Thursday, July 27, 2017

Vang Vieng Before the Flood

                                   by Jim Goodman

bathing hour at VangVieng, 1994, when people still used the river
       Shedding its notorious image as Southeast Asia’s prime backpacker partying venue, the once sleepy town of Vang Vieng, 150 km north of Vientiane, is assuming a new identity.  Fancy hotels are going up, sometimes blocking the view of what was always Vang Vieng’s main attraction—the Namsong River flowing alongside the town, with a backdrop of picturesque, rugged limestone hills.  These hotels cater to the new breed of tourists coming to Vang Vieng:  Koreans inspired by the Korean reality TV show Youth over Flowers, which staged several episodes here in 2014, Chinese, Japanese, Thai and older Westerners, mainly Australian.
rural scenery near Vang Vieng
       Local people may not be too happy with the transformation of their town into a conglomeration of big concrete buildings, but they prefer the new clientele.  Few regret the passing of the dozen years or so from the beginning of this century, when hedonistic, culturally clueless Western youth swarmed into Vang Vieng, outnumbering the residents, bent on enjoyment, from pleasures on the river to all-night parties with loud music and lots of alcohol and drugs.
       I missed all that, but had an inkling of what was to come on my last visit in the spring of 2000.  The place had quite charmed me several years earlier and I wanted to relive my initial experience.  I knew it had just recently become popular with the backpacker set, so I expected some changes, like more guesthouses and restaurants, but nothing so drastic as to spoil my appreciation.
Namsong River in 1994
       The route from Vientiane was flat all the way, but with numerous stops it took five hours.  As soon as I disembarked, several Lao youths surrounded me, but not for offering accommodations.  “Opium?  Opium?  Opium?”   Looking totally uninterested, I managed to disperse them.  But that was new.  The last time I came the only drug offered me was local rice liquor.
       As for a guesthouse, I had a range of cheap choices:  $1 for a room with a mat on the floor and $2 for one with a mattress on the floor.  Shared shower and toilet, of course, so I opted the mattress.  I didn’t require much comfort.  I just wanted to stroll along the river again. 
the only resort in town in the 1990s
       That wasn’t possible anymore. Thanks to the burgeoning tourism business, many of the houses along the river had turned part of their premises into restaurants and bars and so had constructed walls around their compounds that extended right down to the riverbank.  Some space still existed between the compounds, but not very much.  Anyway, though I did see a few boats on the river, nobody came to bathe in the late afternoon.  Whether that was because they had piped water to their houses now or because they didn’t want to bathe in front of so many tourists I didn’t find out.
       Next morning I took a bus north to a Hmông village, but it was a resettled village right next to the highway, therefore not very traditional.  Not even the older women wore Hmông clothing and so no looms were active, no hemp thread being prepared.  I returned to Vang Vieng for a walk around the town, but nothing really captured my attention.  I left early next morning.  Other than the drugs and bar scene, and that everything was cheap, I couldn’t understand why people came here.
novices at leisure on the river
silversmith at work
       Several months earlier, however, something happened to transform Vang Vieng’s scene entirely, and it was just getting started when I made my last visit.  The manager of an organic farm a few kilometers north of the town bought a bunch of inner tubes so that his workers could enjoy floating down the Namsong to get back to the town.  Someone got the idea tourists might want to do this and so a lucrative business was born and the transformation of Vang Vieng began.
bridge below the entrance to Jang Cave
       The tubing experience, touted all over the Internet, soon flooded Vang Vieng with budget travelers.  From dozens of visitors a day, the number within a few years reached thousands.  At its peak, around 800 tourists a day rode tubes on the Namsong River.  By the end of the decade 150,000 backpackers a year came to Vang Vieng.  They were not big spenders, but with that many of them they were a great boost to the local economy.
       Local people took advantage of this influx to set up businesses catering to all the foreigners’ interests.  The riverside restaurants became rock and roll bars and stayed open long past midnight.  Besides cheap Lao beer and rice liquor, they also sold meals laced with opium or psychedelic mushrooms.  Some 1500 households formed a cooperative to handle the tubing business.  They even added new adventures on the river by constructing ziplines across it and huge slides into the water.  Unlike the tubing, these were free. 
cave temple along the river
       So Vang Vieng became the ultimate Southeast Asian party scene.  Foreigners could enjoy various thrills on the river and in the evening get as drunk and stoned as they desired and listen and dance to the loud rock and roll they loved.  The townsfolk benefited enormously from the flow of money, but the business boom had its downsides, like women in skimpy bikinis in the town, boisterous drunks and the open consumption of drugs. 
       Not only were the backpackers oblivious to the conservative norms of local Lao culture, they were not very careful indulging themselves.  Around two dozen of them died each year from drug overdoses or river accidents, like riding down a slide and slamming head first into a boulder.  (The slides soon earned the nickname ‘death slides.’)  Vang Vieng people stopped all their customary activity on the river—fishing, boat transport, bathing—because they were convinced, due to all the deaths, the river was haunted by evil spirits.
sculptures adorning a small riverside cave
       Yet since they were making money from tourism they took no steps to redress the problems.  Finally, after Australian newspapers in 2012 featured stories on the Namsong River deaths, the Lao government closed all the riverside bars, dismantled the ziplines and slides and banned tubing for a year, after which it resumed, but at a reduced scale and tightly controlled.  Nowadays a few bars are permitted, but a midnight curfew is in effect as well.  The backpacker scene died, but Vang Vieng’s prior pristine identity could never revive, for the river that was so much part of the town’s life and culture has lost its role.  Post-backpacker deaths, people shun it.
