It’s time for me to be real. On my flight to Bangkok over three (!!!!!) months ago, I had chatted with the ladies sitting next to me. They mentioned how they were impressed with my quitting my job and leaving my things behind to go and travel for a bit. I admitted I was quite apprehensive about what was to come and how I’d manage. I then mentioned that I would then have to return to the ‘real world’.

‘Don’t say that! This is the real world, this is a real life.’

I had often thought that my going travelling was me running away; escaping from what was an extremely eventful 2016. I didn’t want to be around my ‘real life’, my everyday life and witness others’ happiness while I was stuck in a rut. So, while I did give a hell of a lot of thought and discussions with loved ones and my psychologist before leaving my ‘real life’ behind, I did still think in the back of my head that I was running away. I was simply escaping to come and have a fake life for a while.

Fear of being lonely, of not meeting people, of not enjoying myself or realising it was all a big mistake plagued my mind. I’m a 34-year-old woman who was saving for a house deposit. I had a reasonable job and amazing friends and co-workers. Why the hell give it all up? Shouldn’t I focus on furthering my career, buying a house and make steps to start a family? Shouldn’t I focus entirely on my ‘real life’?

I’ve met some incredible people along my journey, and some of these people know the full story as to why I’m travelling, why 2016 was a complete upheaval and why exactly I needed to get away for awhile. Each and every person I’ve shared with has praised me. I have been told that I am brave, smart, even inspiring. I have not once been told that it wasn’t real.

Each day gets easier, but like real life, each day also presents its own challenges. How is my budget tracking? Where will I sleep tomorrow? When will I go to such and such? Who will I spend the day with? When should I go home?

I needn’t have worried about not meeting people, not connecting. I’ve turned my older age into a fun fact and embrace it. Everything I’m doing is real – 100% real.

I did however slip up this past week. For those who don’t know, Vang Vieng in Laos is considered a party town – a rather epic party town. So much so, that other towns in Laos use Vang Vieng as an example of what they don’t want to turn into. When tourists started coming here, they built bars and restaurants and guesthouses and gave the tourists what they wanted, primarily cheap drinks and accommodation. They built ugly buildings on every street corner and offered ridiculous happy hours – free beer or whiskey. You can get extremely drunk in Vang Vieng without paying a single kip.

There is next to nothing to do during the daytime in the town except find a bar or restaurant with ceiling fans playing old Friends DVDs. The scenery here is gorgeous, but in this weather, it is too damn hot to go and enjoy it. So, you watch Friends, go to one of the blue lagoons – number three is apparently the best – or you go ‘tubing’: float along a river in an inner tube and go from bar to bar. You drink silly amounts of beer or free-pour liquor and jump into the river, play volleyball or dance on make shift rickety dance floors.

I do like to party and have of course had some fun nights out over the past few months – my roommate from my group tour refers to me as ‘drunk Laura’ and loves the stories that drunk Laura provides. But Vang Vieng…. Well, it has beaten me. The party scene is intense and you cannot escape. And without knowing it, I needed to escape my real life for a bit, go a little crazy and forget about all the little challenges that travelling can present.

So, when the sun goes down, you go to the bars, as it’s now somewhat bearable to be outside and away from water and you get drunk. And because it’s free, you drink and drink and drink. Then when you think you shouldn’t drink anymore, you realise that happy hour ends in a couple of minutes, so you get another drink.

I guess the consolation with all the drinking is that I also dance, so whilst not helpful to my liver, my calorie input versus output should be fairly even…??? My first day I was a little hung over, but made it to breakfast and then went out again when my friends arrived. I will admit that I was happy when I was recognised by the bar staff and fellow patrons on my return. But on the flip side, I was also ashamed that I couldn’t remember all of them in return. So, big hugs returned and smiles granted and we were on our way. We are here to party after all!

Subsequently I missed the next breakfast and was feeling sorry for myself. But I was much better than my friend – 14 years younger than me! I did gloat, quite a bit. I was extremely proud of myself. We did however choose to have a quiet night in. None of us were up for it again, especially as we really wanted to go tubing the next day.

