TOURISM IN LAOS

TOURISM IN LAOS

Laos country received a record 3.1 million foreign visitors in 2012 — equivalent to half the population — according to the government, which promoted 2012 as Visit Laos Year under the slogan “Simply Beautiful.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, January 10, 2013]

In 2013 Laos was named World’s Best Tourist Destination by the European Council on Tourism and Trade. In 1995 Luang Prabang was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Wat Phu, the ancient Khmer temple near Champasak, followed. According to Lonely Planet: “Other parts of the country are opening up to ecotourism, including the Bolaven Plateau in the south, the Plain of Jars, and the far north. An added attraction is that many of the country’s colourful minority tribes live in these regions.”

Tourist arrivals in Laos have risen from scarcely 5,000 in 1991 to more than two million in 2009, according to official figures. Visitor figures are increasing each year. In 2006, 1.2 million people visited Laos, rising to 2.5 million in 2010 and 3.3 million in 2012. The government estimates that tourist arrivals could reach as many as 4.5 million people in 2020.

There were 700,000 foreign visitors in 2003, up from 500,000 visitors in 1997 and 1998, which was twice as many as 1996. Only 14,400 came in 1991, and 43,000 in 1995, compared to over 5 million visitors to Thailand in 1994. Most are foreign visitors to from China, Vietnam and Thailand. The number of Chinese traveling to Laos for tourism and trade has increased in recent years. For a while many came to gamble.

The impact of tourism has not all been positive. Exposure to scantily-clad Western women, tourists that give out candy and money to children and backpackers that buy opium and marijuana from villagers are regarded as a bad influence on local Laotians. One tour operator told the writer Dervla Murphy “villagers would have to relocated” because “our visitors don’t like to have dirty villages so close.”

Nature Tourism Is Top Priority for Visitors to Laos: Survey

In May 2013, the Vientiane Times reported: “Visiting places of natural beauty is the main interest of tourists coming to Laos, according to a survey of over 3,100 international visitors that featured in the 2012 Statistics Report on Tourism in Laos. The World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang and the greater province was the main place that tourists wanted to see, with 61 percent of people selecting it on the multiple choice questionnaire. The Tourism Development Department of the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism carried out the survey from February to December 2012 at Wattay International Airport, the International Friendship Bridge, and in Luang Prabang and Champassak provinces. [Source: Vientiane Times, May 15, 2013 >><<]

“The survey also shows that the second main area of interest for tourists is cultural attractions, with 52 percent of people selecting this as one of their preferences. Others also highlighted the importance of a visit to individual sites such as temples and monuments, which 41 percent of people chose. Newly developed destinations were marked on 23 percent of the surveys given and experiencing local foods was mentioned by 22 percent of those surveyed. >><<

When tourists were asked to select the area they wished to visit, Vientiane came in second after Luang Prabang with 53 percent of the vote, followed by Champassak province and Bokeo province. The survey also highlighted the information sources that influenced tourists’ decisions on where to visit. Just over half of the respondents asked for friends’ advice, followed by the internet with 32 percent, and books and magazines with 30 percent. >><<

Tourism Is Laos’ Second Highest Income Earner

In May 2013, the Vientiane Times reported: “The tourism sector is now the second largest income earner in Laos after the mining sector, according to a recent tourism statistics report. Given the significance of the tourism sector, which generated about US$514 million in 2012, the government is committed to further developing facilities and service sector staff to attract more overseas visitors to Laos. [Source: Vientiane Times, May 13, 2013 <^> ]

“Deputy Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism, Mr Chaleune Warinthrasak, told Vientiane Times the tourism industry has played an increasing role in the development of Laos and in reducing poverty. The number of tourist arrivals has increased continuously since the government launched the “Visit Laos Year” campaign in 1999-2000, despite the recent global economic downturn. <^>

“Tourism officials have said the sector employs at least 20,000 people and helps to generate income in poorer communities. The country is now becoming more closely connected with the rest of the region as new roads and bridges are built across the Mekong River. Lao Airlines now flies to more countries in the region to facilitate travel by tourists. <^>

“To achieve the goal of 3.74 million visitors in 2015, the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism has outlined seven priority programmes. The programmes include developing essential infrastructure at tourist sites and encouraging more business operators to cater for visitors, while an international promotional campaign will highlight the many attractions that Laos has to offer. There will be training and development for government staff working in the tourism sector, as well as management training for business operators. Efforts will also be made to improve the skills of workers in the industry and the quality of the services they provide. <^>

History of Tourism in Laos

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Laos was on the hippy trail in the 1960s. The capital, Vientiane, boasted the world's largest legal opium den, attracting overland travellers via Afghanistan and India. That petered out with another foreign invasion, the US carpet-bombing campaign during the Vietnam War that, per capita, made Laos the most bombed country in history.Thanongsi Sorangkoun, a Vang Vieng native in his 60s, says it took a long time to restore the natural environment and rice-producing economy after the war ended. "When I was young there were tigers in the mountains and thousands of bats in the caves. It was a wildlife paradise." Much of that was lost for ever, but Sorangkoun did his bit by starting an organic farm by the Nam Song. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

In line with the government's desire to increase foreign exchange earnings, Western tourists were first permitted to enter Laos in 1988, although just 600 persons visited, well within the official limit of 1,000. The following year, 2,600 tourists visited, and in 1990, the figure increased by 130 percent, to approximately 6,000 tourists. The Ministry of Trade was assigned responsibility for the development of the tourism industry in 1989. In the following year, the government monopoly on the industry was removed, and nine private tourist agencies were authorized. As of 1992, tourism was somewhat limited to group travel. However, if an individual has a Laotian sponsor who provides individual sponsorship assurances, it is possible to receive a visa without being a member of an organized tour group. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

In the early 1990s, visitors were still largely restricted in where they could go. By the late 1990s, backpackers and tourists were welcomed and able to travel pretty much wherever they wanted as long as they could figure out a way to get there. The year 2000 was "Visit Laos Year." The government hoped to attract 1 million visitors. That didn’t happen.

