By Manuel Meyer
Once the most popular place in Asia for drink, drugs and sex, the small Laotian town welcomes tourists more interested in a quiet break
Slowly, the Nam Song River meanders through Vang Vieng. A couple of kids are casting their fishing lines into it, while women wearing straw hats are pushing rickety old bicycles across the old wooden bridge. They are returning from their day’s work in the surrounding rice paddies, while beyond the karst cliffs, a red sun is setting.
A handful of tourists are enjoying the moment, sipping gin and tonics with quiet chill-out music playing in the background while they take in this Asian scene that looks like something out of a picture book.
Vang Vieng is located in the middle of the jungle-like karst landscape in northern Laos, about 180 kilometres north of the capital Vientiane. Nearly 120,000 partying youths used to descend on the provincial city every year.
One bar after other lined the streets and party music blared out from countless discos day and night. Mojitos and whisky and cola, or else Thai energy drinks were served up from plastic buckets. Marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms and opium pipes were available at every corner.
One highlight of the excessive partying in Vang Vieng was river tubing. Hundreds of drunk youths would go drifting down the river on the inflated inner tubes of lorry tyres.
Every few metres along the shoreline of the four-kilometre river stretch stood hawkers who would throw out a line and tow in one of the tubes with its cargo of drunken tourists. The routine was always the same o - after a free welcoming glass of schnapps, hard drinks in 10-litre buckets were waiting. Joints and other drugs were also openly on sale at the bar.
After several hours, the party-goers returned like zombies to the water. But not everybody made it that far. Many would drunkenly slip on the rocks, breaking their bones. Others were injured while tubing or else suffered from alcohol poisoning.
“Every day we used to treat at least a dozen tourists for cuts and broken bones,” a doctor in a local hospital recalls.
In 2011 there were nearly 30 deaths, prompting the provincial government to play the part of party-pooper. In the summer of 2012 an army of police descended on Vang Vieng, closing down dozens of illegal bars and discos, and enforcing rules that tourists could only go tubing on the Nam Song with a swim vest on and without alcohol.
While the bar owners are furious at the abrupt decline in business, the new rules don’t bother Vone. The 36-year-old tour operator admits he has fewer customers than in the past. “But honestly speaking, I’m happy that it’s over. First, it was much too dangerous and secondly it was neither good for us nor for our children.
Vang Vieng’s new tourism strategy seems to be working.
“The landscape here is simply overwhelming, it's so authentic,” says Steffen Kasber. The 25-year-old from Germany actually came here with the aim of spending just a day to experience the wild party scene of world renown. “But I’ve been here for four days now. The region is such a dream.”