Has Vangvieng changed?

One year after the government closed the bars and put an end to drug outlets in Vangvieng, the village is struggling to get back to business. We spent a weekend.

It’s past midnight and the “jungle party” is in full swing. Maybe a hundred foreigners, most in their early and mid-20s and seemed drunk, dance to the beat of western house music. The beat drowns out the sounds of crickets and frogs that were supposed to be heard in a “jungle”. Here, in the outskirts of Vangvieng, the night is pitch black and the air damp. We go for drinks. There is not much to choose from: Beerlao, vodka, gin, rum, whiskey and the usual soft drinks – not to drink, but to mix with the harder stuff. The bartender, a tall, European guy who looks quite knackered himself, pours them in plastic cups. We join the dance floor again, which could be anywhere in this world. There is nothing “Lao” about it at all. Soon it starts drizzling, then raining, and we head back. It’s around 4 a.m. and the party is still going.

Vangvieng was once known to be the country’s backpacking town and had a worldwide reputation for its “happy pizzas” and intoxicating “mushrooms”. Everyone went “tubing” in the river. While floating down the Nam Xong River in old truck tubes, tourists got hammered in riverside bars, used “death slides” and fox swings to jump into the river. Many broke their necks. As the “Guardian” reports, 27 tourists died in the river in 2012.

All this is gone. “Entertainment” places are supposed to be closed before 12, based on a new policy after the authorities folded up all bars on the island and at the riverside a year ago. Restaurants are supposed to sell “unhappy” food now.

But the remnants of the “old” Vangvieng are still there. Some of our travel mates got their hands on a whole “happy” menu only about a hundred steps from our guesthouse. And the curfew seems to be only partially enforced. After a late-night Pad Thai in a self-proclaimed “best restaurant in town”, a tuk-tuk driver pulls up on the pavement, yells at us to get in his carriage, where a group of falangs (westerners) in short pants and “Beerlao” shirts is already waiting: “Jungle party! Tuk-tuk free.” This gathering seems to happen every Friday and lasts till early morning.

The next day, we get up late and go for lunch, choosing Otherside restaurant, one of the classical Vangvieng restaurants with scenic view of the karst hills at the backdrop of the foggy Nam Xong River. It rains the whole day. While we take a more comfortable approach to the nasty weather and enjoy the comfy pillows of the “Otherside”, the rainfall did not hinder Frenchman Stéphane Le Poupon, 28, and his two friends from tubing. We meet them in late afternoon, their hair still wet.

Stéphane has never seen the old, excessive Vangvieng himself. “If those bars were still open, I would not be here,” he says. For two years he has been working for Arasa Tour Laos, based in Vientiane, which caters to high class tourists, not backpackers. “Vangvieng is not good money for us. It is a backpacking village which means shitty hotels, shitty food and so on. People who go to my company want to go to Vientiane and Luang Prabang.”

One of his friends, Sam Leslie, 27, from Washington, D.C., was in Vangvieng in October last year. He remembers seeing the wreckage of the old bars and a ghost town. “Now, some bars are open again and there’s much more people in town. This restaurant had no customers, now you can see that about seven tables full,” he says.

The owner of the four-year-old restaurant, Ms Khamphaeng Chittavong, tells us she has only 30 percent of the customers that she used to have. Two years ago, she made an average of five to seven million kip per day in low season, and 10 to 12 million kip a day in high season. “We can still make money everyday but not too much. Since the bars were closed, it’s very bad. There are not many tourists anymore.” But she also sees a change for the better: “Before, they were drinking, jumping to the river, tubing while drunk, and so accidents happened. It was not good for the tourists. Now, the local people are happy because they can live peacefully with few tourists,” the 36-year-old woman says. She adds: “But they were also okay with many tourists because we were earning money.”