Laos earned $113 million from tourism in 2000, making it Laos’s largest foreign income earner, ahead of the sales of hydroelectric power, timber and textile exports. Thailand is the main gateway to Laos. Tourism increased after bridge between Vientiane and Thailand opened in March, 1994.

Government officials in Laos were initially cautious about tourism while businesses wanted to see more foreigners because it brings in more money. Laos hoped to follow the example of Bhutan, which admits a few rich tourist who spend lost of money. New hotels opened with money from investors from Thailand and Singapore. One tour operator told Reuter that Laos is "just the place for adventure holidays. It's peaceful clean; the people are friendly, and service and food are good.” In recent years the Laos government has aimed to attract the adventurous-minded with ecotourism while outfitting the capital Vientiane and the ancient city of Luang Prabang with a solid tourism infrastructure, capable of accommodating a rising number of visitors.

In 2006, 1.2 million people visited Laos, rising to 1.6 million in 2008 and to 2 million in 2009, before rising to 2.5 million in 2010, 2.7 million in 2011, and 3.3 million in 2012. The government estimates that the number of tourist arrivals could reach 3.74 million in 2015, and 4.5 million people in 2020.

Laos in the 1970s

Reporting from Laos as the Vietnam War was coming to a close and the Pathet Lao had not yet seized power, Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar (1975): “Vientiane is exceptional, but inconvenient. The brothels are cleaner than hotels, marijuana is cheaper than a cold glass of beer. Opium is a restful drug, the perfect thing for geriatrics, but the chromatic snooze it induces corrects fatigue; after an evening of it the last thing you want to do is sleep again. When you find beer at midnight and are sitting quietly, wondering what sort of a place this is, the waitress offers to fellate you on the spot, and you still don't know. Your eyes get accustomed to the dark and you see the waitress is naked. Without warning she jumps on the chair, pokes a cigarette into her vagina and lights it, puffing it by contracting her uterine lungs. So many sexual knacks! You could teach these people anything. There are many bars in Vientiane; the decor and the beer are the same in all of them, but the unnatural practices vary. [Extracted from The Great Railway Bazaar (1975) by Paul Theroux /*\]

“The only English film i could find in Vientiane was a pornographic one, and the sombre reverence of the Japanese tourists, who watched like interns in an operating theatre, filled me with despair. I shopped for presents, imagining Laotian treasures, but discovered traditional handicrafts there to include aprons, memo pads, potholders, and neckties. Neckties! I tried to take a pleasure cruise on the Mekong, but was told the river was only used by smugglers. The food was unusual. One bowl of soup i had contained whiskers, feathers, gristle, and bits of intestine cut to look like macaroni. /*\

Only a handful of visitors traveled to Laos in the 1980s. I met a Dutch women who passed through it on her way from China to Thailand. What she reported didn't sound so great. The only meat available was rancid, and it had flies buzzing all around it.

Tourism Begins To Take Off in Laos in the Mid 2000s

Laos’s low population densities is one of its prime attractions. Rupak D Sharma wrote in the Asian News Network, “This is one of the reasons why the country is a haven for tourists looking for destinations with little distractions. This is also the reason why it is favoured by those who have become tired of hopscotching crowded and bustling places of Southeast Asia. With treasures such as the 700-year old scenic city of Luang Prabang in the central north, the Plain of Jars in the north, the 4,000 Islands in the south and plenty of archaeological wonders and breathtaking scenes, the country can be called a huge showcase of riveting sights and idyllic spots that can keep one engaged for days. [Source: Rupak D Sharma, Asian News Network, May 2008 <~>]

“The place is not over priced either. Average accommodation costs in fine hotels are US$40 per night and Beerlao, one of the tastiest beers in the region, is priced at $1 in most restaurants. But what adds more charm to all these is its relaxed and welcoming people, whose innate hospitality moved me more than once during my sojourn. This incredible mixture of low population density, hidden treasures, inexpensiveness and people’s benevolent attitude are giving a shot of adrenaline to its tourism industry. <~>

In 2007, “a total of 1.6 million foreign visitors thronged Laos—up 23 per cent from 2006 and more than double of 2001—bringing in $233 million to the country. The foreign receipts helped the country to narrow the current account deficit to 15 per cent of the GDP (of $4 billion) and maintain a sound foreign exchange reserve of $530 million. Vayakhon Badhisane, president of Lao Association of Travel Agents, told AsiaNews that benefits of tourism have also started to trickle down to the poor, “which is now visible in less-developed areas of the country”. <~>

Impact of the Tourism Boom on Laos

Rupak D Sharma wrote in the Asian News Network, “Due to the influx of foreign travellers, residents in rural areas have started opening convenience stores, restaurants, small souvenir shops and other businesses, she said. “This, on one hand, is augmenting their incomes and improving living standards, while, on the other, enhancing their entrepreneurial skills and bringing them into the mainstream of development.” A recent Asian Development Bank report said a significant investment is also being poured into accommodation and other facilities to cater to the needs of rising number of tourists, generating additional employment opportunities. Laos currently has 211 hotels and 1,120 guest houses and resorts. According to ADB, every additional hotel room creates two jobs directly and several indirectly. [Source: Rupak D Sharma, Asian News Network, May 2008 <~>]

