From the mountaintop I looked at Vang Vieng, the hideous town that was once South East Asia’s most infamous party destination.
It was a spectacular contrast. The countryside was gorgeous in the afternoon light, but was blighted by the town’s presence. Architecture was not the US Air Force’s priority when building Vang Vieng as base for secret bombing missions during the Vietnam War.
Vang Vieng is better known as the place that put “tubing” on the map — a pub crawl down a river on the inner-tubes of tractor tyres. Backpackers flocked here, to get wasted in paradise. Vang Vieng’s appeal was that it had no rules. Marijuana, mushrooms and opium were once sold openly in the riverside bars.
It was like Koh Phangan’s monthly Full Moon Party, except here the hedonism never stopped. The darkside to this was that many partiers died from drownings and drug overdoses. After a record year of deaths, the government cracked down, closing most of the bars. Vang Vieng became a shadow of its former self.
Today, it’s Vang Vieng’s spectacular setting that draws travellers. The town is surrounded by limestone karsts, and even my cheap guesthouse had a front-row view.
I felt physically intimidated by these behemoths. They jutted from the earth’s crust, attempting to spear the heavens. The karsts’ colour changed as the sun rose and fell, shifting from cold blue to hazy orange. Like jagged teeth they watched us, witnesses to so many misdeeds over the years.
One day Ally and I climbed one, a tough ascent in the afternoon heat. We clambered up bamboo ladders and over razorlike rocks, dreading a fall. Sweat poured down my back when we finally reached the summit, and looked across the Laotian landscape.
Up here, all was quiet, except for the cry of tropical birds. Then we heard the unmistakable roar of hot air balloons. They were rising in a race to catch the sunset, small dots against the massive karsts. Instead of being here, I might’ve been drunk on a tube floating down a river. What a travesty that would’ve been.