You got me floatin'

Trip Start Jun 12, 2011
Trip End Oct 22, 2012

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, July 7, 2011

In 2003 I arrived in Van Vieng to find a sleepy little town amongst a backdrop of limestone cliffs which towered over the town wherever you looked.  There were a handful of restaurants which also doubled as bars and few enough backpackers that you would recognise the face of everyone there.  There were only a couple of three/four storey building/guesthouses and the rest were mainly one or two story huts with tin roofs.  The restaurants all served good Laos food, spicy noodle soup, sticky rice and the like, except for one restaurant that sold good pizzas called 'give pizza a chance' and a pub that sold roast dinner on Sundays.  There is an island in the middle of the Nam Song River and on there was a makeshift bar and hammocks to chill in, it was only accessible by a bamboo bridge which washed away in the rainy season.

The thing to do in Van Vieng is tubing and in 2003 that meant getting a tuk tuk and an inner tube and heading to the organic mulberry farm out of town jumping into the Nam Song River on your tube to spend the day floating and admiring the amazing scenery with only the sound of the river and your companions.  After not very long you'd find an entrepreneur of a local Laos on the river bank with a cool box of ice cold Beer Laos and a long stick to pull you towards the bank.  Purchase made and off you float beer in hand.  When that beer ran out you wouldn't have to wait long before you found a natural beach on the side of the river and another man with a cool box - only this one has built a picnic table out of bamboo so you can dry off for a while before heading off again.  He had also built a swing in the trees.  Further along there was a natural cliff that you could run along and jump into the river 'beer Laos jumping'.  After the day of floating you ended up back in Van Vieng where you simply climbed out of the water, left your tube on the side and stroll back to your guesthouse.  I went tubing 4 times this trip - it was totally awesome!

In 2005 I again found myself in Van Vieng.  There were a few more restaurants and bars in town but the vibe was pretty similar.  On the island though a number of bars had appeared pumping out techno and dnb and when tubing the cool boxes had turned into fridges and bamboo platforms and zip wires but still the vibe was same same and you ended in the centre of town so you could just walk back into town.

This trip I found Van Vieng almost unrecogniseable.  Many many high rise guesthouse have been or are in the process of being built so that the view of the limestone cliffs are now obscured.  The town is full of 18-22 year olds pissed on Lao Lao and Beer Lao wandering around town in their bikinis covered in body paint.  (Lao is a very conservative country and in other towns there are signs up asking tourists not to walk around bear chested or in your bikini).  The bars on the side of the tubing river are also concrete and being built up, pumping out loud cheese, I'm sure I heard YMCA at one of them! We got dropped only a bit out of town instead of by the Mulberry farm, maybe due to the recent rains washing some of the bars away.  The bars are now so close to each other that you can walk it or swim it and many people dont bother with the tubes.  The cost of hiring the tubes is now so expensive that I'm not surprised.  We got around that though by going to a local market and buying our own inflatable tubes for a fraction of the cost.  The most dangerous thing though is that they have now hidden the exit into town so that you drift out of town into the midst of nowhere and have to get t tuk tuk back.  People were struggling to get out of the water though and I wouldn't be surprised if people go missing floating off down stream in the dark.  I believe that deaths are also now common and again I'm not surprised as instead of beer Laos - the bars are pushing lao lao buckets and free shots are handed out constantly.

The sleepy town I once knew has turned into an 18/30s style mess fest.  It is a shame but as Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world I really dont blame the locals for trying to make a buck out of pissed tourists.  It seems there has been a lot of westerners settle here assisting the development but its a shame they havent been more sensitive to the area so that its initial charm is now lost.  I feel very privileged to have seen it before its boom and can safely say I wont be coming back to see what has happened to it in the future.  I only hope that someone does something to make the tubing safer.

On the road out of Van Vieng I noticed that the for the whole of the 4 hour journey to Vientiane there was litter (mainly plastic) strewn everywhere and I started to think that the country must be struggling to cope with its rapid development.  I wonder what, if any, infrastructure is in place for recycling or rubbish collection and it made me really sad to think that such a beautiful country is becoming so polluted.  I also noticed that it seems to be a few families who were probably in the right place at the right time who are now profiting from tourism and suspect Laos is another case of the minority rich getting richer and the majority poor remaining so.  The main industries here are tourism and beer laos although judging by the amount of development I suspect that the concrete suppliers are making a mint too.

I've also noticed that there are a whole ton of children here that dont seem to be in school and I havent even seen many schools.  In the towns none of the children seem to play or smile and lots of them are working, either learning the trade of shopkeeping, sandwich making or are selling trinkets on the streets.  In remote areas the kids seem happier cos they are playing out but  maybe only rolling around in mud or cooling off inthe drain water or playing with bugs or bamboo footballs.  But of course there is little or no money to be had in these remote areas and their life is that of subsistence.  I cant help but think sometimes that this subsistence way of living in bamboo huts looking out at the amazing scenery and living off the land may hold a richer lifestyle as people pull together to support each other instead of valuing the electronics etc that modern life has to offer.  But then as I have the choice not to live like that I cant really comment on the hardships that no doubt are also faced by the villages.   
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Jess on

I completely agree Claire,
I'd not been to Vang Vieng before last year, but had heard wonderful stories of it from friends who went in 2005. We arrived to the same sight, pissed sunburned semi naked tourists rolling down the streets with buckets of Lao Lao singing "who are ya? who are ya?"
I felt like I'd arrived in Magaluf.
You could still see the beauty that it would have once been by getting out of town a little, but what a shame. Though as you said, who can blame them for wanting to make a few bucks of tourists?

The plastic rubbish seems to be a problem just about everywhere we went, especially Bolivia Lao and Bolivia. The systems just can't cope and recycling isn't high on the agenda.

Hope you get some relaxing done on the islands soon
Jess x

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