Latest News
HomeAsia-PacificViang Vieng, when a backpacker’s paradise turns into a nightmare

Viang Vieng, when a backpacker’s paradise turns into a nightmare

Hordes of backpackers in Vang Vieng in Laos have revolutionized the once quiet city into a place where drugs, booze and dangerous water activities regularly claim victims.

It was first promoted as a transit point, half-way on the road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng, a city of 25,000 inhabitants, was an ideal gateway for a rest in a pristine environment surrounded by mountains covered by lush jungle with limestone kyrsts emerging to the sky like giant teeth.

According to Deutsche Presse Agentur – Vientiane Times, those days, an estimated 150,000 travellers come to Vang Vieng. But unfortunately, they are rarely there to enjoy the scenery. Young backpackers seized the place to turn it into a sort of 21st century hippie-style outpost. But in contrary to hippies on the road to Kathmandu, 2012 young travellers in Vang Vieng are not on the quest to an utopist new world. They are coming for booze, drugs, parties and “tubing” (floating in inner tubes) in the water currents of Viang Vieng’s Xong river. TV reports abound about Vang Vieng’s decadent style. Drunk teenagers line up in bars to the sound of a few sitcoms played by DVD players, dance and jump in the River. In 2009, a reporter from the New Zealand Herald, a major newspaper, described the situation with these words after visiting Vang Vieng: “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng in northern Laos”.

But like in Pinocchio story, where kids got lost in Pleasure Island and are transformed into donkeys, Vang Vieng paradise can turn into hell… Newspapers are full of stories about the increasing number of deaths in the city. In 2011, 22 people perished in the water under the combination of booze, freely available drugs and lack of security when practicing sport waters. Criminality against tourists is also rampant. And 2012 might appear like 2011. At least six foreign tourists died between January and August, including three Australians, one French, one Irish and one US citizen, according to Lao Tourist Police Chief Bounleut Khounphol to the Vientiane Times.

The problem has been known for long by the authorities who so far have closed their eyes, probably because tourism generates revenues. But the exposure of Vang Vieng around the world is now perceived as a threat to the country’s image.  

Laos is now clamping down on illegal drugs and dangerous water sports in Vang Vieng. In their efforts to promote the tourist spot 100 kilometers north of Vientiane as a safe ecotourism destination, authorities closed seven bars on the river “after finding they were serving tourists alcoholic drinks laced with opium and hallucinogenic mushrooms,” the Vientiane Times reported.

The Vang Vieng tourism office head Phouvieng Sikaisone confirmed several tourists had died or were injured on the Xong River last year while engaging in “dangerous water activities,” the Vientiane Times said.

Lao authorities have also launched a safety campaign with restaurants on the river to inform tourists of what “they should and shouldn’t do,” Phouvieng was quoted as saying. Some restaurant staff have also been taught first aid to deal with accidents on the river. However, an estimated 100 resorts, restaurants and bars line the Xong River in Vang Vieng and unfortunately more accidents are needed before authorities step up their pressure and control on businesses along Xong River.

+ Articles

Luc Citrinot a French national is a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years experience. Based in Paris and Bangkok, he works for various travel and air transport trade publications in Europe and Asia.