Land of the Banana Pancake Eaters

By Claire vd Heever Jan 5, 2012

They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-Eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return.

Homer, The Odyssey

Swings over the 'Blue Lagoon' in Vang Vieng, Laos

At first, the sheer ease of travelling in Southeast Asia came as a pleasant shock. After flying in from Calcutta, most of the cheap hotels in Bangkok seemed exceptionally clean, and were as affordable as their Indian equivalents. We didn’t need to trek halfway across the city to buy bus tickets from dingy ticket offices filled with aggressive queue jumpers; they were sold by agents for the same price. We spent our first month between Bangkok and an idyllic island in the Gulf of Thailand, without any of the familiar hassles and challenges of travel, and when our Thai visas expired, we continued into Laos. My thoughts often turned to India and the twelve months I’d spent travelling there, testing and tormenting myself on long sweaty journeys to vast, polluted cities where a concrete box with a creaky overhead fan was often all I could get for my money. Had all the hassles and challenges been worth it?

The day I arrived in Vang Vieng the answer slapped me in the face. Or, rather, a few dozen pairs of barely-bikinied breasts slapped me in the face, closely pursued by as many pairs of luminous shorts, emblazoned with Vang Vieng, In the Tubing.

Vang Vieng is famous – in Australia. To most eighteen year old backpackers – and like-minded twenty-somethings – Vang Vieng is the highlight of any coming-of-age jaunt around Southeast Asia. To other travellers, it is a small town in northern Laos where people hire rubber tubes and float down the Nam Song River, stopping at ramshackle bars along the riverbank to drink buckets of whiskey and coke, or truly test their endurance with opium-laced cocktails or a bucket of magic mushrooms blended with fruit juice, hoping to god they won’t need to swim. Several travellers die every year, most from drowning or cracking their skulls on a rock. There are several tragic stories of people swimming after runaway tubes, only to disappear in the current – for the sake of a seven dollar deposit. Some float their way to the end of the tubing course in the dark, having lost track of time, and are robbed by groups of teenage locals who pretend to be helping them ashore.

Tubers making their way out of the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng, Laos

Everything we’d heard about Vang Vieng warned us to steer clear – and we’d had every intention of doing so, but a few days before leaving Laos’ capital, Vientiane, Iain and I saw a postcard labelled Blue Lagoon, Vang Vieng. It was an image of an immodestly blue body of water, glassy and clear beneath knotted trees, and fringed with bushes, leaves and more trees of assorted greens. Three lengths of rope hung temptingly into the water from a branch above, each with a wooden swing-seat at the end. Vientiane was scorching; the sun was hot enough to burn my skin during a fifteen minute walk to lunch. The thought of submerging ourselves in that pool of cool water was, quite simply, irresistible.

For the next few days, we toyed with the idea of stopping off in Vang Vieng for swim in that beautiful pool. We met a Canadian who was cycling around Laos and had already stopped in Vang Vieng for a few nights. He had expected to last three hours he told us – “too many morons” – but decided to go anyway, out of curiosity, and after a few more days of wandering around Vientiane, writing, and pretending to be expats with our new friends at The Hare and Hound, we boarded a minibus to Vang Vieng after lunch.

Apart from a Swiss man from our guesthouse who had taken the front seat, the other passengers were all younger than 20. The driver drove through Vientiane for a few minutes and stopped the minibus outside a small shop.
“Maybe we’ll change to a bus here,” one of the young passengers said to another. They were both well-spoken Brits, with shiny hair and bright eyes, and couldn’t have been older than 18. They were travelling with a boy of the same age, who wore a pair of khaki shorts and one of the ubiquitous backpacker vests, bearing the logo of some or other Southeast Asian beer on the back. The three of them, like thousands of others, were on a gap year: backpacking for a few months during the year between high school and university. “We must be changing to a bus here” she said again, looking out the window somewhat anxiously. “Oh… We’re just picking up some petrol. God! Couldn’t he have done that before?”
The girl was confused by the minibus. Her Lonely Planet Guide, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, which she quoted from memory, had described treacherous journeys through Laos in buses that are “ancient and seemingly made of wet cardboard,” she told her two companions. It was the experience she had been promised, and she expected to go through it, word for word and picture perfect, along with the other typical experiences that the guidebook described. But this was not one of the “ancient” local buses that her guidebook spoke of; we had all booked our tickets at a guesthouse or a travel agency, not a bus station, and so were riding to Vang Vieng in a tourist vehicle.

