Friday, June 10, 2005

Up A River Without A Paddle

Any country where backpackers travel (pretty much every country in the world) has at least one place where they congregate in greater numbers than anywhere else. In Thailand it is Bangkok's Khao San Road; in Peru it's Cusco; in Mexico it's San Cristobal de Las Casas, and so on. Here in Laos it's Vang Vieng. The town is about 200km north of Vientiane, (actually pronounced Wieng Chan, so blame the French) the capital, amongst the fertile lowland valleys that feed into the Mekong river. There must have been something that attracted the first tourists here, probably the pretty karst formations similar to those found in southern Thailand. Although I was warned about Vang Vieng I never thought it would be as bad as it is. There is no local town at all, all of the shops and businesses cater to the tourist droves, creating a soulless mix of tour agencies, guesthouses, bike rental shops and ridiculously overpriced restaurants. It is the latter that are the worst culprits. Each one is a carbon copy of the one next to it with identical menus (literally) charging the same prices (even having the gall to charge $2 for a sandwich) and all with TVs showing non-stop episodes of Friends. You can sit in one restaurant watching one episode and simultaneously listen to 3 other episodes from the neighbouring establishments. What's worst is that the so-called backpackers (though I use the term loosely) who just sit there like zombies lapping it up, thereby feeding the crazy cycle.

There are several activities on offer here, the most famous being tubing along the Song river in huge, inflated inner tubes from tractor tyres. Tubing has gained such notoriety here that it has almost become obligatory for any Laos trip. Personally I don't understand the hype as, even though we are in the rainy season, the river is too sedate to get the adrenaline flowing. I suppose it's quite relaxing, what with the occasional riverside bar and accompanying shouts from the proprietors of "beer lao! beer lao!", plus the nicely unfolding scenery. But still, I'll be happy to get out of this place and on to Vientiane.

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