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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.

Plain Of Jars

February 21, 2011 1 comment

Near Phonsavan, Xieng Khoung province, Laos PDR

Nostalgia Ain’t What it Once Was…

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

VIENTIANE, LAOS – When I first visited this city in December of 2004, it was such a lovely quiet change of pace to Thailand that I fell in love with it almost instantly.

How things have changed.

The Lao capital had a slow pace and a distinct vibe that distinguished it from neighbouring countries. Now, there are more ritzy cafés and restaurants per block than you’re likely to see in Sydney.

Normally, I’d appreciate this. I love a good coffee and a quiet place to sit and read, or write. But if I wanted to go to a place full of relatively expensive cafés, I’d go to Newtown. I like being able to visit such places on my travels, but not when that’s all that’s on offer.

Rather than the sedate riverside French colonial town it was way back, when riverside ‘bars’ were just plastic tables under a dodgy tarpaulin along the dusty bank of the Mekong, it’s turned into a gentrified Yuppieville. And when this type of thing has happened in parts of Sydney, it’s resulted in a sharp increase in prices. Vientiane is no exception, sadly. It’s twice as expensive as Phnom Penh and three times pricier than other parts of Laos. It feels like it’s lost it’s soul. Some ‘tuktuk’/songthaew/saamlor drivers double as pimps and drug dealers, and there are ‘working girls’ stalking the streets after dark. Two developments that this town could’ve done without.

As I said in an email to a friend last night, “Why do Westerners swarm to an area and transform it into a replica of every other area they swarm to?”

A Timeless Beauty

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

SAVANNAKHET, LAOS – Sometimes it’s good to go back. There are occasions when revisiting a place after an absence of years brings back good feelings of nostalgia.

It’s this nostalgia that I’ve been basking in for a few days now.

In the early 20th century, Savannakhet was an important French trading post in southern Laos. As a result, there are plenty of examples of French colonial architecture scattered throughout the old quarter of the town.

This is the part of Savannakhet that I’ve spent most of my time in. I’ve found myself very inspired by being in this place, and have discovered a few little cafés that provide not only excellent coffee, but a quiet area in which I can write.

I’ve written more in the last few days than I have in the last few months, which is a good thing.

There isn’t much of a nightlife here, only one or two drinking spots that are more like restaurants than bars. It’s more the atmosphere of Savannakhet that is the main appeal of the town. Sadly, the Lao government does not seem all that interested in preserving the old colonial buildings, and many of them are in terminal decay.

Another change that has come to Savannakhet is the opening of the Friendship Bridge which spans the Mekong River, giving much more convenient access to Thailand. The highway which runs across Laos between Thailand and Vietnam has seen an increase in traffic and trade, but the old quarter is relatively untouched, having changed little since my last visit in December 2004.

Progress is good, but not when it comes at the cost of destroying history. For me, the old French buildings in Savannakhet are part of the town’s charm (just as it is in Battambang). It would be very sad to see these things slowly crumble into dust.

I love Savannakhet, and when I leave here, it will be with strong reluctance. I just hope that it’s not another six years before I can come back to this beautiful town.

The Land That Forgets Time

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

PAKSE, LAOS – The official name of this country is the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR. Everything in Laos happens at an extremely relaxed pace, and it’s been suggested by more than one person that PDR actually stands for Please Don’t Rush. Any time you’re given will usually translate as “eventually”. Forget trying to plan a definite ETA because the departure time will be anything from ten minutes before the stated time to three hours after it. If you’re lucky.

I’ve been in Southeast Asia long enough to know that the best laid plans don’t always (or usually) go the way you’d want. However, even I was getting very frustrated while waiting for a little over an hour just to leave Don Det yesterday, and then having to contend with what looked like a very disorganised assignment of buses once back on the mainland. It seems that despite all my time in this region so far, there’s still a lot I need to learn about expectations and patience.

The annoyance was compounded by my own foolish overindulgence the previous evening after realising that a Khmer family owned one of the restaurants on the northern tip of Don Det. This led to us all conversing and then drinking into hours way too wee. It was a fun evening, but one that I paid for in spades by getting crammed into an already stacked to the ceiling minibus for the trip north. It was a short trip, to be sure, but a far from comfortable one.

I’m still waiting for a decent Internet connection that will be speedy enough to let me upload photos. So far, even going to websites has been an exercise in patience. Fortunately, I can update Facebook and Twitter and this blog by email, which is how I’m posting this now.

Where I’m staying now is just to the west of the Bolaven Plateau, the major coffee-growing region in Laos. Given that I’m a bit of a fan of the bean, I think I’ll have to take a look up there before continuing on.

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Safe & sound in Savannakhet

December 18, 2004 Leave a comment

Hi all,

Yesterday I very reluctantly left the Lao capitol of Vientiane and headed south to the township of Savannakhet. I had a feeling the bus trip was gonna be something special when I climbed on and the driver fired up the on-board karaoke machine. :) Unfortunately, I can’t speak or read Thai, nor did they have any English VCDs othewise I would’ve gotten up and given it a bash.

Being just under 6’1″ and taking a 10 hour ride on a public bus designed for people significantly is not a whole lot of fun. I have a dodgy knee and have discovered that if it isn’t moved for about 90 minutes it starts to really f_cking hurt. For about two hours that was all I could think of, I couldn’t take delight in the lovely countryside, my friendly co-passengers (only one other being a Westerner, from Melbourne, bloody Aussies are everywhere!), the karaoke, and it annoyed me. I managed to temporarily remedy the knee and the world reappeared. I cannot sleep on transport, and it got dark before long so I couldn’t read. So I just let all the experiences, sights, sounds, tastes and emotions of the last 5 weeks flow through me. It was quite an interesting exercise.

I arrived in Savannakhet at about 8pm, accepted the first tuk-tuk ride offered to me (at a cost of 10,000 kip into town, a very good deal), and was deposited at a pretty cool-looking almost French colonial style hotel. There were a few Westerners in the courtyard having a quiet ale. Once I saw the price of the room I grabbed it. Once again, a very good deal.

And as is the custom in the region, everyone has a little side business going. The bloke on the reception desk said to me, “If you want girlfriend, you let me know, I arrange.” It was kinda strange to think that the offer coming from a hotel guy has a greater feel of non-shonkiness than the same offer from a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok.

I dropped my bags and went for a walk, getting utterly disoriented as I had no idea which way north was. But there was nothing to fear; disoriented at night in a Communist South-east Asian country where I don’t know anyone and can’t read or speak the language, what could possibly go wrong?

It seems that practicing English on random Westerners is a favourite pasttime here. I was greeted by a young boy about 16 years old, he invited me to sit down and he practiced his conversational english on me. What’s your name? Where are you from? How old are you? How long have you been in Laos? His three friends soon joined him and they all had a go as well, except the youngest who was about 8 years old.

In an attempt to get my bearings I asked which way the Mekong River was. They all pointed (in the same direction, thankfully), and then the elsedt one offered to take me there on his motor scooter for a look. How very cool. I declined and thanked him in English and in Lao. I shook their hands as I left and they were absolutely over the moon.

I returned to my room about 45 minutes later and was soon comatose on my bed. Slept better than I have in a long time.

So… on Monday I think I’ll start making my way to Vietnam. There’s a lot just south of the DMZ that I want to see.

Not a lot else to say, I wrote tons in my journal while in Vientiane, I guess you’ll have to wait unti I’ve compiled that into legible form.

Hope everyone is cool and groovy and etc.

Cheers,
Paul C./Karsoe

“There is a difference between knowing the Path and walking the Path.”
– Morpheus, ‘The Matrix’

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