Vang Vieng is the religious center for all travellers in South East Asia. If you aren’t wearing a dozen or two string bracelets on your wrist, given out at each of the innumerable Vang Vieng bars, then you are automatically shunned and cast out as a heretic. For Vang Vieng is the summation of the backpackers life; travellers from every neighbouring country arrive to revel in the frenetic quantities of sex, drugs and rock and roll, while simultaneously relax in the peaceful scenery of a quiet mountain village.
But like all tourism, it has suffered from the irony of the observation paradox; the act of observation inherently changes the nature of the place. While once this place was just a sleepy little settlement nestled in the shade of magnificent mountain ranges, the town is now just one big advertisement encouraging Western hedonism. At the moment, there is a kind of balance – local people doing local things are still quite prominent. But as Vang Vieng’s notoriety increases, it is sure to become a carbon copy of every other tourist town. I feel lucky to have seen it when I did.
I feel like i’m putting a bit of a downer on this place, when really I did have the most awesome time here. The bus journey to get to Vang Vieng was hell – 7 hours on an overcrowded bus with no suspension, a broken engine, and a seat companion who kept making pornographic hand gestures – but it was worth it. I arrived at around 8pm – a time when people are recovering from their afternoons on the river, and yet to head out for a night in the many, many, many bars.
I checked into a dormitory; the nicest dormitory I’ve ever been in incidentally. Instead of the usual rickety metal framed, thin mattressed affairs, this room was decked out in plump double beds. Here I walked into a joke, meeting an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scot. Well not really, 1 English, 1 Irish and an Australian, but that’s less funny. They were all just getting ready to go out. Luckily, they were all very nice and agreed to show me the ropes, taking me to Bucket Bar, where whiskey and Red Bull is served freely and excessively in children’s sand-castle making buckets. Later, I found out the Red Bull they were selling was an illegal knock-off, containing large amounts of amphetamines. I did wonder why I was still live and kicking at 4am, dancing the limbo under a flaming stick in the pouring rain.
The next morning, obviously, started in the afternoon, with breakfast served at 2pm. There was no rest for the wicked unfortunately, as I was dragged down the road a mile or two to get my first glimpse of the river, and its infamous bars. We had to cross the rickiest bridge ever constructed by man to get there, obviously built by drunkards and drug addicts in the few hours of down time they get. Free shots greeted us as we arrived at the first bar, followed by more buckets and drinking games arranged by the bar staff (a clever ploy to sell more booze). All the bars have their own promotions, giving free drinks at certain times in the day. So, a crafty traveler could time his voyage downstream, getting completely wasted on no money at all. As a newb, though, I was quickly losing money, but strangely I didn’t care too much.
Just a few hours later, I had had enough. We tuktuked back to the hostel for a respite, before repeating the previous night’s festivities over again, this time in a different bar (although they are all pretty much the same).
Judging by the number of bracelets some were wearing, many people seemed to have been in Vang Vieng for weeks and weeks. Unfortunately, with my busy schedule, my next day was to be my last. Looking back now, 2 days was nowhere near enough time, although considering the physical and mental damage it does to people in large doses, perhaps it was the sensible thing. I had to catch a bus in the evening, so I decided to stay relatively sober this day. I went out walking in the countryside, something I dont think anyone else in Vang Vieng has ever done, seeing as I saw noone for miles.
The landscape outside the village is quite literally epic, it could easily be the backdrop for some fantasy adventure story. The giant karst limestone moutains looked like (in my amphetmaine riddled hmind anyway) the spiny backbone of some eternally sleeping dragon. Little thathced farmers huts were dotted amongst the fields. I saw a few local children racing on bikes while the adults toiled away. I sat down for a long time here, drinking in the scenery as a refreshing substitute for the copious amounts of whiskey the night before. I left only because I discovered I had been sitting on an ants nest, and was slowly being inundated by angry insects.
My bus was leaving in an hour or two, so I settled down in one of the local restaurants, famous for playing repeatably episodes of Friends and Family Guy. My mind suitably numb, I left for the bus stop to get my ride to Luang Prebang – a much more laid back destination.