After years of war and isolation, Laos is becoming ever more popular with tourists. PARTYNICE's Tomasz Roszkowski recently visited to find out how the burgeoning tourist industry is changing the lives of local people, and sent back this vivid photo essay.
Fear and Loathing in Laos Vegas
In the 1970s, travelers in the know began venturing up winding roads through the mountains of Laos, making their way to the village of Vang Vieng.
Through this village, surrounded by stunning mountains, breathtaking waterfalls and untouched caves, runs the Nam Song river; lifeblood to the people that live here. To travelers in the 70s, the winding river and rugged mountains provided the perfect backdrop for a lazy tube ride through a pristine natural environment, beginning a few kilometers upstream and ending in the village. Travelers would come through to appreciate and reflect on the awe-inspiring landscape of a virginal terrain.
Today, the village, river and mountains still exist but have a very different feel, having become a mandatory stop on the popular South-East Asian travel circuit.
As accessibility to travel has changed in recent years, so have the meaning and motivation of travel and this is very strongly reflected in Vang Vieng. A new generation of travelers have traded 'off the beaten path', for 'off your face' and this sleepy village deep in the mountains of Laos has become witness to a spring break eternal.
With this sudden influx of debauched revelers into a remote area unacquainted with these aspects of Western immodesty, a complex and confounding relationship has established itself between tourists and residents. The river is still the village's lifeblood, albeit in new ways. As a result, beneath the whiskey drenched and drum thumping party-hard veneer of Vang Vieng lies one of the richer experiences in South East Asia, offering not only insight into another culture, but offering a very unique and sobering insight into our own.
The view from a tube on the Nam Song river. The allure and natural beauty of Vang Vieng; mountains, waterfalls and caves have become secondary to its allure as a consequence free, drug and alcohol fueled party destination.
The limestone mountains near Vang Vieng provide a beautiful backdrop as a tourist jumps off one of the many swings that have become popular in recent years.
A tube ride down the Nam Song river begins here, at the Mulberry Organic Farm, a 3km tuk-tuk ride outside of the village. Ironically, nowadays, the tube ride often ends here too, as tube riders venture only as far as the first few bars before returning to the village by tuk-tuk to continue the party after dark.
Having flown half-way around the world, then traveled by bus through the rickety pot-holed roads of Laos and arrived in this limbo, a wild party begins each afternoon and ends late each night, disconnected from and at odds to the culture of Laos and the way of life of the natives of Vang Vieng.
A drunken tourist in an alcohol-induced haze staggers around unsteadily with her left hand clutching a beer and signaling her party-hard attitude with her right while a young boy clenches his hands begging on the dirt roads just outside Vang Vieng.
Two women fish on the Nam Song; the first woman collects shellfish with a net while near the organic farm another woman throws a fishing line out to drag tourists tubing down the river into her bar, competing with the other bars on the river.
A young boy stands in the river in the early afternoon, spear-fishing with the swings on the river framing him. Later, the same boy sits under those swings, fishing for possessions lost in the river as tourists drink and jump off the swings until sunset.
Some items belonging to careless party goers fished from the river by young boys - an asthma puffer and sunglasses sit in a display case on sale back to their owners.
Two village children watch a tourist jump off a rickety bridge into the river. A little way further down the river, away from the heavy techno thumping noise of the bars, young children playfully jump off a bridge and land in the water to cool off from the heat of the afternoon sun.
A tourist closes his eyes, sets his jaw, and tenses all his muscles as he prepares for a mighty somersault into the water. Close-by, a local boy springs into the air as if released from a tightly wound coil.
A tourist hangs off a swing on the river. With many Western tourists coming from very regulated societies, there is an in-grained expectation that if something is unsafe, it won't be allowed. In Vang Vieng, however, very rarely is anyone denied permission to do anything. As a result, alcohol combined with the sudden freedom of having to police their own behavior, means many tourists are injured and there are several fatalities each year.
In an alarming display of role reversal, two elementary aged boys stand in front of the swings they operate on the river. Day in, day out the responsibility for the safety of the adult tourists drinking and jumping off the visibly shabby equipment lies in their hands.
Tourists become the main attraction as visitors from Thailand pay for boat trips up the river to watch the farang (or Western tourists) jumping off slides into the rivers. In the second photo, older tourists from the south of Laos make the long bus trip to get a glimpse of Westerners flying through the air on hand-made swings.
A Happy Menu offers tourists any drug they want to consume in any quantity they want, advertising Vang Vieng as the home of almost-legal drug consumption.
Drugs, alcohol and sex are not the only ways that the bars get tourists "fucked". Towards the end of the day, three tourists went off a swing at the same time and one sustained a head injury as he hit the water. Paralyzed, he sank to the bottom and was rescued by a young local boy and then attended to by other drunk patrons. The music was momentarily muted and the party halted. Eventually, he was roused and immediately given a beer as the music was turned back on and the next person jumped off the same swing.
A young Laos boy working at a bar surveys the scene in front of him, his shirt echoing the ominous feeling that surrounds the river as the sun sets each day and drunk tourists tempt fate on the swings. In the next photo, the owner of the bar, dressed all in black poses in front of the mountains by his bar.
Nudity on the river and on the roads outside of Vang Vieng. Signs in Vang Vieng ask tourists to conform to the culture of Laos, specifically to be modest and cover up their bodies but this rule is frequently transgressed.
As the sun sets and the party scene gets sloppy, children emerge, endearing themselves to drunken tourists in the hope of being given some money and if that fails, picking pockets or backpacks. By learning how to operate within the environments of the bars at closing time to get what they want, they inevitably become polluted themselves.
The duality of life in Vang Vieng is evident as children adapt to their roles in the morning and afternoon.
As the sun sets, tuk-tuks begin returning tourists back to the village to continue the party all night in bars. The next day, the cycle repeats and most tourists make their way back to the river in the early afternoon.
Many visit for only a few days, but some tourists find satisfaction in the cycle of life in Vang Vieng, sometimes staying for months, getting free food, drink and lodging in exchange for working for one of the many bars.
All words and photographs by Tomasz Roszkowski.