I didn’t want to be around these young, untravelled people, clutching onto their guidebooks like toddlers onto nannies. Whether in Vientiane or Chiangmai or Luang Prabang, I had preferred to avoid the large troupes of teen backpackers that ambled through the streets. They travelled in packs, picking up new members as they went, forming their own tour groups and party buses. They reminded me that I no longer saw the world in the same, naïve light as them, bringing the cynic in me closer to the surface – too close. But it was me who shouldn’t have been there, really – who should have gotten off the Banana Pancake Trail and spared myself the irritation.

I suppose they reminded me of myself: of the eighteen-year-old me who had sashayed through Western Europe and felt very worldly doing it. In fact, in some ways, they were exactly as I’d been: naïve, yet inquisitive, and completely unaware of how derivative the experiences they were having really were. They didn’t see a need for the experiences to be original or carefully chosen – or motivated by anything but a whim. My post high school travels had been at least as generic – pizza in Italy, the Louvre in France, beer halls in Munich – but to me, they were magical. It was a pity, really, that seeing the raw excitement of these gap-year travellers only made me feel jaded. I was on the wrong path. This detour had not been part of our plans for a reason, and as we drove closer to Vang Vieng, I felt sure we’d made a mistake.

A karst mountain behind the paddy fields in Vang Vieng, Laos

Three hours and several hairpin bends later, the driver stopped outside a cluster of faux-rustic guesthouses and said “OK! Vang Vieng!” We stared through the windscreen at the guesthouses and the mountainous backdrop behind, but nobody said anything. It looked far too unspoiled to be Vang Vieng town.
“Oh no you don’t!” the Swiss man in the front seat blurted, bored, as if expecting this. “Take us to the town centre.”
“This town centre!” the driver shouted. A minor argument ensued, during which the Swiss man got the driver to admit that the town centre was 800 metres away – a distance which he shrugged off, but which was, nevertheless, 800 metres away from our destination. Sighing heavily, he turned the vehicle around and drove away from the secluded guesthouse, where he had hoped to gain a commission, and stopped a few hundred metres away at a larger road with a few local restaurants scattered along it.
The Swiss man grabbed his modest backpack and strode away, grumbling. He knew well where the centre of Vang Vieng’s small town was; this was not his first visit. He had spent most of his time travelling over the past few years, and when he wanted a base away from Switzerland for a few months, he, like many long term travellers who have fallen in love with the Indian Subcontinent, went to Nepal. “Nepal is like India lite”, another long-term traveller in his fifties had once told me. I knew exactly what he meant: Nepal has the look and flavour of India, but lacks the caffeinated oomph that leaves you shaky and craving more. But, like many older travellers weary at the thought of another rough journey, he had turned to the lite version, pretending it tasted the same.

We walked towards the Nam Song River and were soon surrounded by small, makeshift shops, their wares spilling out onto the road. Row upon row of luminous swimming shorts stood beside racks of luminous sunglasses – imitation Ray-Bans, all with the same style with thick plastic frames in luminous colours. There were dry bags – watertight rubber sacks in every colour that said ‘Vang Vieng’ – lined up alongside a rainbow of rubber flip flops, all branded Havaiana. And then there were the vests, equal in quantity only to the swimming shorts, with the slogan that grates the pedant in me most: ‘In the Tubing: Vang Vieng’. Every single shop was selling exactly the same thing. In addition to the piles of tubing gear were the generic, cotton beach dresses that are found in tourist markets all over mainland Southeast Asia, along with sunhats, sunscreen, electrical converters, diet coke, tampons, and just about anything else a western tourist could possibly want.

As we neared the river, the shops became restaurants and guesthouses. Packs of young travellers ambled through the streets. They were all dressed in tubing gear from the shops we’d passed: luminous shorts, tubing vests, Ray-Bans and flip flops. Every one of them was carrying a dry bag or wore a pouch around their neck, money folded and shining through the luminous yellow or green plastic. It was the tubing uniform, and I had entered a high school hell.

We found a guesthouse with WiFi and spent a few hours catching up on emails before setting off to find dinner. Halfway up the town’s main street, the sound of canned laughter came into earshot; as we kept walking it grew steadily louder. We reached a row of restaurants – all with low tables and cushions on the ground – in which the backs of twenty or thirty heads were staring ahead at a TV. Reruns of Friends and Family Guy were playing – a different episode at each restaurant; across the road, two more were doing the same. They, too, were filled with an army of zombies. Outside the restaurants, blackboards advertised ‘happy pizzas’ and ‘happy shakes’, sprinkled liberally with marijuana, magic mushrooms, or both. It was certainly one of the weirdest ways I could imagine spending a first trip to a foreign country but, as The New Zealand Herald put it, “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng.”

