Ain’t Gonna Work on the Organic Farm No More

What is “Tubing?” – The Town –The Farm – Decisions, decisions

The bus arrived in Vang Vieng at 3 PM.  The other foreigners took tuk-tuks south to the town of Vang Vieng, but I headed north to volunteer on a local organic farm.  For a city-slicker like me, a couple of days working the soil would be an interesting experiment with pastoral life.

I had heard many things about Vang Vieng, mostly about the notoriously popular “tubing” phenomenon.  From what I understood tubing entailed renting an inner-tube and floating down the river from bar to bar, drinking Beer Lao, shooting rice whiskey, smoking joints, sipping opium shakes and munching magic-mushroom pizzas.  For many travelers it was paradise on earth, but I was on a tight budget and it seemed like an expensive way to have fun.

Vang Vieng was a small riverside village until tubing came around.  Now it is overwhelmed by two distinct camps of falang: the tubers staying in the synthetic town and the naturalists staying on the organic farm.  I fell somewhere in the middle of these two groups, but I decided to stay on the farm and check out the tubing situation on my own.

The tubing route begins near the organic farm and flows past a number of bars until it eventually reaches the town of Vang Vieng.  The bars began pumping music 11 AM and they fuel an all-day booze fest until the sun goes down.  Many bars had water-related attractions such as waterslides, massive rope swings, wet-bars, and more, most of which were shoddy wooden contraptions that looked as if they would fall over with a strong wind.  It was like Swiss Family Robinson meets MTV Spring Break.

The debauchery and the techno music were countered by the beauty of the green river and the towering limestone cliffs above.  If you continued downriver past the last bars, fishermen cast nets from wooden boats and carried on much as they had done for centuries.  It was a strange combination of natural beauty, traditional life and the hedonism of tubing.

Now, I don’t have the art of traveling figured out and I don’t want to come across as self-righteous or patronizing, but I will tell you exactly how I viewed the scene at Vang Vieng:

I felt the natural beauty of the valley was lost amongst drunken shirtless falang, aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, “happy” pizza bars, Beer Lao posters, MP3 stores, internet cafes and restaurants full of people watching Friends and  Family Guy.  I am repulsed by these TV bars and all the travelers who patronize them.   I don’t understand the people who come all the way to South East Asia only to get stoned, eat pizza, and watch Family Guy.  Their bodies might be in Laos, but their minds are stuck at home.

It wasn’t just the TV bars that gave me bad vibes.  I met a bunch of burn-outs who had been tubing for six weeks.  Six weeks!  There was even a guy who bragged about being there for 130+ days!  A couple of burnt-out long-termers sat next to me in a restaurant discussing their plans for the night, which went something like this:  “What should we do tonight, maybe some opium?”  “Nah, I’m too tired from that joint we just smoked.  If I do opium I’m just gonna pass out.  Let’s do some mushy shakes.”  It was entertaining to watch these guys deliberate, but I could not imagine staying in this wild place for more than a couple of days.

Another of these “locals” generously posted flyers across Vang Vieng, recommending “How to do Vang Vieng Right”.  Written by “Long-Time Tourist, Martin, the Holistic Healer”, it listed a number of ridiculous suggestions on every subject from how to give money to beggars (“Don’t do it!”) to “how to party more ecological (sic.)” (“go to the Bamboo Bar, where they serve whiskey-cokes in bamboo buckets,” very eco-friendly indeed).  Martin the Holistic Healer ended his note by announcing he was offering meditation classes and writing the following message:

PS: More relaxation = more loving friendliness = more peace = more democracy = better understanding = more human rights = more mindfulness = better environment = better life =

Deep, man.

This wasn’t my scene and when I discovered that an inebriated girl died three days earlier while tubing I began to second-guess my coming here.  After my authentic experience in Luang Prabang, this madness was a bit of a shock.

If drugs and tubing were one extreme, the farm was another.  Most of the people there also stayed for long periods of time – but to volunteer, not to party.  The farm’s guests were teaching English at the local schools, helping to build community centers and fundraising for community development programs.  They were a great group of friendly, generous people who welcomed me to the farm and even took me out rock-climbing.

I spent my first day at the farm volunteering in the fields, picking mulberries, and feeding goats.  I worked with three local Lao guys, all of us laughing and picking mulberries against a backdrop of limestone cliffs and green hillsides.  Techno music echoed up the valley from the tubing bars, making it an interesting contrast between the two different sides of Vang Vieng.  Living on the farm was relaxing, and I intended to stay on the farm for a week to volunteer at the local school.

I did, however, have to get a visa into China and Cambodia while I was in Laos.  I had originally planned to get my ongoing visas as I went along (that is, to only apply for the next country’s visa), so I would have applied for a Chinese visa in Hanoi, Vietnam.  But the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi suddenly stopped issuing visas to foreigners and the embassy in Cambodia was inefficient, so I needed to get my Chinese visa in Laos.

I went into town to drop off my passport at a travel agent, who would then take it to Laos’s capital, Vientiane, to process my visa while I volunteered at the farm for a week.  But there was a hiccup – they could only get me a 30 day visa into China, and if I wanted to apply for a 60-day visa I needed to go to Vientiane and apply in person.

That changed everything.  I knew that if I needed a full month to visit a country as small as Laos, then I would need at least 60 days to visit a country as massive as China.  Traveling from Beijing to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railroad was the central element of my journey, so getting into China was crucial.  When I added up the pros and cons of staying in Vang Vieng, I decided to pack my bags and high-tail it south to Vientiane to get my visa into China.

I had to skip tubing and I only got to volunteer for a day, but they were sacrifices that had to be made.  I woke up the next morning, hitch-hiked to the bus station on the back of a Beer Lao truck and bought a ticket south to the capital of Laos, Vientiane.


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