“But the paradox is that tourism, which has become a chief agent in keeping the economy vibrant, is also ripping the country off of its precious, priceless and irreplaceable treasures. Luang Prabang, the most famous destination in Laos, is an example where intrepid tourists are turning the city ugly and trampling on the cultural heritage. Some years ago UNESCO warned of Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site, turning into “another tourist town where softdrink billboards dominate the landscape, where the sound of tour buses drowns out the soft temple prayers, and where the town’s residents are reduced to the roles of bit-players in a cultural theme park” if proper measures were not taken to preserve its cultural legacy and authenticity. <~>

“The overflow of tourists in Luang Prabang is also pushing the natives to move to other places by leasing their lands to guest house, restaurant and massage parlour owners. These newcomers usually snub the idea of supporting the monasteries, which largely depend on the people’s offerings. Many fear if this trend continues, the number of people enrolling for monks may shrink drastically, delivering a severe blow to the age-old tradition, which is considered the pride of the city. There are also fears that the growing number of incoming tourists may lure many looking for quick bucks into prostitution and degenerate the ecosystem resulting in depletion of many land and aquatic species that are found in abundance in Laos. <~>

“As many reports have said “supply of distinctive, living ethnic cultures combined with an exemplary natural environment is diminishing throughout the world” due to booming tourism. And Laos seems to be falling victim to this trend. But when supply declines, demand goes up. Since Laos’ natural and cultural heritage is not deteriorating at a fast pace, the country still has the opportunity to capitalise on the fundamental economic theory and make tourism a sustainable income generating source. For that, it must do more to preserve its pristine spots and ethnic traditions.” <~>

Ecotourism in Laos

Reporting from Nam Ha, Laos Amelie Bottollier-Depois of AFP wrote: “In a hilltribe settlement in the forest of northern Laos, an old man sits on the ground weaving a basket while another villager hangs out her washing to dry. It is a scene of everyday life for the Akha communities living in the Nam Ha Protected Area, where elephants, gibbons and leopards roam among giant bamboo near villages perched on the banks of a tributary of the Mekong river. The 220,000-hectare national park is at the forefront of efforts by the landlocked, impoverished nation to become a leading eco-tourism destination -- an effort that appears to be paying off. [Source: Amelie Bottollier-Depois, AFP, May 24, 2011 <<<]

“Lured by the wild beauty and cultural riches of the numerous ethnic minorities, almost 250,000 tourists visited northwest Luang Namtha province in 2010, up from 20,000 in 1999, according to the Laos tourism administration. "Compared to Thailand it is definitely a lot more authentic, better run and the fact that we were just a small group, just four people, makes it a much more genuine experience," said 28-year-old British tourist Joe Park. "We perhaps leave less of a footprint and not too much of our own culture in the area, so I think it was fantastic," he said during a trek inside the park. <<<

“While some ethnic villagers, such as the Lanten, still wear their indigo traditional clothes, they make no particular effort to dress up for tourists and go about their normal lives as much as possible when they come. It is the fruit of years of planning by the Communist nation to attract more foreign visitors while preserving its cultural heritage. After opening up to foreign visitors in the 1990s, Laos "quickly saw that being a country in the middle of the Mekong region, with many visitors going to the surrounding countries, that it would be a good opportunity to develop the economy and create local jobs," said Steven Schipani, who was involved in the Nam Ha ecotourism project as a UN advisor. "But they were also aware that tourism, if not properly managed, can cause a lot of negative impacts," added the American, who is now in charge of the Asian Development Bank's Southeast Asia tourism programme. <<<

“The Laotian authorities, who have created 20 national parks covering 14 percent of the country, attempted to manage the explosion in tourism so as to avoid queues of coaches or rows of concrete hotels. "Laos will become a world renowned destination specialising in forms of sustainable tourism that, through partnership and cooperation, benefits natural and cultural heritage conservation and local socio-economic development, and spreads knowledge of Laos' unique cultural heritage around the world," proclaims the state run website www.ecotourismlaos.com. <<<

“The Nam Ha national park, thanks to a partnership with UNESCO dating back to 1999, has served as a model of development for ecotourism aimed at benefitting local communities. "Before, only backpackers, who often only rent a motorbike and drive around, not stopping in the villages, came to Namtha," said Adrian Schuhbeck, a development expert with a German-backed agency in Luang Namtha province. "But this is changing. People with more money come, which is good for the communities -- they get more return." Thanks to the Nam Ha project, several dozen villages have signed agreements with local trekking agencies to supply guides, maintain the paths, share their traditional cuisine and offer a roof for the night, no more than twice a week. For welcoming eight tourists -- the maximum allowed in a single group -- on a two-day trek, a village receives about $135, or more than a third of the ticket price, said Chittaphong Chanthakhoune, a local tour agent. <<<

“Hundreds of similar projects are being set up elsewhere in the sparsely populated country, one of the poorest in the world. While it is not the answer to all the villages' problems, Laos has at least avoided the pitfalls seen by its neighbours, where tour operators bring hordes of tourists to villages without consulting the locals. Signs on the walls of local trekking agencies give advice to foreigners: take off your shoes before entering a home, respect sites of worship and do not take photographs without asking the subject's permission. The villagers for their part have been educated about the needs of their visitors and ways to improve hygiene. The eco-tourism boom "will only be sustainable if both sides understand what is important for each other," said Schuhbeck. “

Ecotourism. See Lung Nam Tha and Muang Sing Under Places

Drug Travelers

The recreation habits of American GIs had a profound influence on the cultures not only of Vietnam, but also Thailand and Laos. In many ways the association of these countries with sex, prostitution, drugs and decadence can be tied to the American influence during the Vietnam War.

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar” (1975): “Vientiane is exceptional, but inconvenient. The brothels are cleaner than hotels, marijuana is cheaper than a cold glass of beer. Opium is a restful drug, the perfect thing for geriatrics, but the chromatic snooze it induces corrects fatigue; after an evening of it the last thing you want to do is sleep again.”

