Some people should never leave home

Having spent a fair portion of my adult life abroad, I have met people who should not, under any circumstances, be permitted to travel beyond the borders of their homelands. I can’t imagine that some of the behaviour I have witnessed is any more permissible in the countries from which these unsavory, inconsiderate people come from than it is in the places where I have had the misfortune of meeting them. The rhetorical question: were you raised in a zoo, came to mind on these occasions. But then I realized that some animals have better manners. There was one incident that I had the ill fortune of witnessing that nearly caused me to abort my travels altogether and return home in shame.

This incident took place in Vang Vieng, a small town in Laos, which is located about 3 hours drive north of the country’s capital, Vientiene. Laos is a small landlocked nation in South East Asia, sometimes referred to as the Land of the Million Elephants. It is bordered by Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and China and it is one of the poorest nations in the world. The majority of the population are rural farmers. The predominant religion is Buddhism and the average annual income is around 150 US$ a year. Two very interesting facts:

  • Laos is the world’s third largest supplier of opium.
  • During the Vietnam War, Laos became the most bombed country in the history of warfare. (more bombs were dropped here than on all of Europe during WWII)

Until 1993, tourists were not permitted to enter, but since then, Laos has experienced an exponential growth in tourism. Luang Prabang, the ancient capital was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and receives 10’s of thousands of visitors each year. Since the borders have opened up and the government no longer requires visitors to register with the local authorities, Laos has become especially popular with backpackers on the Asian circuit since it offers a convenient loop from the border town of Huay Xai in the south west to the town of Pakse in the extreme south. It also offers a change from the overly commercialized tourist traps of Thailand and a rare chance to see “old Asia.”

Vang Vieng illustrates clearly how tourism can have a positive economic effect while having an adverse effect on culture and society. In 1998, there were only two guest houses in Vang Vieng. When I visited in early 2000, there were close to 30, with several more on the way. Two years earlier there had been no restaurants catering to the western tastes, but when I arrived there were dozens competing along the main street. Almost everyone living in the town was involved in the tourist industry, and if they weren’t they were trying to be. There was already an undercurrent of friction between tourists and locals, of the kind that is more obvious in Thailand. The friendliness of the hosts was already being slowly eroded.

When I arrived I checked into a guest house that was situated next to the town’s Wat. I dropped my things off in my room and gravitated, as always, to the group of backpackers lounging on the porch. This was part of my strategy, to find someone who had some experience in the area and who could tell me the most interesting places to visit. There were about 8 scruffy looking individuals chillin’, listening to the music coming from a portable CD player attached to a pair of speakers larger than any I had ever owned at home. I wondered who had all the spare room in their pack for such a luxury.

I introduced myself and sat down. They were quite friendly, although somewhat smug, and within moments I was offered pot and beer. I took a beer and questioned the group about the caves that were a main tourist draw to the area. A guy, in his early 20’s answered me with a smirk.

“Don’t know. Haven’t been there yet.”

“Oh, so you guys just got here too?” I asked.

“No way. We’ve been here 5 weeks,” a girl sitting next to him answered as she reached over to take the joint from his lips before putting it to her own for a long drag, her eyes half closed and looking me over.

“Oh,” I said.

“We usually only leave to get more beer and drugs,” someone else said.

I wasn’t too surprised by this information. I’d been in Asia for almost 4 months, and as anyone who has experienced the backpacker culture of neighboring Thailand can attest, there is a breed of travelers who come just for a good time. Life is cheap and slow paced and the weather is perfect for constant partying. I just couldn’t understand why this group, so clearly destined for regular attendance of the Full Moon Parties of Koh Phangan, were doing in a country like Laos.

“There’s a great opium den across the street,” someone uttered dreamily as I was saying my farewells.

“Aha, I see”

The adjustment to mass tourism must be a difficult one for the people of Laos. Considering how closed the nation was to the outside world for so long and how different that world is to their own, the contrast is striking. In the past, drug use, especially the smoking of opium was long considered an acceptable vice of the elderly or poor and destitute. However, the demand of opium and marijuana by visiting foreigners has changed that. This new trend gives young Laotian teenagers the idea that drug use is condoned in the West and they see it as a component to success. For the first time in its history of opium cultivation, Laos is experiencing the problem of teenage drug addiction. This had never been an issue before.

I thought about these facts over dinner that night and wondered about my influence. I had, afterall, myself paid a visit to a den earlier in my travels. As I fell asleep, I continued to contemplate. That night, my acquaintances on the porch went buck wild. I was woken by the sounds of woo woo’s and the trashy beats of Euro-dance. The kids were rippin’ it up and they didn’t care who knew it. I wasn’t there when the monks from the Wat next door came to ask them to turn the music down, but I was told they did so begrudgingly, cursing under their breath.

I did hear what came later. At five in the morning, the monks started chanting. This is a custom probably going back who knows how many hundreds of years. The majority of Laos arises at about this time, to get an early start before the sun heats up the day. My friends on the porch, my fellow backpackers, decided that this was too early for them. Their sleep had been disturbed and they clearly felt that they were justified to vent their frustrations.

Shut the fuck up! Quit all the stupid singing already!”

As I heard their cries, I pulled the covers over my head. I was so ashamed, so embarrassed because their behaviour reflected on me. It was these types of incidents that I, and all other foreigners, were inevitably judged on. Worse still, I knew that they would proudly tell this story to their idiot friends back home and that these idiot people would reward their behaviour with laughter. Mostly, however, I was sorry for the nation of Laos. I decided at that moment that people should not be allowed to travel without first passing an idiot test, proving that they are competent to interact with other cultures and able to behave in humane manner when outside the borders of their motherland.

Sad to say, I am certain there are many that will not pass.

Note: There are more good people on the road than bad; this has been an example of the worst.

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