Photo: Kayaking in Vang Vieng.

Introduction

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Natural wonder, backpacker mecca, party central, Lima Site 6: Vang Vieng, 155 kilometres north of Vientiane on the road to Luang Prabang, has endured many labels. Ever since Laos reopened to foreign visitors in the 1990s, the small town’s striking river landscape lined with towering karst has lured travellers. There are mysterious caves to explore, lagoons of turquoise water to dive into and sheer cliffs to climb.


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Gaze at the tranquil Nam Song river that gracefully flows through town and it is hard to imagine that from the 1950s to 1970s Vang Vieng was used as a base and airfield for Air America, a cargo and passenger airline secretly owned and operated by the CIA. The airstrip, known as Lima Site 6, was used to support covert paramilitary operations in Southeast Asia. In spite of an international agreement at the Geneva Conference that Laos would remain neutral, 1965 marked the start of the CIA directed Secret War in Laos that amassed a death toll upwards of 50,000 people and ended when the Americans beat a hasty retreat after Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975.

Oh so pretty. Photo taken in or around Vang Vieng, Laos by Cindy Fan.

Oh so pretty. Photo: Cindy Fan

Lima Site 6 is now a patch of crumbled asphalt flanking the eastern edge of town and Vang Vieng’s bloody history has faded, overshadowed by its more recent history. For years Vang Vieng was the highlight of many a fun-loving traveller’s trip to Laos. Backpackers flocked here for tubing. Considered a rite of passage on the so-called banana pancake trail, the activity’s popularity had little to do with floating down the river on an inner tube. It was about the non-stop party at roughly constructed bars along the Nam Song where people could indulge in bucket drinks, free shots and liberal amounts of bad judgement. Drugs were openly for sale on menus. Rope swings, flying foxes and slides would wildly catapult people back into the river. At its peak, 400 people a day would go tubing; many travellers would plan to stay here for a few days and would end up staying for weeks, even months, a never-ending cycle of sleeping and partying hard on the river. Some ... Travelfish members only (Around 1,300 more words) ... please log in to read the rest of this story.


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