My thoughts turned to the unsuspecting among these travellers who may have casually ordered off the ‘happy menu’, thinking they were ordering marijuana-laced food, and unwittingly eaten an entire magic mushroom pizza. There is nothing ‘happy’ about unknowingly ingesting magic mushrooms. The hallucinogenic rollercoaster that they’d be stuck on for the next six hours or so was one reason, I supposed, that they remained glued to the TV, too scared to move. The majority – who knew exactly what the effect of their ‘happy’ food would be – were in their element inside these dens of generic hilarity, and I could see why Vang Vieng appealed to them. This wasn’t travel; this was a playground.

A little further along the street, Iain and I found a few restaurants where it was possible to have a conversation without competing with the TV. They all had near-identical menus, boasting dishes from six or seven countries – all for less than three US dollars. Nachos, fish and chips, meatloaf and shaksuka – it was all available. There were also a few Lao dishes. Across the road, Aussie Bar advertised the coldest beer in the country – a claim that we would come across again in Vietnam, in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, outside Kangaroo Cafe. Aussie Bar served large bottles of beer with foam coolers wrapped around them – just like it’s served back in Oz – and it was happy hour, so the tables on the street were filled with groups of happy-looking vest-wearers. We turned onto a tarred road, heard shrieking, and stopped.

A tuktuk was parked beside a group of five or six 18-year-olds, staggering along the road in bikinis, with the driver standing beside the vehicle, waiting for them to pay. “50,000 kip,” one of the girls said a few times, staring at the money in her hand, counting it, looking around, and then counting it again. “You said 10,000 each,” she told him, still looking around, perhaps trying to count her friends, or figure out which one hadn’t paid. The driver waited for his 50,000 kip as the girl went through the motions again: squinted at the money, counted it aloud, looked around at her friends – laughing and shrieking, oblivious – and tried to hand the driver his fare again, which must have been a few thousand kip short.

Banana pancakes in Vang Vieng, Laos

Journal Entry: Day 127 – Vang Vieng, Laos

What the hell are you doing on your pancake trail, this excuse for an adventure, you complacent young thing? It’s beer and burger joints that steer your travels; it’s comfort and camaraderie that keeps you moving. Curiosity is the next pub that serves up your poison; cosmopolitanism is the nameless man whose noodles you eat.

Don’t say you’re discovering yourself because I’ll tell you there’s no hope. Don’t call yourself a nomad:  home is waiting and three months have gone by. Don’t ask me which countries I’m “doing” – your steadily ticked list is one reason we’re not going the same way. Asia’s just your playground and you’ve got nothing much to say.

A monk at the Blue Lagoon in Vang Vieng, Laos

The next day, we had breakfast overlooking the river and walked across town to a bicycle rental shop. The ‘happy’ restaurants were all empty, but their TVs still played the same Friends reruns, the canned laughter drifting into the street. It was 11am: too early for those who’d partied all night and, presumably, too late for whoever was already tubing on the river. We rode mountain bikes across a wooden bridge to the other side of the river, where the sky was punctuated with karst limestone peaks and green fields surrounded a dirt track, leading further and further away from the televisions and hamburger stalls of Vang Vieng town.

Seven kilometres later, we reached Tham Poukham – the Blue Lagoon – which was somewhat greener than it had been in the postcard, and cloudy from the monsoon rain. Four Brits were sunning themselves on a wooden deck a stone’s throw from the clear pool of water. A Lao family sold cold drinks and plates of fried noodles – Pad Lao – from a small wooden structure a few metres beyond the water. We ate our lunch and I sat on the rocks with my legs in the bracingly cool water, edging my way into the pool little by little. A group of motorbikes approached, parked on a patch of grass a few metres away, and within a couple of minutes, five or six Israelis and Europeans had joined us in the pool.

They all had traces of luminous paint on their arms, legs and backs; I had noticed it on several other travellers and assumed it had something to do with which company’s tube you’d hired. I asked a Spanish girl in their group and she explained, rolling her eyes slightly, that it was just something that people did at the riverside bars between tubing. She had enjoyed her tubing experience she said, but once was enough; she would be spending the rest of her time in Vang Vieng relaxing and exploring the surrounding countryside.

Over the next few days, I met a few travellers in their twenties or thirties who said the same thing: they had wanted to try it, but once was enough. Many of them added that they hadn’t “gone wild” and had just had a few beers, rather than take stupid risks in the fast-flowing river. Others could barely contain their excitement and seemed totally oblivious – or indifferent – to the impact of their “fun” on the Lao people who were unfortunate enough to live near the river. A travel blogger who calls herself Adventurous Kate described tubing in Vang Vieng as “the most fun you will ever have without taking your clothes off,” adding, “well, I would say that, but I actually saw a guy go off one of the rope swings while naked, so I guess that’s out the window!”

