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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.

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