Once the party mecca of South-East Asia for backpackers, Vang Vieng has cleaned up its act - but tourists are staying away, writes David Whitley.
The Oh La La bar is certainly trying. The sign outside is offering free shots all night and a free cocktail for all ladies who arrive between 6pm and 9pm. But it's 9pm, and there are just eight customers – all male, and seemingly more interested in a quiet game of pool than hell-raising.
Vang Vieng in Laos, until recently the backpacker party capital of South-East Asia, has changed following a government clampdown in late August. Whether that's for the better or the worse depends on your perspective. And the reality on the ground doesn't necessarily reflect the speculative rumours than filter down the backpacker grapevine.
The party scene in Vang Vieng appeared surprisingly quickly. In 2006, it was still essentially a riverside village with dirt roads, a spectacular limestone karst backdrop and a small adventure tourism industry.
Suddenly, a different scene started to come in. It was nominally based around tubing – floating down the Nam Song river in tractor tyre inner tubes. Along the 4km tubing route, riverside bars sprang up as ports of call. Tubers made a day of it, fuelled by free shots of the firewater-esque lao-lao whisky, super-potent cocktails and openly-sold drugs.
To a backdrop of pounding music, the often blind drunk tubers would throw themselves into the river off the platforms, flying foxes and slides that the bars had constructed to lure people in. Unfortunately, intoxicated bravado lead to injuries – from sprained ankles to fractured skulls – and fatalities.
Quite how many died depends on who you ask. Common consensus is that at least 20 died in 2011, while seven – including two Australians - had died in 2012 before the government crackdown.
A boat trip up the Nam Song shows how thoroughly the Lao authorities blitzed Vang Vieng. The riverside bars along the tubing course have not just been closed – most of them have been dismantled.
The slides, giant swings and zipline plunges of the 'Water Fun Park' have also been torn apart, leaving only a concrete platform as evidence.
Further south on Saysong Island – where after-dark parties would regularly go on until around 4am – the mud tracks lead only to abandoned shacks. These were once inhabited by booming bars, and the Rock Bar is an exemplary ruin. The pool table is still under the thatched roof, but wooden planks are haphazardly stacked around it like firewood.
The purge has proved highly controversial in Vang Vieng. The locals may not have approved of the riverside hedonism and boorish behaviour shown by the backpackers in the town, but visitor numbers have taken a big hit since the authorities stepped in. Many businesses are clearly struggling.
Xai Anou from the Viengvilay Guesthouse admits that only four or five of his 50 rooms are occupied.
“Right now it is the low season,” he says. “But it should be the high season now.
“There are not many people around – and businesses are closing down because there are no customers. It is crazy.”
Misinformation is part of the problem. Guesthouse owner Chris Perkins says: “Potential guests are telling me that they have heard the tubing has stopped. I have to tell them that the tubing hasn't stopped – it's just the opportunity to kill yourself while doing it that has gone.”
The tubing is a co-operative scheme and the profits filter back to the local community rather than lining corporate pockets. A drop in the number of people tubing has an adverse effect on the community as a whole. Touy Sisouat at the tubing centre says that numbers are down significantly. “Last November, we would have maybe 800 people every day. This November, it is about 130 people.
“There is no drink on the river. It is bad for business – and there is less money for the children.”
It's unfortunate that tubing has become the bogeyman for Vang Vieng's tragedies. It's not an extreme sport unless water levels are abnormally high in the wet season, and every tuber is offered a free life jacket. The problem was that most tubers would turn the jackets down then attempt dangerous stunts whilst irresponsibly drunk.
Vang Vieng is not as recklessly raucous as it was, but neither is it a ghost town. Many bars and restaurants are having a hard time – mainly the ones playing Friends and Family Guy on a loop and offering nigh-on identical menus of mediocre food – but it's arguably due to oversupply. So many have opened in the last four years that any deviation from the clearly unsustainable tourism boom would have caused the same issues.
And not all bars are doing badly. Stephen Sampson, owner of the Aussie Bar, says his takings are up on last year. The closure of the bars on Saysong Island has meant people are coming into the town itself. The Rising Sun Irish pub further down the street is the only one regularly heaving, but others are turning a tidy trade.
There's also been a marked improvement in behaviour. “You'd see buggered people walking up the road, spewing - and they're not doing that any more,” says Sampson. “People have stopped drinking all day.”
He also reckons there has been a shift in attitude. “Instead of just getting wasted, people are going tubing one day, going kayaking the next, then trying rock-climbing, then hiring a motorbike for the day. And they say they're really enjoying themselves.”
Vang Vieng has not been totally tamed. You don't have to look too hard to find restaurants openly selling 'happy' pizza laced with marijuana, many tubers still have a can of beer in their hand as they float downstream and the occasional staggering drunk will roar “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie”.
But there's a noticeable demographic shift. The mid-market hotels report that they're doing reasonably well and there are as many Koreans in kayaks as there are teenagers in tubes.
Vianney Catteau, managing director of adventure tour company Green Discovery, says: “It shouldn't be seen as the end of Vang Vieng. It's an opportunity to get back to what made it great.”
Irrespective of which bars are open, the extraordinary natural setting that made Vang Vieng attractive to travellers in the first place is still there. And, without the blurred vision, it's much better suited to caving than raving.
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