I’m currently working on a piece of writing for a Rough Guides competition. You have to describe a place you know well in 500 words and it has to have an ‘on a budget’ theme and be in the style of Rough Guides. This is what I’ve got so far:
Once just a remote town on the intersection of Laos’s capital Vietienne, and world heritage city Luang Prabang, recent years have seen a rapid economic growth in the little town of Vang Vieng. Fresh on the lips of the mosquito-bitten travellers of the South East Asia trail, Vang Vieng has a reputation which certainly exceeds its size, and quite rightly. This rural town is centred around the picturesque Nam Song River, and is surrounded by breathtaking limestone karsts with many caves to be explored for the intrepid traveller, although for most visitors, this scenery is just an added bonus, as thousands of tourists flock to Vang Vieng each year for one reason only: tubing. Something of a pilgrimage activity these days, initially tubing (which consists of floating down the river on an oversized piece of inner tubing) started as just a small event, with a few bars scattered down by the muddy waters, serving up Beerlao to the passers by. Tubing these days, however, is now an sport in it’s own right, and traditional wooden bars perched over the river offer much more than just alcohol. Rope swings, mud-slides, and events such as limbo, tug-of-war, and mud-volleyball are just some of the activities on offer, and the lucky winners can inebriate themselves further with free buckets of local whisky.
Whilst the infamous “happy” pizzas, excessive drinking, and party-culture don’t appeal to everyone, the locals certainly seem to have adapted comfortably, and instead of creating the dissidence that can be seen in much of neighbouring country: tourist-popular Thailand, Vang Vieng still enjoys a very Lao ambience of relaxation and fun, in a laid back setting. You won’t find high-rise hotels, or package holidays here, and the traditional guesthouses still retain their unbeatable prices. With everything within walking distance, and very little to do but appreciate your surroundings, it is hard to overspend in Vang Vieng, giving it a great appeal to the penniless travellers passing through, many of whom find it hard to leave, resulting in the bars being filled with working farang (foreigners). Bar work and promoting are both easy jobs to find in Vang Vieng, and will earn you not only social status amongst the travellers, but the priceless guarantee of accommodation, food, and even better, all the alcohol you can drink. If working isn’t for you, however, it’s quite easy to live on just a few dollars a day, with budget guesthouses away from the main strip still charging under 50,000 kip (less than five dollars) in the high season, and a wealth of street food vendors offering tasty, cheap alternatives to the more expensive TV restaurants.
Love it or hate it, there’s a certain appeal to Vang Vieng’s paradoxical combination of party-town and relaxation Mecca, It’s rare to find a place where local and western culture interweave so harmoniously, and regardless of the obligatory tubing, there are many other reasons to visit this unique and beautiful town now, before the inevitable westernisation takes its toll.