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Laos: Sex, drugs and inner tubes

As Laos opens to tourists, some fear it may be losing its soul. Others are merely losing their bikinis.

Laos is increasingly opening up for tourists — the number of tourist arrivals tripled in 10 years — but many fear the country is compromising its traditional ways and unmarred natural beauty as a result. Here, a man pulls his boat through floodwaters for a sightseeing tour at the Xiengkuane Buddha Park, about 16 miles east of Laos' capital Vientiane, Aug. 16, 2008. (Reuters)

VANG VIENG, Laos — Drunk Brits leer at passing female tourists. A Western tourist gets in a public shouting match with her guide.

And stoned backpackers lounge gape-mouthed in cafes, eyes glued to televisions playing looping reruns of "Friends" and "Family Guy."

Welcome to Vang Vieng, one of Laos' premier tourist destinations. Just don't call it "unspoiled."

As this Southeast Asian country opens its doors to tourism, it's facing a classic conundrum. The poor, underdeveloped country desperately wants to earn tourist dollars. But it also wants to preserve its conservative, traditional ways. Doing both may be impossible.

"It's hard to keep the balance between development and the preservation of tradition and local culture," said Thavipheth Oula, an official at the Lao National Tourism Administration, in an email. "The issue is how we can keep Lao identity while the number of tourist arrivals increases."

In the 1960s, America waged a "secret war" here against the Pathet Lao communists. Now, the country that once crawled with spooks has been invaded by tourists.

Annual tourist arrivals have tripled in 10 years, from half a million in 1998 to 1.7 million in 2008, according to numbers from Laos' tourism authority. Tourism now brings in $275 million in annual revenue, up from $80 million in 1998, making it Laos' second biggest money-maker after mining.

The key draws are the capital, Vientiane, and the temple-studded World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang. The latter's development is regulated — for example, with strict building codes. Well-preserved wats crowd up against hip, new French-Lao fusion restaurants and bars.

But Vang Vieng has no such restrictions. Instead, it's carved out a niche as a mandatory stop on the backpacker trail through Southeast Asia. And it caters to 20-something hedonists with scores of cafes, bars and riverside debauchery, making it something of a "lost city of sin" in the heart of Laos.

Vang Vieng's natural beauty is breathtaking: It sits on the Nam Song River amid jagged karst mountains.

The obligatory activity here is inner-tubing down the river. Tourists crowd onto trucks that drive them to a spot upriver from the city. By the launch site, hordes of shirtless and bikini-clad Western tourists gyrate to deafening techno music, as others hurtle into the river from rickety wooden platforms three stories high. As these two YouTube videos illustrate, it's like the underground party scene from a "Matrix" movie.

Enterprising locals have built riverside bars hawking the national pride, "Beerlao," and jerry-rigged flywires over the river. Lao touts tempt passing inner-tubers by throwing lines at them; if you're thirsty you just grab on and they pull you in.

Such attractions are a big draw for younger tourists, in particular. But they have some wondering whether Vang Vieng has lost its soul.

"Each time a young Australian woman strolls down the street in a bikini, a bearded American smokes a joint on a guesthouse terrace, or a group of Koreans tumbles drunkenly out of a restaurant, it saps a little more of the essence of a town like Vang Vieng," said Brett Dakin, the author of "Another Quiet American," a chronicle of two years in Laos working for the tourist authority.