Vang Vieng, Lao PDR
It's now been a month since Alex and I first set off from San Francisco for Bangkok though, predictably enough, it feels like it's been ages. This morning I woke up from a vivid dream of being back in my hometown, driving my own tuk-tuk through a blizzard [though in reality my hometown rarely gets colder than 70° F] to enroll in an intensive curriculum at a Hogwarts-esque school with the most incredible bookstore I'd ever seen, where I met an awesome girl who was an equestrian stuntwoman, hitchhiker, and organic chemist and we quickly fell into an enthused conversation about traveling, self-sufficiency versus [or in conjunction with?] love...Life, the Universe, and Everything.
I woke up, completely disoriented. Why am I in a small, dark wooden box?
...Oh yeah. I'm in a bungalow. Somewhere in Asia...Lao. That's right. What the fuck.
It's unsusprising that I'd be in such a funk. I've just gotten over about twenty-four hours of what I suppose must have been my first bout of really vicious food poisoning [though Alex and I have been sharing all our food, and he was unaffected, so who knows where I got it from]. For about eighteen hours Alex said I was barely human, just kind of a feverish, cramping zombie; in moments of coherence I suspected somewhat dramatically that I might be dying.
Anyway, in all honesty, Vang Vieng sort of creeps me out, but over the last couple days being here has led us unexpectedly to our first major revelations on this trip. Of course, our brains have been working this whole time, trying to make
sense of where we are and why, and what impacts we're contributing to by
being here. Being in this city has crystalized a lot of those incubating thoughts and questions.
In stark contrast with the shiny and etheral Utopia of Luang Prabang--full of happy, healthy, and educated locals, philanthropist-conservationist-entrepreneurial ex-pats, volunteer opportunities that required very little time or money from well-meaning passers-through, and so much natural and manmade beauty it almost hurt to look at [not to mention the fucking food, which I already gushed over in my last post]--Vang Vieng appears to have become a sort of wasteland since the time when most articles we've read about it were published.
Coming here, it's easy to see that this place was once an innocuous little village, set right by the river against a beautiful backdrop of sheer green cliffs, huge natural caves, but otherwise not too different from any of the other small towns in this country.
Then with the onset of tubing it sprung up a facade of debauchery and the sort of tourism that would appeal mainly to that particular class of sheltered, spoiled spring-break-gap-year kids who feel "invincible" and ever-deserving of whatever they want--a rather ugly facade considering how poor of a town it still obviously is.
Then, when enough tourists started dying of drinking-drug-or-recreational-thrill-seeking-related mishaps, a whole shitton of the bars and rides were shut down by the powers that be, leaving a sparse sprinkling of bars that had us thinking, after a handful of crazy nights in Thailand and Luang Prabang, "So...where's the supposed nightlife in town?" Going tubing and seeing about five operating bars the whole way [and tens of shut-down establishments that obviously used to be bars, slides, and rides that were shut down for being unsafe] was similarly disillusioning. And now the locals who made their living off tourism are now still having to deal with its ill effects [arguably even more ill effects than other, similar places, considering the crowd Vang Vieng seems to attract] but are hard-pressed to find nearly as much business. While a few ex-pat bars thrive each night, the adjacent locally-staffed bars are pathetically vacant, even the ones offering free drinks for ladies before 10pm and other such no-strings specials.
It feels like a dwindling amusement park I visited as a kid, with floundering business due to a few freak accidents [and the resulting bad press, shut-downs, and lawsuits], now devoid of families or young things and primarily full of sheisty thirty-year-old trashbags who'd wander aimlessly and hit on eleven year old girls [such as myself, at the time]. Or, as Alex put it, "it feels like Burning Man on Monday, after the temple's burned down...all the theme camps are still up, or partially up, but almost everyone's left."
Before I pontificate any more, I might as well back-track to the route we took to our present dis-ease.
The bus ride into town was a charming but strange look at the countryside which brought back the feelings I had on our last, much longer, much more uncomfortable ride into Luang Prabang. Natural beauty, lots of domesticated animals and savagely happy kids running around and waving, but weird icons of darkness: on a food stand at one of our stops was a water jug full of clear liquid and several dismembered bear paws, with a tap at the bottom [what could that possibly be for?], and every so often we'd see older people broken to the point of deformation or paralysis due to working every day of their lives, walking around on their arms, their atrophied legs shriveled up into their bodies, or hunchbacked to the point of being folded entirely over, looking jaded [possibly doped up on opium, which is legal for older citizens, broken by a lifetime of work, to smoke in order to ease their pain]. Even the knowledge that the gorgeous, perfectly-preserved mountainous countryside all around us was probably in such pristine condition largely due to the fact that the undeveloped parts of the country are literal minefields made its beauty feel a bit sinister.
