You know that one really beautiful marsh or trail or stream or historic neighborhood or other cool spot that sits just a few blocks from the ever-encroaching march of suburbia or some other kind of development? There’s a spot exactly like that along the Nam Song river in central Laos. Every year thousands of backpackers descend on the small town of Vang Vieng, a hub for twenty-somethings taking a little time off after wrapping up school in Europe, Canada or the U.S. or maybe even service in the Israeli military. (The latter group tend to be some of the more adventurous souls on the tourist trail, it sometimes seems) The town itself is stuffed with tourist cafes, guesthouses, and locals offering guided tours of local caves or kayaking excursions. Unfortunately, they missed paradise by about 4 miles.
Just 4 miles down the main road to the north lies the tiny village of Phoudindaeng, with a few hundred inhabitants, who work mainly in agriculture, raising crops and livestock. Just a short drive down a dirt road between a local bar rumored to double as a bordello (best to stick to Bangkok if you’re looking for that sort of adventure, it is a criminal offense for a foreigner to sleep with a Laotian) and the shore of the Nam Song lies an organic mulberry farm. The farm used to allow foreigners to stay for free and volunteer on the farm, but that raised some eyebrows with the government, who demanded that the farm’s proprietor, Thanongsi Soangkoun or ‘Mr. T,’ begin charging. So now the farm is a working guesthouse, but foreign visitors are still encouraged to help out in the fields, with construction projects or teaching english at the local school.
Ironically, most visitors to Vang Vieng actually walk right through the farm and the village without ever taking a second to look around and take it in. Local organized crime (allegedly) controls a monopoly over the town’s most popular industry, innertube rentals for mostly drunken float trips down the Nam Song. The put-in site is right next to the farm.
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It was one of the most memorable experiences of a recent 6-month trip to Asia. We spent nearly two weeks getting to know the village.