Obscene body art: Tubing in Vang Vieng, Laos

People’s complete disregard for the culture of the country they’re in never ceases to amaze me; I’ve seen travellers with their butt cheeks hanging out of shorts in Egypt and others with their cleavage on show outside mosques, but between the gaggles of bikini-wearing tubers in the town centre and the forty-something in a g-string I saw on Vang Vieng’s main street, I have never been so ashamed to be associated with the demographic into which I am automatically placed. Lao women are among the most conservatively dressed in Southeast Asia and perpetually keep their shoulders, thighs and chests covered. Towns in Laos with large numbers of tourists have – in the absence of visitor’s cultural sensitivity – resorted to printing stickers asking visitors to dress appropriately. “Please cover your body. No bare chest, no bikini top,” they say, with a picture of a shirtless man, a bikini-wearing woman and a red line crossing them out, just to make it absolutely clear.

If strutting along a riverbank in a bikini or a Speedo (or naked) isn’t offensive enough, another of the tubing pastimes certainly is – if only to people who can read English. Adventurous Kate explains: “People write all over each other’s bodies with markers and paint, and everyone seems to outdo each other to see who can be the most offensive.” This explained the remnants of luminous paint I had seen on people’s bodies; they had obviously tried, without only partial success, to scrub it off the next day. It also explained why the Spanish girl in the pool looked rather embarrassed when I asked her about the streaks of pink on her back. When I heard more about the most offensive body art in Vang Vieng, courtesy of Adventurous Kate, I failed to see the humour. You are a scrotal terrorist and I raped Steven Hawkins (sic) were among the most offensive examples, she wrote – adding that she had coined the former slogan herself.

I returned to her perspectives again and again, trying to understand what has made this infantile, hedonistic form of entertainment appealing. But I only came away even more baffled. “The bars [along the river] are filled with great music, dancing, beer pong, big $2 beers, free Lao Lao shots, buckets galore, and tons of rope swings and slides,” she describes. “And there are SO, SO, SO many good-looking people around! Needless to say, tubing in Vang Vieng is one of the greatest parties on the planet and a mandatory stop on the Southeast Asia backpacker party trail.” The issue of the town being destroyed by tourism does make a brief appearance in one of her posts: “Many consider Vang Vieng to be a ‘paradise lost’ – it used to be nothing more than a sleepy Lao town in a breathtaking natural setting. I admit that these people have a point. But to be quite honest, as a twenty-something backpacker with a penchant for the nightlife, the Vang Vieng of today is my idea of paradise.”

There are people who have written critically about the impact of irresponsible tourism on local culture, including Brett Dakin, the author of a book chronicling two years in Laos working for the tourist board. He wrote of Vang Vieng: “Each time a young Australian woman strolls down the street in a bikini, a bearded American smokes a joint on a guesthouse terrace, or a group of Koreans tumbles drunkenly out of a restaurant, it saps a little more of the essence of a town like Vang Vieng.”

Bare bummed on a rope swing in Vang Vieng, LaosSeveral newspapers have also written about Lao culture being threatened by irresponsible tourism, but articles blaming the lack of safety regulations in Laos for endangering young travellers are at least as prevalent. Early last year, a 19-year-old Australian died after he swam out to sea, intoxicated, at one of the notoriously wild full moon parties on Thailand’s Koh Phangan. The event led concerned Australians to condemn both Thailand and Laos for being “totally unregulated” and having a lack of “responsible alcohol serving policies”. An Australian priest living in Thailand complained, “People would be charged and convicted in Australia for selling to intoxicated people.” Personally, I fail to see how Australia’s laws have any relevance. I find the idea of choosing to visit a country other than your own and expecting it to espouse the same beliefs, standards and laws as your own both shocking and pathetic. The article goes on to provide plenty of evidence that Koh Phangan and Vang Vieng’s partygoers are perfectly aware of the obvious dangers of immersing yourself in the sea or a fast flowing river when inebriated. An anonymous Australian school-leaver admitted that peer pressure got the better of her during a trip to Vang Vieng. “Peer-pressure me as much as you want, but I’m not doing it,” she told her group of friends while refusing to swing into the water on a rope. “Two buckets of alcohol later, they got me up there. I can barely remember it but I did it.” Her experience had been incident-free so, in retrospect – despite admitting that she barely remembered being on the swing – she declared, “It was dangerous but I was careful.”

“Tourism is Thailand’s biggest revenue-earner,” The Australian writes. “The country is the fifth most popular destination for Australian travellers, but more of us die here than in any other foreign land.” These nanny-statists make it quite clear that they hold Thailand responsible for the fact that so many Australians die there, just as they foolishly believe that responsibility does not rest with their offspring or their countrymen, who boast of their brushes with death, but with Laos, which “boasts an even deadlier concoction of alcohol and danger [than Thailand] on a stretch of the Nam Song River near Vang Vieng.”

