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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.

Unexpected Epiphany

December 29, 2004 Leave a comment

HOI AN, VIETNAM – A delicious breakfast at Thu’s, some grafitti (I wrote “Love me Thu times baby! – Karsoe, Sydney Australia 28-12-04”) and I then hopped on a bus for the trip to the seaside town of Hoi An.

This town is renowned for it’s tailors, and there are a lot of them, all willing to run up a suit for not a great deal of money. I’d like to grab one, except I’ve still got a while to go on my trip.

I tried to have some peaceful beach time today. The weather was not amazing, it rained quite a bit last night. I figured that the tourists would stay away from the beach, and that it would give me a good chance to get down there and have some time on my own.

I was right, there were very few tourists. There were, however, many many people selling handcrafts, drinks, snacks, cigarettes, massages. And they were very insistent, as they have been everywhere here. I bought a few things but felt pissed off. What the hell do I have to do to get some quiet time on my own in this country?

I walked back without having said much to the ocean. I felt a bit of animosity towards the people, the mentality, just the whole thing was making me angry. All I wanted to do was go to Da Nang and hop on the next plane to Bangkok where the tuk-tuk drivers know what ‘no thank you’ actually means.

But as I walked back from the beach I started figuring things. I was staring down at my feet as I walked. My world was small. I could be walking past a magnificent temple, a beautiful river, a lovely woman, and I’d never have known. I didn’t care then, I wanted my world to be small because I felt angry that the Universe had conspired to deny me some quiet time.

The people who “hassle” you to buy, invite you into their shop, they’re not shop assist ante. Nor do they employ any. They aren’t wage earners. They don’t earn if they don’t sell, and they don’t eat if they don’t earn. And while this revelation didn’t inspire me to spend more, it did at least give me some perspective as to why they’re so insistent.

At that moment I heard a “Hello!” as my side. Another child, a little girl, a toddler really, who could already call out in English to a huge Western stranger without fear. She teetered towards me, smiling, waving, her slightly older brother stood nearer their house, also smiling but watching carefully. The girl shook my hand firmly, Westerner-style. Her mum watched from the house, happy to see her kids exploring their world.

As I continued back to town I began to wonder how I lost that sense of adventure, the desire to explore. How did I? Why did I? Why do we? Why is it that when our bodies get bigger, our minds get smaller?

I remember family picnics in Binya Hills near Griffith, me and the other kids would always go off ‘exploring’. That’s what we called it. We’d climb rocks, jump crevices, wade through creeks and climb trees, totally convinced that we were the first to do so since creation. We “claimed” everything we saw as ours but never too anything with us. And we shared it all. There was no ‘mine’ because it was all to big for one.

Early bus to Nha Trang tomorrow, I should be getting some sleep.

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