Upon arriving, our first few couple days consisted mainly of vignettes of "paradise"
that effectively distracted us from our deep-down feelings that there
was something wrong with this place [and made us reluctant to admit
these feelings to ourselves and one another].
We arrived, and almost instantly found a lovely bungalow, much nicer and more accommodating than any room we'd stayed in so far, for half the price we'd been paying anywhere else.
On our first night, we ran into about eight different people we'd seen before previously on our travels, and an unintelligibly drunk Londoner insisted upon buying us tequila shots before we slithered on our way. Several bars hand out free drink vouchers and have free Ladies Night specials every night where I can just walk in, order a mixer, and walk back out, and several bars will proffer free shots of lao lao if you ask. However, what little nightlife there was along the main drag seemed pretty fucking trashy and sad and full of overdrunk douchetools, so we'd mainly just go hang out back at our guest house, which was complete with a garden hammock hang-out spot where we had several
nights of long conversations with other passers-through from New
Zealand, Germany, England, and an unlikely eighteen-year-old Sacramento
stoner who worked for two years in order to leave the country for the
first time and travel solo around the world for a year and a half [or
longer, depending on the work he could find abroad].
The next day, we walked right through a massive herd of cows and a couple miles out of town into rice paddies and virtually empty countryside, scrambled up Pha Poak [small but rather steep, with no clear route except for some jenky-ass wooden ladders--we only saw one other tourist headed up on our way down, and he looked like he was halfway dead from exhaustion] for an incredible view of the town, the fields, small villages on the other side, and the towering cliffs nearby.
A mile or so more of walking through lush jungley forest past water buffalo took us to Lusi Cave, the largest and prettiest natural cave I've been in so far, which has a lagoon you can swim in in the pitch-dark about an hour's walk in from the entrance [though it's currently dried up, so we didn't wander in that far].
Several dogs roam about freely [as they seem to all around Thailand and Lao], but here they seem especially friendly despite having no obvious owners. A group of four puppies followed a few Germans back to our guesthouse and wound up frolicking around the garden all night. On one evening we encountered a random, unsupervised cage with two monkeys on the street; the smaller of the two made grabs at my fingers and skirt [eventually he nabbed a bit of my hair, examined it, and put it in his mouth before getting bored of it and tossing it aside] and we couldn't quite figure out why they were in there, nor how we felt about it--amused but sympathetic and a bit disgusted.
Of all days to bring our camera with us, our first couple here easily would've yielded better photos than any we've taken so far...but we decided not to bother, and figured we'd rather just remain present, as we've done throughout most of our stay in Lao. Something about lugging around and pulling out a camera here feels kind of cheap.
Then we decided to go tubing, since that's sort of the obligatory "thing to do in Vang Vieng", which is where we really started noticing how much of a wasteland this place seems to have become. We made a point to head out early enough so that it wouldn't be too crowded...on the contrary, almost no one else was around. About five bars were in operation [with fit Lao boys throwing ropes out to fish for tubers, which we'd then grab in order to be pulled into shore--a procedure I found hilarious], several abandoned buildings nearby indicated where other bars once were, and several ladders and ropes indicated rides or jumps that had been shut down as safety hazards. The river was so slow that we spent most of the time paddling ourselves in order to move at all, and despite getting started before noon, we struggled to make it back by the 6p.m. deadline in order to avoid a fee from the tube rental shop. Additionally, it suddenly became freezing fucking cold [granted, the river being cold, slow, and deserted may have had more to do with the time of year--despite this being high season].
The one more-than-redeeming highlight of the day [the highlight of being in Vang Vieng, in general] was when we stopped over at one deserted bar and wandered further back when we saw a steep set of stairs and ladders leading up a cliff to a platform about a hundred or so feet up. We walked past a see-saw [which we were terrible at, since I'm half Alex's size], a bunch of tame baby bunnies that didn't seem to mind being pet, and several domesticated birds [geese, ducks, turkeys, chickens, huge tanks of hatchlings...and one of the weirdest, ugliest birds I've ever seen in my life, which I could only describe as a Durkey], clambered up the ladders and stairs to the platform, which yielded an incredible view, and then noticed a small cave entrance that would've been all too easy to miss. We clambered in and it was gorgeous, with natural bridges we could clamber across and a lower pit we could get to down a ladder, sunlight filtering through in such a way, illuminating shimmering mineral deposits and lush green mosses, that it looked like a fucking Dwarf Palace.