Vang Vieng’s corrupt police force and a complex system of bribery are behind the sale of drugs. Particular drugs can be sold by particular bars and restaurants and only some are expected to close in compliance with the countrywide curfew at 11:30pm. Most nights, it seemed, all the bars in town shut their doors by midnight, with the exception of JD’s, a well-connected bar beyond the town centre, on a small road where a bamboo bridge led over the river to what was somewhat ominously called ‘The Island’. The Island was known among travellers as the site of a handful of hippyesque clubs in a jungly setting, with bonfires as well as a wide selection of drinks and psychedelic drugs.

On our first evening in Vang Vieng, sitting on our guesthouse’s balcony, I had heard the faint clickity-clack and hum of trance music coming from The Island, just over the river. It sounded soft from where I was, on the east bank where all the town’s guesthouses and businesses are based; too soft to draw much attention. Neither could I make out any bars through the layers of thick trees that separated them and me. The bars on The Island aren’t compelled to remain inconspicuous; they are supposedly the only ones in Vang Vieng that are immune from police interference. They close as late as they like – usually around sunrise – and are owned by the local mafia, according to a barman we met.

When I asked our guesthouse owner whether the bars on the island that we’d heard about were, in fact, just beyond the bushes and trees where the music seemed to be coming from, he looked straight at me and replied, “No. They have closed now. About three months ago.”

A drug menu in Vang Vieng, Laos

One night, after having a few beers at a restaurant in the town, Iain and I decided to go over the river to ‘The Island’. We walked across a rickety bamboo bridge and followed the sound of music along a grassy path, lined by trees, until we saw a sign for Joker Bar, which was empty. A few metres further was Sunset Bar, where a group of people sat around a bonfire and a young Belgian was swinging a pair of poi to the rhythm of trance music, the flames on the ends painting orange streaks of light in the black sky. We went over to a wooden bar in the corner and ordered pineapples blended with magic mushrooms; the gritty, fibrous mixture was presented to us in a plastic bucket by the Canadian barman.

The night air was cool but the bonfire was warm, and we sat around it, watching the poi dancer move to the music, the long strings set alight at the tips skirting his bare chest within less than an inch. The crowd grew steadily, and groups of people who had been tubing all day began to arrive, still in bikinis or swimming shorts. Some danced on a wooden deck beside the poi guy; most stumbled around from group to group, giggling and clutching onto new friends for support.

A young couple with eastern European accents and oily, ash blonde hair approached the bar and began arguing. The girl’s face was contorted; she ground her teeth mechanically, twisting her jaw. The man took a few steps back and waited while the girl called out to one of the barmen. She had spread her upper body onto the bar counter so that only one small, hot pants-clad leg reached the ground. The barmen couldn’t come fast enough, and when one of them did, she shouted something at him, scowling through her tense jaw. He was Laotian, and didn’t seem to understand, so she reached over and tried to take something from behind the bar. Her arms weren’t long enough, she couldn’t reach whatever she wanted. She shouted at the barman again, looked around, and then stomped her flip-flopped foot on the ground and stormed off to give her boyfriend a whack on the chest.

I turned to face away, staring into the crowd, watching the partygoers until I heard Iain gasp. “Oh, she’s terrible. I can’t look.” I hadn’t been watching the girl, but she had remained within Iain’s view, and he hadn’t been able to stop himself from staring. She pushed her way past groups of people, demanded a cigarette, lit it, and furiously threw it on the ground. Her  movements were sharp and jolted  and she scampered around, taking people’s drinks out of their hands, gulping them, and then moving onto another group – “taking and discarding and taking and discarding” as Iain put it – her skin clammy and that jaw of hers uncontrollably gurning from the chemicals she’d taken. “She’s like a weasel,” Iain said, quite revolted. And when the “weasel” came back into our view, I decided we should move to a quieter spot beside the river.

It was peaceful there, and we could make out the sound of the river gushing past when there was a lull in the music. “What are we doing here?” Iain said, but I wasn’t in the mood to talk about anything profound. “No… I mean here,” he said, referring to the bar. We agreed that the night and the sky and the river were all too beautiful to stay at this party – “with the weasel” added Iain.

We made our way across the bar, past the bonfire and towards the bamboo bridge. It seemed darker than when we’d arrived, and we trod hesitantly along the uneven ground, hand in hand. A muffled noise came from a clump of bushes, but we couldn’t decipher it, or see anything in the dark. Three male figures approached; the noises had been a trio of Australians, chortling and grunting by way of conversation in the bushes. “Let’s go,” Iain said quickly. “I don’t like the look of them.” We had already seen a fist fight break out in the bar that night for no apparent reason, so Iain was wary. They must have seen us quicken our pace and – as we were walking hand in hand – their boorish minds led them to the next logical thought. “Aw!” said one, in the squawk of a bird. “Heh heh,” said the second, and snorted. “Shaggers!” shouted another. They continued their noise-making, and I could half make out the sounds of speech between cackles and broad accents – “Shair-gers, shair-gers!” – but it was little more than grunting and Iain and I shuffled away, horrified.

