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open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

I’d heard that Vang Vieng was like Sihanoukville, only with tubing instead of a beach and I planned to avoid it. An Aussie in Luang Prabang told me how amazingly beautiful Vang Vieng was with great outdoor adventure opportunities and to just avoid the tourist area. I’m not sure why I listened to him, but I shouldn’t have. I left my favorite place on the trip thus far, Don Khon to go to the only place in Laos I didn’t care for.
Vang Vieng is a case study on the wrong way to develop a community. The town has decided to target a very specific type of tourist. The restaurants, which all have identical menus, play either Family Guy or Friends DVDs all day and all night. Most have “happy menus” that offer everything from tea to pizza with weed, opium, or mushrooms. The price for anything happy is very high at 100 kip ($12.50), which is enough to buy 3 meals, 3 nights at a guesthouse or 10 Beer Laos. The drinks section of menus have headers like “it’s time to get fucked up!” and buckets (a mix of whiskey, soda, juice, and sugar) are very popular.
The big draw is tubing, where you rent a tube and float down the river for 1-3 hours, depending on how many bars you stop at along the way. People come back from tubing very drunk, covered in paint (no idea what the deal with the paint is), and party until late at night. I planned on going tubing on my last day in Vang Vieng, but I woke up to an e-mail from the Gibbon Experience saying they had an opening for me in a few days. The Experience is in Houay Xai, northwest Laos near the Thai border, a few days travel from VV. I decided to leave immediately to give myself time to make it there and had to pass on tubing.
Everyone I’ve talked to that went tubing said it was really cool and I’m sure it is. The town focusing its development solely on getting college aged people drunk and stoned is not cool. I’m all about having a good time, but don’t think it’s good for a community to turn itself into a partying mecca. I checked online and with travel agencies in town and found nothing close to what I was looking for in terms of activities in VV. All they offered was day trips to visit caves and kayak. I avoid organized day tours because you get rushed and end up spending a lot of the time on transport.
The strange thing is that the tourist area is not very large at all. It took just 10 minutes walking from my centrally located guesthouse to reach the Vang Vieng where actual people lived. It resembled any other town in Laos with rice paddies, cows in the streets, children everywhere, and very modest homes. I watched some locals playing volleyball with their feet instead of hands and they were really good. I think the people of Vang Vieng deserve a better future than the one they are shaping and it’s sad to see them heading in this direction.
You can get “happy” and drunk allover se Asia. I prefer to spend time in places that have more to offer. I make an effort to spend money in places and at establishments that build and better communities rather than tear them apart.

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