The Road Most Traveled

February 2, 2007

Vang Vieng, Laos. Another backpacker hub. Places like this make me clausterphobic.

The town is comprised of two streets that meet at a T-intersection. The Lao-to-Western population is 1 to 10. Everyone wears the same Beerlao T-shirts and hoodies purchased in either the Luang Prabang Night Market or in Vientiane’s Sao Market. Bars and cafes lining the street sell the same banana shakes and fried rice that they sell everywhere.  One new addition to the menus in Vang Vieng, however, are the mushroom milkshakes (and I’m not talking portabella.)  Tour operators offer the same trekking/kayaking/cycling/caving tours as each other. The same drunken antics of some rasta-wannabe gap-years wake me up at 2 a.m., just as they did in Pai, in Kanchanaburi, in Khao San Road.

I discovered early into this trip that I’d come to take the road not traveled and found it littered with hundreds of others, just like me. “Oh, you’re going to Laos after Chiang Mai, too? Same here.” I’m seeing faces in Vang Vieng that I saw on the buses in Thailand.

I suppose the most disappointing thing so far is how little interaction I’ve had with the locals, both Thai and Lao. We travelers stick with each other – same buses, same bars, same guesthouses. Yesterday, while tubing in the Nam Som river, I passed a family washing their clothes in the cold water. They stared at me. I stared at them. And I kept floating past. How metaphoric.

Why do most people come to Southeast Asia? Most, it seem, come for the cheap beer and accommodation. They go on 3-day treks to hilltribe villages for $20 and call themselves cultured. They go tubing in Vang Vieng, not because they love tubing, but because, hey, that’s what you do in Vang Vieng. That and sit in rows at backpacker restaurants, chuckling at Friends reruns being played on all five TV screens.

Did I really fly 8,000 miles across the globe for this?

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