Vang Vieng, Laos
The once tiny town of Vang Vieng is a convenient stop on the road between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. It also happens to have a stunning setting nestled on the lazy Nam Song with a backdrop of limestone karsts jutting up out of the plain. As the guidebook says, its a place that backpackers have come to either love or hate -and I'm not sure into which camp I fall.
Don't get me wrong -we had great fun exploring the caves and waterways that surround the town. We even took a very popular tubing trip down the Nam Song on a stretch of river riddled with platforms, rope swings, waterside bars, and lovely scenery. We got an early start and were also lucky enough to have the river entirely to ourselves -or at least sharing only with the local Lao people.
And this, I think, comes to the crux of the issue that is now giving me pause. Somehow to be around throngs of other backpackers detracts from my view of an "authentic" experience. Perhaps not everywhere, but certainly in Vang Vieng. The huge influx of travelers and backpackers is causing Vang Vieng to lose its identity -or drastically change it. Again as our guidebook said, the town is losing its soul. Unsightly square concrete guest houses are everywhere, 90% of the restaurant menus are exact copies of each other, bars in town are continually rerunning episodes of "Friends," and the locals seem to assume that every traveler is interested in drugs. Sadly, many are. (The fact that the town was in the middle of a huge construction project when we passed through, didn't help either. They are installing new sewers and roads in the town center and the whole place is reminiscent of the Big Dig -on a much smaller scale.)
Sure, some cultural mixing is an inevitable part of globalization and travel, but its glaring and ugly in Vang Vieng. I'm sure this very issue has been pondered by many a traveler before me, but are we doing more harm than good? As traveling to some of these distant lands becomes easier, will their authentic culture and feel be suppressed beyond repair? I, for one, don't want to journey to a completely foreign place only to find that it has much of the same feel that I left at home.
That said, I think travel and tourism have probably done a world of good for Vang Vieng. There are now many jobs where there were none and the upgrade in infrastructure is largely due to is popularity as a tourist stop. In the end, the backpacker culture has arrived in Vang Vieng in a big way. Undoubtedly, it is a very mixed blessing, and like it or hate it, its there to stay.