"There was opium, a lot of opium in Laos and Vietnam," Kara, 25, told me in a phone interview during which we discussed her time traveling in the spring of 2011. "You could go around in Laos in Vang Vieng and go to certain bars or restaurants and all you had to do seriously was ask them," she said. "They had opium tea and stuff." She noted that menus also listed several other drugs, including mushrooms, heavy muscle relaxants, and marijuana in the form of "happy pizzas" or "special shakes."
Kara fulfills the stereotype most have of 20-something Southern California girls, with a Valley Girl twang, flowing linen and cotton yoga pants, tie-dyed tops, and constant rotation of multi-colored headbands holding back her perfectly unkempt auburn curls. She is frank about her frequent marijuana use at home before her travels to Asia, as well as her rather frequent marijuana hit abroad. Even so, arriving in Vang Vieng, Kara was shocked by the availability of drugs and the extent to which other travelers took advantage.
"It's extremely dangerous," Kara said. "There's no supervision. You get these young kids, 19, 20 years old," and, she noted, "when you're that age, you're just out there to party and get messed up and you don't think about the consequences."
When Kara first arrived at her hostel in Vang Vieng, a compound of tree houses with thatched wooden roofs, ladders, and woven hammocks, she told me she was greeted by a young group of British girls who were "clearly messed up," one of them unable to stand, her eyes rolling back in her head. Justifiably, Kara was so frightened she decided to skip the lazy river.
Angela Cruz documented her 2010 travels on her personal blog, writing that, "'[Emergency medical service] in Vang Vieng consists of drunk people helping other drunk people to get into a tuk-tuk to the clinic in town." The most recent death, she noted "was from someone going down a slide face first and breaking his neck on a rock."
The week before Kara arrived she heard of two deaths in the river. International newspapers have frequently reported honeymooners drowning and students overdosing in the shallow water bed. Many sources -- the U.S Department of State website, as well as Lonely Planet and other guidebooks -- warn of the dangers, yet the number of tourists in Vang Vieng only continues to grow. In 2006, The New York Times reported in "Laos: Out From Under an Opium Cloud" that: "With development moving ahead -- six new guest houses are opening this year, bringing the total to nearly 70 -- hotel operators and tour guides see a brighter future in inner-tube rentals than in opium dens." What the article seemingly failed to grasp is that the inner-tubes play a key role in Vang Vieng drug culture. If rentals are going up, it likely indicates a rise in drug tourism as well.
The dangers associated with extreme drug use often do not end once the vacation is over. "In Israel, there is a special village for backpackers who suffered from extreme problems due to their drug consumption abroad," said sociologist Yaniv Belhassen. A native of Israel, Belhassen became fascinated with backpacker behaviors while traveling abroad after his discharge from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). In Israel, travel after the required two to three years in the army is, as his co-researcher and fellow Israeli Natan Uriely put it, a "rite of passage," and drug use on these post-army adventures is expected.
According to its website, the treatment center Belhassen spoke of, translated to English as Harmony Village, is:
...intended primarily for the treatment of young adults who experience a psychotic event for the first or second time, generally as a result of drug use or mental crisis. From the experience accumulated by the Village, it appears that most of the patients are young adults who embarked on a backpacking trip abroad following their mandatory military service ("the Big Trip": usually to India, Far-East or South America) and who suffer mental trauma, requiring treatment.
Treating 22 patients over a period of four to five months using psychiatry and Eastern treatments, the center focuses on holistic methods to address the damages caused by hallucinogenic drugs as well as addiction to cannabis, cocaine, and alcohol. (They do not treat heroin abusers as they are in need of closed rehabilitation treatment.)
The Harmony Village website notes that Israel is unique in its cultural focus on international travel. Approximately 50,000 young adults embark on international trips each year after completing their military service, more than half the number of soldiers discharged. Estimates show that 90 percent of these travelers use drugs and about 2,000 young adults in this population suffer "mental disturbances," 800 of which are "severely affected and require treatment."
These numbers are by no means true to every social group taking to the backpacking trail, but the Israeli pool provides a unique study population. While Israelis may be more likely to partake in drug tourism due to their recent discharge from the IDF, the same opportunities for drug use are available to all travelers.
While Southeast Asia has harsh laws against local smugglers and dealers, travelers are largely ignorant of them, limiting their ability to fear the consequences.
Recognizing the potentially long-lasting and well-known dangers associated with drug use abroad, it is natural to wonder why so many young Westerners partake in drug tourist activities. Why would Benjamin Light or David take such risks in one of the world's least developed countries? In Laos, there are very few people or facilities prepared to help if things go awry.
Belhassen and sociologist Natan Uriely from Ben-Gurion University and the University of Illinois posit that leaving home allows vacationers to throw caution to the wind; what one person would never attempt at home becomes fair game in a new and exotic environment. "What we found is that there is a diversity in terms of motivations and in terms of meanings associated with the [drug taking] practice," Uriely explained over Skype from his office in Israel. "So we cannot say that it's related to one thing, it's a sort of escapism or self identity crisis. These are people doing it for different reasons." Of these many motives, Uriely and Belhassen were able to identify two key reasons travelers partake in risky behaviors and rationalize these behaviors to themselves: pleasure and meaning.
Pleasure-oriented travelers tend to try various drugs with little interest in the destination itself, often with hopes of escaping routine living. Those seeking meaning use drugs perceived as part of a local culture or rave subculture. In local cultures, travelers hope to derive authentic experiences from participating in customary drug practices, such as consuming the hallucinogenic cactus San Pedro in Peru. In rave culture, trance music and drugs such as Ecstasy, LSD, and amphetamines become the bonding experience. (It is also important to note that Uriely and Belhaussen define drug tourists as not only those who travel seeking drugs, but those who use even if it was not the original travel goal.)
Hedonistic behavior while traveling is nothing new. It is the foundation of leisure tourism. Drugs, though, are providing a new frontier, extending the boundaries of pleasure-seeking vacations. Researcher Rob Shields refers to these leisure spaces as "liminal zones," where societal norms and values are suspended; activities generally viewed as deviant become acceptable by the surrounding population. Psychologist Erving Goffman called these environments "backspaces" or "action spaces," where travelers are encouraged to partake in adventurous behaviors. "Tourism is inexorably tied up in notions of freedom," Robert Caruana and Andrew Crane from the University of Nottingham and York University wrote in the Annals of Tourism Research. "The promise of 'getting away from it all' is predicated both on the desire to be free from the drudgery of everyday life, and the seductive possibility of freedom to engage in novel or forbidden behaviors."
Yet drug-taking is not always a means of escape. For many, drug use fosters connection. "Meaningful" drug experiences are increasing as globalization allows stories of local rituals to travel around the world and New Age customs are formed in rave culture. In either situation, travelers are partaking as a means to connect, either with the larger local community or a private group.
In Southeast Asia, drug use is often associated with religion, specifically meditative Buddhist traditions. Many writers and philosophers credit substances for opening the mind. In Stephen Batchelor's book Zig Zag Zen, various contributors tout the effects of Ecstasy, LSD, marijuana, and magic mushrooms in allowing them to awaken a "spiritual dimension," foster "mystical experiences," and "shift planes of consciousness," similar to the theories presented in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Of these devout users, "few would deny the role of these substances in opening their eyes to a life of spiritual and religious meaning," Batchelor writes, facilitating meditation by helping practitioners detach themselves from desires and outside thoughts.