First Laos declares itself opium free, now even the tourists are having trouble scoring
in Vang Vieng.
Katherine, Marilyn, Luther and I stayed at Thavonsouk back in October when we visited. The riverfront in Vang Vieng is beautiful, but the center of town definitely has the air of 'tourist ghetto' to it, with backpackers hanging out watching 'friends,' Premiere League football, and movies, all the while talking about how they are keeping it real by traveling the right way, seeing the 'real' Laos.
Here's an old pic of Katherine enjoying the 'local palm sugar beer' (not sure exactly what that means, but I know that the malt and hops come from Europe) on the deck at Thavonsouk back in May last year.
Laos: Out From Under an Opium Cloud
By JEFF KOYEN
THURSDAY night in Vang Vieng in northern Laos, and the guesthouses along the Nam Song have gone dark. The thin clouds no longer glow with that fluorescent warmth of a small town below.Yet blocks away, two restaurants continue to show episodes of "Friends." With their own electric generators humming along, these wise entrepreneurs draw capacity crowds of homesick 20-somethings to their flickering TV's — blackout be damned.
Just four years ago, a stop in this tranquil town was de rigueur for drug-touring trekkers. Local weed and Burmese speed were sold openly on the street, and by some accounts the opium dens outnumbered the guesthouses. The backpackers flocked, and haughty fans of the writer Paul Theroux, whose travels are held up by purists as the "right" way to do it, announced that Vang Vieng was over.
Then something interesting happened. Guesthouses began posting signs saying "No Drugs" and "Please Keep Yourself Clean." Enough of the town's 45,000 residents, it seemed, refused to choke under the hazy smoke exhaled by scruffy budget travelers. The modest economy has since gone straight, attracting well-heeled tourists to counteract the dreadlock dudes.With development moving ahead — six new guesthouses are opening this year, bringing the total to nearly 70 — hotel operators and tour guides see a brighter future in inner-tube rentals than in opium dens.According to tourism officials, 47,250 people visited Vang Vieng last year.
That's a tenfold increase since 1997, the first year statistics were compiled. Meanwhile, pot-smoking backpackers seem to be on the decline. Nine years ago, foreigners made up nearly three-quarters of visitors; today, about half are Laotian, including many families with small children.
But Vang Vieng is still affordable, and still quite charming. Chickens run loose on dirt roads, lizards cover walls and puppies are forever underfoot. Afternoons, middle schoolers head home three on a bicycle.Route 13 is the only major road through Vang Vieng and the only street with a name, though the town is small enough that visitors are easily oriented using the bus station (to the east) and the river (to the west).While a few hotels might be considered upscale, the majority are no-frills guesthouses with shared bathrooms and few, if any, amenities. Most visitors are happy with places like the Dokkhoun 1 guesthouse, (856-23) 511-032, where $4 gets you a double room, clean sheets and hot water. Splurge for a $10 riverside spot, get a balcony; kick in another $5 and there's air-conditioning.
Places that pass for luxury include the Thavonsouk, (856-23) 511-096; www.thavonsouk.com. It's a 37-room hotel with traditional bungalows at about $18 in the high season — October to April.The best restaurant in town is the Organic Cafe, (856-23) 511-174, www.laofarm.org, affiliated with the Vang Viang Organic Farm a few miles north. The menu, which features crisp salads (about $1), fresh spring rolls (about $1) and mulberry shakes (about 60 cents), changes often.Guided cave trips and mountain hikes can be arranged at any guesthouse; likewise, most guesthouses rent motorbikes and bicycles.
There are several Internet joints and at least three curry houses along the main road. The restaurants in this three-block strip are busy until midnight. Afterward, partygoers cross a rickety footbridge to a small island where several bars stay open until the early hours.
The government may have declared Laos "opium free" earlier this year, but visitors here can still order Lao Bia, the local palm sugar beer, for about 60 cents.