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A Lesson Learned in Vang Vieng

VIENTIANE, LAOS – I gave this city a bit of a bagging the other week, saying that it had lost it’s soul and become more Yuppiefied.

I should’ve realised that, like most towns throughout the world that have a whole bunch of tourists pass through it, this might only be true of certain sections of the town.

I claim to have visitied Los Angeles, but in reality I only hung out in parts of Hollywood for a couple of days while in transit to and from Canada. There’s no way that Hollywood, or indeed LA itself, is representative of the rest of the United States.

It’s the same in Sydney, a massive metropolis that covers an enormous area and is as varied within itself as the rest of Australia. The famous beachside suburbs where most visitors go do not in any way resemble the ‘arty’ Inner West, or the suburban sprawl of the western suburbs, or the old-money area of the northern suburbs.

That’s one thing that I learned from Vang Vieng; don’t judge a town by the touristy area. I’ve always had this in the back of my mind, but Vang Vieng solidified this opinion.

A great example is Khao San Road in Bangkok. I’ve long said that KSR is a shithole best avoided, and it’s easy to do this by walking for ten minutes in any direction. But the difference between the backpacker core of Vang Vieng and the quiet dusty streets away from the Family Guy bars is even greater than it is in contrasting parts of other cities I’ve visited. It’s this stark difference that made me fully realise how true my idea was. My opinion of Vang Vieng was based on second- or third-hand reports, and then my own imagination kicked in to fill in the blanks. I don’t mind being proven wrong, and when it disabuses me of a petty or narrow-minded notion, I actively welcome it.

Phnom Penh is no different. It’s extraordinarily easy to vanish into the Westernised bubbles of Riverside and Street 278. I did for a while. I can remember one day in particular, sitting at the rooftop bar of my guesthouse on 278 and trying to write when I was overcome with the sensation of being imprisoned. Without a word I slammed my laptop closed, stashed it in my room and practically ran out onto the street. I spent about two hours wandering aimlessly through parts of Phnom Penh where there was not one single Westerner. It was almost as if I’d forgotten where I was, and had to be reassured that I was in fact not still in Australia, that I was in a foreign country. Duly reassured, I was then able to go back to my work. And if the entire town started feeling too constricting, that’s when I’d take off to other places for a week or so.

The bits of Vientiane around the Ngam Phu fountain are not reflecting the vibe of the rest of the city. One complaint that I often have of tourist areas is that it has restaurants where locals can’t afford to eat. For me it represents a condition whereby towns change to cater to comparatively rich visitors who bring with them loads of cash and take with them not a lot at all. But there are plenty of restaurants in Sydney that I probably couldn’t afford to even walk into. So perhaps that’s not a very fair or accurate benchmark.

Obviosuly, the Westernisation of Asia is driven by the demand from tourists. Everyone wants to bring a slice of home with them, and some want to bring a bigger slice than others. I’m no different, but my slice consists pretty much of top quality coffee and decent WiFi, and Western breakfasts. Anything else is a luxury that I can live without.

To travel means to get out of your comfort zone a little, to see different things, get a new viewpoint. For me, that is the entire purpose for having left your own country in the first place. I’m not saying that everyone should be a monsatic teetotaller (God knows I haven’t been), but to make drinking and drugs and sex the entire point of going away cheapens the experience and is pretty bloody direspectful to the place you’ve visiting.

Franchising Hedonism (or Same Same But Same)

VANG VIENG, LAOS – yes, you read that correctly. I’ve spent a long time bagging this town from pillar to post, despite having never been here before. I’ve heard the multitude of stories detailing the hedonism and cultural insensitivity that goes on in this town. And sure, there’s a hell of a lot of that. But no more than what I’ve seen wherever hordes of young backpackers gather to “have a good time” or “live life to the fullest” (i.e. get as shitfaced as possible and hence forget pretty much the entire experience). It’s not great, sure, but I was expecting the worst Western excesses to be on full display here, something like Rome under Emperor Nero. It’s not that bad, but not that good either, and it’s possibly just as strange as ancient Rome.

In fact, Vang Vieng is the weirdest town I’ve been in. It’s a very close copy of other budget traveller destinations in Southeast Asia. Cheap rooms, and even cheaper chemicals with which to write oneself off. In that regard, it mirrors Khao San Road in Bangkok, or Kuta Beach on Bali, or Pub Street in Siem Reap. There are fragmentary glimpses of a more traditional Laos, but they are very few and far between. To discover that Vang Vieng has the same sort of hegemony as those places was not a surprise. What did surprise me was the conformity on display within Vang Vieng itself. For instance, Friends and Family Guy cafés.

