enough coke,” I argued. “I need more.” That phrase means one thing in a secret Bolivian cocaine bar—a story we’ll get to in a future column—but the context here was an ongoing tug-of-war with bartenders in Vang Vieng, Laos. The local Tiger Whiskey was cheaper than Coca-Cola, which meant the bottle labeled “Make You Crazy Like Tiger!” got the heavier pour. Lest anyone label me a lightweight, the riverside string of bars also served the drinks in sand buckets, and some bars discounted the bucket if you could beat the bartender at rock-paper-scissors. That I lost six out of six matches suggested that Laos either has a gold medal-winning rock-paper-scissors team or the heavy drinking gave me whiskey fist. And I hadn’t even smoked opium or eaten mushrooms yet.
The year was 2010. When the economy hit the commode a few years earlier, my employer closed shop like so many other print magazines at the time. Relief for the non-banking sect seemed nowhere in sight, but rather than ride out the recession in a pricey NYC studio, I hit the backpacking trail on an adventure that ultimately lasted four years. I entered my 40s—a classic Gen Xer—during the first year, so my age differed from most backpackers I met in hostels, and my previous international travel (through 2006) only included cheesy Mexican resorts and a hush-hush trip to Cuba. On this new adventure, I sought more of the latter, and Vang Vieng epitomized that same adrenaline rush I experienced walking the chaotic streets of Old Havana.
In late 2010, hedonistic Vang Vieng sparked legendary tales that spread like wildfire in hostels and online forums. What if The Lord of the Flies kids partied their brains out rather than divide up into hostile tribes? This is the image the New Zealand Herald painted when it said Vang Vieng imagines life “if teenagers ruled the world.” The journalistic intent was harsh criticism, but the result was an unintentionally awesome tagline.
Everything would go to hell within six months.
—home to a leftover Air America landing strip from the U.S.-orchestrated Secret War in Laos—lies four hours north of the capital city, Vientiane, and an uncomfortable eight-hour van ride south from landmark-rich Luang Prabang. Like the foretelling Prince song, the party origins date back to 1999 when a local farmer inflated tractor-tire tubes so his workers could relax on the nearby Nam Song River. In a matter of months, guesthouses and tour companies all had giant tubes, and a multi-village cooperative arose to manage rentals. Next came the riverfront bars to tempt backpackers with music, parties and Tiger buckets, and giant slides, swings, diving platforms and ziplines soon dotted the shoreline. Signs along the river even advertised free cannabis joints with each whiskey bucket.
The day typically started like this: I rented a giant tube in town, rode in a large truck a couple miles upstream and started floating down the river. The party sounds grew progressively louder as I drifted into a Mad Max-style Burning Man overrun by water and vegetation. A continuous series of riverfront decks hosted a Western-dominant crowd that dances in bikinis and bathing suits with blue finger-paint scribbled across their half-naked bodies. The various slides and swings regularly hurled drunken partiers through the air, many of whom puked before and/or after taking flight. Tube riders signaled to the bars from the water, and the staff pulled them in using ropes and stored the tubes until they were ready to ride again.
Photo: David Jenison
When the sun dropped beneath the mountain backdrop, the crowds crossed the bridge to The Island where bars surrounded a giant bonfire with fiery limbo lines and twirling objects. As in the village, many bars openly sold psychedelic mushrooms, opium and cannabis in different iterations, and the whiskey-soaked, open-air dance floor was a show in and of itself. Young adults often started to kiss without any verbal introductions, and a small yet active group of transsexuals regularly tongue-wrestled wasted and unsuspecting tourists. In the wee hours of morning, the village became a real Night of the Living Dead as guesthouse-bound backpackers stumbled down dirt roads like aimless zombies.
Photo: David Jenison
of birth might say Generation X, but my Millennial mindset says otherwise, and I commited to try everything. Most people went with the happy mushroom shakes, but the facial contortions associated with the shakes gave my palate pause. I opted for the magic mushroom pizza, but the advertised Trip to the Moon never lifted off. After complaining, the pie-maker gave me a small cup of mushrooms that I ate straight up. Still nothing. The happy shake was clearly the potent option, but rather than double down on Wonderland, I smoked a spliff with two newfound British friends.
The next night I bypassed the tea, coffee and powder options and went straight for the stogie-sized opium joint. Though my central nervous system was familiar with hydrocodone and oxycodone, my nerves were strangely anxious about smoking opium for the first time. The high felt like a warm rush flowing through the body, but the cognitive sedation resembled a tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) high, which suggests the joint was partly diluted with cannabis. The opium did produce some measure of buzz, but whiskey and weed became the mainstays for the remaining days.
With smoking opium checked off the bucket list, the giant contraptions lining the river were the next challenge. The various platforms had uneven wood pieces on par with a backyard tree house, but I conquered the rope swing and high dive without a hitch. Another bucket down, I gave the zipline a go, but the rapid descent finished with a jarring jolt, and an uncontrolled flip into the water burst a blood vessel in my eye. I looked like I got my ass kicked, which I did in a way. Despite the blood-red cornea, I then tackled the enormous slide, but its sharp lift at the bottom sent me flailing 20 feet into the air. The whiskey buckets had already delivered a swift kick to the liver, so the stinging back flop didn’t help.
have more depth than your standard culturally challenged partier, so it was no surprise that a sharp-witted Irish paratrooper spent an hour engaging me in the finer points of author Malcolm Gladwell. However, the epic tales started to draw a different type of party traveler to a river already rife with safety issues regardless of the opium poppy. I survived the 20-foot back flop, but the locally named Slide of Death had an actual body count. Most travelers rode the river fully inebriated, and the water levels were sometimes dangerously shallow, so the rate of accidents and drowning steadily grew. On average, the river took one life per month, and during the next year, the river reportedly claimed around 30. Families started calling their embassies about lost loved ones. By late 2011, the government put a stop to the riverfront action.
What is Vang Vieng today? Individuals still ride the river on tubes and kayaks, but many wear life jackets, and the few remaining riverfront bars no longer bait riders with unbridled debauchery. The restaurant scene once defined by cheap eats and Friends and Family Guy loops now caters to upscale Asian clientele. Many come to explore the cave systems, one of which near Tham Poukham (The Blue Lagoon) boasts beautiful stalactites and a Sleeping Golden Buddha statue. What about the party? Like 1920s prohibition, the party continues, just not out in the open. Many bars still have secret drug menus selling opium tea, cannabis pizza, nitrous oxide balloons and happy shakes, but travelers must ask for them. The opium scene I experienced still exists on a smaller scale in the shadows, but eco-tourism is the new face of Vang Vieng.
The keg might be kaput and the party tamed, yet the new vibe, cheap digs and discretely available drugs suggest a hippie invasion might return to Vang Vieng soon. Grab your body paint.
deGeneration X columnist David Jenison is a Los Angeles native and the Content Editor of PROHBTD. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years.