Allow me to rant…

I’m just back from visiting Vang Vieng (a few hours north of Vientiane) mostly because I wanted to spend a bit of time at the Organic Farm and Youth Centre than I’ve heard so much about from so many different people. From that point of view it was a very successful trip and some of the young people that I met were interested in helping me with my research, which is obviously good news.

However, I arrive back in Vientiane unable to think about anything but a very different aspect of Vang Vieng life.

Vang Vieng landscape

The farm should be a tranquil rural environment 8km outside of Vang Vieng on the banks of the beautiful Song river surrounded by dramatic limestone karsts. However, as I sat in the farm’s cafe trying to get some work done, western dance music blared out of enormous speakers at a bamboo bar less than 50m away and regular tuktuks dropped off groups of scantily clad young backpackers clasping enormous inner tubes who were heading for said bar where they would start their tubing experience.

In case you don’t know, tubing consists of floating down the river whilst relaxing in an inner tube.

Sounds nice, right?

Then add in the inescapable deafening music and the many bars along the banks of the river that employ a wealth of elaborate contraptions to pass bottles of Beer Lao and shots of Lao whisky and a choice of other narcotics out to the revellers.

Still sounds fun and I’m just being an old fart?

Maybe, but from anecdotal figures that I’ve heard several times, an average of one tourist a month is killed tubing and many more injured. Last month one of the bamboo bars collapsed under the weight of dancing falang – I believe that no-one died but many people were hurt. It seems that the combination of drinking and taking drugs in large quantities and then floating down the river and swinging on rope swings and diving off bamboo scaffolding is not particularly safe.

Still sounds fun? Maybe, as one already inebriated young man told me at 11am this morning – the danger is part of the fun?

The thing is, I don’t think it’s much fun for many of the Lao people who live in the town and have to endure the unrelenting music and the near nudity and the public displays of affection (to put it coyly) that are (to put it mildly) somewhat different from Lao culture.

Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s complicated. I’ve spoken to a lot of Lao people who live in Vang Vieng and most of them have said that the tourism brings much needed money and jobs to the area – but that they don’t like the way that the tourists behave. If you offered local people the option of Vang Vieng going back to how it was before the tourism I have no idea if they’d take it or not. But I do know that when I talked to young people at the farm and the youth centre about the tubing they were surprised to hear me say that I didn’t like the tubing culture, and gradually opened up to share their own opinions, almost all of which were largely negative.

It makes me very sad. Young western backpackers are using the incredibly beautiful and culturally rich town of Vang Vieng as their drunken adventure playground with no awareness of (or, it seems, interest in) their impact. I’ve tried to think about it from their point of view but, honestly, I think the way that many of the tubers behave is unequivocally wrong. As a foreigner and as a researcher in Laos I experience ethical questions every day about the impact of my presence. I know that I probably think about this stuff too much and end up tying myself up in knots in a way that is not helpful, but I find it utterly incomprehensible and irresponsible that people can be so completely oblivious.

poster at the Organic Farm

Complaining about tubing in Vang Vieng is a real cliché, but it is also related to my research. It seems to me to represent a clash of very different concepts of happiness and the complexities of the interactions between happiness and needs. How should we/could we/do we proceed when something that provides us with something that we need (or at least perceive we need) makes our experience of life less positive? It reminds me of a comment from a Lao woman that I met recently who has been doing research with Lao people living on the banks of the Mekong near where (as far as I understand it) the Lao Government is proposing to build a string of dams in order to turn Laos into “The Battery of South-East Asia”. This woman said that while working with these communities she repeatedly heard a phrase that she translated as “(when we have the dams) we will have light in our eyes (i.e. electricity) but dark in our souls”

And now I will step down off my soapbox.


6 responses to “Allow me to rant…

  1. To save my sanity in response to the kind of intrusive clash of cultures you describe Christina leads me to meditate that the solutions are out there, we just may not have found them yet or accrued enough support for them yet. I genuinely believe that a comprehensive approach to tourism, perhaps using Permaculture design & planning tools which consider the 3 ethics of People, Planet & Fairshare, needs to be utilised to deliver positive results for both local & tourist. In this case, strategies would involve imaginative ways of making money through tourism that benefit local people & their environment. Such a plan only needs to be driven by a few knowledgeable folk within a community. Once they’ve got a strategic plan together, you start holding sensitization meetings with your neighbours & gather support. Eventually, I would like to believe, that even local authorities would back a plan that caters for tourism while benefitting the needs of the local population.

