Wednesday, May 18, 2011

An Experiment in Just Not Caring

If you ask me, novelists and anthropologists are two heads on the same body. Belonging to the first class, I watch people live their days and ask how they got there, why they stay and where will they go when it all becomes too much. Our fellow examiners do much the same thing, though their findings are produced as fact, not fiction. Ocassionally I like to attempt a cross-pollination of these two writings but more often than not, my surroundings don't lend themselves to something so real and unbelievable at the same time. That was until East and I travelled into the heart of Vangvieng, Laos.

Perhaps this would be a good time to describe exactly what Vangvieng looks like to a newcomer's eyes. Honestly, it reminded me of Australia; one wide street flanked by single-storey restaurants and convenience stores, yellow and brown dust collected in the drains, loose thongs thrown forgotten beside door mats with 'WELCOME' stitched across their faces, and utes patrolling the road. Despite the overwhelming number of bars and cafes, everything felt empty. The only people moving were the tuk-tuk drivers who seemed impervious to the extreme heat. It was beautiful in a very bare way and I looked forward to lounging on a bar couch and watching reruns of Family Guy while my two dollar pizza was being cooked. It was immediately obvious that this town was a mutant creature bred from natural beauty and the ravenous appetite of tourism. During my time here I'd be paying for the privilege to do absolutely nothing beyond getting myself back to my room after a long afternoon slumming it. I thought this was common knowledge for everyone who came here but when we pulled up in front of a beflowered guesthouse, a fellow backpacker said 'oh god, it's so touristy'. Immediately I thought 'well yeah, what did you expect'? Throughout South East Asia, Vangvieng is notorious for Westerns seeking drink, smoke and the famous two hour tube ride down a river lined with bars that offer free whisky shots for anyone conscious enough to swallow them. People die in this water every year; drowned, spine or neck broken, so poisoned with alcohol that a full-body enema wouldn't help. It's so dangerous as to seem ridiculous but all over Vietnam I saw people wearing singlets with identical TUBING IN THE VANGVIENG LAOS logos across the back. Two minutes off the bus I saw three stores selling them in various shades of souveneir. They act as beacons for backpackers everywhere a chance for them to advertise their experiences and prove that yes, they are intrepid and exciting and fearless. The only problem is, so's everyone who goes there. Even those who don't buy the t-shirt.

So why did we come here? After trekking alone through the Annapurna Ranges in Nepal and sleeping by fireside on the Great Ocean Road in Australia, why would we want to eat mediocre western food in a bar with cushions that smell of wet dog, surrounded by drunk British teenagers? Because our wants are no different in essence to the fundamental desires of any other backpacker. We want to see something. Our route through Vietnam was so well walked that whole tour offices had been erected to organise a highly detailed, completely unoriginal open trip: an air-conditioned bus from Saigon to Dalat, a side trip to the scuba diving centre of Munie Beach before winding up toward ancient Hoi-An and the boats that take you exploring through local fishing villages, then on towards Hue and the citadel where, for a price, you can dress in traditional garb and have your photo taken before an emporer's tomb, and finally a stop in Hanoi and the jewel of Vietnam's crown: Halong Bay. This was where East and I truly came face to face with the beast we shall call tourist hatred. Halong Bay is currently in the running to become one of the seven natural wonders of the world (along with the beautiful Jeju Island off South Korea) and based on appearance alone it has every chance of winning. Sheer, mountainous bolts come out of the ocean and litter the bay with hundreds of green-tree islands and eagles nest in sharp overhangs and circle the stunted trees. Even in the fog it was stunning. We arrived at the harbour around midday and were directed to a two-storey junk that would be reverently described as 'charming' in any monthly mag. As soon as we set foot on its polished deck we were sucked into a world where landmarks and heritage were packaged into dozens of daily boat trips churned over as quickly as possible. Our first stop was the harbour of a cave where boats jostled each other for position at a mossy wharf. We ceased to exist as real people and became the enemy with money. We were in turns abused, ignored, insulted and abandoned over the following three days and the worst part was they had us completely at their mercy. As a traveller in this part of the world the first thing given up is your passport and losing this security strips you of your power. At any point our guides could have demanded extra money for some invented service we would never receive and if we had refused to pay, bye bye passports. This immasculation of control served to exhaust us beyond belief and our last few days in Northern Vietnam became a torture. Not once were we truly treated as creatures worth our lick of salt. Money, we had. Naivety, absolutely, and well was this taken advantage of. But humanity? No. We're just tourists. This is why we went, nay retreated, to the Vangvieng. Everyone we met promised that Laos was chilled, relaxed, a country where no one cared about anything. After such a long time in a place where we were targeted by the assumptions of others, we wanted nothing more than to just not care.More than that, we didn't want anyone else to care either.

But what does an actual day in this picturesque void of commitment look like? Do we really have nothing to do but eat, smoke and watch television on slightly musty cushions? Or perhaps the real question is, should we have nothing to do but eat, smoke and watch television on slightly musty cushions? Life here is certainly lived at a different pace, not least due to the advertisement of marijuana, mushrooms and opium on the laminated restaurant menus. What better to wipe the mind clean than a drug-induced hiatus from life? There's more to it than this, though. People come here to experience a lack of anything. There's certainly no Laotian culture to be found unless you book the guided tour into the mountains to meet the native folk and even then I'm sure the location has been set up for just such excursions. The offered fun is easy for Western eyes to recognise: pre-organised daytrips requiring limited effort, cheap food, free drinks and narcotics flagrantly illegal in most home countries. It's the perfect set-up for people who are completely unconcerned with what their next step will be and believe me, travelling through Asia requires a great deal of energy and planning. Everything is made to look easy with the travel agents offering every kind of service imagineable but using them is entirely frustrating. Nothing takes as long or looks as it says it should and at the arrival of each destination there is the required search for accommodation with the same questions and same concerns over price. This has not been a walk in the park and finding a place as completely mind numbing as Vangvieng was the only time since living in our apartment that we've truly had nothing to do. Nowhere to find, no bus to catch, no money to scrimp. It's a blessing, this not caring.

The real problem lies in learning how to turn the care switch back on. After Vangvieng we plan on going north to Luangprabang and taking ourselves to the infamous site of the Plain of Jars. We want a cultural experience like no other, to walk the empty track and see life as it is without toruism and western influence. So how exactly are we supposed to do this when our entire psyche has been rapidly geared towards not giving a crap about anything? As I write I'm watching a series of rockets being launched over the town's limestone mountains and into dense tree cover on the other side. This is because it's Rocket Day; twenty four hours of celebration under the smokey vapour of homemade rockets. The first thing I asked upon discovering this was, 'won't broken pieces of rocket hit the villages in the mountains'? East's reply was, 'if they're in the line of fire I'd say they've been an oppressed people for years'. In other words, who cares? Not even those who spend every day living here.

Lara watched Friends approximately forty seven times during her stay in Vang Vieng.

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