Sunday, March 1, 2009

Where's Laos now?

Vang Vieng, Laos, located 400 miles south of Luang Prabang on the road to Vientiane, is a boisterous nook nestled along the banks of the meandering Nam Song River. Towering karsts overlook this fast-growing backpacker haunt, where Friends bars, banana pancake vendors and a vigorous tubing industry fuel the local economy.

Our VIP bus (read: glorified Greyhound) crept down the thin wheedle of twisting mountain road between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, passing thatched villages clinging to crumbling red earth, bamboo and banana trees sprouting from the precarious ridgeline. Half-clothed children played along the side of the road, while squatting men with cigarette lips stared at the passing bus. The vegetated cliffs and hillsides were a brown-and-green patchwork of flattened, stalk-strewn earth, evidence of widely practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. Dissipated smoke obscured the choppy horizon.

As we descended into the valley, the smoke from Vang Vieng's two concrete factories – the first of which is pictured on the Laos 5,000 kip note – was visible to the east of town. Sheer cliffs to the south dwarfed its few dusty streets and threatened shadows over the river's wide lazy bends.

Vang Vieng's tubing operation used to be more communal, but it has since been consolidated into a kind of cartel, where tubes are rented out by only one place in town and the tuk-tuk ride upriver is included in the rental price. On the river, mop-haired, tanned and tattooed farang swing from ropes and zip lines, leap off of diving platforms, drink buckets of booze and avoid, for the most part, any serious paddling.

There are injuries, as well. Rope swings break, zip lines snap, people land wrong in the water, and rocks exposed in the dry season cut and scrape reckless tubers' legs and arms. Dozens of people limp around town with bandages and splints. When once the common accident in Southeast Asia was motorcycle spills, now it is tubing in Vang Vieng.

At night, along streets lined with eerie fluorescent lighting – like a border town in a Quentin Tarantino film – tubers and other farang gather cult-like to watch Friends, Family Guy and the occasional The Simpsons episode, the televisions' glare turning their blank faces skeletal under the bars' dim lighting. In most of the restaurants, festive tinsel hangs from walls and small fake Christmas trees still stand decorated. Between January and April, the Western, Chinese, Thai and Laos New Years are all celebrated, so decorations are kept up for at least four months.

Away from town on the other side of the river, across the bamboo footbridge and along the cow-dung dotted riverbank, is a quaint cluster of thatched bungalows surrounded by a well-kept garden. The guesthouse is run by man from Ireland, whose accent has been erased over time by stints in Australia, London, Thailand, and now eight years in Laos, and who asked not to be named. But for this posting I will call him Michael.

"I've fallen out of love with Asia," Michael told me one afternoon while we were sitting in the shade under his elevated, dark-stained wood house. He has grown frustrated with the town's willingness to sell itself out to farang, and he has dealt with his fair share of local corruption. He is tired of his neighbor's burning rubbish piles near his property. He finds it difficult to find reliable labor, and he described his general attitude as "weariness." MIchael is even contemplating petitioning the local government to pass laws regulating loud music, which can be heard drifting across the river late into the night.

"I'm all for Laos developing a good tourist industry, but this place seems to attract now a dumb sort of individual," he said. He fears the serene paradise he moved to eight years ago has been corrupted beyond repair. "The thing that really ruined this place was the electricity … you'd think (the locals) would've gone for refrigerators and fans, but no – it was karaoke machines."

To make matters worse, he said, there is no "community culture" and no activism on behalf of the environment, so his efforts to petition the government are more than likely in vain. Also, he says doesn't want to stir up trouble.

Michael has bags under his slate blue eyes, and a graying scrabble of dark brown hair. He is a consummate viewer of Fashion TV, a habit he described as "titillating yourself with horror," but he said it is the Thai soaps – "everybody slapping everybody" – that are corrupting Laos culture. From his point of view, Vang Vieng was once an idyllic setting – "I used to be able to see blue sky" – that has been run over by development interests and a disregard for the environment.

Vang Vieng is one of the most beautiful areas I've seen in Laos. There are caves to be explored, blue lagoons to drift in, and mountain biking is the preferred method of transportation. But this paradise of easy living has already developed a reputation among more subdued travelers, and for some this den of frivolity has seen its day. Vang Vieng is your place if you are young and on holiday from school with a taste for loud music and no real desire to immerse yourself in local culture. But if you fancy a taste of real Laos, Vang Vieng is more like, as Michael put it, "paradise already spoiled."

1 comment:

  1. Vang Vieng WAS one of the most beautiful places in Laos, when I first visited it, back in 1997 (I think). Laos was open for the first year for individual tourists.
    There was nothing much there concerning restaurants or places to sleep. And almost no visitors. It was nice and quiet. Heaven on earth.
    When I went back there 5 or 6 years later, it was completely spoiled. Crowded with guesthouses, restaurants, young farang playing in the water and crying loud.
    And the prices gone up unbelievably. Although if you manage to speak the language and tell them you were there before definitely helps!
    Walter Bierkens