Is the Party Over in Laos?
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Is the Party Over in Laos?


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.

July 5, 2013 at 05:51

So many beautiful places in S.E Asia are being ruined by individuals who want to make money out of kids who want to get smashed. Kids who have no respect for the culture, walking about in bikinis. A man on drugs ran through a village in the far North naked and was beaten to death by the villagers who thought he was a Demon. I travelled in Lao many years ago when it was a less popular destination. I feel lucky I did it then.I'm not sure if I would go back, even although I travel in Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand every couple of years. 

[...] Bridget O’Flaherty of The Diplomat touches on the pros and cons and asks: Is the party over in Laos?  [...]

January 4, 2013 at 20:34

I went in 2010 and I'll be honest I loved the hedonistic side to it! I agree the deaths and dangers of the river (or jumping in whilst intoxicated) but other than than its the perfect example of supply and demand. If you want culture, waterfalls and wine bars then go Luang Prabang, if you want travelers, parties and intoxication then tubing is fine. Feel free to disagree 

January 4, 2013 at 09:53

Too bad, it was so great !
This video was shot in mid-August, just before they closed down the bars :

December 29, 2012 at 15:06

One word "Australians".  They are the ones that have no disciple.  Look at who die tubing!  It was Australians.  You are a guest in their country but your behavior is terrible.  I been VV twice and have seen.  Look at Bali you have destroyed this too.  Now it's closed down.

Jamie Conway
December 12, 2012 at 21:47

"If you're intelligent and sober, it's gold.  If not, leave me alone"
lol.. You sound like a right bollox!
The kind of judgemental backpacker everyone hates. Go read your book in the corner on your own mate.

December 6, 2012 at 15:57

Mike  Brown. You are of course aware that it is people like yourself who cause these towns to change. You visit these towns and love it for what it is but you tell people and more people go and word of mouth about the place gets around. Hence more guesthouses etc open up. You may not like this but you are as much to blame for the changes in these villages as anybody else.

October 9, 2012 at 13:02

[...] Read more in The Diplomat. [...]

Michael Turton
October 7, 2012 at 09:26

There may be a hidden factor: shops and bars in VV and throughout Laos are heavily Chinese-owned and staffed, often by Chinese from a single county in China, though I've forgotten which one. Those pretty girls fronting the shops greeting you in simple Lao are greeting you in simple Lao because they can't speak Lao, not because you can't speak it. Everywhere upcountry I spoke Mandarin with the shopgirls and shopowners, when I was there in 2010. Thus this might represent a clumsy and stupid way to curb that influence…..

Mike Brown
October 6, 2012 at 21:59

I'm a backpacker myself and did visit Vang Vieng in 2000.  While the town was very tourist oriented, I don't think it was similar to what was described in the article (certainly going that way but with tourism under control).  I arrived in Laos with no clear ideas or travel book and someone mentioned V.V.  At that time, I was ten years older than most backpackers and had/have no tolerance for drugs (and that includes alcohol).  I'm the sort of "If you're intelligent and sober, it's gold.  If not, leave me alone".  I spent more time alone in V.V. than I did some other places.
I find everything in this article believeable and very sad.  It's such a beautiful area and at that time, people outside of V.V. were very welcoming.  I'm reminded of a small village I visited after V.V.  It had just opened up to tourism that week and required multi-hour boat ride. 
There were 2-3 very small guesthouses, 2-3 very small restaurants where if they were serving chicken would catch the chickens in front of you.  No bars rather people shared their local brew with you and the only TV was a communal "theater" which had to run a generator.  Come sundown, the village was dark and relatively quiet (except for in the morning when the Buddhist drums awoke the roosters, confounded roosters!).  It was a very peaceful where you actually got to see the rhythms of the place.
About four months later when I was in India I met a backpacker who had been to the village a week before and told me it was nothing but wall-to-wall guesthouses, bars, and restaurants (serving banana pancakes no less).  She said, "Good thing you got there when you did."  I knew the place would change but had no idea it would be so fast.

Stuart Miller
October 6, 2012 at 20:20

I totaly agree that the sort of behavior that appears to be taking place in Northern Laos is not acceptable.  In addition, the acceptable clothing that can be accepted needs to be respectable.
It is time that tourists conformed to respectable behavior in a Buddhist country.

October 6, 2012 at 02:41

You make a great point about all the things you said.

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