Culturally Conscious Travel (Through the lens of Vangvieng)

Vangvieng, Laos landscape


On the beaten-to-death backpacker’s circuit in Laos, there is a small riverside town named Vangvieng. It straddles the crystal waters of the Nam Song River and is surrounded by stunning karst monoliths that are home to numerous deep – and widely ignored – caves accessible via short hikes into the wilderness. As far as South East Asia goes, the climate is delicious and the vegetation is dense, vibrant and voluminous. The last thing one would expect in such an idyllic location, and a particularly conservative country whose customs and etiquette are forged by strong Buddhist tradition, would be blaring techno music, drunk assholes puking everywhere, naked foreigners and constant, relentless hollering.

In Vangvieng, the “thing to do” is go tubing. Just north of town, the river is dotted on both sides by ramshackle bars where guzzling cobra whiskey and chugging Beer Lao is followed closely by swinging off rope swings, slides, slack lines and launching off cliff jumps, all made for plummeting from extreme heights into the river. There’s also mud wrestling, mud volleyball, and Techno music so loud it infiltrates your brain and rewires it

so that the only conscious thought you have is “more booze please.” Sounds awesome, right? How can that not be the best time in the world? Agreed. Don’t get me wrong, I like my drink and debauchery as much as the next traveler – it can be the forger of strong bonds and fine times – but there’s a time and a place.

In too many inappropriate places around the world, including Vangvieng, having a fun time has become an excuse for scoffing at local etiquette, increased water contamination, bad mojo vibes between travelers and locals, bottles and wrappers that litter the river and town, the river is dug out with tractors to keep it deep enough for drunken acrobatics, and more recently, drugs have become not only easily accessible to travelers but also local children.

Remember, Laos is a conservative country where the associated actions of tubing cause extreme offence. If you want to do whatever you want, there are places created especially for that. Try out the Republic of Kazantip. It’s an annual month-long rave/orgy on the southern coast of the Ukraine. All of the techno music, booze and nakedness you could possibly want happen there every year with thousands of party people from around the world.

If travel for widening your horizons, learning about the world, making connections with interesting people and in general becoming a citizen of the world, consider the customs of the place you’re visiting. It isn’t difficult. Every guidebook out there will provide a section on suggested etiquette and ways to demonstrate your respect and understanding of another’s culture. Visit travel forums to discover the subtle gestures that you would never think of beforehand. For example, you might be hanging with a group of locals and you playfully tassel a child’s hair, but in many Buddhist cultures, the head is considered sacred, it’s extremely offensive to touch a person’s head.

Not to be the finger-pointing ninny or a self-righteous d-bag, but it pays to keep in mind that we as travelers have major effects on the destinations we visit, and it’s up to us whether our presence sows the seeds of common appreciation and understanding or fuels ill will and contempt.

By Bryan Schatz