On wrong shoes and river drownings

Ben Groundwater who runs the Backpacker blog on the Sydney Morning Herald has a linkbait piece (yes, we’re biting) today discussing the dangers of travel in Southeast Asia, declaring “Dangerous? Yes, but don’t try to change South-East Asia”.

Groundwater turns it around into an argument against foreign governments pressuring Laos (or Thailand/Cambodia who also indirectly get a mention) into regulating activities like tubing in Vang Vieng or the full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan. After all, Australia is so over-regulated “bouncers won’t let you into bars with the wrong shoes”.

I do agree whole-heartedly with Groundwater that Australia is over-regulated — often to a seemingly insane degree — but I don’t agree that the polar opposite is any more desirable.

The thing is Southeast Asia isn’t the polar opposite. There are laws against riding a motorbike without a helmet, driving drunk, and taking or selling a wide variety of drugs. Sure you can go ahead and ride your bike home drunk and high without a helmet in your swimmers and, should you get pulled over, pay your way out of it — but it’s misleading to say Southeast Asia is the freewheeling, anything-goes destination Groundwater paints it as. Laos is a Communist-ruled nation for God’s sake.

The thing is, often the local governments are no keener on these shebangs than the hand-wringing Australian mob. Following full moon parties on Ko Pha Ngan there is often an outpouring of opinion in the Thai press demanding they be shut down, or at least better controlled. And changes have been made. There are in fact sniffer dogs at the parties and the places swarm with both undercover and in-uniform police trying to get a handle on things. Despite this people continue to die — drugs, drownings, motorbike accidents, boat sinkings, shootings — they have them all there, and it’s sometimes difficult to outwit Darwinism at work.

In the mid-noughties I remember talking to Lao tourism activists in southern Laos who were putting together tourism development plans for Savannakhet province. They used Vang Vieng as an example of exactly what they didn’t want to happen; surely that says something. Yes, even in the mid-2000s Vang Vieng was a disaster area and people were dying every year, month in, month out (in 2011 there were 22 reported deaths there).

I’ve done my share of stupid things in my travels — hell I was almost murdered in northern Laos two years ago when I put myself in a situation I probably shouldn’t have — but I was lucky and, as Groundwater did, escaped unscathed. Yet, as someone who visited Vang Vieng before tubing — when there were just a couple of guesthouses and a single restaurant — seeing the transformation from what was a sublime location to one of the best examples of all that is wrong with tourism in Southeast Asia deeply saddens me.

Nobody is suggesting that Vang Vieng be shut down to some how return to its earlier incarnation — that’s never going to happen. Nor should the shoe police get an invite, but even small changes could help to make the circus slightly safer.

Here are three off the top of my head: Stop tube hire after midday; “close” the top of the river where people jump in and/or transport to it after 3pm; stop doing the free drinks.

I’m not sure how workable any of them would be, but if enough people made useful suggestions perhaps tubing would become somewhat safer and lives would be saved.

It’s easy to trumpet freedom of choice and personal responsibility — right up to when it’s your son, daughter or old friend they find stuck under the tree roots.