Unlike the Otherside restaurant, the Domon Guesthouse next door continues to earn enough. Ms Sengthida Lachanthaboun has been operating her 25-room guesthouse for three years now. “It’s good that the government closed the bars because I have less young guests now,” she bares and complains about young tourists whose rooms were “dirty” and who cared less about other guests especially at curfew hours. Back then, in high season, her rooms were almost full or 90 percent occupied. Now, albeit in low season, she can rent out only half of her rooms.

She says the western backpackers stayed for four days up to two weeks two years ago. “They stayed longer than the new groups of tourists now,” she said. The Domon’s guests lately had been from China, Japan and Korea, who came in groups but only stayed for a day or so to go kayaking.

This is the road that the government wants to take: Steer the visitors away from drinking to outdoor sports. According to Vangvieng District Tourism Office Head Mr Bounpanh Phommavong, the plan is to improve Vangvieng’s tourism potential through water experiences like kayaking, tubing, and boat riding at the Nam Xong River. He says in the next three years, Vangvieng will build better infrastructure like roads and bridges to access tourism spots, including the Kaeng Nyui Waterfall. A zipline, among other interesting activities, will soon be opened to attract more tourists, he says, adding that the government will train more establishment owners on “how to operate business under the guidelines.” According to Mr Bounpanh, there are only three “entertainment” venues operating at present, while the one is under monitoring and investigation as it had not followed the regulations, therefore, it’s not allowed to open for business yet.

It is difficult to say, if one only looks at the hard numbers, whether the new direction is working. Mr Bounpanh’s statistics show that the town had 68,000 visitors in the first six months this year. He is expecting 70,000 more for the second half of the year. This would be a total of 138,000, compared to 170,000 tourist arrivals in 2012.

Visitors Stéphane Le Poupon and Sam Leslie agree that Vangvieng will not change from being a backpacker spot. “I think they will make it the same, but a more responsible version of what it was before. They will have the bars but no more jumping, no more slides, the more dangerous things,” Leslie says. “I don’t see that as a negative thing. Even backpackers bring in a lot of money. Vangvieng with its karst mountains is still a very unique experience. It is also very very enjoyable even if there are only few bars,” he adds.

The jumping towers and the slides are gone. But the tubing still remains. So we decide to give it a go the next morning, while the rain is still pouring down. I never did tubing back in the Philippines. From the guesthouse, the river looks high and brown. We can’t even fathom the depth of the river. Back home, if the Davao River flows this fast, the downstream would be warned for preemptive evacuation. We’re all a bit scared.

We sign a waiver and get registered. The locals that rent out tubes ask my Filipina friend if she can swim. She ticks the “No” box and nobody blinks an eye. She gets a life vest. After a 15-minute tuk-tuk ride we reach the entry point. We face our fears with all the courage we can muster. The rain is falling on the river in crescendo… But off we go! We grab each other’s feet and float down, the tubes turning slowly in the brown water.

We stop at one of the four bars that are open for business along the river bank. Our friend, who can’t swim, doesn’t manage to reach the shore and floats away. “No problem!” yells a guy in a wooden boat and goes after her. The bar is a dull remnant of what it must have been one year ago: An extensive bar, blaring techno music, a pétanque court and a basketball basket. Some foreigners sip Beerlao.

It takes us 45 minutes to reach the end of the tubing route. Before the island, tubers have to head right and enter a small canal that branches off the main flow. We realize it quite late – there are no signs at all – and paddle hard. We barely make it. Our friend is too scared to get out of the tube. If she would have been alone, she would have floated down to Vientiane. Shortly before the end, a group of women from a restaurant above shout at us that we should stop. We wouldn’t have known that it was the end. Battling the current, we manage to dock at the bank – there was no sign that it was the exit – and save our lives by ourselves.

“Every activity should have a guide to make sure safety of lives and properties of tourists,” Mr Bounpanh from the District Tourism Office told the Vientiane Times. He is right. (With Lukas Messmer, Swiss freelance journalist)

[Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.]