chedis containing the ashes of Vang Vieng monks
       Vang Vieng dates its foundation to 1353, established as a way station between Vientiane and Luang Phabang.  It was never an important town, though during the Vietnam War the Americans built an airstrip and base here.  After the war Laos closed its doors to visitors until the end of the 80s, and then only allowed tourists under certain conditions.  They could travel freely anywhere within Vientiane Prefecture, but anywhere beyond they had to be part of an organized group of a government agency or travel with a government minder.
       I made a few short trips to Vientiane in the early 90s, mainly to get a new Thai visa in a fresh destination that was closer than Penang.  I didn’t stay but two or three days each time, exploring the temples and other sites of the city, as well as a jungle resort a couple hours outside the city.  Eventually, since it was within the prefecture, I took a trip to Vang Vieng.
farmer woman heading home
typical limestone hill near Vang Vieng
       At that time the town had only two hotels, next to the small central market.  Rooms, with toilet and shower, were $4.  Other than that, a small resort with several individual cabins at $12 a night lay on the riverbank south of the town, near one of the better-known caves.  The hotel room was comfortable enough, but three times a day, including once in the middle of the night, the ice truck came and dumped blocks of ice into a grinder across the street that spent half an hour breaking up the blocks at an incredible noise level.  After two nights of this I moved to the resort.
casting a net in the Namsong River
       I was the only foreigner in town then, but not the first they’d seen.  Folks were friendly, all smiles and children quick to shout “Bonjour!”  Most of the women, even the young girls, dressed in traditional style, with hair tied in a bun. In the suburbs I saw several looms at work, with lots of extra heddle sticks used to create the complex inlaid patterns on the cloth.  I also watched people making fishnets and silversmiths incising intricate designs on bracelets and pendants.
       The town has a couple of old Buddhist temples, originally constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries.  One is just south of the resort and I watched novices come up to the riverside just below the Jang Cave to rest on the rocks and swim below them.  A wooden bridge crosses the river here and leads to the staircase for a short climb up to the cave.  It has a lagoon inside and enough space alongside that it was used as a base by local resistance to the renegade Chinese Ho invasion in the late 19th century.
paddling a pirogue on the Namsong
       Other caves, big and small, abound in the area, some along the river with lagoons inside, others adorned with religious sculptures or partly turned into a temple.  Usually the decorative sculptures were depictions of Buddha and perhaps kneeling devotees.  But they could also include such oddities as a man holding a huge fish or a parrot-headed creature with a little gremlin that look like they were statues of beings from another planet.  
       Temples and caves made pleasant pauses on my exploration of the environs.  The real pleasure, though, was wandering along the river and into the rural area on the other side.  Limestone hills popped up at intervals from a perfectly flat plain.  Some had cliffs that rose straight up from the ground at a 90-degree angle.  Next to this might be a lone stilted house, with its fields spread out in front of it.  As I kept walking I had a new vista every ten minutes.  I had no map, but I couldn’t get lost, for I had the singular shapes of certain hills to guide me back to the river.
water-wheel connected to a rice pounder
       Mornings and especially late afternoons were the most active times on the river.  These were the best hours for fishing.  Boats taking people to villages up or down the river were also busy then and in late afternoon it was bathing hour.  The boats were wooden pirogues, narrow and of various lengths, long for transport, short for fishing.  A few were outfitted with outboard motors, but most used paddles or poles to convey themselves along the waters.
       For fishing, they could go in pairs, with one sitting in the rear paddling and the other standing in the front to cast the net.  Or an individual would wade out into the shallow river and cast his net.  Whether standing in the water or riding a boat, they then dragged the net some distance and then checked to see if they caught anything.  Others set traps near the shore and periodically examined them, thrusting any fish caught into a split bamboo basket they had tied to their belts.
       A few water-wheels were in use along the river then. Large ones, a few meters high, funneled water to riverside gardens.  Smaller ones operated rice-pounders, a good example of the ingenuity of ‘primitive’ technology.  Buffaloes wallowed in the river for much of the day, in water up to their jaws.  (A surprising number of them were pink.)  Children and dogs splashed around in the shallow parts.
buffaloes wallowing in the river
       The most charming time on the river was the last hours of the day, when people came to bathe, both themselves and their vehicles.  Trucks, buses and tractor-trailers drove right into the river and their owners used buckets to douse them with water.  Upstream people of all ages, male and female, bathed in the shallows, the men stripped down to shorts, the women tying their sarongs just above the breasts, the very old and very young completely naked.
       Women tied their long hair in a bun to keep it dry while they submerged up to the neck.  If a woman intended to wash her hair she entered the river backwards, sat, lifted her hair and lay on her back in the water spreading the locks out evenly in the stream so they didn’t get tangled.  For an observer, this was the most charming vignette in the scene.
       For the participants, it was also a social occasion, an opportunity for a leisurely chat with friends and neighbors.  That’s all gone now.  People bathe at home.  Nobody goes fishing or playing in the river.  It’s there strictly for organized and controlled tourist activities.  The river is no longer an integral part of the people’s lives.  The Vang Vieng of last century, gone forever, is just a memory now, but in my own case, one that remains firmly, fondly and permanently implanted.
vanished vignette:  girls bathing in the Namsong in the early 90s
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