I got the last seat in the minibus going to Vang Vieng. A bossy woman of somewhere around sixty sat in the front with the driver. She scolded him for using his phone at the wheel and told him to put it away, which he did, but drove the rest of the way with his foot to the floor in revenge. We barrelled through villages at motorway speeds, leaped bumps in the road and felt the g-force on the corners as the tyres screamed in panic.
When we stopped for a welcome toilet break, a young backpacker told the woman she should have kept quiet, but she said that it was the height of arrogance to tell people how to behave. Hang on a minute…everyone else thought, but kept quiet.
Sixty years after France lost its Indochinese empire, forty years after the US pulled out of Southeast Asia, travellers have recolonised this sleepy town armed with nothing more warlike than elephant print trousers and back-to-front baseball caps. They have turned it into an adventure playground.
There are karsts to climb, and cave systems to explore, and the rapidly flowing Nam Song River to float along on an inner tube with a Beerlao in one hand and a joint in the other, as if relaxing on a beanbag at home. There are ‘happy shakes’ and ‘happy pizzas,’ garnished with ganja, ya ba or magic mushrooms, and bars where eating is cheating and water is for washing in and drinks are to be downed in one. And this in a nation so conservative that pop music and jeans were once illegal and sex outside marriage still is.
Every fourth building downtown is a guest house; every tenth is an internet café. The stores in between are bureaux de change, souvenir shops and places to make an “over seacall” or buy a “busticker” to the next destination. The locals shop at stores in villages way out of town or at stalls set up on the old Air America runway, unused by planes since the covert war was abandoned in the middle seventies.
There is an Australian steakhouse, a French bistro, a kosher restaurant and an Irish pub, which does stews and roasts in the tropical heat, and there are dozens of places to go for a burger, or an English breakfast, and to watch an episode of Friends as you eat.
Wherever you go, there is a hubbub of British, American and Australian English, and English spoken with the accents of other rich countries. Sometimes you hear Spanish, sometimes Russian, sometimes Korean, but rarely Lao.
I am no better than the other travellers: I climbed rock faces, crawled through caves and got hammered; I would have gone tubing, as well, if I were more of a swimmer and less of a coward. But it was hard not to feel ashamed to be part of it all.
Yet, if not tourism, what? A third of Laos’ population lives on less than a dollar a day. Just the other side of the river, across the bridges of bamboo and twine which creak and wobble as you walk on them but which, nonetheless, you share with scooters and cars, it is a world away from the imported culture of Europe and North America which dominates downtown: a world of subsistence farming, of thatched huts, children running naked, women kneeling at the river beating clothes on the rocks, and bent old men pushing older carts, which past generations pushed before them.
It is a scene unchanged since long before Vang Vieng was somewhere you Must Go Before You Die, before it appeared in a profusion of odd-numbered lists, before the first travellers discovered it; before the Pathet Lao came to power, before the CIA sought to influence local wars; before the French folded Laos into their Indochinese empire; before the Burmese and Siamese invaded.
This is the real Laos. Travellers see it briefly from their rented scooters as they hurtle out to the further-flung caves.
© Richard Senior 2015