the area was rife with potential for adventure eco-tourists interested in caving, mountain biking, hiking, climbing, kayaking or ballooning over the saw-tooth Karsts.
However, ecotourism in the area was in its infancy and many local businesses began to close their doors or reinvent themselves in an effort to stay afloat. According to an interview with Touy Sisouat, a member of the tubing cooperative, the number of tourists renting tubes was at an all time low.
“[In November 2011], we would have maybe 800 people every day. This November , it is about 130 people,” Sisouat said. “There is [sic] no drinks on the river. It is bad for business — and there is less money for the children.”
But many residents approved of the new regulations.
“It’s good because it is more peaceful,” one resident said in an interview with Radio Free Asia. “Tourism has become more eco-friendly and the environment has improved. Speaking for myself, I would like it to stay this way.”
In 2015, I returned to Vang Vieng with my girlfriend and a couple of other friends. It was not the same town I had been to just four years earlier.
Billboards were scattered throughout town featuring a cartoon version of a dreadlocked man smoking a doobie and a girl in a bathing suit with the caption “Do not wear bikinis, bathing suits, swimming trunks, be shirtless or expose body paint on town streets.” Streets that seemed strangely sedate for the late afternoon as we walked through town.
Only a few TV bars remained. Some had turned into more upscale restaurants to cater to the influx of wealthier tourists, mostly newly-rich Chinese and Koreans, who traveled around in groups and frequented the river with kayaks, waving at cheering tubers who still made it a point to visit the few riverside bars that remained. The Koreans seemed to be the only ones wearing life-jackets. Not a single tower, swing, zipline or ‘death slide’ still stood. Things were calmer, but the scene was still there — and so were the young backpackers who didn’t seem to give a damn what they had missed four years earlier.
At night, loud music continued to bellow from bars like Sakura and the Kangaroo Sunset Bar. Secret drug menus selling bags of weed, opium, and mushrooms still existed, though they were no longer openly displayed. Nitrous oxide wheezed out of tanks and into balloons for those up for some laughing gas. And after talking to a local barkeep we learned that the reason not all the bars were destroyed on the river was that the remaining ones were owned, at least by proxy, by the local chief of police.
It seemed the money was too good for the city to give up tubing entirely. The remaining river bars, four of which were open at the time of our visit, rotated every other day to accommodate fewer visitors, and continued to employ travel-weary Westerners who get free room, board, and drinks for handing out welcome shots of watered down whiskey.
We stayed for seven days at Sengkeo “Bob” Fricchitthavong’s quiet guest house a few kilometers out of the busy town, enjoying the peace, this time, of not being in the middle of it all. But some things don’t change. We were startled awake the last night of our stay by a loud bang and a series of footsteps running past our door.
Apparently, one of the guests had eaten a “happy pizza” laced with marijuana and had washed it down with a “magic shake” laced with mushrooms and opium. Now he was having a waking nightmare that compelled him to kick his door down and rip the showerhead out of his bathroom wall. His girlfriend was running back and forth trying to calm him and keep him from hurting himself or anyone who was hovering around the porch. Frichitthavong was outside the door with a flashlight looking torn as to what to do.
“Are you going to call the police?” My girlfriend, Hebah asked him.
“I don’t want to call the police because I don’t want him to get in trouble,” he said. “It’s a hard situation because if the police get involved it will probably get worse.”
Eventually the guest calmed down and a blanket was pinned above their door frame in lieu of a door. No one was hurt or arrested, and the tattered remnants of the door were gone by morning.
These incidents, all too common, are the inadvertent consequences of the struggle between keeping one’s culture and promoting an unsustainable, unregulated tourism. In 2011, we were a part of it, acting without responsibility and lacking the proper respect for our hosts. We bought into the prevailing ethos of having a good time, though we knew at the back of our minds this kind of place probably shouldn’t exist.
“It was a little paradise for burned out backpackers and a place to escape,” my brother said, “[but] I hated it for its hedonism. And like any drug, whether you want to or not, coming off of it always sucks.”
Vang Vieng’s apparent success at rebranding itself as an ecotourist destination, rather than party capital of Southeast Asia, is beginning to show signs of promise even though the transition hasn’t come easy. Locals do their best to find the balance between earning a living and maintaining their culture.
“It’s a complicated dynamic,” Frichitthavong said. “Rural life is hard. Everyone wants the economic benefits of tourism — of course we do. But we shouldn’t sell our souls to get it.”