After a few hours of paddling our arms frantically through frigid stillwater and increasing winds so as to make it back by 6 p.m. we realized aloud: there's nothing to do here except the standard "adventure tour" drag [mainly treks, or trips up to caves, most of which charge an entrance fee and some of which, that we'd previously read could be explored alone, require going with a guide--probably after enough tourists fucked up and died, as the trend here seems to be] or get wasted, and neither of those things aren't all that worth the trip compared to other places where they're better. The town at least isn't so much a real place where one can just be, relax, learn about, and appreciate; it's a broken-down Adventuretime facade. The natural geography here is really magnificent [which is probably how all the tourism cropped up here in the first place] but it's being exploited for cheap thrills.
We walked back home where we were intending to just get changed out of our wet clothes before heading out into the night, but both inadvertently passed out, exhausted. A few hours later I woke up at the onset of a fever, severe cramps, and delirium. Yay, food poisoning [or whatever].
A little over twenty-four hours later, as I was lying still and becoming a human again, Alex began a monologue that I've transcribed below. A bit later, when I felt well enough to speak fluently, turned into an extended conversation we've been ironing out ever since.
You know, when we first got here I just thought, 'Wow, this place is so much more wild and 'authentic' and rugged, I'm really enjoying this, blah, blah, blah.' But after a while, after the egocentric thoughts kind of dwindled, I'm realizing what I really think of this place.
We got here, hating on Thailand's full moon parties and easy access and shit, but now I feel like...that's kind of where we belong. On some developed island, drinking cocktails rather than trying to fool ourselves into thinking we're doing something more "dignified" and "earnest".
At least in Vang Vieng, the locals look at us with this ugly mixture of hope, bitterness. Especially some of the older ladies here who've obviously worked hard their entire lives, too old now to figure out a way to adapt to our presence here. We walk by, I'll smile and offer a 'sa-bai-dee,' and they'll just stare with this...indifference. But not just a fly-by not-noticing, but more a profound, conscious dismissal.
Even those who benefit, the tuk-tuk drivers and the vendors who smile and call out next to all the competing stands next to them that look exactly the same, beseeching us, "Please give us your money, you have so much of it and we need it," are basically bottom-feeders--here they're too desperate to brush off the tourists who decide to be assholes, or who insist on haggling harder than is fair, when it's inappropriate. They're not prospering off tourism. Here they still kiss all our asses no matter what bullshit we put them through or how dehumanizing we are...they may be benefiting more, but they still seem like slaves, just 'house niggas'.
Other tourists have been making me mad, and embarrassed, even for small transgressions. Ignorant jokes. Making cracks about hooking up with the prettier local women, like that's all they exist for. Getting angry when an impoverished Laotian--who might be illiterate in their native language--doesn't speak English, French, or whatever. Cultural insensitivity--even with signs in English asking them politely to wear shirts while they're in town. Throwing their cigarette butts and trash in beautiful places just because they're above keeping the place nice. Getting indignant when the cheap-ass comercial tour they paid for--that might cost the equivalent of a Lao person's wages in two months of working seven-day weeks--isn't "authentic" enough, or when everyone seems to be "trying to sell them things". Feeling entitled to 'local prices' and then not even realizing when they're already being offered those 'local prices'.
It's all pandered to them, too. Like the narco-tourism. It wasn't shut down because it was harming the locals...it was shut down when enough tourists died that it was making people hesitant to visit.
This facade's been created. Other tourists here are so detached. We were detached, too, when we first got here. No one comes to Vang Vieng to learn about the history or culture of this place. What history or culture? All you can see here are the detrimental effects of a failing tourist industry on a small third-world town that had the misfortune of being located in a beautiful place. And we were originally going to look into volunteering here...but volunteering around this town is SO much more expensive than being a tourist, even a somewhat extravagant one.
And here we are, falling asleep in this cozy tourist bungalow designed to look like the real thing while actually being much more comfortable, in a country built on fields of opium poppies, land mines, skeletons of war, and a nebulous government that everyone's too scared to even talk about.
We're invincible, coming here with our money, even if we're middle-class back home. Even across the world, if we get sick or get hurt, we'll be taken care of. For a pittance we can get private rooms, clean water, showers, and stuff ourselves with food.
People come here and pay to ride abused elephants or dehumanize and gawk at the hilltribes, who are some of the last strongholds of cultural isolation in a globalizing world. Then they complain that it's not "authentic". You don't need to hire a guide and go take photos of them to realize what's happening or to sympathize with them for being exploited and rendered as impoverished by outside forces. Even though we're not participating in those things, to a lesser degree, we're not exempt from that either. Even with less money than most people bring here, even by making an effort to learn and do no harm, we're still living it up, we've still got nice backpacks, and are still monetary miles above the standard here. I think it's important to understand this.