Unsure of where to go next – and certain we didn’t want to come across any other people lurking in Vang Vieng’s bushes – we walked to our guesthouse and went through the hall to the communal balcony which – thankfully – was empty. In the absence of chairs, we sat cross-legged on the tiles, looking at the landscape through gaps in the balcony’s painted metal barrier. I strained to make out the karsts that I knew towered in the distance, but the moon was not full enough. A tin roof jutted out just below the balcony and, as I stared at the way the moonlight created iridescent ripples of colour on the corrugated metal, its surface became more and more beautiful. After what felt like a long time of staring at the roof, I said to Iain “What is that on the roof – those shining, pink and blue bumps?” adding, “Can you see them?” He could, but they were not beautiful, he said regretfully; they were cigarette butts.

We left the tiles and the balcony that blocked our view, and the cigarette butt covered tin roof below, and walked toward the river – downstream, and far away from The Island’s bars. We reached another bamboo bridge where we lay on our backs in the silent night and counted the stars. “This is what I want to do,” Iain declared. “Get into nature, away from all this civilisation.” He pronounced the word slowly, with irony. I understood. We talked about travel and why we do it, and why we had set off for two years to come to places like these. Were we just pursuing a different version of the hedonism that surrounded us? Had we become caught up in a meaningless routine of moving for moving’s sake, going wherever our whims fancied? I said no; Iain wasn’t sure. “If we’re just hedonists, then why haven’t we enjoyed being in Vang Vieng?” I said, sounding certain. “We knew we shouldn’t have come here; we wanted to get off this path – it was our first instinct.”

I looked down at the river, which didn’t look like the simple source of life that it, perhaps, was. It seemed tainted, forced into being at the centre of the town’s ugliness. It was a stain running through Vang Vieng that could never be washed away.

Daylight slowly began to dissolve the shadowy night and Iain suggested a sunrise walk. We stopped at our guesthouse to get our camera and raincoats and, within minutes, were back at the same spot. Neither of us had ever crossed this particular bamboo bridge, and doing so seemed like a good idea. There was an expanse of green on the other side, with a few low mud walls traversing it, for retaining water in the rice fields. The first glimpses of the sun’s light shone onto the dry, beige stalks poking out of the ground, forming a grey-green carpet of land, sprinkled with gleaming beige blotches. A young Lao woman was starting the day, sweeping at the open door of a simple white house. She smiled, “Sabaidee”, and returned to her work. It started to rain; wet little needles, and then big, fat drops. Iain and I grinned at one another and, walking along the muddy retaining walls between the rice fields, set off to explore our own path.

A rocky path beside the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng, Laos

Photo Credits: The majority of these photos are our own, but we’ve also used Creative Commons licensed images from Flickr. For more photos of Vang Vieng and other places in Laos, take a look at the Flickr photostreams of Ivars Krutainis, Jon Rawlinson, Lorna87 and Christian Haugen.

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18 Responses to “Land of the Banana Pancake Eaters”

  1. MaryAnne says:

    I just wanted to tell you that this piece resonated me like very few travel writing posts out there have. Maybe I'm jaded too. Dunno. I'm old and tired and have been going for 17 years now but yes, this rang true. Haven't been to Laos yet but had some of these shouty thoughts in Cambodia and Bali; heading to Thailand in a few weeks and hope I can keep some sense of wide eyed wonder.

    Thanks for writing this. Seriously. I needed it. I've been feeling really out of sorts lately when it comes to all the travel writing out there. This one hit home. Will read more. Thank you.

    • Thank you for your kind comment, MaryAnne. I have come across your writing before (and am now able to put a name and a face to your website), so knowing that it resonated with you is high praise. I hope there won't be too many more jaded posts in the near future , though, I agree, it is often difficult to retain a sense of wide eyed wonder – let alone when you're in places that have the overriding feeling of a frat party on crack. I will definitely avoid them in future.

      I'm sure you will find rewarding places to travel in Thailand. We loved Mae Salong (which is a great opportunity to brush up on Chinese, though I suspect that wouldn't be your first priority) and Chiang Saen. Will be posting about them soon. Also, for a peaceful experience on an island with no sign of beer pong or parties, I would highly recommend Koh Mak.

  2. Jack says:

    Too Precious!

    I went to a nightclub (against my better judgement), and it was full of young people! And they were getting drunk! and doing drugs! And playing loud music! Even having sex in the toilets!!! I just wanted a nice glasss of wine and a bit of opera!

