VANG VIENG, Laos – The stunning natural parks around Vang Vieng had stood unadmired by the hordes of young people who descended on the town to party.
However, the communist government of Laos decided to put an end to the debauchery and the town, which until a just few years ago was a hub of uncontrolled partying and drugs, has now transformed itself into a center of ecotourism.
“One day, without prior warning, the prime minister gave an order to stop recreational business activities with immediate effect,” Kittisok, who runs a hotel, told EFE.
The order was implemented in just 24 hours in the middle of August in 2012.
Before the shutdown, backpackers from across the world visited the town, situated on the banks of the Nam Song river, with the sole purpose of experiencing “tubing” that involved floating on the river using a pneumatic tube, led forward by the current along the 3.5 kilometers (2.2 miles) of the river’s passage through the town.
Unlicensed bars crowded both banks of the river where tourists consumed copious amounts of alcohol, their semi-nude bodies adorned in fluorescent colors.
Loud music, cheap liquor, and an unusual tolerance for drugs attracted hedonistic young people to Vang Vieng, many of whom often succumbed to overdoses.
In 2011, there were reports of 27 deaths from alcohol intoxication, drugs and accidents caused during “tubing” in Vang Vieng, a town with a population of less than 25,000 people.
“The authorities turned a blind eye, because they earned a lot of money from these activities, until the situation became unsustainable,” said Root, a taxi driver who has been working for 20 years in the town.
“There were young people who couldn’t find Laos on a map. The kids came only to party; the country, the culture and everything else did not matter. They used to go from the hostel to the bar and vice versa, we called them ‘zombies’,” he said.
A documentary denouncing the excesses and the deaths of young people in Vang Vieng, aired by an Australian channel in March 2012, caused widespread criticism and led the government to stop the partying, imposing a curfew and shutting down illegal establishments.
“Then we had to adjust to the new situation and reconvert our businesses,” said Kittisok, referring to a drastic fall in tourist footfall in the region.
Although an occasional young traveler might still be seen “tubing” on the river with a beer in hand, the new travelers are mostly middle-aged Westerners, who are more interested in exploring the marvelous landscape around Vang Vieng, a peaceful haven with green mountains, rice fields and caves.
A popular South Korean reality television program, moreover, filmed one of their episodes in the scenic beauty of the place, and its popularity led to the arrival of tourists from South Korea Japan, China and other Asian countries.
“The city has changed a lot. Where earlier there were drunken youth, now we have well-mannered tourists. The burger joints are now South Korean restaurants. Music now comes from karaokes. The partying has made way for water sports and mountaineering,” the hotelier said.