The High Lands: Exploring Drug Tourism Across Southeast Asia

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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.

Psychedelic mushrooms are endemic in parts of Indonesia. They arrive dried, mixed in smoothies, fried in omelets, or baked into chocolate bars.

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."

"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 of his time in Bangkok.

"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.

"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.

Landscape in Vang Vieng. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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.

"I'm not keen on drugs and wouldn't really recommend drug taking because of the dangers that are associated with them," David wrote me. "But the locals from all areas seem to accept it as kind of a traveler's right of passage to experience drugs from other countries." Yet the dangers David speaks of become all the more perilous when consumed in an uncontrolled environment. This raises the question of how travelers rationalize drug-taking abroad. Uriely and Belhassen claim that drug tourists "cope with their fears by believing that being a tourist protects them from hazards, including the possibility of arrest, being labeled a deviant, and becoming a drug addict."

One potential hazard is regulation. While Southeast Asia has harsh laws against local smugglers and dealers (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand all prescribe the death penalty for drug trafficking), travelers are largely ignorant of them, limiting their ability to fear the consequences. Moreover, most Westerns understand the economic importance of the tourism and drug industries in Southeast Asia. These facts eliminate fear of arrest as most travelers assume local authorities will not want to obstruct either revenue channel.

One study participant, a 30-year-old Israeli with experience at Full Moon parties in Thailand, explained in "Drugs and Risk-Taking in Tourism" (PDF) that:

Everybody knows that tourists who participate in these parties are loaded with drugs. I noticed the presence of the police at most of these parties, but I felt they were there to protect us rather than arrest us.... There is a kind of 'silent agreement' between tourists and police at the destinations hosting these parties ... the tourists spend their money and their drug-taking is tolerated.

Several travelers shared stories of bribery. "Police would dress up and go undercover and try to sell people weed or something," volunteer Kara told me of her time purchasing marijuana in Thailand. "And if the people bought it, then they would basically tell them, 'Hey, we're the police. You have to pay this amount if you don't want to go to jail.' So they would rip them off $650 or something like that ... or take all the money you had on you."

Nam Xong River at Vang Vieng in Laos. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"Corrupt police officials, that's a reality, a byproduct of this whole system," Dan said, having purchased prescription drugs and marijuana while in Thailand in 2007. Even so, none of the travelers I spoke to seemed discouraged by the threat. Western travelers, Dan told me, can generally talk their way out of the situation. Others who faced the fines seemed to think of the experience as an engaging tale to share with friends when they returned home, not a deterrent against purchasing or using drugs.

Another attraction to drug use is a sense of one-time opportunity. Even though many of these drugs are available at home at an affordable price, the catalysts of drug use abroad are far more psychological than economic. Drug tourists believe that if using abroad they will avoid being labeled a "druggie" or "drug user"; they are simply part of the pack, a "backpacker," nothing more. Additionally, several travelers commented that their fears of addiction were overridden by rationalizing the low likelihood that they would seek out these drugs at home.

In countries such as Myanmar, where opiate production is declining, investments in methamphetamines are on the rise.

It is easy to see that the drug tourism industry is only just beginning. As the Internet allows travelers to share information about backpacker finds, including opium dens and dealers, drug tourism will continue to grow, finding new markets, most likely beginning to spark the interests of the those previously oblivious to the opportunities available to them.

With no indication of tourism slowing, the local drug markets must respond to demands, local addiction, and government crackdowns. With several local governments beginning to shut down manufacturers and investing in rehabilitation, the focus on opium is fading. Yet in countries such as Myanmar, where opiate production is declining, investments in methamphetamines are on the rise. A former insurgent group, the United Wa State Army is believed to be the largest producer of methamphetamine tablets in the world. Known as "yaba" or "yama," the pills mix methamphetamine and caffeine and are rampantly gaining hold in the neighboring Thai culture. A 2004 report by the Institute on Narcotics Control in Bangkok states that, "an estimated five percent of Thailand's 62 million people are addicted to methamphetamine."

Yaba is swallowed, not smoked or injected, thereby avoiding the stigmas often correlated with drug use. Additionally, the drug is commonly viewed as helpful rather than harmful, with users associating it with increased work ability and the rave scene, upping the sexual libido. Unlike opiates or cannabis, Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS) can be manufactured anywhere and are not reliant on natural plant sources. Yaba also draws in higher profits, manufactured for roughly $0.25 and selling for over $2 a pill. The UNODC reports that the Mekong Delta, running between Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand is swiftly becoming one of the key ATS trafficking points, disseminating the new product from the Golden Triangle.

Thais are not the only buyers. The draw to yaba and other versions of methamphetamine, such as crystal meth, ecstasy, and speed, are growing throughout Southeast Asia. In 2008 it was estimated that roughly half of the world's 15-16 million meth users were located in Southeast and East Asia. In 2007, a report by UNESCO found that 80.9 percent of all illicit drug users in Cambodia used ATS. In the 2011 report, the UNODC labeled ATS the "main illicit drugs threat in East and Southeast Asia," with half of the worlds ATS and meth seizures in the last year. The number of meth labs busted in East and Southeast Asia was nearly 10 times higher in 2009 than in 2005. Pill seizures in China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand jumped from 32 million in 2008 to 133 million in 2010.

The statistics are stark and worrisome, not just for the local inhabitants but also for the visiting tourist populations. It's natural to wonder how long it will take for yaba to catch on as a local drug delicacy the way opium intrigued backpackers in years past. Opium has devastating addictive qualities and methamphetamines do as well, sometimes causing permanent brain damage, hallucinations, aggression, anxiety, and convulsions. With an even lower price tag and seeming ubiquity, the question is not if, but when, the meth derivatives will hit the drug tourism scene. "In my opinion, the line between what we call soft and other drugs still exists. But I'm not sure about it. I don't know," said researcher Natan Uriely. "It's a new generation, maybe things change."

The danger, it seems, is not that visiting backpackers will start injecting themselves with hard drugs, but that the less invasive, if friendly version of meth, yaba, will entice young travelers wanting a taste of what the locals are using. The effects could be devastating.

From a wider perspective, what these trends indicate is a larger shift in the tourism market. As drug use becomes more commonplace when abroad, due to a desire to escape or connect, the future of travel becomes more diverse and simplified at the same time. These trends are giving rise to both a culturally focused tourist experience and de-territorialized tourism where geography becomes irrelevant. It is easy to see tourism taking on a new role. Soon vacationers may not pick the destination for the local sites but the local drugs, medical procedures, or adventure sports. Vacation brochures will not boast of the beauty of an island but the adventurous or illicit activities that are accepted and welcome. Those seeking an alternate culture, whether it be through rave scenes or backpacker havens, are losing contact with the land they have traveled to. Soon enough, a rave in Goa or a rave in Ibiza will be viewed as the same trip, the country itself becoming irrelevant to the tourist experience.

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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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