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Vang Vieng’s Cultural Contrasts

Crowing roosters prance next to restaurants playing “Family Guy” and “Friends” on loop to zoned-out tourists.

Jagged limestone mountains reach skyward behind five internet cafes in a row.

American beats thump late into the night as local Lao families put their children down to sleep for school the next day.

Laotians hand wash clothes in the river in front of Germans eating “Hawaiian-Style” pizza on a restaurant veranda.

Vang Vieng is chock full of cultural contrasts.

I had never before heard of Vang Vieng, Laos, but now that I’m deeper in the tourist trail than the ubiquitous “yogurt, fresh fruits, and muesli” breakfast, the town has been all over everyone’s tongue and t-shirts.

“Yo, you been to Vang Vieng, man? It’s wicked! Craziest place ever!”

In the tourist circuit, Vang Vieng’s main attraction is TUBING. What is tubing? Easy: pay $5, take a tuk tuk a few kilometers upstream, then hop into a giant puffy donut inner-tube and travel for five hours down the Nam Song River, stopping multiple times along the way at each restaurant that throws you a rope and pulls you in.

Maybe shake your booty on the water dance floor platforms that blast Lady Gaga and Black Eyed Peas.

I was terrified dive into tubing first, given that I was physically weak from three days of illness and given that crazed tourists frequently die on the rocks and the rope swings, but my friends assured me, “No worries– People only kill themselves when they do stupid stuff. Go easy and you’ll be fine. Besides– you CAN’T go to Vang Vieng and not go tubing!”

Indeed, when I actually did it, tubing in Vang Vieng was beautiful, safe and tranquil… perhaps because I didn’t choose to hurtle my fragile self down the forty-foot tile slide, nor leap from the tower that broke our British friend’s foot on the rocks twenty feet below.

Rather, we floated along in the slow river for hours, watching the green and silver mountains smile down on the dark turquoise river and pulling our butts up when a rock would slip into view in the shallow, dry-season water.

As dusk fell, we drifted tranquilly under the mountain-graced sunset into the pebbles of the town. Tiny Laotian boys scurried out to help us to shore, hoping for tips, and we all embraced and agreed it was a wonderful, wonderful day.

Behind us, six Israeli girls in tiny bikinis hauled their tubes to shore, and we realized that on the hill above, two small monks draped in sunset-orange robes were gazing at the scene below.

The posters around town declare that tubing is for the economic betterment of Vang Vieng, and indeed, judging from the hordes of tourists doing it each day, it is pumping mad money into the economy.

That said, if you were an eight year old Laotian monk looking down at the scene, what, oh what, would you think??

Happy Eyes, Sad Tummy, Reflective Heart
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