Many backpackers and young traveler come to Laos to do drugs One Australia drug traveler told AP, "I'm doing the drug tour of Southeast Asia. I've been to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, but so far, Laos is tops." Travelers say this because the opium is cheap and more available and their is less of a police presence.

Some young Laotians in places where Western tourist congregate, like Vientiane and Luang Prabang, locals have turned to drugs after seeing their use glaomorized by Western backpackers. Even though drugs like opium and marijuana have been available to them they never of doung them until the say Westerners taking. Some are also doing drugs likee Ecastacy.

Two Dead Aussies Raise Concerns About 'Bad Drugs' in Laos

In January 2013, Lindsay Murdoch of Fairfax reported: “They were happy knockabout workers on boats in the Northern Territory. Both have been found dead within four days of each other in Laos, a popular destination for backpackers, where they had gone for a holiday before Christmas. Nicholas Parkin, known as Nick, 39, was found in a hotel room in the country's riverside capital Vientiane on January 4. On New Year's Day, his friend Kane Scriven, 40, died after a night of partying, adding to concerns about binge drinking and potentially fatal locally brewed cocktails in South-East Asia. The ABC is reporting it understands the men died from overdoses, likely from the same batch of drugs.[Source: Lindsay Murdoch, Fairfax, January 10, 2013 ***]

“The Northern Territory News earlier reported that Mr Parkin had not been heard of since January 2 after contacting Mr Scriven's friends. Mr Parkin's father, John Parkin said his son had been very distressed by his friend's death when he contacted the family on January 2. ''He was by himself with Kane and they were very good mates,'' he was quoted by ninemsn as saying. ''From what little he said on email, he was deeply affected by Kane's death. We lost contact with him after that.'' ***

“Mr Parkin said the two men had flown to South-East Asia after Mr Scriven had bought his mate a ticket to Thailand as a Christmas present. ''I thought they were staying at the usual tourist haunts, but Nick was a bit adventurous,'' Mr Parkin said. Mr Parkin said his son was a ''fun loving, nice guy who really enjoyed his work''. ***

Vang Vieng: Laos’s Backpacker Party Town

Vang Vieng, deep in the jungle of Laos, is a backpacker paradise where there are no rules. Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Vang Vieng is the planet's most improbable party town. Located deep in central Laos, one of southeast Asia's poorest countries, the once-tranquil farming village has become a seething epicentre of backpackers behaving badly. "God no, you don't come to Vang Vieng for the culture, like temples and stuff," laughs a 19-year-old Australian called Louise, who is dancing to a Flo Rida anthem with a beer bottle in each hand at one of the many riverside bars. "You come here to get wasted." Half an hour later I spot Louise vomiting over her sparkly flip-flops before passing out. Got it. Vang Vieng is a four-hour bus journey on mostly dirt roads from the capital Vientiane. After Communist-run Laos opened up in the early 1990s, the town first earned a place on the so-called Banana Pancake Trail – the path beaten by budget travellers across southeast Asia – thanks to its natural beauty. Along with its towering limestone peaks, the area is dense with caves, lagoons and forests. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“As tourists started to trickle back into Laos in the 1990s Thanongsi Sorangkoun, a Vang Vieng native, built a guesthouse for foreigners who wanted to volunteer on his 30 acres of mulberry trees and vegetable gardens. Then, in 1998, he made a fateful purchase. "I bought some inner tubes for my volunteers. I thought it would be a cheap and ecological way to see the river." He grimaces. "I accidentally started this whole thing." In the early 2000s, “the pastime of riding tractor-tyre inner tubes down the meandering Nam Song river started to gain word-of-mouth popularity. Tubing became so popular that locals started up a business co-operative to rent out tubes, which now comprises over 1,500 households. Many shareholders are now caught in a classic tourism catch-22. They've become too dependent on the income tubing generates to stop the business, but they're paying a much higher price than they expected for its success.” In the late 2000s “the scene has exploded. Ramshackle wooden bars opened along the river banks, enticing passing tubing customers with throbbing party music and free shots of the local Lao-Lao whisky. Rope swings, giant water slides and zip lines sprang up beside the bars, inviting sozzled gap-year kids to take their chances with the rocky riverbed in unsupervised acts of derring-do. ||||

“The rapid development quickly earned this once pristine stretch of the Nam Song a new label on the town map: "Water Fun Park". And after some enterprising locals printed the T-shirt – "Tubing in the Vang Vieng, Laos" – there was no going back. In Vang Vieng province (population 51,000), backpackers now outnumber locals by about three to one. In the main town, where nearly all the tourism is concentrated, the figure on any given day is an astonishing 15 to one. ||||

“A low-rise mix of French colonial bungalows, wooden houses and small concrete buildings, the entire town has become a backpackers' bazaar catering to the estimated 170,000 who arrive every year. The two main streets are a jumble of restaurants, bars, internet cafés, pancake stalls, travel agents and £3-a-night guesthouses. Most tourists are European and Australian, but other nationalities have found their way here, too: recently de-mobbed Israeli boy-soldiers, Japanese college students, South American rich kids. A bunch of nattily dressed Indians in wraparound shades turn out to be IT workers from Bangalore, who've come to "blow off steam" after finishing a big telecom project. ||||