Monday arrives and a group of us go tubing and made the most of it. We chose the ‘red tubes,’ which included a tuk tuk ride to the river and back as well as a guide for the day. We did only stop at two bars and we didn’t have a large group of people, but we got along well and enjoyed ourselves. My only disappointment was that we did only ‘tube’ twice – the feeling of floating along the river in a tube was amazing. Even with the sun beating down, there has been little else as relaxing for me.

Tubing was initially created by a local farmer to get his staff around the farm easier – this of course was then taken on by tourists and turned into the madness that it is now. That being said, prior to April 2012 there were more bars, more tubes and more people – much higher levels of madness than today. Sadly, there were a number of deaths and serious injuries, resulting in the Laos government restricting the numbers and activities. Whilst there didn’t seem to be a big emphasis on safety, I did feel safe at all times and trusted in the local guide and workers to be there should anything have gone wrong.

The overall experience of the tubing was exhilaration. The buzz wasn’t quite the same as going ziplining, but it was something I doubt would happen at home and was exciting. With a waterproof bag around my neck for my cash and phone, I jumped (well, struggled / fell) into my tube and took off. It’s surprisingly hard to guide these things – I did ‘crash’ into a shrub once and went off course another time. Getting the correct arm movements is actually quite a difficult feat. Then we get to the first bar, and I wasn’t close enough, so rather than get onto the platform with everyone else, I floated to the end and had to get the bar lady to grab my foot to pull me in. I am pure elegance!

After a couple of hours, we left for the next bar, and even with a slight buzz (much needed for me to jump off the two-three metre high platform into the river – twice!!!) this time I felt more in control and made it safely and easily to the next bar. We ended up joining forces, holding each other’s hands and feet to stay together.

This next bar was bigger and had a volleyball net, a zipline and a bigger dance floor. I was sensible enough to stay away from the zipline, but others enjoyed it. And I rocked it at the volleyball net and on the dance floor. It was a great afternoon and on our drive back to town, we all took turns singing our national anthems and then joined forces for some good old rock and pop tunes. By far, one of the most fun days I’ve ever had.

Of course, after tubing, you need to go out and continue partying. So, out I went for my third night in five nights. That can only end well, can’t it? I do know I had a good time and we all enjoyed ourselves. But that did mean that yesterday was a complete write off for me. Hostels in Vang Vieng are not designed for hangovers. Air conditioning is turned off at 10am and a single ceiling fan is left to cool down a small room with six people in it. You have no choice but to sweat. I guess as dad would say: ‘sweat it out’. If only… the dampness only makes you feel worse. Then comes the realisation that you’ve spent almost a week in the town and all you’ve done is go tubing and party. Real life has been forgotten about for a few days.

Real life in Vang Vieng is quite bizarre, unlike anything I’ve experienced so far. It has gorgeous scenery – the green rice fields, the karsts, and the river – all stunning. But the town – well, it’s not particularly pleasant. I know I am one of ‘them’, but the tourists have ensured that there is no Lao culture here. The locals set up bars and restaurants to feed the drunk tourists, which subsequently led to them watching their traditions die. I have made an effort of saying ‘Sabadee’ to everyone I encounter, whether passing in the street or getting food, and I always received a greeting and smile in return in Pak Beng and Luang Prabang. I rarely get either here in Vang Vieng.

Many travellers say to avoid Vang Vieng at all costs – there isn’t any culture, it’s just a party town and it’s over run by tourists. I do agree with this, but it does open up the question again of what will happen if the tourists stop? At the end of the day, it’s us travellers that need to be accountable for our actions and know when to stop, when to slow down and enjoy life. This may not be what is considered ‘real Laos’, but it is. This is a town in Laos that has created a niche activity in tubing and made it profitable. They’ve created an alternative lifestyle, and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is Laos and it is authentic.

Real doesn’t have to be defined as good or bad nor should it dictate what we do, where go or who we see. Real is what we do and experience every day. What we do, see, say and feel is real. We should never dismiss this, even if simply joking about going home to ‘real life’. Travel is real life – it is life that I am living, seeing, talking about and feeling. Whether escaping or not, this is real life and no one can take that away from me.

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