They’re the most bizarre phenomenon I’ve seen in many a year. A frightening number of food and drink venues that offer precisely the same things; cheap sustenance and inebriants, comfortable places to lounge and eat and drink, and endless episodes of Friends or Family Guy on constant repeat. And there are not just two or three of these places, but at least a dozen.

(But it could be worse. There could be cafés running endless episodes of 2½ Men and Big Brother.)

The idea strikes me as totally weird for two reasons. Firstly, who thought this would be a good drawcard? Who woke up one morning and thought, “I know what’ll being the punters in; an infinite loop of just one TV show.”

And secondly, why did a dozen other café owners decided to do precisely the same thing? The replication of a successful business isn’t anything unique to Vang Vieng, or even Laos. I’ve seen this done many times throughout Southeast Asia. Someone hits upon a good moneyspinner, and next thing you know there are eight or ten examples of the same thing within close proximity to each other. That’s why you see, say, seven pizza shops in a row on the riverside in Phnom Penh, or two dozen restaurants offering the same food and drink at identical prices in Siem Reap, or about a dozen food carts with identical menus and prices along Khao San Road.

Another example of the en masse conformity is the Vang Vieng uniform, and only people younger than 30 are wearing it. It consists of as much skin exposed as is legally permissible in the West (but culturally inappropriate in Laos), an “In The Tubing” (sic) singlet, and a bottle of Beerlao clutched in one hand. You’ll stand out if not attired thus.

Vang Vieng is famous for one activity, that of “tubing”, which involves floating down the Nam Song (Song River) on a tractor-tyre inner tube and getting hammered. People have set up bars on the riverbank and they’ll throw a rope out on request, haul you in, sell you drinks, and then cast you off on your merry way. And of course, the replication of this pastime has also taken hold. Seven years ago, there were about 10 bars along the riverbank that did this. Now, there are over 50.

If the combination of cheap alcohol, youthful exuberance, blazing sun and a river sounds dangerous, you’re absolutely correct. Injuries are common, and deaths are not unheard of, though most people leave Vang Vieng with nothing more serious than a blistering hangover and vague memories of something approximating fun.

I got the sense that Vang Vieng is similar to Las Vegas inasmuch as it once was a somewhat obscure little town in the middle of nowhere which has become famous for one or two things and replicates those things within itself to feed the people hungry for them. It doesn’t have a lot of soul, at least not on the main strip, but it’s a different world in the back streets and the outskirts of town.

Last night I ran into someone in their 50s who had been coming to Laos for ten years. It was her third visit to Vang Vieng, and her first since 2005. She looked around, taking in the crowds of youngsters in various stages of intoxication (and obnoxiousness and undress), and leaned in so I could hear her over the almost deafening Lady Gaga being pumped out of the speakers in the bar across the road.

“Mass tourism has fucked this town,” she told me. Looking around, it was hard to disagree.

There’s certainly little that’s distinctly (or traditionally) Lao about Vang Vieng, but there has been a solid injection of money into the town. Many people are doing better financially than they would be otherwise. It’s just a shame that they’ve decided to take the path that Thailand ran down decades ago and sell out parts of their culture for financial gain. It’s a particularly sharp shock after having spent a few days in Luang Prabang, a beautiful town which has fallen under UNESCO World Heritage protection in order to maintain the very thing it’s worth going there for, and then taking several hours to wind my way along twisty mountain roads dotted with tiny villages where people still live fairly traditionally.

It’s hard for me to see the point of places like Vang Vieng. Why spend hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours travelling to identical party hotspots throughout Southeast Asia? Isn’t the point of travel to see things that aren’t like they are at home, meet people from other cultures, and gain a perspective you won’t find where you’re from?

We’re just franchising Western ideals, often the shit ones, bringing in all the comforts (and problems) of ‘home’ and then replicating them wherever we go. Starbucking local cultures out of existence with our need for the same food, the same drink, the same experiences. Some people have the idea that you can do what you want and the locals don’t care. News flash: they care, and they’re judging evvery Westerner who makes a cultural faux pas. It’s just that they’re too polite to tell us when we’re acting like childish fuckwits. That’s not a two-faced attitude, at least not how we think of it. Boorish behaviour is embarrassing for them to see, but it’s more shameful to have to call people on it. We forget that we’re the foreigners, and I’ve seen some godawful arrogance here where Westerners expect locals to behave like Westerners.

I enjoy the Western amenities that crop up as well, though I’m fussier about the quality of the coffee and the speed/reliability of WiFi (in that order). Hot water showers and air conditioning are secondary considerations, and being able to drink myself into a stupor is something I don’t need to travel several thousand kilometers to do.