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The decline and fall of Vang Vieng
Chiang Mai – a Cultural City
The decline and fall of Vang Vieng
A friend was telling me recently of his tubing adventures on the Nam
Song River, which runs at a deceptively slow rate as it passes through Vang
Vieng in Laos. Further up river, it’s a rather different story though.
Vang Veng in northern Laos.
For the uninitiated, ‘tubing’ involves roaring down this fast flowing river
in a huge tractor tyre tube. He and his wife had decided on this rather
risky little adventure after watching some other tourists, who seemed to be
enjoying the experience enormously.
At the ‘tubing hire’ company, two tubes were tossed onto the top of a
tuk-tuk, which took them up river - the tubes were thrown into the raging
torrent and the couple were told by the driver to jump in and he’d pick them
up in Vang Vieng. He then roared off, leaving them to their own devices.
After some initial hesitation, they did as instructed and were soon going
great guns until the tubes spun around and they found themselves roaring
down the river backwards. They hit a large rock and lost touch with each
other. Then, my friend’s tubes suddenly took off again at great speed,
leaving his wife far behind until he managed to grab hold of an overhanging
branch and hang on like grim death until she eventually caught up. However,
she overshot the landing point due to the fierce current and the tubing hire
company had to send out a search party (a guy on a pushbike!), who
eventually found her washed up in a rice field.
The couple discovered later that tubing was one of several activities that
were NOT recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide to Laos!
Whilst the above adventure took place a few years ago, the only changes that
have occurred since seem to be for the worse. Vang Vieng, a small town
approximately three hours north of Vientiane, is perfect for tourists, with
spectacular mountains forming a backdrop to the river - a calm and peaceful
place to chill out with the friendly locals.
Sadly, from my recent observation, the location is being abused by
unregulated, so-called ‘ecotourism’ activities. The high limestone karsts
surrounding the town are home to numerous beautiful caves; mountain treks
and climbing are also organised. Nowadays, the town receives approximately
400 visitors a day - this should benefit the entire local economy and
significantly increase GDP. Tubing, of course, is very popular, with its
profits going to 7 communities living along the river.
However, it is imperative to consider other impacts, such as social,
cultural and most importantly, environmental concerns. I visited Vang Vieng
again late last year, with international friends. We were planning to enjoy
a leisurely holiday, sitting by the river, sipping beer, watching the sun
set over the mountains, and thinking that we would just like to be driven
upstream and gently float down the river in a tube. That’s the picture of
Vang Vieng I remembered from my first visit 3 years ago.
Sadly, many things had changed. The river banks are now occupied by hotels
and guesthouses - access to the river itself is often blocked by up-market
private hotels or guesthouses. The town’s markets and streets are full of
half-naked tourists walking around with their tubes or banana Indian
pancakes in their hands. Along the main street, all the outlets cater for
tourists, and are mostly restaurants, bars, hotels or shops. I hardly see
the local people in the evening any more.
Now, the only limit to the number of tourist using tubes on the river is the
number of tubes available, around 600 at present. At times, it seems as
though hundreds of nearly naked tourists are floating along the river,
hardly a good sight for the locals.
Whilst tubing, tourists are also invited to stop at several bars located
along the riverside. These bars have created entrances consisting of an
outlet protruding into the river, blocking or modify the waterway. Tractors
have been used to dig out soil in the river bed to make it deep enough for
bungee jumping. Nobody seems to care about tampering with the water flow or
any other environmental impacts.
Drinking and bungee jumping are enthusiastically promoted, with techno
music, beer, whisky buckets, etc, adding to the chaotic atmosphere in these
establishments. The noise emanating from each bar is loud enough to scare
animals and irritate local people. Drinking whilst tubing is encouraged as
well, despite the old adage that ‘alcohol and water don‘t mix’. Many
tourists simply drop their empty bottles into the river - I saw tourists so
drunk that they could not even stand up as they tried to get to the bar for
Of course, it is all about money - the socio-cultural aspect is totally
disregarded. Local youngsters will soon learn bad behavioural habits from
tourists - local adults, too, may well become involved in this lifestyle,
ignoring or forgetting local customs and traditions. Vang Vieng, even now,
has a drugs problem - illegal substances are widespread and easily
accessible to tourists and to local children. Prostitutes and other social
problems are arriving also.
Having noted the environmental problems and erosion of social values caused
by the town’s irresponsible tourism businesses, I examined the economic
benefits again. It seems that these may be too small to justify the problems
being caused. However, the whole town is now geared to tourism. So, who
takes the most benefit out of these activities? I soon learned that most
hotels and guesthouses along the river belong to people from Vientiane, with
a few foreign-owned in partnership with local Laos.
