How a Remote Laotian Village Became Asia’s Cancun
Vang Vieng is a small town of 25,000 nestled in the jungles of northwestern Laos, on the banks of the Nam Song River. It’s home to caves, lagoons, and lush green hills—a landscape that up until recently had me believing that Laos, my mother’s native land, was mostly free from crass Western concepts like “partying.”
Since the early 2000s, however, the bucolic hamlet has become a destination for drunk Europeans backpacking through Southeast Asia. And today Vang Vieng is near the top of the list of tourist destinations in Laos. It has provided a much-needed boost to the nation’s tourism industry, but in the process altered itself to cater to out-of-towners.
The town’s main street, for instance, is full of bars screening reruns of Friends and Family Guy. Bars offer whiskey-taurine cocktails served in beach buckets. It’s also easy to score opium, magic mushrooms, methamphetamines, and other substances that could get you thrown into a Laotian prison. There are also a handful of underground clubs run by Vietnamese gangs. Curiously, when my sister Florence went to visit Vang Vieng for the first time in 2005, after she returned she told me there were no police in sight. “At any time,” she said, “tourists can buy hard drugs freely, although it’s recommended to avoid heroin or cocaine.” The restaurants sell cannabis and opium at 80,000 kip per gram (about $10), as well as tourist-oriented foods like pasta or pancakes “even if Laotians don’t know how to cook them.”