Vang Vieng

“They shut Vang Vieng down” – the buzz first reached me in Hanoi, where I heard the story from a girl who had heard it from somebody who was just there the other week. But for that statement to make any sense, you first need to know what Vang Vieng is. Vang Vieng is a city, and of course, you can’t really shut a city down. But that’s not what they meant. For years, Vang Vieng has been synonymous (for some) with the most hedonism. Vang Vieng was the Sodom and Gomorra of Laos. Tubing was introduced at the turn of the century; then, cheap guesthouses and bars sprung up on the riverfront. Laos has historically been rather relaxed about drugs (the hill tribes allegedly produced opium for the US during the ‘secret war’) and there was more than beer on sale – ‘happy pizza’s’ and ‘happy shakes’ abound; the mushrooms in your dinner could very well be the ‘magic’ variety and opium was not hard to come by either. Parties on Don Kong, an island in the river, went on all night, even though the people of Vang Vieng would traditionally rise before dawn to work in the fields. And as if tubing down a fast-flowing river while completely tripped out of your mind wasn’t enough fun by itself, there were rope swings, zip lines and giant slides (you can read a CNN story and photo report here).

Photo courtesy CNN / Matt Benett – this now no longer exists. I think.

If going down a giant slide nicknamed the ‘slide of death’ float down a river in an inner tyre tube while stoned completely out of your mind sounds like a bad idea it’s because it is. Apparently, 26 people died this year alone, and this caused the crackdown. Some say twice that number died last year and it’s because of that; others say a high diplomat’s son was amongst the recent casualties and that he pulled a lot of strings. If you ask me, it’s a good thing people making such basic Darwinian errors removed themselves from the gene pool, but the cleansing of Vang Vieng can only be applauded. Its setting is one of the most amazing in Laos, and opportunities abound for kayaking, caving, rock climbing, you name it. Vang Vieng might finally develop facilities for these kind of sustainable, high revenue activities. However, the town might be beyond redemption. Its name as an anything goes party centre been made. Even after mopping up the worst of the worst, the town still consists mainly of bars that show endless reruns of Friends and / or Family Guy; Whisky / Red Bull buckets are still ubiquitous (though to be fair, the ‘happy’ menu’s seem to have all but disappeared), and the town is teeming with good-for-nothing backpackers that stay for months just to ‘have a good time’ – ie., destroy traditional Lao culture. Then again, this is Laos, and no place is changing as fast. Maybe in five years. We’ll see.

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