Vang Vieng: paradise or death trap?
Sitting at the center of Laos, Vang Vieng is a beautiful village overlooking the Nam Song River. This tropical paradise only appears pricey; in reality it’s one of the cheapest places to vacation worldwide. For $25 a night one can stay at the Vilayvong Guesthouse with free parking, a patio, and Wi-Fi. With fairly nice rooms and reviews more favorable than the average Best Western, it seems like a vacationers paradise. But in reality it has proven to be nothing more than a death trap.
There are 51,000 Natives that live in Vang Vieng and each year 170,000 tourists come trudging through town- making natives outnumbered in their own territory. Only the majority of these sightseers are not coming to respect the tranquil temple or appreciate a new culture, they are coming to party- no manners intact.
Even closer to the river than the Vilayvong Guesthouse, is the hut-style cabana called Spicylaos Backpackers Hostel. Here is where the real partying goes down. Mostly teens and young adults, largely from the western world, come here in search of the famously cheap beds. For only $4 a night one gets a basic bed and a “free sheet” in a dormitory style room, five minutes walk to town center and a 3-minute walk to the river.
The Nam Song River should be tranquil and calm, as it once was. Instead, it’s full of river bars, or rather planks of wood that extend out over the water, each serving more booze and loud music than the next. As vacationers float down the river in old tractor tires, rented from locals who supply the tires, they stop at these bars to have a few more drinks or a pizza spiked with marijuana.
The locals of Vang Vieng call the wild tourists “zombies” and only wish they would leave their town- and children- alone. For one, the loud partying never ceases, turning off all peace and privacy they once knew while the children are exposed to a lifestyle of constant scandal. Extreme drinking and drug use leads partiers into town vomiting and incoherent, often nude or covered in sharpie profanities. Still, more and more villagers are giving up on previous life, even dropping out of school to spend their lives along the river, working for the bars or scooping debris from the river all day. Naturally, parents worry about this, knowing many of their children are also stealing drugs from tourists and becoming hooked.
Amidst the Native’s cries, new hotels and guesthouses continue springing up at rates of about one per week, eager to accommodate the ignorant sightseers looking for outrageous and unregulated fun. But the locals warn, the waters are cursed. Tainted by the many tourists who have died mid-party. In the year 2011 alone, 27 reported tourists lost their lives here.
When out of our regular element we often act more irrational than ussual and in a place as fantastical looking as Vang Vieng, it’s easy to see how realty slips away. One after another ignore the ‘do not jump’ signs as smiling tourists plummet straight to their deaths.
Countless lives are being lost while one sacred town is destroyed. Still the town of Vang Vieng continues expanding on its newfound party capital. No matter what the villagers say, they are powerless in saving their own town. Pitted against the wealthy people who own most of the businesses profiting from the booming tourism, the poor villagers might never win. So who does?