We are in Vang Vieng, Laos, a town that has a unique feel to it. It is a small town that caters to tourists — and has an unusual history.
Before 2012, the river was full of people in tubes.
The riverside was in party mode.
It’s different these days — We get our tubes in the water and listen to the music of a riverside bar.
Before 2012, bars lined the river, offering free alcohol shots when you buy a beer. The riverbank bars had special menus.
They offered shakes, tea, and bread made with drugs such as mushrooms, marijuana, or opium.
There were rope swings and zip lines that allowed intoxicated and drugged tourists to plunge into the river.
Tourists floated in their tubes from bar to bar, becoming increasingly incapacitated.
We see a few bars on the banks when we start off but it’s too early in the mourning and we are both nursing stomach ailments due to traveling.
In 2011, there were 27 tourist deaths attributed to intoxication along the river.
The hospital emergency room reported an average of 10 injuries a day — often broken bones and lacerations. Local people stopped swimming in the river, saying that the water was infected with the evil spirits of those who had died there.
Today, it is different on the water — quiet.
There were 7 more deaths in 2012 until, one October morning, government helicopters brought in police and military troops. “They had lists of names; they knew about everything,” a merchant told me. “They closed many bars and arrested people. The Western backpackers stopped coming.”
We float downriver.
The local businesses suffered. Then, as time passed, tourists began coming from Japan, China, South Korea, and Thailand.
The sun is hot and the current gentle.
The tourists these days are interested in tubing, hiking, and caving. More up-scale Westerners are coming.
I would have liked to have seen what it was like in the “old days.” It is natural for young people to party and to explore the effects of substances that modify consciousness. It can be a pathway toward meditation — the inner way.
This is an out-door sports place.
A certain percentage of people become addicted to alcohol and drugs. Young people don’t recognize the symptoms until it is too late. A lot depends on physiology — when a substance provides a way of getting away from unpleasant sensations (reality), it is natural for a person to become addicted to it. Some are attracted to marijuana, others to alcohol, some to opium and heroin. If you want to get addicted quickly, try cocaine and crack. But it depends on individual physiology. Some people use without getting addicted.
The Buddha pointed out that life is suffering. For many people, their preferred substance seems like a way out. Unfortunately, addiction has cumulative effects. Over time, it gets its teeth into you, damaging home and work relationships. It is hard to stop and withdrawal gets nasty — you need more and more of the substance. You find you can’t stop on your own.
I have talked with many addicts when I worked at the psychiatric hospital. The addict world is a world of bullshit; most addicts lie to themselves and others. Most will not recover but some will stay clean.
If you are an addict, you need a miracle. You need a Higher Power — or something like that.
Vang Vieng is not known as a cultural center — but I visited the three wats (Buddhist monasteries) in town.
The Buddha provided a model — follow your inner pathway. It isn’t an easy road but this is a way out of the suffering of life.
A monk invited me to lunch but I was in the middle of a stomach situation and had to turn him down. He did not speak English but typed in a message on his cell phone and showed me what he wanted me to know. “I am relaxing, the message said.
The second wat was under construction. I looked closely at the reclining Buddha.
Some people get caught up in religion. Like the tourists at the riverside bars, they stay on shore and talk about God rather than float naturally down the river.
Don’t listen to talk; listen to the river.
The third wat had a historical monument — commemorating someone, I suspect.
Think about the images of the people partying in the bars. About 10% of them will become addicted and lose their chance for happiness in this life.
The center of town — the heart of the tourism is on the river.
I wanted to show you the groovy place, the best place. Some of you are travelers and might visit this place.
They will be building a railroad to here from China. In a few years, many more Chinese tourists will be coming. I enjoy talking with the Chinese tourists because they seem to have a deep curiosity about foreign places. They go to places that other tourists avoid.
The center of the rock climbing and caving is on the other side of the river.
Life has its ups and downs. It is natural to seek the “ups” — but — reality is what it is. Pray for those who are up and pray for those who are down.
There is an inner reality that is worth exploring.