Monday, September 15, 2008

Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng is a guilty pleasure. It's the type of place that, as an enlightened traveler, you want to hate. It's overrun with tourists wearing inappropriate clothing, overindulging in booze and poor imitations of western foods, watching crappy western television and generally not giving a damn about the culture or the people surrounding them. But, it's also ridiculously fun. If you can choke it down, chances are you'll ask for a second helping.

So, what's the big draw? I'm sure that once upon a time people came here for the beauty of the river and the surrounding limestone moutains jutting skyward above an intricate system of caves. Today, the allure of the river is not its beauty, but the many make-shift bars that have been built along its banks, each with its own signature rope swing, zip line and volleyball court. You rent a tube and float along, as the proprieters pass you a reed and pull you into the shore to greetings of free shots and DJ music. If we could somehow replicate this in the States, we would be millionaires.

In town, the situation is a little less worthy of emulation. There are lines of bars playing endless loops of "Friends" reruns, with the occasional "Family Guy" or "Simpsons" thrown in for good measure. I am not sure why these places are so popular, but I am guessing it has something to do with the fact that most people are too drunk or hung over to do anything else but veg out in front of the TV.
After a couple of days on the river, we decided it was time to get out and see more of the surrounding area. We rented a minibike and went in search of the many caves throughout the region. Along the way we passed some local boys hurrying home to show off the birds they had caught. Gil climbed through one cave that extended a kilometer into the hillside and we followed a river into another deep cave by tube. We also visited a couple of more expansive caves trimmed with stalactites and stalagmites. One was the home to a Buddah figure surrounded with offerings.

Back in town, we visited our favorite restaurant one last time - an organic restaurant using ingredients from a farm they own nearby - and then went for an ice cream at the local night market. Even though it was only two blocks from the packed Friends bars, we were the only foreigners there. For shame!

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