If you want an "authentic" experience, fucking go home and buy a sandwich at Subway. For the people here, it's just life, and it's harder than just about anyone comes with would ever want to subject themselves to--or would know how to handle. Some of the volunteering costs so much money because even the well-intentioned people who come to volunteer don't have the grit to do it without some of their first-world creature comforts, and don't have the skills to actually be all that useful. They come with philanthropic ideals molded more around their egos than around a true ability or willingness to be helpful.
Now I remember why I do this: to try and make a bit more sense of what's happening in the world. It'd be delusional to think I could get some simple, clean, final answer--that'd be impossible without knowing the history, goings-on, secrets, and interactions within and between everywhere in the world, which in itself is impossible knowledge.
But we just come into the world--poof!--as another consciousness. Here we are. Why? Why do I have what I have? What does someone over there have? What's going on? Over here, over there? Are we all puppets, is there Free Will, is it beneficial to think there is even if there isn't, blah, blah, blah...?
And I don't know what to do, what I can or should do--if I should do anything. But I can travel, and learn. I don't know what else to spend a lifetime doing. Or at least this part of my lifetime, while I might have so much time and still know so damn little.
He voiced my own solidifying thoughts and feelings at least as well as I could have, so there they are.
And, duh. Luang Prabang and the major hubs of Thailand we've visited so far are, of course, also touristy as fuck--but there seems to be more of a symbiosis there between the locals and tourists. It doesn't seem so toxic.
In most places we've been there's some semblance of mutual respect and appreciation, and even a lot of social crossover--we spent a good portion of a night in Luang Prabang playing music on the street with some Laotians, one of whom unwittingly led me to my gnarliest hangover ever when he kept offering me shots of lao lao and ignoring my laughing pleas of, "No more!" Similarly, the nightlife and partying and narco-tourism is rampant there, but it doesn't feel dark or thoughtless, rife with stories of overdose or exploitation--it feels more like what partying should be.
And Thailand, while overrun with a different sort of ex-pat [i.e., perverted old men with young Thai girls, or people who just wanted to retire somewhere cheap, irrespective of where it was] and some other unpleasant variables, seems less tainted in that it decidedly isn't a third-world country the way Lao is, the people there aren't so desperate and taken for granted by entitled tourists flaunting their wealth here in a third-world country by wearing impractically decadent designer clothes, trying to haggle for set-price wet market items for the sake of saving an extra twenty-five cents because they're fucking idiots and don't know better and mistakenly think that no items are above haggling or that everything is dishonestly priced, knowing that sooner or later one of the reluctant food merchants will relent because, after all, beggars can't be choosers. In Thailand, when someone tries to do that, the vendors just laugh them off, and rightly so.
I didn't feel dirty for being in most of the places we've been so far [though coming to terms with "being a tourist", not deluding myself into thinking I could be something more dignified by trying to "avoid the tourist stuff" or "rough it" more, and embracing my role as an inescapable fact took me a second], whereas coming here has wrought us with
an uncomfortable sort of guilt...a feeling that we really don't belong here, that our presence is doing a lot more harm than good.
Anyway. Time will tell what we might actually do with our evolving thoughts and attitudes, but for now we're still learning, trying to stay humble, to "see with eyes unclouded" and not delude ourselves into thinking we're "above" all the bullshit...while also not being too hard on ourselves.
For now, I'm excited to get the fuck out of here tomorrow: the general plan is Vientiene, hop over the border to Nong Khai, then on to Southern Thailand via Bangkok in order to visit a few people and get scuba certs.
Of course, as usual we've been playing by ear a lot and our "plans" have been changing every two days or so, so fuck if I know whether that's actually what we'll end up doing [or, if so, how long it'll end up taking us--two weeks or six].
One side effect of all the Bangkok protests we've just found out about that's proved very serendipitous for us is that Americans entering Thailand by land can now stay visa-free for thirty days. A week or two ago, it was fourteen days--we would've had to fly in in order to stay the full thirty for free, so we'd resigned ourselves to hunting for as cheap a flight as possible from Vientiene into Bangkok and skipping Nong Khai, which would've been a shame since it's right there from Vientiene and was recommended by a "credible stranger" who didn't really tell us anything about it except that we should go there. I tend to prefer following random and vague suggestions than well-defended ones, which is probably why we didn't bother going to Pai when we were in the neighborhood-ish--too much hype from too many backpackers either yammering about how amazing it was, or about how overrated and overrun it was.