Beer and Loathing in Las Vegas

Trip Start Mar 15, 2008
Trip End Oct 02, 2009

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Flag of United States  , Nevada
Friday, April 18, 2008

Ben Reporting: A six-hour bus ride east of the dual-faced city of LA, through some of the most stark desert I have ever seen, brings us to what at first seems like a mirage amongst the endless surrounds of sand, shrubs and mountains. The mirage forms into the city of Las Vegas, dominated in the sun by shining glass monoliths stretched back to the horizon.

The journey itself is intriguing. The desert east of LA, famous for its quirky Joshua Trees is not littered with slowly receding towns, instead it is perilously endless. The flat sands on either side of the road stretch on like your ever wandering thoughts, and the hills that sit behind the flatlands are incredible edifices in themselves. If the buildings of Vegas are a wonderment of engineering and design, then, even more so, the mountains and landscapes of desert California seem almost too perfect, as if they've been carved by some abstract genius with an intellect and ability beyond that of mortal men. It's no wonder the American wilderness inspired such a variety of writers from Thoreaux to Hunter S. Thompson, and that it plays home to so many new, bizarre religions; the mountains and valleys are cut and shaped in a way that shows their development over time, like looking at the rings on a forested tree. During the long journey, it gives the effect that the land has been created to make one ponder the wonders of the symmetry, the perils of time and the powers of the ethereal-worlds beyond our own.

Then Las Vegas. We arrive on the sweeping highways, which shoot us into the city in a less romantic manner we could have hoped for. It is the entrance of the lowly bus traveller, cheap and through the back door. The road leading into Vegas moves traffic straight into the areas called The Strip, the main street of Vegas that is dominated on either side by the impressive and famous Casinos and Hotels that bring 35 million visitors to this town each year. Yet our entrance is via a sweeping side freeway that takes us to the old section of Vegas, Fremont Street. The old section is a little back from the main Strip; the old Casinos are a little less impressive, but only by Vegas standards.

We find a hostel that is in the cheaper back section of Vegas, namely 'Sin City Hostel', an alright place that loses points for beg bugs and tepid showers. Across the road from Sin City is our first taste of Vegas debauchery: a drive-through wedding chapel, which has serviced such respected celebrities as Joan Collins and Michael Jordan. I knew of the reputation of Vegas as the quick-wedding chapel capital of the USA, but even the idea of a McDonald's style 'drive-thru' marriage seems excessive. On the other hand, while quick marriage facilities are famously rife in Vegas, we do discover that all marriages in the town first require a trip to the Magistrates Court to get signed-off by a magistrate. So while getting married is nearly as easy as buying a Big Mac, there is still a bit of a process.

We wander down the strip on our first evening to check out the shameless merriment of Las Vegas. First: The Casino/Hotels. If there's no other reason to visit Vegas, you should go to see the extravagance, which is best embodied in the Casinos. The best we come across, perhaps, is Bellagio. Fronted by an 8-acre lake, which, after dark, plays host every 15 minutes to an incredible water fountain show, with water sprouting and dancing in time to music, sometimes shooting over 100 feet in the air. Then there's the Lobby of the Bellagio. As you enter this just-eloquently-short-of-ostentatious Casino, you look up and see the ceiling - a vast and detailed field of glass blown coloured flowers. Then, beyond the Lobby, is a fantasy garden that includes watering-can fountains, a mass of paper butterfly's and coloured parasols that hang from the ceiling. It all effectively marries beauty with human design and extravagance to create a magical garden you might expect to see only in the movies.

Other impressive Casinos on the Strip include:
The Venetian: the frontage of which looks like the bridges of Venice.
Paris: with a replica of the Eiffel Tower.
Caesar's Palace: a strong Roman theme with a replica of the Trevi fountain out front.
MGM Grand: Huge, with a giant Lion statue out front.
Flamingos: hotel and casino with its own Flamingo colony.
Treasure Island: Every evening, out front there's a free show, involving a battle between a ship of 'Sirens' and a ship of rough Pirates. It's typical Vegas - expensive, entertaining, with an unsubtle 'undercurrent' of sex.
New York New York: Exterior looks like the skyline of New York.
Excalibur: Looks like a fantasy Disney castle, but King Arthur themed. Or something.