    While it may be "sad" that a small village has been taken over by the brashest end of the tourism market, I'm sure the locals aren't complaining about the money. Indeed, I suspect they are the ones coming up with the "magic mushroom juice" concepts.

    The sad part is that the corrupt local government are probably creaming off the majority of the profits, furthering the inequality in theat society and their own iron grip on power.

    • Thanks for your comment, Jack, and for contributing to the debate. I found your last point particularly valid – but in my opinion, it's just one of the reasons that what's happening in Vang Vieng is sad. The rubber tubes are rented to tourists by local families on a rotation basis so they do receive direct economic benefits and those particular families are probably, for the most part, glad that tubing came to Vang Vieng. But since when do water sports/recreation have to equal culturally insensitive debauchery?

      I don't actually have anything against the magic mushroom juice – I hoped that my evening on The Island made that clear. It is wholly possible to take magic mushrooms and avoid disturbing the people or the environment around you. Likewise, much of the tubing experience could exist without it having such a negative impact on the local community – if people just brought a bit of cultural awareness with them. Instead, they see a backpacking trip as a chance to behave in ways that they wouldn't get away with in their own countries. Laos is not their playground.

      And while I completely understand the point you made about going to a nightclub and expecting an opera, Vang Vieng is not a nightclub -it's an entire town. Thankfully only the town centre and the tubing area have been severely impacted, but people living in the neighbouring countryside have also felt the (negative) effects of careless tourism. I think part of me was curious to see just how bad the situation was, and whether the education programs that have been introduced (including promoting sustainable tourism and educating young locals not to imitate tourist behaviour) have had any success. So far, it doesn't seem like it.

  3. linds says:

    Great post – I came to your blog via The Browser – well done for getting on there.

    We didn't make it to VV, which is possibly why Laos is such a wonderful place in my memory…. Although as I sat in Luang Prabang sipping pastis with my laab I did think that perhaps I had replaced teenage paradise with bourgeois late 20s paradise.

    At least those tubeing t-shirts that you see from Singapore to Sapa let you know who do avoid having a drink with.


    • I'm glad to hear that – thanks to The Browser – you found my post, Lindsi. You definitely have a point about the 'bourgeois late twenties' idea of paradise, which has its own undertones of the hedonism I mention in the piece. Something I became more aware of while writing the post (from Luang Prabang, as it happens, where we are again) is that – while I may consider the backpacker ghettos tasteless, and culturally more invasive than 'bourgeois tourism' – a lot of it comes down to personal taste. Personally, I prefer exploring relatively remote places with a bit of comfortable 'bourgeois travelling’ in between, which you can really appreciate after the former. That, in itself, may represent something that other people consider deserving of the harsh criticism I expressed about the Vang Vieng scene. But from my point of view, it is a relief that peaceful places like Luang Prabang – while 'touristy' in their own way – mostly suit people who like having a meal or a few quiet drinks beside the river after a day of exploring temples or hiking, and are relatively free of 'In the Tubing' vest-wearing types, who tend to move on to the next party town quite quickly. Definitely makes for a better selection of people to have a drink with – you said it, not me!

  4. Chris L says:

    Before Christian missionaries introduced Victorian morality to SE Asia, walking around bare breasted in public was the norm.

    Here's another article on the topic by Kaewmala, a Thai woman from Chiang Mai.

    So I'm not sure if it is correct to call conservatively dressed women 'Laos culture', as it is actually the culture brought by another generation of Europeans.

    • Yes, that's a very valid point, Chris – thank you. It is certainly interesting to consider the influence of Victorian morality, and I suppose 'modern Laos culture' would be more accurate, because of the hybrid that has formed. That said, you've also made me realise that I was too general in referring to 'Lao culture', when Laos is such an ethnically diverse country. Some of Laos' ethnic minorities do, in fact, wear loose clothes that often reveal their breasts, but only in the seclusion of their communities or villages – not out in the open in Laos' towns and cities, where clothing is conservative, whether it is 'Western-style' jeans and t-shirts or the traditional style sarong-skirt. Something like the traditional Hmong style of dress should, really, be referred to by name, not by the generic term 'Lao culture'. Unless of course the Victorians influenced the traditional dress of Hmong people too, in which case should we call it 'modern Hmong dress'?… Isn't everything a hybrid of its past and present, really?

      I haven't finished reading the fascinating article you linked to yet, but will shortly. Thank you for the food for thought.