Partying Western Backpackers in Vang Vieng

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “It is Adam Axford's last day in Vang Vieng. We know this because scrawled across his naked torso in jumbo marker pen are the words "Last Day!" The 26-year-old Essex boy is returning to Ilford ("the real world") in the morning, and the message is designed to elicit "snogs and sympathy" from the spray-painted, bikini-clad women partying at a riverside bar in this tiny town in rural Laos.A tattoo on Axford's hip reads: "Viva Vang Vieng". The same words adorn the baseball cap he wears over his sweat-matted hair. "You must really love this place," I yell above the techno music shaking the rickety bamboo bar beside the Nam Song river. "Yeah," shouts Axford. "I really, really love this place. Every morning I hug these mountains. I thank them because I've never been happier in my life." [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“It's midday on the banks of the Nam Song. Adam Axford, who's a part-time magician back in Ilford, is spending his last day organising drinking games. "Lime in the eye!" he shouts, inviting the crowd to join a contest involving downing a shot, snorting salt and squeezing lime juice into their eyeballs. "It doesn't get any more stupid than this!" he enthuses. Axford, however, is drinking shandy. He's spent the last five months working as a "volunteer" at the Q Bar and knows to pace himself. Around 60 to 70 westerners work in the bars informally. Painted in party slogans, they hand out free shots and keep the atmosphere cranked up. It's a clever move on the part of the mostly Laotian bar owners, and a big factor in Vang Vieng's singular hedonistic excess. "Backpackers trust other westerners. They don't worry that the drinks are spiked or that they're getting ripped off," explains Canadian volunteer Scotty Balon, 31, who's sporting the invitation "Kiss Me. I'm Shit-Faced" across his chest. ||||

Drugs and Alcohol in Vang Vieng

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Blowing off steam is one of the more grandma-friendly ways to describe Vang Vieng's backpacker appeal. The riverside FU BAR, where the Indian IT workers are hooting with laughter as they jump into the water fully clothed, is more direct: a giant sign explains that the name means Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. It's also more accurate. At around £1 a litre, Lao-Lao is so cheap it's served in beach buckets. Bottled water, as everyone here loves to mention, is more expensive. Lao-Lao has an alcohol content of around 45 percent. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“Drugs are plentiful, too. Nearly every restaurant offers "happy" pizzas and "magic" shakes or teas laden with marijuana, opium and mushrooms. Most places advertise such fare on sandwich boards right outside. And many travellers are high not only on booze or drugs – a euphoria pervades the riverside bars and clubs that has more to do with the complete absence of rules or responsibilities, a kids-in-a-candy-store incredulity that you can go wild here and nobody will stop you. It's a similar scene to Thailand's infamous full-moon parties, except for one crucial difference. The party in Vang Vieng doesn't occur only one night every six weeks. The party here never ends. ||||

"Vang Vieng sells JOY, it sells an illusion of total freedom," says Sengkeo "Bob" Frichitthavong, 38, a local guesthouse owner who was born in Vang Vieng, but spent 12 years in Canada. "Lao people are very peaceful and tolerant; we don't complain. Backpackers think we don't care how they behave because we're making money from tourism. But there are many dark sides to what is happening." ||||

Vang Vieng: Laos’s Deadly Party Town

In 2011 at least 27 travellers died in Vang Vieng, and countless more were injured. Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Frequent tragedies occur as a result of mixing alcohol with tubing, and other river stunts. Vang Vieng's tiny hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths in 2011 due to drowning or diving head first into rocks, including that of a 23-year-old Dorset man, Benjamin Light. A senior doctor at the hospital, Dr Chit, says the overall figure is higher because "many fatalities are taken straight to Vientiane". [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“In early 2012, two Australian backpackers died within a month. First, Lee Hudswell, 26, somersaulted into the river from an area marked with a "Do Not Jump" sign and fatally cracked his skull on a large rock. (The sign, hastily rewritten by hand, now reads, "Do Not Jump or You Will Die".) Daniel Eimutis, 19, drowned while tubing a couple of weeks later. Both had been drinking, said their friends. ||||

“Dr Chit says five to 10 backpackers a day arrive at the hospital with injuries such as broken bones or infected gashes, or sickness caused by alcohol or drugs. One tourist scraped all the skin off her face on the rocks. "There are no safety measures or supervision, no helmets," says Dr Chit. "We're not equipped to treat anything serious." People with broken limbs must go to Vientiane, an agonising journey over the pot-holed roads. Dr Chit, a stocky man in his 50s, never stops smiling, but says hospital staff are "frustrated". ||||

“Most fatalities occur on the same bar-heavy stretch of river that's less than 1km long. "It's pure Darwinism," says backpacking travel expert Stuart McDonald, a regular visitor to Laos and the Australian founder of travelfish.org. "If kids keep getting tanked and jumping off trees or ropes, they're going to keep dying." The Laotian authorities, he adds, do nothing because they have vested interests in the river bars. Many drug-related deaths in Vang Vieng go unreported. "We often get first-hand accounts from travellers about people dying from overdoses or bad batches." ||||

Impact of Vang Vieng Deaths on Local People

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “For Laotian villagers living near the river, the deaths have brought bad karma. The Nam Song was once a central part of family life, a serene spot for bathing, playing, fishing and washing clothes. Today, very few locals will go near it. As in much of rural Asia, animist-Buddhist beliefs in powerful spirits that inhabit the natural environment are still woven into everyday life. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

"We don't want to swim in the river any more," explains La Phengxayya, 25, a primary school teacher in Phoudindaeng, the village closest to the tubing area. "We believe there are evil spirits in the water because so many young foreigners have died." She says the locals have a refrain for when backpackers stagger back into town after a day of tubing and debauchery, covered in body paint and grubby bandages and wearing skimpy, ragged clothes: "The zombies are coming." ||||

“Laotians are hardly teetotallers – they home-brew Lao-Lao and down it in vast quantities on special occasions. Smoking opium is part of traditional culture, particularly among hill tribes such as the Hmong. But the culture is modest and conservative when it comes to human relations. Phengxayya politely admits that she's offended by the sight of Westerners walking through town wearing nothing but board shorts or bikinis. "In Laos we cover up our arms and legs. I don't want my four-year-old daughter to copy the foreigners." ||||

