My traveling companions and I were finally in Vang Vieng, Laos to spend a day river tubing, bar-hopping, and warm-weather drinking on the Nom Sam River. Photo by Chris Feser (cc).
Squinting into the strangling Laotian sun, I was already sweating in the morning heat. My traveling companions and I were finally in Vang Vieng, Laos to spend a day river tubing, barhopping, and warm-weather drinking on the Nom Sam River. A handful of bars lined the river, complete with rope-swings and sunburned tourists.
Across Southeast Asia, whenever we brought up Vang Vieng, travelers urged, “You have to go!”
So we went.
As we set off on tubes down the river, smiling, pre-teen Laotian boys threw us ropes and pulled us in for local whiskey. We flung ourselves off rope-swings and zip-lines, all the while yucking it up with a cosmopolitan mix of spunky travelers.
After the last bar, we linked tubes with total strangers, forming a happily drunk flotilla, and bobbed on, belting out rock ’n roll hits as the sun set in front of us. We were muddy and exhausted, with a great day behind us.
But something wasn’t sitting right with me. My carefree day on the river weighed on me in the weeks after leaving. For me, traveling is about having fun, but it’s also about immersing myself in a new culture. My experiences in Vang Vieng had taught me nothing about local Laotian culture; I had done nothing there that I couldn’t have done back home in the United States. I started to wonder, had I been culturally disrespectful by partaking in a recreational activity set up just for tourists?
On the bus north from the capital city Vientiane, we had passed a number of villages where houses leaned feebly on stilts and local rice merchants swarmed our bus. But pulling into Vang Vieng, we were accosted by bikini-clad Westerners, thumping electronic music, and "Friends" episodes played on repeat in the open-air restaurants. All day long.
Indeed, Vang Vieng has seen a massive tourist boom, while much of Laos remains unexplored. Upon returning to the United States, I did some further research into Vang Vieng and found that visitation has doubled in just seven years to around 100,000 tourists a year today. On the plus side, tubing is bringing money to the town, and in fact has replaced what used to be the town’s primary source of tourist income: drugs. According to the New York Times, as recently as 2002, “by some accounts the opium dens outnumbered the guesthouses.”
In an August 2009 report, the Laos National Tourism Administration praised local efforts in Vang Vieng to organize a tubing business cooperative where 10 village-units rotate in the daily management of tubing. This is said to bring between $6 and $24 to about 1,500 households per month, not an insignificant number in a country where the average per capita income is $765.
But on the other hand, the activities surrounding river tubing—including drinking alcohol, using drugs (which are still widely available), and dressing in scant attire—run entirely counter to local Buddhist culture. Many foreigners who frolicked with us on the river in bikinis and boardshorts also ran around town in the same attire at night. Alcohol and the common joint were consumed with reckless abandon on the water. Colorful government posters hung all over town clearly listing such debauchery as a “Don’t” in the "Dos and Don’ts" of adhering to local Buddhist culture. Some guesthouses had posted signs pleading "No Drugs" and "Please Keep Yourself Clean."
Wherever travelers go, they bring some of their culture with them—it would be naïve to think otherwise. Sometimes these foreign cultural influences enrich or complement local culture, but in Vang Vieng, they seem to be doing more harm than good.
Even though river tubing is not a local tradition in Laos, if the day I spent in Vang Vieng was only about floating in a rubber tube down a river, I don’t think it would have troubled me. There’s nothing inherently wrong with taking a break from your cultural exploration to have a little fun. But that doesn’t mean that it’s OK to disregard the culture entirely. Watching YouTube videos of the river madness upon my return to the United States made me cringe, and I couldn’t believe that as a participant, I had been so oblivious to our loud, reckless, and generally obnoxious behavior. True, Vang Vieng seemed innocuous in comparison to the Thai mega-resort islands or the tourist-swindling sleaze-fest in Bangkok that we had also traveled through, but that doesn’t mean I can turn a blind eye to the cultural threats.
Next time I’ll do my research beforehand.