And my personal favourite, the otherworldly Luxor Casino and Hotel. The Luxor is basically a huge black-glass pyramid, with a beam of light coming from its top that is apparently the most powerful beam of light in the world. Out the front of the Luxor is a replica Sphinx and Obelisk, but it's the interior that's most impressive. Inside, as you look to the ceiling, you realise the interior shape of the Luxor is the same as the outside, no floors, just one big pyramid room. The hotel rooms line the edge of the Casino and there's plenty to do inside. Leah visited an IMAX film in which you enter a pod and travel through the Galaxy in a 360-degree view of outer space. I visited an exhibition showing the Tomb of Tutankhaman. All very impressive.

Las Vegas is really just a big adult theme park for Americans. And yet, strangely, despite the fact that you can drink in the street and the gas stations and convenience stores all had slot machines in them, there are a lot of families in Vegas. Beyond the droves of college students sucking down Coronas, there are a surprisingly large number of parents with kids wandering around, treating the place like its just another family holiday. This is a good indication of the bizarrely lax I.D. checking going on. As most casinos were interchangeable with their hotels, it would be impossible to allow families to stay without their children having to be confined to their hotel rooms. Vegas is a prime example of American moral duality at play: we saw more brides, weddings and chapels than we'd normally see in a year, this in a country where religion is both prominent and controversial in its stature. And children running around in casinos, slot machines in convenience stores, all in a nation where gambling is only legal in 2 of 50 states.

We dabble a bit on the 1c slots, Leah getting lucky, winning $50, but our gambling exploits are overshadowed by our experience of the city, the Strip and the entertainment to be seen in all corners. Our first evening in Vegas sees us walk nearly the entire length of the strip, enticed by the neon glow and marble lavishness. On our second day we attempt to explore deeper the hotels and casinos, which present so many different charms, but it's such an impossible thing to achieve in two days. We seek out a 20,000 cubic meter fish tank in the lobby of the Mirage hotel, but by the time we find it, our expectations are dampened - we've already seen too much, our minds have already been totally blown.

Our third night in Vegas is spent, after returning from a visit to the Grand Canyon (see the next instalment) in a proper Las Vegas casino called Circus Circus, which has an impressively lit marquee frontage. Circus Circus is, not surprisingly, a Zoo themed Casino... oh, sorry, I mean a Circus themed casino, with a circus ring in the middle of the casino floor where various circus acts are performed nightly, free for gamblers and guests to watch. Plus our room is about a third of the price because it's a Tuesday and not a weekend, so we enjoy an increasingly rare hot shower. (One thing you learn about hostels is that if more than one shower is in use, the hot water seems to be distributed evenly among each shower - but I guess you get what you pay for).

There is, of course, another side to Las Vegas that we don't see, but I was wondering about on our way, namely: Who lives in Vegas? The town actually has a population of 2.1 million people, nearly double that of Adelaide, and as we drove through the back streets of the city we discovered the Vegas suburbia, set back with the usual supermarkets, dentists offices and car parks. One bartender we spoke to boasted he'd lived in Vegas his whole life and reckoned he was one of only very few. To see the world behind the curtain of Las Vegas is certainly sobering, anyway.

Las Vegas is everything it promises to be. It's extravagant, luxurious, entertaining and sexy, but at the same time its debauch, offensively excessive and morally ambiguous with an obvious air of sleaziness. It's almost as if everyone's pent up desires come exploding out in the middle of the desert in this fantasy place, where you can leave your regret behind afterwards to lie like rubbish tossed from a moving car. But it has to be seen to be believed and, despite my last comment, I recommend it be seen by anyone with a sense of fun and adventure, by anyone who wants to see an urban world truly turned upside down by the richest fantasies money can buy.
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