Vang Vieng, Laos used to have a reputation, or two. It used to be just a stop between Luang Prabang and Vientiane and wasn’t really put on the map until the Vietnam War. During that time, the US wasn’t allowed to have any troops in Laos but needed the strategic location. The solution, create a fake airline called Air America. Air America was posed as a cargo operation, and had a base (Lima Site 6) in Vang Vieng, but was really undercover Air Force and CIA. The now dysfunctional runway is still a big empty space in the middle of town.
Next came the backpackers touring Southeast Asia. Vang Vieng was known as the drug induced party town. Things got wild until the government cracked down on the activities in 2012. At the peak of the party scene in Vang Vieng, there were almost thirty tourist deaths a year, mainly from mixing drugs and alcohol with river activities. Tourists would rent inner tubes and float down the river that was lined with bars selling drinks, and many other things on special menus. The river was set up with zip lines, trampolines, slides, and other diversions down the route north of town into the center. Eventually, too much fun was had, and Laos simmered things down a bit. Now that things are mellow, the hostels and guest houses are being replaced by large-scale hotels catering to Korean, Thai, and soon to be Chinese tourists. People still come to Vang Vieng for the natural scenery, kayaking, caves, biking, and other outdoor adventures. You can still float the river in an inner tube, but there are only two small bars left, and the scene is more serene.
What am I doing in Vang Vieng? I’d never heard of Vang Vieng until I was in Hong Kong planning my trip through Southeast Asia, and applied for a Work Away that happened to be in Vang Vieng. I figured that if I received it, I’d plan my trip around the time there. Work Away is a website that links hosts with travelers. The hosts have some type of work that needs to be done and trade the services of the traveler for free room and board. The Work Away that I received was at a boutique hotel along the river in Vang Vieng, Laos. From what I read, I’d be helping them garden, with the hotel, working with ponies, or restaurant work. For my time, I’d receive a free room in the hotel, breakfast, lunch, laundry service, and free yoga. Of all the perks, I think I liked the free laundry the most. I’d been paying for people to do my laundry for the entire trip, and it usually takes a day or two, so you really had to plan what to get washed, and when. I’d end up wearing shorts and shirts a couple of times before getting them washed to save money, and time. Having laundry done at the hotel was the easiest, I could leave the laundry at the front desk in the morning, and it’d be finished that afternoon (unless it was raining)
I arrived into Vang Vieng after traveling throughout Southeast Asia. I’d gone from Hong Kong to Vietnam, through Cambodia, then Bangkok, and into Laos. I arrived on a mini bus and was dropped off at the door of the hotel. I checked in and had dinner with a picture perfect background of limestone karsts, then met the owner and the other travels that were working. I found out I’d be assigned to the little coffee shop that was up the path from the hotel. I’d be partnering with another traveler from the Netherlands who had just arrived, and also working with a local at the café. The others at the hotel doing various other assignments; a girl from Russia was running the yoga studio with a girl from New York, a German couple was helping design a website for the hotel, a French girl and a girl from Arizona were taking care of the horses, and a guy from New Zealand was watching over the garden.
At the café, we were to help take orders, serve guests their food and coffee, and help Li the local with her English, and help her with planning supplies for the café. Li was 28, and had been working at the café for a few months. She was fully trained on how to make any coffee drink with our little espresso machine. She took great pride in her presentation of the coffee, making little designs with the foam, and expertly crafting every drink. Li worked six days a week in the Café, and we all had Tuesday off because the café was closed. Li’s husband, or who she called “man” because she didn’t know the word for husband yet, would drop her off in the morning on a scooter, and come get her later in the afternoon. Li would jump on the scooter in her skirt riding side saddle on the back. From what we gathered, Li had four kids aged thirteen, eleven, seven, and six. On her day off, she’d go to the rice fields and work with three out of her four kids. Her husband also worked in the rice fields. Li would describe to us what she did in the rice fields by acting out a slashing motion and then acted out that her man pushed the plow while she and the kids chopped.