“There are signs asking tourists to respect dress codes, but many ignore them. At peak party-time on the river, there are frequent episodes of boob-flashing, mooning and boys waggling their privates around for the hell of it. McDonald says couples having sex in inner tubes as they float along the Nam Song is known to happen, too. That mass tourism has an impact on local communities in both good and bad ways is well documented. There are countless examples in Asia alone, from Kuta Beach in Bali to Angkor Wat in Cambodia to just about everywhere in Thailand. But few places are such models of total self-implosion as Vang Vieng. Go two or three miles in any direction outside and the gentle, bucolic Lao lifestyle remains unchanged. But the town, says Frichitthavong, has been utterly destroyed. ||||

"Our traditional way of life has been eaten alive," he says. "The noise pollution, the nudity, the rude behaviour, and now we have problems with our own youth stealing from tourists and getting addicted to alcohol and drugs." Frichitthavong's 12 years abroad have helped him develop a nuanced view of Vang Vieng's ruination. "It's a complicated dynamic. Rural life is hard. Everyone wants the economic benefits of tourism – of course we do. But we shouldn't sell our souls to get it." ||||

Vang Vieng People Who Work in Tourism

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Young men like Khamkeo Doungsamone, 19, wrestle with this conundrum daily. Doungsamone grew up in a mountain village with no road or electricity. His parents were rice farmers. He had to walk for two days to attend a school in the town. "I would sleep on a relative's floor while I studied and then walk home again." His parents encouraged him to learn English "for his future", so he taught himself from books. "They didn't want me to work in the fields like them," says Doungsamone, a short but wide-set youth who looks 12 when he smiles.[Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“When he finished school he found a job in a big tourist restaurant with a huge TV screen and seats facing forward cinema-style. (After bingeing, backpackers zone out in front of re-runs of Friends and South Park.) Doungsamone worked from 6am to 1am every day for 500,000 kip (£41) a month. He hated it. "I had to deal with drunk people all the time, and my boss blamed me when they broke glasses or threw up." He missed his parents and cried when he called them. "They wouldn't let me come home. They said I had to keep trying because there was no other choice." ||||

“Later, at their stilted wooden home, Doungsamone's parents tell me that the fate they most feared for him, even more than rice farming, was that he'd go to work by the river. The bars employ young Laotians to sit on the banks and throw out fishing lines to drag in passing tubers, and also to dredge the riverbed for debris. Many get sucked into the infectious party atmosphere. "Lots of adolescent boys are dropping out of school to hang out at the river," says Doungsamone's older brother Khamming, 26, a youth worker whose job partly involves counselling them. "Our cousin almost died because he worked for a river bar and barely ate for three years. He only drank and did drugs. He ended up in hospital with severe malnutrition." ||||

As for Doungsamone's career in the tourist restaurant, it ended abruptly after a French backpacker accused him of stealing her camera, to avoid paying her bill. His boss took his side, but he was so mortified he left. He now works at Sorangkoun's organic farm. "I will never forget that French person for as long as I live," he says. ||||

Addressing the Negative Side of Party Tourism in Vang Vieng

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “I chat with backpackers about the views I've heard from local people about their party paradise. They scrabble for reasons that make it all OK: if the locals didn't want them here, they'd make them leave; there are more drugs in Ibiza; more deaths at ski resorts; more loutish behaviour in Manchester. A Swede argues they've helped the local economy by increasing the production of beach buckets. The conversation skips a beat as everyone wonders whether she's serious. She is. It seems almost cruel to tell her the buckets are probably made in China. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“But it all misses the point. "It's not about them," says Stuart McDonald. "Nobody blames the backpackers directly. Of course they want to have a good time, get laid, get wasted, get high, it's all normal. But it's not their country. It's just gone to such an extreme, and there's no consideration whatsoever for local sensibilities." ||||

“Vang Vieng natives such as Frichitthavong and Sorangkoun say responsibility lies with the Lao authorities to enforce regulations with regard to problems like noise pollution and wild behaviour, and to improve water safety – all of which wouldn't take much effort. But they also believe there's too much corruption and cronyism surrounding the river-bar scene for that to happen. Many businesses are owned by the town's most powerful people, who pay off the tourist police and other officials. Certainly, the will to implement change doesn't seem to exist anywhere that it counts. When contacted for this article about their future plans for the area, both the Vang Vieng local government and the tourist authorities gave the same meaningless response: "We are considering the situation." ||||

“As Laos develops further, McDonald says the country might learn from its mistakes. "Tourism promoters in southern Laos recently told me they were using Vang Vieng as an example of exactly how they didn't want to do things, so that's one positive." He's not sure whether the remote town can ever come back from the brink, but it's clearly hard to give up hope. Earlier, McDonald's wife and business partner Sam had told me that, of the countless tourist hotspots in Asia they've revisited to update their backpacking website, Vang Vieng is the only place that made her husband cry when he saw how it had changed. "I don't recall actually bursting into tears," coughs McDonald. "But yes, it's very likely that it provoked that reaction. It used to be such a special place. It still is, underneath it all."

Chinese Gambling Haven on the Mekong River in Laos

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “On the Laotian bank of the Mekong, clearly visible from where the ill-fated Chinese ships stopped, an enormous crown rises above the tree line. It belongs to a casino, part of a burgeoning gambling empire hacked from the Laotian jungle by a Chinese company called Kings Romans in English and, in Chinese, Jin Mu Mian ("golden kapok"), after the kapok trees that carpet the area with flame-red flowers. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, January 27, 2012 /=/]

“Kings Romans controls a 102-sq-km (39-sq-mile) special economic zone (SEZ) which occupies seven kilometer (four miles) of prime Mekong riverbank overlooking Myanmar and Thailand. The company's chairman is also the SEZ's president: Zhao Wei, a casino tycoon who hails from a poor peasant family in China's northeastern Heilongjang province. Zhao was unable to talk to Reuters because he was preparing to welcome Laotian president Choummaly Sayasone to a Chinese New Year festival, said Li Linjun, Kings Romans tourism manager. Li offered a tour of a Special Economic Zone into which he said the company had so far sunk $800 million./=/

