Friday, March 2, 2012

Vang Vieng: Backpacker heaven or hedonistic hell?

Magic mushroom shake? Opium pizza? Bucket of whiskey anyone?

Welcome to Vang Vieng, former traditional farming village, now hot point of drugs, booze, techno and partying and Laos’ hottest backpacker haunt.

The rise -- perhaps that should be fall -- of this town sitting on the Nam Song River and surrounded by beautiful karst scenery, has been dramatic, and its notoriety has spread far.

You are more likely to see topless tourists vomiting than you are local culture and it has been written: “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng.”

It has hit the headlines most dramatically in recent months for the deaths of at least two Australian tourists while tubing on its river. Lee Hudswell and Daniel Eimutis both lost their lives while taking part in the town's most popular activity.

So what is it really like to spend a few days here?

I first came to Vang Vieng in 2000, when, though already popular with spliff-smoking hippie types, it was quiet and peaceful.

In the last five years, coinciding with the launch of inner-tubing on the river, tourism and all that goes with it has overwhelmed the old life.

The tubing rental office tells me that up to 500 tubes are hired out each day during peak periods. One local says one new guesthouse starts construction each week.

Most noticeably, drunk, drugged-up, sleep-deprived, half-naked travelers now wander the streets and the riverbank like lost festival-goers. Read More