Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) | Mekong | Vang Vieng – Day 43 – Vang Vieng, Laos
The heavy skies of Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath, Saturday) yesterday mirrored my heavy head; and the non-stop rain in Vientiane, pathetic fallacy for my dripping nose. A cold knocked me out, and under the covers by 8pm Friday night.
Today (Sunday) was my farewell to Vientiane, the most live-and-let-live capital city I’ve encountered in S.E. Asia. Experience with surface travel in Laos has taught me to arrive a little early in order to get a seat, so I wandered into the bus station around 10am for the 10:30 departure. A few minutes of waddling around with my pack and I wended my way through the milling throngs – approximately composed of as many vendors as passengers. With the help of a couple of indefinite waves of the hand when I asked for the bus to Vang Vieng, I honed in on and found my stout vehicle, rickety (the vehicle that is) as ever. Only half the seats were filled though, so I took my pick and waited for the 20 minutes or so to elapse before departure. About an hour later, the standing-room-only bus waggled its way through the pot-holes of the bus station carrying me and my puddle of perspiration out of the city. The actual departure time helped confirm one of the unwritten rules of travel in this part of the world. The vehicle leaves only when either overstuffed or the driver is satisfied with his profit margin given the number of passengers already aboard.
The road was straight and smooth for the first hour (of four). Then, the green, green, rich green land started to raise itself around us, first in low rounded hills and then into more haughty heights. The road was forced to snake its way around what became a heaving countryside, seeking out the path of least resistance. At times the lay of the land looked like a stormy swelling green sea of tropical forest. The mountains multiplied into the distance, dark silhouettes projecting the mood of kaleidoscopic clouds which rolled around them. After some time, the mountains took on fantastic shapes: massive fat fingers scratching at the sky, stoney shark fins frozen in place, black billowing sales in a rocky regatta. Whole series of ever-weird-shaped towers looked like all the implements in a humungous Swiss Army Knife had been opened skywards and allowed to petrify. Silver-white threads of waterfalls played hide and seek through the thick foliage here and there, accompanied on occasion by the greatest and most unsung falls of them all in the form of scattered showers. The little (old) bus that could, did, but not without struggling on the inclines, huffing and puffing but getting us here.
Vang Vieng is on The Trail, an almost mandatory stop now for myriad backpackers moving on the north-south trajectory in Laos. As is usually the case, there is good reason for its popularity as it nestles on a rice-paddied plain surrounded by massive rock fangs which bite well beyond the skin of the monsoon slipstream. Within these soaring limestone formations are who knows how many caves to hike to and explore. Very cool.
But, as is also often the case, Vang Vieng is coming down with a full case of what I call ‘traveleria’, loosely (pardon the expression) defined as an overflow of Western World Wannabe restaurants, bars, ‘Net cafes etc, catering to an overflow of Western World escapees who have come thousands of kilometres to hear Bob Marley’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’ on yet another stereo system while they drink Coke and eat french fries. Vang Vieng has sold what I imagine to be its one-time simple Lao soul for the traveler treasure, a green of a decidedly different variety than that of its verdant rice fields. The town is still too early in its pact with the traveler to have lost all its charm (hello Kuta Beach, Bali). But signs are there, the trend is building, literally, as construction is happening all through town. I can’t claim to not have enjoyed the odd cola or two while wandering the region, and I’m writing this very rant at a ‘Net cafe. But ultimately, we travelers do vote with our money belts, and in Vang Vieng, we are teaching the Lao that we will frequent the places with DVD movies, pool tables and funky lighting. This is not a new phenomenon by any means in many countries in the region. Thailand and Vietnam come to mind. It’s just that, up until now, much of my experience in Laos has been that it has been able to maintain its own character. Ultimately, there is an argument to be made for the cultural homogenization. Who am I to deny a poor Lao family the opportunity to make a better living by meeting the needs of a market niche. That’s capitalism at its best. And maybe its worst?
Speaking of capitalism, it seems to have creeped into the officially communist doctrine of Laos more and more. On the inside of the door to my room at my guest house here, there is a set of rules for guests. It is entitled as follows:
Lao Peoples Democratic Republic: Peace, Independence, Democracy, Unity and Property.
Property?? That doesn’t seem to me to be a founding principal of communism.
Just for the record, a couple of the rules that brought a smile to my face are as follows:
** The guest stay here: don’t be very noisy, don’t be prostitute, don’t play gambling, don’t take narcotic, drugs, same things.
** When you check out you have got to pay for your room before and ought to check out before 11:00am for our comfort of the service.
The notice of rules ends as follows: ‘The guest house’s landlord hopes that the above rules will be performed by every people with love and good happiness’.
Would that the world were run that way.