“Fountains and golden statues flank the main road from the pier to the casino. Across the road is a banner in Chinese exhorting people to "join hands to beat drugs." Two gargantuan lion statues guard the entrance to the casino. Inside, beyond the security gates, a marble staircase lit by a giant chandelier sweeps up to a golden statue of a nameless, bare-chested Roman emperor. The ceilings are decorated with reproductions of Renaissance frescoes. Under construction nearby is a karaoke and massage complex, fashioned after a Chinese temple. The resort also offers a shooting range, complete with AK47 and M16 assault rifles, and a petting zoo. /=/

“An average of about 1,000 people visit the casino every day, said Li. (Gambling is illegal in both Laos and China.) But Zhao Wei didn't intend to create a "little Macau," mimicking China's casino-stuffed enclave on the Pearl River estuary. Li notes that Kings Romans controls an area "bigger than Macau" - three times bigger, in fact - and plans to build an industrial park and ecotourism facilities. In February 2012, said Li, construction began on what will be the second-largest airport in Laos after Wattay International Airport in the capital Vientiane. /=/

“Perhaps aware of anti-Chinese resentment, Li hailed Kings Romans as a model of responsible investment. About 40 percent of the complex's 3,000 workers were Chinese, he said, but the rest came from Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. He then showed off a compound with scores of modest concrete houses which he said were given free to local Laotians who had once lived in wooden shacks. "These might be the happiest people in Laos," he said. Li called Laos "our second homeland." The SEZ certainly felt a lot like China. Most croupiers are Chinese. Most gamblers pay in Chinese yuan or Thai baht. The mobile phone signal is provided by a Chinese company. Street signs are in Chinese and English. The passports of visitors are processed by Chinese and Laotian immigration officers. The area is protected by the Lao People's Army, said Li, but when Reuters visited, the only car patrolling the streets belonged to the Chinese police. /=/

“Kings Romans has brushed against both the drug trade and the drug lord-pirate leader Naw Kham. In April 2011, a casino boat was seized by the freshwater pirate's men near Sam Puu Island and 19 crewmen held for a 22-million-baht ($733,000) ransom, which Zhao Wei paid, the Shan Herald Agency for News reported. Then, in September, an operation by Laotian and Chinese officials found 20 sacks of yaba pills worth $1.6 million in the casino grounds, according to Thai media reports. Li denied all knowledge of the yaba bust or that the kidnapping had even taken place, stressing that Zhao Wei came to the Golden Triangle to build an economic alternative to the narcotics trade. He said he had never heard of Naw Kham. "Maybe it's gossip. That's why they call this place the mysterious Golden Triangle." /=/

Golden Boten City—Chinese Gambling Enclave in Laos

Ron Gluckman wrote in Forbes Asia: “Route 3 in the Lao highlands cuts through rubber plantations and forests, a vast carpet of greenery interrupted only by tiny villages--groups of shacks on stilts and tribal people in bright blue, red and black garments. Then suddenly there's a clearing--and the surreal sight of a dozen enormous buildings erupting from the plateau in blistering shades of pink, orange and yellow. [Source: Ron Gluckman, Forbes Asia, July 27, 2011 <<<]

“This is Golden Boten City, a "Paradise for Freedom and Development," as the investment brochures called it. In 2003 a developer leased the 21-square-kilometer site from Laos for 99 years, and buildings started going up the next year. The plan called for a trade zone in what was expected to be a key growth corridor, with road and rail links from southern China to ports as far away as Bangkok and Singapore. Drawings depict a golf course, a resort and apartment blocks along picturesque lakes and lagoons. Instead, Boten quickly became a Gold Rush-style boomtown and, like many such towns, renowned for gambling, crime and bustling brothels. <<<

“At Boten's peak thousands of people each day poured across the border from China's Yunnan Province, thanks to unprecedented visa-free access. Some 10,000 people a day used to mob Boten. "It was so crowded, you could barely move," says a Golden City official. As gaming halls proliferated, rows of shops sprouted--a ramshackle market serving Sin City. A dozen lingerie shops catered to battalions of Chinese prostitutes, with the finest choice of stiletto heels in Laos. Pharmacies stocked sex potions alongside racks of X-rated DVDs and containers of bile from black bears fresh from a hilltop factory and used in traditional Chinese medicine. Next door to the factory was a massive pink entertainment hall that boasted transvestite shows. The ladyboys hailed from Thailand but everything else came from China: the beer, the police and practically all the dealers, even the currency that made it all possible. Hotel signs were in Chinese, and Boten's clocks didn't run at Laos' sleepy pace, but were set an hour ahead to China time. Boten was completely a Chinese colony. <<<

“Jobs in the casinos were well paid by Laotian standards but few went to locals because they couldn't speak Chinese. Instead, several thousand Chinese workers went across the border to staff Boten's discos, brothels, casinos and hotels. A dozen gaming operators from China, but also Ukraine, Slovenia and the Philippines, arrived in Boten to set up shop. (All were small, low-profile companies that quickly disappeared in May and could not be contacted.) Touts in vans roamed China's border towns, offering free, "sure-fire" get-rich trips. But when their holiday ended, some punters in hock were detained and ransom demands issued to relatives, according to widespread Chinese accounts.” <<<

