The Lost Travelers of Vang Vieng

From afar Vang Vieng looked like any number of small towns in Laos. Dramatic limestone cliffs framed the sunset as we dropped into the karst canyon from the north.

We took a mini bus into town from the main bus station. The dusty roads and bamboo huts didn’t give away what we were in for, but the booming bass did. Anticipation was in the air as our vehicle of fresh-faced travelers headed towards the sound.

When the music couldn’t get any louder, the bus stopped. Before I had both feet on the ground a girl with a distant gaze and weathered complexion was in my face. Despite her unfocused eyes I assumed she was directing her animated chatter at me so I tried to decipher it. Her spontaneous bouts of giggles forced me to give up on any effective conversation, plus she was starting to freak me out. When I turned to leave she handed me a flyer. “Free buckets,” she said, leaning in shakily as if we were friends before falling back into maniacal laughter.

I took in my surroundings. Crazy girl was not alone. There were dozens of tanned, body painted tourists, many still donning bathing suits from the day, handing out flyers and screaming slogans that promised drinks, drugs and hedonistic pleasures aplenty.

Neon seemed to be the color of choice. I felt like I was the one that was on drugs. Everyone’s voices were a little too high, their eyes a little too wobbly and their clothes a little too sparse. By night it looked like a place where failed circus acts came to die.

We found a room just outside the town center and passed some Laotian children running down the road. I cringed when I remembered the voluptuous blond with the neon pink bikini three sizes too small who had stumbled by us moments earlier, singing to herself and glistening under a layer of glow-in-the-dark body paint.

What a strange view of the world these children must have.

Something felt wrong…But I got over it, grabbed my flyer and headed out to claim my free bucket of cheap rum and coke.

The next morning we walked back into town, happy to hear that no music was blasting. The bars with names like Smile bar and Q bar that had hosted us the night before were empty. The manic partiers had transformed into lounging zombies. Vang Vieng had mastered the art of lounging. 80% of the center consisted of open bamboo platforms with low tables and pillows galore. The numerous TV screens played nonstop reruns of either Friends, How I Met Your Mother or Family Guy, no exceptions.

Endless menus of shakes, deli sandwiches and pancakes always included a dubious selection of pizza, drinks and cookies dubbed “happy” or “magic,” which had a twist of some hallucinogenic drug.

When I thought things couldn’t get anymore surreal, we headed down to the Nam Song river, taking a mini bus that dropped us off upstream with our inner tubes.  The riverbanks were lined with bars, each with its own rickety ride — a zip line, a swing or a slide, which helped claim the lives of 27 travelers in 2011.

We dropped our inner tubes off outside the first bar. Free drinks and wristbands materialized before us as we entered. “Do you all work here?” I asked the young British girl who was tying on my bracelet, referring to the foreigners who seemed to run every bar.

“Yea, we get paid in room, board and drinks,” she answered.

“How long have you been here?”

“About a month,” she told us. That explained the impressive mass of bracelets on her arm collected during weeks of barhopping. She read my surprise and explained to me that a month isn’t even that long.

A top-twenty playlist was blasting on repeat and the dance floor was filled with teenagers, early twenty-somethings and the occasional forty year old who had arrived ten years ago and never managed to leave.

The party crowd included Europeans and Australians enjoying their gap year, Brits celebrating the end of secondary school, recently demobbed young Israeli soldiers blowing off some steam and wealthy Japanese tourists documenting the fun. Each bar threw a rope into the river in an attempt to attract passing customers. If you grabbed the rope, they’d pull you in, holding signs promising free joints, mushrooms, brownies and cocktails.

As we continued downriver we met more and more travelers and I was shocked by how many of them were apparent regulars, either staying for a few months or returning for a season every year. The party scene there is more than an addiction, it’s a lifestyle whose hardcore followers are distinguished by their number of bracelets, Vang Vieng tank tops and neon swag.

We floated on downriver to a stretch where there were no more bars and few tourists. The landscape was spectacular and I could understand how one man’s decision to provide inner tubes to his volunteers years ago had blossomed (read: exploded) into this garish phenomenon (read: shit show). I could hear birds singing for the first time that day, and I watched a red cup float by, the residue of a careless beer pong match.

If these parties didn’t already seem excessive, then their jarring contrast to the perfection of the natural world around them was a reminder. I looked back and could see tiny crowds of people gyrating on wooden platforms — girls laughing, boys cussing and everyone wanting to be seen.

The next morning when I went to a cafe to grab a coffee banana shake, I passed a little local girl and her friend playing on the road. I looked down at my flip flops and jean cutoffs and tried to imagine what they saw, what they’ve seen.

Later in 2012 a few months after we’d left, the Laotian government, facing pressure over the growing annual death toll, vowed to put an end to 10 years of rampant debauchery. They succeeded and the number of daily tubers has fallen from 800/day to 130. The shift from party tourism to ecotourism has proven tough, but the former demanded too high a price. Over the next couple of years the average age of visiting tourists will likely rise from 20 to 40.

I stayed a full four days and am just as guilty as the rest of them, but I look forward to going back someday and kayaking down an emptier river, watching the canyon go by, listening to the birds and enjoying the town in a more authentic way.

The “glory days” of Vang Vieng are over and now that I think about it it’s hard to believe that it ever really existed. I wonder what happened to the lost travelers who had been seduced by that place (or its hallucinogens) and come to call it home. Maybe they’re still listlessly wandering the river banks like neon-clad ghosts of Vang Vieng past trying to find their way back into Neverland.

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