After a LONG stretch stretch of failed attempts I can finally throw the word “CHECK” in bring green letters next to a goal. I wish I could say that it was as fun as I thought it was going to be.
This goal of mine was to float down the Nam Song river in Vang Vieng Laos. Vang Vieng is famous for a 4km stretch of river (The Nam Song) that hosts stilted bars and restaurants along the way. Situated at the foot of massive limestone cliffs this river slowly moves along winding its way past humble home stays and under old wooden bridges. When I first got word of this place it was about half a decade ago. It conjured up visions of me gently tubing my way down a majestic river winding through limestone cliffs while monks dressed in their orange gowns meandered past in their slow boats. I dreamed of stopping into to local huts for a drink of lao lao (a local rice whiskey) with a local family and then spending a quiet night drifting off to the sound of silence. Well, times have changed and what was five years ago is a far cry from what is now. Vang Vieng has been transformed into drunken Westerner’s playground with overconsumption being the main attraction.
Now it would not be fair for me not to point out that I only spent three days here, so I can only give my perspective. This is not to slight the people of Vang Vieng or their culture. In fact, judging by what I saw I give the people of Vang Vieng all the credit in the world for being able to be as gracious as they are. If my hometown was transformed the way it has been, I would not be so welcoming.
I guess I should get to the point here and paint you the picture of what I saw and experienced.
The bus pulls in at around 6pm and drops us off downtown. The first things I notice is that everyone is white, drunk and wearing the SAME “Vang Vieng Tubing” tank top. When I say everyone, I mean EVERYONE. I go out to dinner with some guys I met on the bus and along the way we pass by numerous restaurants. Each one has a single TV blasting one of two shows: Family Guy or Friends. They run on a loop and play all day and night! We head off to a bar and everyone is out of their minds, covered in paint, running a muck and sweating it out to heavy house and techno. I lasted about an hour before I decided it better to head back to my room and rest up for the tubing.
The tubing sadly was the “Same same, only different”. I have to admit though it was a site to see. You have this stretch of river with old school stilted huts transformed into day time dance clubs lining both sides of the water. Each on has its own platform for rope swings, ziplines and jumping. Looking down the line and seeing random people flying through the air, playing beer pong and dancing in mobs was in total contradiction to the amazing backdrop it was being played out on. My vision for this place definitely didn’t fit this mold. I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised. I was aware that things had changed, I just wasn’t over joyed with how much this varied from my original vision. This was a goal though and no matter what hoped for I was here and I made the most of it. I danced, play beer pong and did many a back flip off the rope swings. I even tried my hand at flaming limbo later that night and ended up with a nice burn on my shoulder for my efforts.
To say my view is slightly hypocritical considering my willingness to take part in the events wouldn’t be entirely incorrect,, but I can say that if you are looking for true Laos culture, you might want to steer clear of the main town as it is very hard to avoid the nonsense.
I believe that tourism can be an important aspect in raising the poverty levels in rural communities, I just think that it needs to be done responsibly and with extreme sensitivity to the surrounding culture.
This is only my perspective and I know that people who come here have a lot of fun. I just look around at the gorgeous landscape and the laid back people of Laos and cringe when I think of how over run the town has become by Westerners. Everywhere I looked their was some drunk idiot doing something offensive to their culture. I didn’t matter that there were etiquette signs posted in every restaurant and internet cafe, this was their vacation and if they wanted to take their shirt off who were the people of Laos to tell them different. Ridiculous.
I met a girl who was working promotions for one of the bars and asked her how she came about working in Laos. In a hazy, burnt out response she told me she didn’t remember. Just as she looked like she was going to pass out she added “The people here are so amazing”. In her own messed up way she was right, the are amazing; amazing for shining through in light of people like her.