‘Leakage’ is the term used when the money flowing out of local communities
goes back to the tourist-generating areas and countries. Without good
management, local administrative revenues cannot be turned into better
public infrastructures, facilities, etc. - which explains why Vang Vieng is
not developing its infrastructure. Schools are still old and dilapidated,
roads and bridges are still full of potholes, and transportation and
accessibility are erratic and unreliable.
I have to admit that the river water still looks good and clean, as there is
no pollution upstream, but fear that it won’t be long before environmental
and socio-cultural degradation becomes irreversible if unregulated tourist
activity is allowed to continue. The town’s future (and its environment) is
in the hands of local government, local communities and the tourists
themselves. Preventive measures should be established regarding
socio-cultural issues, and the local community must be strong in pushing
Finally, and most importantly, tourists should learn that Vang Vieng is not
just a place where they can go wild, get drunk, rape the environment, and
return home. Vang Vieng is a place for everyone who loves natural beauty,
friendly people, and peace and quiet.
Mechanical excavators are now a common sight
as the headlong rush to develop the town continues unabated.
One of the numerous bars and guesthouses that
dot the river bank.
Despite the increase in tourist numbers, the
in local infrastructure is failing to keep pace.
Chiang Mai – a Cultural City
‘Culture’ is an interesting, and occasionally misinterpreted concept -
especially in a city like Chiang Mai, with its diverse ethnic
communities. Even the expat community is divided into a great many
separate groups, not necessarily according to an original country of
origin. To each of these groups, wherever their origins, the word may
well have a different meaning. To some, it may signify social
activities, to others a sense of heritage and tradition. Yet more,
irrespective of nationality, may relate the cultural aspects of their
lives to the arts, and possibly also to religion, in which, throughout
human history, both the visual and the performance arts have played a
In our city, ‘cultural’ events abound, including local festivals (some
of which are famous worldwide, and attract large numbers of visitors),
musical and theatrical events both Western and Thai, classical and
modern, plays, lectures and talks on a huge variety of subjects (both at
the universities and, lately, in cafes, bars, restaurants and
galleries), seminars, art exhibitions, gallery openings, visits by
international performers and speakers, student performances and charity
shows featuring both traditional Thai and Western dance - all occur
The majority of the performing and visual arts events are of a
professional standard, with occasional visits by artists of
international fame, as in the recent Chiang Mai Music festival, an
all-too-brief series of concerts and workshops under its director, the
famous Korean pianist and teacher, Tong-il Han, together with 4 of his
amazingly talented young students.
Traditional Lanna arts, including textiles, are well represented by
shops and exhibitions, resulting in an increasing awareness of the rich
folk and handicraft traditions of the wide variety of nationalities and
tribes here in the north. For those interested in Buddhist art, the
concentration of wats in Chiang Mai and its surrounding areas provide
examples dating from almost 1,000 years ago to the present day.
Traditional Thai music can be heard at festivals, or even in the Sunday
The festivals themselves, apart from the major events, are often not
well publicised, but give a fascinating insight into local culture and
traditions. Delving into, and learning to appreciate and enjoy, the
arts, music and culture of Chiang Mai and the north of Thailand - as
well as our own - can help all of us to understand exactly where it is
we are living.
Appreciation and enjoyment of the many cultural events and occasions in
this city, whether Thai or Western, should, surely, help to bring
together all the Chiang Mai communities. Wherever we were born, music
and art, whatever the style, are basically expressions of our thoughts,
feelings and inspirations, and are our way of communicating without
words, either by composing, playing, painting, sculpting, writing,
acting and creating – or just by watching or listening. Nothing is truly
unfamiliar, all is there to be understood and appreciated by all.
‘Culture’ is what we allow it to be - there are no boundaries.
The dream of a number of people involved in the arts in Chiang Mai is
that, one day, a truly all-embracing, multi-cultural, multi-national and
multi-discipline Festival of the Arts will be able to be organised, to
take place over a period of several weeks during the winter season. If
this can be made to happen, Chiang Mai truly will deserve the title of
‘Cultural City of Thailand’.
Those who enjoy classical music are very well served by the increase,
over the last few years, of fine instrumental performances at various
venues in the city, although Jazz is well-represented, both informally
at bars and restaurants, and in the more formal setting of the concert
hall. As regards the visual arts, even in these difficult times, new and
interesting galleries continue to open - exhibitions at the universities
of final year students’ work are also of interest.
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