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.
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.
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.