The more time I spend in Lao the more it seems to me that there are no tourists here but backpackers. I can understand why that might be, since backpackers tend to have higher tolerances for the poor roads, basic hygiene, lack of air-conditioning, small but serious risk of getting killed by random attacks on buses, and general lack of tourist infrastructure that characterises travelling in Lao (and in lots of other places – although not so much the random attacks).
One reason that backpackers have this extra tolerance is because of one of the key tenets of backpacker philosophy: discomfort is good. Challenge your limits. Explore your edges. Off the beaten track is bound to be uncomfortable. Deal with it. Pain is a purifier. Unpleasantness is a key characteristic of “real” travelling. If it is easy, how can it be genuine?
Discomfort is, of course, a consequence of the real backpacker aim: the search for aloneness. The idea that there must be one place in the world where no one else (or at least no other traveller) has ever set foot, and I will be the first. The first to speak English to some remote-dwelling villagers. The first to visit this post office at the end of the earth and try to call home. The first to eat this local food. To travel on this river. To see the sunrise from this point of view.
(Parenthetically, the search for aloneness is also the source of that most unpleasant phenomenon where backpackers will not say hello to or even look at each other in the street – they are all busy pretending that they are the only ones in town).
Every backpacker is motivated by thoughts of him/herself as some modern day Gulliver, Marco Polo or Robinson Crusoe, marooned for shorter or longer, better or worse, in some remote part of the planet, and responsible for collecting as many outrageous stories as possible for leisurely retelling back at home around the proverbial fire.
Long journeys in uncomfortable seats, bone-chilling cold, mind-melting heat, ravenous mosquitos on unprotected skin, horrible food or, worse, starvation, disorientation, diarrhoea, dengue, dysentry, dispepsia, a total inability to communicate with the locals. These are all the bread and butter of the hardened backpacker. And everyone aspires to the same basic goal.
Standards vary. Some travellers (as Pico Iyer says much more eloquently than I – never call them mere tourists) are horrified by the thought of a journey longer than four or five hours. Others happily recount spending 44 hours in a seat. One couple I met took a 90 hour bus journey from Tibet (although they also said they would never do it again).
But the pull of the unpleasant is powerful. Just last night I met a guy who was pondering whether to fly to Hanoi from Vientiane or whether to take the bus. The former costs $90 more but takes an hour. The latter saves you some money but takes 24 hours. No doubt, $90 in Vietnam is serious money. Six days or so on a moderate backpacker budget. But 23 extra hours imprisoned in an uncomfortable bus is no joke either. In backpacker-land though, the 24 hour bus journey is good, precisely because it is uncomfortable. And the plane ride is bad precisely because it is so simple. So he decided to take the bus. Real travellers only fly across oceans or when they are in a serious hurry.
As more and more backpackers arrive somewhere, though, discomfort levels drop away. The first ten people to arrive in some remote Lao village have a really hard time getting there, they have to organise accomodation in a local house without speaking a word of the lingo, and they have to find something to eat that doesn’t make them physically ill. Then they spend their time enjoying being out on the edges of human civilisation, seeing entirely undeveloped natural sights and laughing at the naivete of children who are afraid of them.
The next ten backpackers find that some enterprising boat pilot is available to take them directly to the village. Once there, the driver, who speaks a few words of English, puts them in touch with the headman who has organised some extra quilts and mosquito nets against their arrival. His wife has learned how to make scrambled eggs, and shows off the collection of postcards from the first group. The second group smile at the cute children who have learned to ask for pens as presents.
And so it goes on. A guesthouse pops up. The village appears on bus timetables. Soon it is a place to stop on the way somewhere. Someone builds a trail to the waterfall and sets up a stall selling souvenirs. And so on and so on. And what was once uncomfortable and simple and basic and new is suddenly perfectly comfortable, like everywhere else.
So the backpacker explorers go further afield. And further. And further and further and further. And the process starts again in all these other places. The search for aloneness and the cult of discomfort will eventually make everywhere more comfortable.
But there is a tension in the backpacker ethos. Because backpackers like things to be comfortable too. You can’t always be out no the bleeding edge. You don’t always want to spend all your time searching for loneliness. Often they crave each other’s company (at least because you have to have someone to tell your stories to). So the places that have been colonised stay populated by an almost permanent but always changing population of people on their way somewhere else.
And the amazing thing is that the highly-developed backpacker colonies almost always take the same form. Backpackers, regardless of their origin or destination, obviously have very similar tastes. So hangouts in China are similar in form and function to those in Laos, in Russia, in Europe or in New Zealand. Cheap accommodation, cleanish toilets, travel agencies with everything, internet joints, book exchanges, restaurants selling local versions of western food and an appealing selection of local cuisine appropriately standardised, cold beer, movies at night, the feel of local colour.
Vang Vieng is an excellent example. Three streets in a valley a couple of hundred clicks north of Vientiane. A great place to break a journey between the capital and Luang Prabang (about six hours further north). Tube down the river. Explore the nearby caves. Hire a bicycle and bike about the nearby villages.
Every street is lined with restaurants that even look the same. All serve the same breakfast dishes (eggs, toast, coffee, bacon). There are three pizza joints right beside each other serving identical recipes (for $1 more you get dope with any dish). Every identical bar serves the same beer, and while they are lit up at night in different colours, the music pounding from their sound systems could not sound more similar. There are guesthouses everywhere you look offering the same combinations of comfort, convenience, cleanliness and cost. Choose your own adventure. But just make it almost exactly the same as every other backpacker who has ever come to town.
This is not to say that it is not a pleasant place to hang out in. Of course it is. Perfectly pleasant. The collected choices of everyone who has ever been here ensure that what Vang Vieng provides is exactly what everyone wants. Except the aloneness of course. And the discomfort. But you can get them anywhere.