In the morning we’d start out by taking inventory, and noting what supplies we needed to pick up. We made sandwiches, simple breakfast plates, coffee, smoothies, tea, and served various cakes. Li taught us how to properly cut all of the fruit, some words in Lao, and a whole different way of counting. In the West, we note counts by I, II, III, IIII, etc. Here you count by creating a box. One line, then two, then three, then four is a complete box, and then a slash through the box is five. It is actually much easier to write, and at a glance, you can decipher the box better than the lines. Things in Lao also move a lot slower than at home. This was a real test on my patience, I had to keep reminding myself to not worry, and just let things happen at their normal Lao pace. It took me about four days to get someone to bring a light bulb to the café from the hotel. I’d ask for light bulbs, and they’d say they were finding them. Eventually, one guy came to look at the broken bulb, and then a second, then a third, then a fourth guy arrived with a new bulb and replaced it. There were also two days when the power was supposed to be off in the town, so we closed, but it actually never really went out. Then we were told the power would go off at a later date, or that the hotel would stay on, but not the café. In the end, the power never went off.
Some of the most memorable moments working with Li were practicing English. We’d go over different words of things in the café, drinks, ingredients, etc. I drew out the English alphabet and practiced the sound of each letter with her so we could better say words. We were stuck on Fish, Fridge, and freezer. The F was really hard to say, same with SH, DGE, and R. I’d have Li watch how my mouth moved in pronouncing each of these very hard sounds. I didn’t realize how many peculiar sounds we have in the English language. Have you ever watched your bottom lip vibrate against your teeth when making the V noise. Also, the Z noise can’t even be seen, it is your tongue vibrating behind and through your teeth. You basically have to pant to make the H sound, gag a little to make G. We had covered the basics, and would have fun with other words, and Li seemed very curious about asking questions to increase her vocabulary.
Being at the hotel with the other travelers felt like being at summer camp mixed with college. We’d all have breakfast in the morning together; go off to our own jobs, meet for lunch, work, and then meet again for dinner. Breakfast and lunch were provided, so we had those at the hotel together, and then we’d explore the town every night and choose a different restaurant. It seemed we were all a little food home-sick, so we’d alternate western food and Lao food. There was actually a really good pizza place ran by an Italian, and an Irish Bar ran by two Irish guys. They had a Guinness sign, but couldn’t actually get Guinness through customs because of the little ball that is in the cans of Guinness. We’d talk of our travels, where we’d been, and where we were going. We even found a projector and watched movies on the wall in a conference room at the hotel. If we couldn’t pick a movie to watch, we’d visit one of the few remaining “Friends” bars in town. The bars have a couple of flat screens on the wall that continually play Friends episodes. You’d hang out on Lao style tables and sit on pillows ordering beer and food while episode after episode of the sitcom played. It was said that in the party days, every bar in Vang Vieng used to play Friends on an endless loop.
In addition to the continually social eating schedule, my days in Vang Vieng were really great. I’d work in the Café from 6:30 a.m. to about noon, have lunch, take a nap, go to the pool and read, then go for a run at sunset through the rice fields and limestone karsts, then meet the group for dinner.
We did get one day off a week, which ended up being more with the tentatively scheduled power outages. Those days off were spent tubing and kayaking the river, biking to lagoons, swimming through caves, and exploring the countryside covered in rice fields and grazing cows. The river tubing wasn’t the party scene it used to be, and good thing, I like my river floats to be serene. The normal route is about four miles long through pristine water, gorgeous scenery of hills, forests, and locals fishing. There are still two bars, and nothing is better than a BeerLao break during the float down the river.
It felt great to have a semi-permanent life; friends, work, and the same address for two weeks. This was one of the aspects of my trip that I was most excited to experience, and it lived up to my expectations. It was even better than I had imagined it would be. Before arriving, I’d been craving a schedule, and was excited to contribute to something besides just traveling, which is ironic because isn’t that the reason you take a year off to travel is to avoid routine and a schedule?
As with anything, you have to say goodbye. I realized two weeks would go really quick, and I know that I get attached to a routine so I figured it would be really hard for me to leave. I had to say goodbye to friends, and the little life I’d made in just the two weeks. In just the two weeks I had a favorite place to buy fruit, sandwiches, smoothies, a favorite restaurant, bar, running route, and had made a few friends. Even though I become comfortable with the routine, and it was in fact really hard for me to say goodbye, I found myself constantly dreaming about the next step. I tried to gain a balance between enjoying the present adventure, and planning and dreaming about the next adventure. After Vang Vieng, I was heading to Myanmar, what will it be like, what will I do when I go home for the summer? Should I go to India this fall, what about Christmas, the spring, next summer? Eastern Europe? My mind never stops dreaming.
Really good article! Who would ever of thought there is places where you could work for room and board? What an adventure!!