Atlantic writer Eve Turow was shocked to discover that backpackers in countries like Thailand and Laos have been getting high during their travels instead of ensconcing themselves in spiritual and cultural learning.
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...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.
Next you're going to tell me all those semester abroad Americans visiting Amsterdam aren't just there for the Van Gogh Museum. These are some stunning revelations that could only be garnered from a Lonely Planet Guide from 1994 or a half million travel blogs written in the past decade. Backpackers have been getting high in Southeast Asia since your now Republican parents took a summer off from SDS organizing to find themselves. While Turow certainly means well and does give a thorough rundown of the drug culture in these countries, as one commenter put it, "Sounds like most of the data was pulled from the Center for Figuring Out Really Obvious Things, a well-know think tank funded by the Onion."
But why on earth would so many young people in these countries be drawn to drug use?
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.
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.
Or you know, why young people take drugs anywhere: because they're seen as fun and young people like to experiment. You could replace any of these countries with "college" or "New York City" and the story would be exactly the same. Having been to a Full Moon Party years ago, I can say I've seen more reckless and open drug use at bars in the Lower East Side.
Vang Vieng is a shitshow though (highly recommended if you're young and dumb) but it's also an important lesson for gap year Brits, Australians, and other young travelers: the world is not your babysitter. The Laotian people have a shit ton more to worry about than frivolous lawsuits because Johnny Goodtimes couldn't handle his booze and/or drugs.
Now, let's all brainstorm on how we can convince AJ to send me undercover to Jamaica or Cancun to write an expose on whatever shocking revelations I can find out about what young people do when they visit those places.