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July 27, 2012 9:25 pm
People call me Mr T. I’m 67 and grew up in the village of Vang Vieng, in central Laos, where I now run an organic farm with a guest house and a restaurant. A few years ago, I inadvertently turned this sleepy rural hamlet into an international party destination.
In 1996, I quit my city job and moved back here to start my farm. It’s about 4km north of Vang Vieng, right next to the Nam Song river. Everyone thought I was crazy, my wife included. But it was paradise back then. The jungle was everywhere. It was so quiet and wild. There were no big hotels or restaurants with TVs, and no tourists. There were even tigers, and not just in the mountains, but also sometimes in the village.
The farm had two acres when I started, and it was just my wife and me. Now I have 10 acres and employ about 15 people. We grow fruit – mangos, avocados, bananas, mulberries and starfruit – and also make tea, wine, jam and goat’s cheese. Along with other villagers, we began to try to build ecotourism around Vang Vieng. We wanted to attract tourists interested in organic farming and the environment, while retaining the traditional character of the village.
In 1998, I bought some inner tubes from old car tyres so my employees could float on the river in them. Farming is hard work, and I wanted to get them something relaxing to do in their spare time. The Nam Song cuts right through the village and is very peaceful and a nice place to cool off. Tubing down the river instantly became popular among other villagers. It’s a cheap form of entertainment and everyone began coming together on the river in the afternoons.
Then tourists started joining in, and in about 2003 some western businessmen caught wind of the tubing and started buying land around town and opening European-style restaurants. From then on, it was as if the craze spread overnight. By 2006, Vang Vieng was a “party town” for tourists, especially European backpackers and revellers. Suddenly, hostels, bars, drugs and huge quantities of alcohol were everywhere, all geared around tubing down the river. You see completely drunk people doing it. But while the westerners may own bars and hotels, they don’t live here.
There have been many accidents and deaths on the river related to inner tubing and partying, and specifically to people diving and swinging on ropes into the water. Last year 27 tourists died on the river. The problem is the combination of tubing with drugs and alcohol. Without them, tubing would be much safer.
It eventually became expensive to live in town, and many locals had to sell up and move to the country. Capitalism is now rampant. On the one hand, the tubing craze has been good for some locals – there are more jobs, and some people earn money from tourism. Many now dream of getting better jobs in the cities and earning even more.
On the other hand, the situation has destroyed our culture and community. We have more corruption, prostitution, stealing and drug addicts. The village has lost a sense of community. Our traditional way of life has been assaulted. And there’s also terrible noise pollution, and more pollution in general, too. What was once a quiet village is now a teeming town of 25,000.
Everything changed at the farm. We hardly have any guests for the guest house or customers in the restaurant. Every day there is loud music and drunken people on the Nam Song, so it’s hard to attract quieter travellers.
Many locals who were happy at first now come to me to complain about the music and say I should do something. I’ve tried many things. What more can I do? The local government doesn’t want to improve the situation – it makes a lot of money from tourism.
I have to hope that things will get better – that people will start to see what has happened. I hope we can live in Vang Vieng as we once did.
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