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19:00 AEDT Tue Feb 21 2012
By Will Jackson, ninemsn
The pubs literally have menus listing all those drugs — and even “disco buckets” containing some of each.
When 24-year-old Nathan, from Newcastle, went to Laos for a few days during a tour of South-East Asia last November he thought things would be pretty loose.
But even he was shocked at the reality of the place.
“Stuff gets out of control,” he told ninemsn. “It gets crazy.”
Nathan took a picture of the drugs menu at the first nightspot he visited, a pub on the riverside in Vang Vieng.
A bag of “weed”, mushrooms or opium — frequently processed to produce heroin — was about 100,000 Laotian kip ($12) while a litre bottle of locally-produced “whisky” was about $2.
He said he did not try the opium but he and his friends had a bit of everything else.
“I was worried about the police but I didn’t see anyone get busted,” he said.
“The people at the bars make it seem normal.”
The Wikitravel website says while drugs are technically illegal in Laos, in towns like Vang Vieng some are freely available in many bars and restaurants.
However, the site advises travellers not to buy drugs off the street or risk being taken to a police station and forced to pay a “fine” of about $450.
Laos has featured prominently in local headlines this year after the deaths there of three young Australians.
Lee Hudswell, 22, of Sydney, and Daniel Eimutis, 19, of Melbourne, died while “tubing” in a river near Vang Vieng and 22-year-old Alexander Lee, from Melbourne, was mysteriously found dead in a hotel room in the village of Nongkio along with his Dutch girlfriend.
A young woman, Annika Morris, 19, from Melbourne, passed out and became extremely ill while after drinking a shot of whisky while tubing.
There is no suggestion any had taken illegal drugs.
But Nathan went tubing too and said everything that was available in the pubs was also available at the bars that lined the river.
“I was with a group of people, and we just lost them,” he said.
“It was just all the alcohol, mixed with drugs and floating down the river and all these jumps and slides down the side of the river.”
He said he could easily see how “stuff goes wrong over there”.
“I’m surprised it doesn’t happen to more people.”
Queensland University emeritus professor Martin Stuart-Fox, an expert on South-East Asian history, said the situation in Laos was “the sixties all over again” when “everything” was openly available.
“In ’63 Laos had the largest legal opium den in the world in a disused theatre and the best cubicles were on stage,” he said.
“In the markets in the sixties you could see these little old women who had a pile of tobacco on one side and an equally large pile of marijuana on the other.”
He said the western tourists were there back then too — often young men in Kombis who had driven from Europe via Afghanistan or India for the hash.
But everything changed in 1975 after the Laotian Civil War when the Pathet Lao — the Laotian equivalent of Vietnam’s Viet Cong — came to power.
“They rounded up all the local addicts and prostitutes and put them on two islands in the Nam Ngum reservoir to go cold turkey,” Professor Stuart-Fox said.
“For a while all this was cleaned up, but then in the mid-1980s Laos opened up to foreign investment and little by little these practices returned. Nightclubs opened and the tourists came back.
“By about 2000 you could get women and drugs fairly easily in Laos and there was a lot of corruption.
“Officially, the communist regime claims to try and control the drugs but in fact because of the corruption, these places with the menus just pay off the officials.
“You can get drugs pretty well anywhere.”
Professor Stuart-Fox said there had always been drugs in Laos because they were part of the indigenous culture.
“Opium is freely available because it’s always been used for medicinal purposes, and marijuana is also available because it’s used in medicinal soups,” he said.
“The drugs that are really nasty now are the manufactured drugs like amphetamines.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said Australians visiting Laos should to take special note of travel advice.
“While Laos is not an inherently dangerous country (Australians are advised to exercise normal safety precautions) there are very serious legal and health risks associated with taking drugs there,” the spokesperson said.
“As anywhere, risks associated with water-based and other potentially dangerous activities, like tubing, are magnified further if combined with alcohol or drug taking.”
Nathan said he had no regrets about his time in Laos and wanted to go back.
“I don’t regret it because nothing really happened to us, but I regret seeing these articles in the news and seeing how uncontrollable it is,” he said.
“You do have a great time, everyone there’s having a blast but it’s the kind of thing your parents wouldn’t want you doing.”
To see DFAT’s travel advice for Laos click go to: http://smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Laos.
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