Collapse of Golden Boten City

Ron Gluckman wrote in Forbes Asia: “Then, just as fast as gamblers from China turned this remote site into the Macau of the jungle, Golden Boten City melted down. Stories in the Chinese media talked about hostages held over gambling debts. Residents told FORBES ASIA of bodies dumped in the river. China cut off electricity and telecom service to the enclave and started requiring visas. "We heard reports of killings, of people disappearing," an official of Golden Boten City Ltd., the developer, told FORBES ASIA during a visit in May. (The developer said it didn't run the casinos; that was done by several little-known operators from abroad.) "We don't disagree that there have been problems here, but we are working to correct them." [Source: Ron Gluckman, Forbes Asia, July 27, 2011 <<<]

“Days later the last casinos shut down. The shops closed for a lack of customers, leaving behind a huge supply of stiletto heels along with a giant picture of American actor George Clooney gazing forlornly from an unopened luxury goods emporium, one of a half-dozen grandiose structures that had been completed but now stand unused. The bears were still packed in cages, milked of bile, but the ladyboys returned to Thailand, and Boten was left a ghost town. <<<

“Today new casinos, hotels and multistory gem warehouses with exterior detailing of Greek goddesses all stand completed, but most are vacant. Now a few dozen visit each day. "We are shut down until we find new financing," the official says on a tour of sites for a potential golf course and luxury housing. "We're waiting for investment to come." Says Huang Minxuan to FORBES ASIA: "Please be patient. When we finalize our modifications and come up with a new development plan around September or October, we will invite you to come over for an interview." <<<

The new plan may be close to the original, which didn't emphasize gambling and instead promised a huge economic center to nurture a new growth corridor. Laos cleared villages to provide land not only for the concession but also for the nearby rubber plantations and tobacco-processing plants that have lured Chinese investment. The original town of Boten was relocated, its farmers moved to new roadside settlements 20 kilometers south. "They took the land, we had to go--we had no choice," says one vendor at a grocery shop in ramshackle New Boten. Like many villagers, she concedes they received compensation that seemed fair, but adds: "If we could go back, we'd do it in a minute." Now, she says, they have no rice, no fields. "No life." She adds: "When they told us about the project, they said they were going to make things better. They needed the land to make gardens and pig farms. They said they wanted to do something to help people, to provide jobs." <<<

“Golden City officials concede that China issued numerous complaints and warnings. It shut off Boten's electricity and telecom service. This was meant to restrict gambling by proxy, in which minions could play cards for godfathers back in China who barked out instructions over the phone. If they racked up big debts, the Chinese bosses could abandon the hapless gambling mule and simply compensate his relatives. In May, days before the casinos closed, gamblers could be observed operating by mobile phone and over the Internet, using the more expensive Lao telecoms. <<<

“The final blow for Boten came when most Chinese again started needing visas. When the economic zone was marked out, Laos moved its customs posts south, creating a lawless land in between China and Laos where Golden Boten City ruled and policed itself, rather ineffectively. But China severely tightened access in April as part of a campaign against border casinos, according to Qi Yongjiang of the Yunnan Provincial Tourism Administration. <<<

Laos Government and the Man Behind Golden Boten City

Ron Gluckman wrote in Forbes Asia: “The man behind Golden Boten City is Huang Minxuan, 56, who had been involved in a casino in Myanmar before it was shut down in a crackdown by Beijing on just-over-the-border gambling. (Gambling is banned in China outside of Macau.) Originally from Fujian Province, he operated a business in Yunnan for some years before registering a slew of companies in Hong Kong in 1997 and 1998--all long dissolved--and gaining Hong Kong citizenship; he's still the honorary chairman of the Fujian Chamber of Commerce in Yunnan. [Source: Ron Gluckman, Forbes Asia, July 27, 2011 <<<]

“Huang says between $200 million and $300 million was spent on Boten, but he doesn't say where it came from or how much of it was his money. Chinese media reports indicate that he served as the executive director of a Hong Kong company that pumped $36 million into the project when it began, but no record of the company can be found. The second-in-command, George Huang, 55, a Taiwanese national who worked with Huang Minxuan at the Myanmar casino, has said small investments came from Thailand, Singapore, the U.K., Russia and Ukraine. George could not be contacted; he is believed to have left for a job in Thailand after Boten collapsed. <<<

Laos had been eyeing the Myanmar tourist traffic and started touting its special economic zones to investors. "I was talked into the idea," says Huang Minxuan. That won't mollify critics. "Nobody knows why this was allowed, or what they paid," says Sounh Manivong, director general of the Lao Planning and Operation Department. The best estimate of what the Huangs pay in concession fees was $700,000 a year until 2010, then $2 million a year for 2011–13 and $2.4 million a year in 2014–15, according to Pingkaew Luangaransri, a professor at Chiang Mai University. Officials with Laos' office for economic zones decline to comment.

Reviving Golden Boten City?

Ron Gluckman wrote in Forbes Asia: “Golden Boten City recently hired a Singapore firm, FBI365, to help with rebranding and bring in new investors. The goal, according to Kan Goh, the firm's chief operating officer, is to remodel Boten as more of a trading hub. "Development now is paused," he says. "At this stage they are trying to clean up and advance the project. We want to bring in duty-free shops and more hotel operators. This is all the original plan." [Source: Ron Gluckman, Forbes Asia, July 27, 2011 <<<]

“A $7 billion China-financed rail line from Kunming to Bangkok that would pass near Boten is on the drawing board. "This is the entrance to Asean," says one official still in Boten, looking over the overbuilt but deserted jungle site. "In the original plan, casinos were just a small part of our goal." <<<

“But the casinos could certainly be back. Huang Minxuan says the casinos are now merely "shut down temporarily for modifications and new planning." Asked whether his company will recruit new casino operators, he says, "Can't tell for now." But some observers think Boten--the buildings and the concession--will likely be sold. Offers have come from Chinese investors, but on the low side, say Boten officials. Still, Boten may have little choice but to sell if it can't find new investors, or it may simply slide back into the jungle. "Now we want to move on," says one official. "It's like we are closing one door and opening a new window." <<<

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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