    I think that most of the those pissed young folk are simply responding to peer pressure & given an alternative, presented to them by local people, most would embrace it with relief. Behaving as you would ‘at home’ is a classic mistake of a demographic who believe the world IS them, revolves around them, yet yearn for the answers to questions that intrude upon their insular versions of the world as defined by consumer-driven societies around the globe. If the local folk don’t like it, there are tools out there to change it. And those young tourists would probably eat it up as the soul food it is. Slowly & by degrees, but definitely pacing toward sustained positive change. Naive? Maybe. Hopeful? Definitely. Backing away from the soapbox now…xx

    • Thank you Em,

      I love your hopefulness and optimism – I wouldn’t dream of saying you are naive, especially given where you are and what you’re doing. I have to concede, however, that in this case I find it difficult to be so optimistic.
      I agree that the potential for alternative positive tourism opportunities exists, but I think VV has gone a long down way its particular path and it will be very difficult to backtrack. I suspect that damage limitation is the way forward now…

      I’m also not entirely convinced that many of the backpackers there would be happy with a more culturally sensitive tourism option. These are young people who want to party, many of whom come into Laos for only 3 or 4 days with the sole purpose of going to VV. I am not blaming any individuals of anything except thoughtlessness – I can appreciate that to them they are letting their hair down for a couple of days in a place where everyone else is doing the same. I agree with you that travel is a valuable opportunity. (Of course I do – this whole venture started out when I was a backpacker in Laos and on that trip, although I didn’t go tubing in VV, I’m sure I did a whole host of things that were culturally insensitive – as I’m sure I continue to do day by day!) However I also think that some ways of traveling are better than others and I think that a minimum level of respect for and interest in the places that you are going is a good thing.

      And (without repeating that whole conversation) as was pointed out to me on facebook after I posted this, not everyone would want to backtrack. Some people benefit. Some people have a lot of fun. Other people don’t like it (or have mixed feelings about it) but choose not to do anything about it for a whole range of reasons (and it is important to appreciate that – as you will well understand – it is more difficult for people here to do anything about than it would be in the UK). Everything involves trade-offs – I happen to think that the trade-offs made in VV are not worthwhile. I’m well aware that this is MY soapbox and I place no claim that I am representing anyone except myself. I don’t like this scene. I didn’t like it when I was 19 and I won’t like it any time soon.

      At some point in the future I’d really like to have a think about how I personally can be involved in this issue. Right now I’m a researcher and this might turn out to be relevant to my research but it is quite possibly a tangent.



  2. Thanks for sharing Chris. Sad and shocking, but somehow not surprising. Also fairly certain that if they *could* behave like this at home on a Saturday night, they would. (In fact, pretty sure in some parts of Britain, this is fairly close to Saturday night behavior).

    • It’s so complicated and so simple all at the same time. I’m not against anyone having fun and I appreciate that many people’s idea of fun is different to mine. I do think that all of us should think a bit more about the impacts that our actions have on other people. Wherever we are.

      • Have you ever been to a typical lao pic-nic place?
        – Many drunken lao, with loud music from karaoke
        That luang festival?
        – Many drunken lao, with loud music and yabaa is everywhere

        Young lao don’t join the phalang party in vang vien only because the beerlao is too expensive there…

        Please, stop the ethnical self hatred… As you said, it’s so cliché

      • Thank you for your comment. Yes, I have been to those picnic places and festivals and I don’t much like them either! It’s an interesting comparison and I’m totally sure that you are right about the inflated price of the Beer Lao. Discussions that I’ve had (both on and offline, with Lao and non-Lao people) since I wrote this post has definitely made me think more about the complexities of the situation. However your comment about ethic self hatred makes me really uncomfortable. I don’t hate anyone on the basis of ethnicity or anything else – and I am not against people having fun, regardless of whether or not it is my idea of fun! What I don’t like is when people’s behaviour is disrespectful or impacts negatively upon other people’s lives. Of course that can be Lao people or Falang, but my perception is that VV is pretty extreme in this regard.

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