Set alongside the natural beauty of the Nam Song river and the karst mountains of northern Laos, they’re an odd sight: the scores ramshackle bamboo huts built into the jungle, filled with backpackers stumbling in time to the beat of stereo-pumped reggae. Those structures look stranger still now that many of them are abandoned and swiftly becoming dilapidated.
In late August, police travelled 160km north from the Laotian capital Vientianne to shut down over 20 bars in Vang Vieng, including many along river and on an island close to the town. The state-run Vientiane Times claimed that the bars it targeted were “being operated in contravention of regulations, including the provision of unsafe drinks to customers, while some also had no business licenses.” Laos’s Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong visited the spot prior to the shut down.
The move no doubt disappointed the swarms of backpackers for which the area is infamous. Over the past decade, the spot has become especially popular on the backpacker trail for ‘tubing’ – floating down the swift river in a tyre-tubes culled from tractors – and stopping in various waterholes along the way for beers, free shots of local rice spirit Lao Lao, and sand-buckets full of spirits or drugs. Tourists have reportedly spent 70bn kip (or $8.75m) in Vang Vieng in 2012 alone. The tubes are rented out by two shops for about $7 each, and proceeds go back to a collective of villages.
But after a number of tourist deaths in and about the water, authorities are clamping down on the industries that service the revelers. Laos’ decision to host the semi-annual Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in November also has a lot to do with it, according to every expat publican, wisecracking Laos entrepreneur or vanquished bar-owner. Like its neighbor Vietnam, Laos has a tendency to shut anything that smells or sounds like fun prior to important events.
“This affects everyone,” says one disgruntled bar owner. “Money’s like… a motorbike wheel. If you have no customers and make no money, you don’t spend so much at the market to feed your family. The whole town suffers. Over ten years ago 90 per cent here were farmers. Think we can go all go back to that?”
Before the latest crackdown, the authorities had taken some small steps, such as putting up notices that explaining acceptable and unacceptable social mores in the predominately Buddhist country. Clothing, to give one example, is not an optional extra on town streets.