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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.

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