  5. Mike says:

    I'm off to Thailand / Laos / Cambodia in 2 weeks time. Reading this is depressing, but not unexpected. To avoid disappointment in SE Asian travel here's my solution- bike touring. I've done 5 tours in SE Asia by bike, almost without meeting a foreigner- and it's not as if I've been going out of my way to do so. Biking is by far the best way to travel-young backpackers all congregate in the same places- same routes, same trains, same buses,same boats, same beaches, same 'amazing experience'. Hence places like VV emerge. Particularly in an overdone region like SE Asia, you need to get properly independent. I leared this the first time I went to Thailand- I caught the train from BK to Chiang Mai and it was about 80% backpacker. I followed the crowd into Laos and back to BK. Not a very nice 3 weeks and in normal circumstances I would have written the region off as to be avoided due to backpacker plague. Next time a few years later I brought my bike. Biking makes the route the most important bit- you're often too knackered to bother much with the place you happen to arrive in at the end of the day. There is no disappointment of arrival or great expecation ready to be frustrated. "That was a great days cycling" can hold for a trip from noplace to noplace in mid Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia, which otherwise might be spent, bored, in the interior of a bus watching a DVD you've already seen twice. On the bike, destinations are just for food and a bed. Far better the open road and it leaves a much stronger impression of knowing the country once finished…20 beds in 20 nights in 20 places (towns, forests, villages, parks – all of whose names you will remember for ages afterwards from the act of frequent repetition as you cycle and watch signposts). 1500 kms of travelling through the countryside at 23kph is a heck of a lot of in-country experience. Also, everyone is fascinated by someone making a trip by the sweat of their brow- it's got pilgrimage overtones. You transcend the mere tourist identity- the person at leisure who has to be catered to (and the industry that springs up to satify all these 'needs') and become a person with an independent purpose. Certainly never bring a guide leads to frustrated expectations of having 'missed' something and prevents you from developing travel skills. Plus you need to cut down on weight. A map is all you need…Give it a go and you'll certainly never fall for a blue lagoon on a postcard again.

    • Thanks for the inspiration, Mike! So much of what you mentioned about cycling appeals to Iain and I – and a few friends and people we've met on the road have pointed out the benefits too. I especially like the idea of moving slowly enough to spend more time somewhere, emphasising the journey, and the idea of stopping in completely random places. Doing that seems to gives you a clearer sense of the region you're in and – in the absence of expectations -the complete freedom to explore. In fact, we are hoping to cycle at some stage of our journey over the course of the year, but don't have any concrete plans as yet. Thanks for visiting!

  6. Greta says:

    I don't travel as much as you, but I too have wondered how jaded I am lately regarding travelers and traveling. It's always looking for the next place where I am "foreign" by myself. Hope you two are doing well.

    • Being 'foreign' by yourself in China is a pretty terrifying prospect – you'd get mobbed! But when travelling elsewhere, yes, I know what you mean. Hope Shanghai's still treating you well, Greta!

  7. Liz Biggs says:

    Well that sounded an absolutely horrific diversion. Thank god we gave Vang Vieng a wide berth in 2002 and 2003 when we travelled to Laos. It had a bad rep even then. I don't think mass tourism is going to get any better, despite the current recession, so it becomes quite a challenge finding somewhere the type of traveller you have just described and/or the ubiquitous coach tours haven't yet found. I am sure you and Iain will come across a few hidden before you return home though.

    • Yes, it can be quite a challenge. And sometimes it's easy to be lazy and just get on the next bus to the same place every other traveller is going – but I will try not to make that mistake again. Having rewarding and meaningful experiences when you're joining a flock of sheeple is very rare, I think. But choosing to go in another direction certainly confuses people sometimes. When Iain and I got off the night train from Hanoi in Lao Cai, and didn't get on a minibus to Sapa, the touts thought it was a trick.
      Sapa minibus?
      Where you go?
      Here – Lao Cai. We're staying HERE.

  8. Lana says:

    Great article. I've just returned from a trip to Phi Phi, where I spent most of my days thinking gosh I'm getting rather old and cranky! Travel's a great way to open our eyes to not only other cultures but to see our own culture reflected back to us, sometimes in a glaring, unsettling fashion. Travel's a window for sure, but it's also a big ol' mirror. Either way there's plenty to learn on our journeys!

  9. Alaka says:

    Hi! I came across your blog whilst looking to see if anyone else had shared my deeply ambivalent feelings about this weird, surreal, hedonistic place. Of all the places I visited on my 3 months of travelling round SE Asia and the South Pacific, I think Vang Vieng was strangely the most thought-provoking. I wrote a huge blog post about too:

    Interested to see if you find anything in there resonates with you too!


  10. Sad to see the tourist invasion.
    I worked on a documentary about the Mekong In 1992
    We travelled from Ben Hu Sai to Pakse over 3 months and saw so much
    Stunning people,country, warm beers, wonderful rice whisky and Wats.
    Stayed in villages, bathed in the Mekong, it was a special experience!

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