After 31 days in Southeast Asia, I was fed up.
It had been 11 months since my move to Greater Asia, the majority of which had been spent living like a local in China. I had become accustomed to experiencing a deep level of culture on a daily basis, one which opened my eyes and helped me gain a much more global understanding about the way people live.
In China, everything I thought I knew was challenged on a daily basis.
I ate like a local. I drank like a local. I spoke like a local. I worked with locals and acted like a local. By that point, I was a local. I grew to love the idiosyncrasies of Chinese and Asian cultures and the range of customs that accompanied them. I fell in love with Asia.
But, after conducting myself within an Eastern culture for so long, I was completely taken aback by my entrance into Thailand. Where I was once a minority and people would snap photos of me sitting in a coffee shop or walking to work, I was now a member of the majority. Westerners were found on every street, eating in every restaurant, drinking in every bar. Locals tried to rip us off. People no longer wanted to be my friend because I was white (another interesting dynamic which merits discussion, but not here), they wanted what was in my wallet because I was white and, thus, privileged.
Foreigners were everywhere.
People have told me, “You're doing it wrong. You have to get off the tourist trail! You're just another silly backpacker!” This is a valid argument, though it's difficult to implement such ideals when traveling with a time limit. In some cases, there just isn't enough time to make it to the far reaches of a new country. And, by the time I reached Vang Vieng, Laos, I had truly had enough of the tourists. I wanted a more authentic experience, something I was having difficulty finding.
The tourists came here with one thing in mind: getting totally wasted and hanging out with each other. And I simply couldn't get on board with that.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love a good party, and I usually make it a point to be there when it kicks off. But after living like a local for so long, and then entering into a community of travelers and expats with seemingly no regard for the culture or the people, my perspective dramatically changed. Where are the travelers who want to learn? Where are the travelers who want to broaden their mind and experience the world and its customs, not just the inside of a bar?
This was not the real Asia. This was Asia taken over by white people.
Vang Vieng, Laos has reached a certain level of backpacking notoriety due to the ever popular tubing activities that take place on the Nam Song River. Once a hedonist utopia for backpackers looking to drink, take drugs and hook-up at one of the 30+ bars that lined the river, Vang Vieng no longer receives the same level of tourism. Due to a string of tragic deaths over the years, the authorities made it their responsibility to shut this dangerous activity down.
Vang Vieng is a small town which has come to rely heavily on the influx of tourism every year. But, now that the police have essentially shut down tubing on Nam Song, and there aren't nearly as many tourists, the community as a whole is struggling. Neighboring shops literally fight each other for your business.
Is this really the lasting impression that we, as travelers, want to leave on the world?
In seeing the negative effects that tourism has had on this region, I felt an unfounded level of guilt even being there. Somehow, in traveling through, and by simply being a foreigner in Vang Vieng, I was contributing to the status quo.
I felt like it was time to get out, so I rented a beat up motorbike and headed for the hills.
I drove beyond the nearby villages where people still displayed signs in broken English, hoping to farm a couple dollars from the few tourists who made it even this far. I drove beyond the trodden roads and beyond the reaches of most anybody who visits Vang Vieng. I drove for more than two hours outside of town, over bridges, past rice fields, through herds of cattle and screaming schoolchildren.
Men worked in fields, naked babies played in the mud outside their homes. The women hung laundry to dry.
This is what I was looking for: the real Laos. The unaffected Laos. The Laos that still carries on in tradition.
Now, don't get me wrong. I would like nothing more than to see the Laos economy develop and for the people still living in true poverty to expand beyond it. I didn't like being a privileged tourist in a third world country, and I hated to gawk at it, but as a foreigner, what other choice do I have?
I wanted to see a new way of life, and I certainly did.
I left town feeling relieved knowing that not all life has been heavily influenced by tourism, but what I saw in Vang Vieng still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. With more access to global travel than ever before, tourism is taking over many small communities, and it's making an impact.
Travelers have become less responsible in their escapades and local populations recklessly grow and cater to those same irresponsible tourists who drink, ignore the customs, and act with imprudence. With less tourists in town, Vang Vieng now wallows in a desperate attempt to sustain itself.
It's a difficult line to cross, because I do want to see poor communities grow, but I also don't want to see them change in a negative fashion because of tourism.
So, I end with a plea: be a conscious and educated traveler. Act appropriately and befriend the locals with humility. Eat the local food, smile and be a responsible adventurer. Travel with positive intentions and leave only a positive impact. This is the only world we've got and, if we want to keep exploring it, we have to take care of it.