The High Lands: Exploring Drug Tourism Across Southeast Asia

Whether they're seeking pleasure or meaning, more and more vacationers are experimenting with dangerous drugs from foreign cultures.

Mountain ridge outside Doi Phu Kha National Park. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On a hot, dry-season afternoon, David, then 25, found himself unable to speak, his vision blurring as the ground beneath him transformed into a pile of slithering snakes and snails. His pulse quickened and sweat pearled on his forehead; he quick-stepped to avoid the reptiles he felt brushing against his heels. He could hear his friends calling him but their voices were distorted, slow then quick, louder, then lost in the distance. A man came into focus before him. "Where is the bridge?" David asked, hoping to walk back to his hotel.

"It's right next to you," the man replied. David turned. There was no bridge. Turning back, there was no man. David was experiencing his first trip on magic mushrooms, consumed along the shores of the Nam Xong River in Vang Vieng, Laos.

After a day of beach hopping and beer guzzling with travel mates, E., then 19, entered his kayak to paddle back to his hostel along the marine blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Dehydrated, drunk, and delusional, he informed his friends he was tired and going to swim back. Ignoring their pleas, he jumped overboard and, after reaching the edge of a rock wall on a nearby shore, he attempted to scale the side of the cliff with bare hands and feet, scraping his stomach so badly that he nearly bled out.

In 2008, newspapers reported that volunteer English teacher Benjamin Light traveled north from Thailand to Laos. Joining fellow tourists partaking in the "lazy river," in the Phoudindaeng Village, near Vang Vieng, Benjamin floated downstream in an inner-tube as he was handed shots of alcohol from shore-lined bars. Fellow inner-tubers surrounded him as he floated along the murky, shallow waters. Various swings and zip lines were strung above, tangled into the tropical forest. On his way down the river, Benjamin grasped a tree swing, jumped over the rocks and inner-tubes, and threw himself into the river. Emerging from the water, he stumbled ashore and murmured "excuse me" to those standing nearby before falling to the ground, suffering a fatal seizure. He was only 23.

* * *

I arrived in Thailand in March of 2011, excited about Buddhist temples, teaching English, and learning the techniques of Thai cooking. Drugs were far from my mind. In fact, I had decided to limit myself to no more than two drinks a night; I had heard enough horror stories of females traveling alone to convince me not to test my fate.

As I met fellow travelers squatting alongside me on red carpets in incense-filled temples and intently listening to cooks explain the differences between galangal and ginger roots, I soon discovered a large community of Westerners smoking, drinking, and tripping their way through the mystical lands of Southeast Asia. Young British students on their gap years wore "Chang," "Beer Lao," and "Heineken" tank tops with arm holes hanging low below their nipples, exposing their chests, decorated with scrapes and burns and mud from dusty roads and drunken falls. Americans escaping the recession arrived to let off steam. I assumed their loved ones pictured them riding elephants and speaking with monks rather than taking Ecstasy at the infamous Full Moon parties or drinking in Reggae-themed bars. As I arrived at my volunteer placement, I heard about my roommates' antics the night prior, drunk and running naked through our neighbor's bright green and geometrically sewn rice patty. Even having lived in Spain and Argentina in recent years, surrounded by other young expats, I felt unprepared for the strong focus on drug culture.

This discovery should not have surprised me nearly as much as it did. Southeast Asia has long been known as a drug tourist destination. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reports that in 1999, Afghanistan and Myanmar accounted for nearly 95 percent of opiate production. With Myanmar's borders against Thailand and Laos, addictive opiates, including heroin and opium, were soon transmitted and consumed in neighboring nations. The merging borders were nicknamed the Golden Triangle (distinct from Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Golden Crescent).

Signs of addiction proliferated in local communities and it wasn't long until visiting tourists began to catch on, attracted to the famous drug of the Orient: opium. Soon, travelers were not just seeking temples and great noodle soups, but a drug experience withheld from them or seemingly too dangerous to attempt at home. The exoticism of dank, dark rooms covered in pillows and shadowed by opium smoke enticed outsiders.

Today, tourism is on the rise in Southeast Asia, up 15 percent in 2011 from 2010. And while some argue the opiate haze is clearing, new research shows the infamously drug-friendly lands are only drawing more people experimenting with illicit substances. The choice of drugs is expanding, with magic mushrooms, Ecstasy, prescription drugs, speed, and cannabis readily available for the wanting customer -- and all for a quarter of the cost back home. In some areas, drug menus are presented at restaurants, allowing a visitor to get a fix for any kind of craving.

Harvested poppy capsules from the Golden Triangle. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As I made my way through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, it appeared that not using drugs was, in many ways, more odd than taking them. I remained the lonely sober traveler on most evenings. Drugs are so readily available, they become part of the day-to-day routine. In Siem Reap, Cambodia, streets are lined with pizza joints baking marijuana under melted bubbling cheese. The establishments are named "Happy Special Pizza," "Happy Herb Pizza," "Happy Angkor Pizza," and "Ecstatic Pizza," available "with added herb or not." As a result, finding a way to get high is as easy as placing an order and saying "make it happy, please."

Psychedelic mushrooms are endemic in parts of Indonesia, including Bali and the Gili Islands. They arrive dried, mixed in smoothies, fried in omelets, or baked into chocolate bars. Opiates and cannabis are also easily obtained in Vietnam, and while Singapore has the strictest drug laws, I heard tales of closed curtain exchanges taking place among the well-to-do there. In Thailand, getting your hands on prescription drugs is as easy as entering the pharmacy and asking for them.

Dan, a former backpacker with large blue eyes and drawn out sentences, told me a story of purchasing Xanax from a man on the street in Bangkok. Downing the pills with beer, Dan and his friends promptly blacked out. Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, have an exponential effect when mixed with alcohol, which, according to the Handbook of Drug Interactions from Humana, "often results in increased sedation, impaired motor coordination, suppressed breathing, and other adverse effects that have potential to be lethal."

"Apparently I had a grand time," Dan joked, having awoken without clothing and an empty bottle of Xanax by his side. "It's a pretty dangerous combination," he admitted, "and that's a problem when it's sold like Tic Tacs."

These potentially lethal combinations of drugs are not uncommon in Thailand. "I thought it was hilarious that they'd have a little sign in so many of the bars, that was like, 'Viagra, ten dollars a pill,'" Dan explained to me of his time in Bangkok. "So they're literally selling Viagra or other performance enhancers right along with the sex and alcohol."

The largest agglomeration of drugs in Southeast Asia can be found in Vang Vieng, Laos, the destination of David's trip on magic mushrooms and the place where Benjamin Light's life tragically ended. After asking travelers about their experiences in Vang Vieng, it is not uncommon for them to hang their heads low, cover their face with their hands, let out a slight giggle and sigh as they relive their memories. For the daytime tourists, sacred limestone caves are the main attraction, but many are drawn to the area for more illicit purposes. The town has become a must-see stop for those lured by the "lazy river," where visitors are greeted with free shots of alcohol and a wide variety of drugs. Travelers consume their intoxicant of choice from inner-tubes, launch themselves over the river on tree swings, glide their way down slides, and decorate themselves with multicolored body paint. Zip lines are stationed along the grey pebbled banks, atop wood plank towers shaded by green and yellow umbrellas, giant versions of the ones placed in sugar-laden drinks back at the hotel. Later in the evening, with the neon paint dried on their skin, the young crowd gathers on water's-edge platforms and dances the night away in swimsuits and glow bands as they clutch buckets of mixed drinks and sway to Bob Marley and '80s rock.

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Eve Turow is a New York-based freelance food and travel writer. Her work has appeared on NPR, in The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere.

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