We soon arrived in the virtually stoned, hippie village of Vang Vieng, tucked in the jungle mountains of northern Laos. Feeling a little daunted and alone since our good friends had stayed behind us in Luang Prabang, we were both relieved and freaked out to see a ton of Westerners on outdoor cafe beds watching TV reruns of Friends on two big screens. (They sat there all day and all night.) The Westerners were sleepily lounging with their smart phones, criticizing Instagram posts while enjoying a glass of Beerlao or a fruit smoothie.
As we walked, our guide told us that three British men that were on our tour had “hopped off” for two months here. My jaw dropped. Of all of the places in Asia, they had chosen this drugged-out Grateful Dead satellite village to stay in for two months? Did they forget that the world exists?
I looked around to see a tanned young man in a muscle t-shirt and board shorts (the standard for a white “phalong” in Southeast Asia) crossing the street barefoot, one headphone dangling on his chest. My look of incredulity ceased when I realized that this was the dream. Who wouldn’t want to walk around barefoot in this little make-believe heaven, switching between beer and fruit juice for nourishment and sleeping with all of their new best friends in front of flat screens showing Friends? And if you’re feeling somewhat sick of sitting, sleeping, lounging or chilling, you can take a short, but very bumpy, tuk-tuk drive to the blue lagoon. Yes, it’s exactly how it sounds: clear, crystal blue water trickling under a bridge with trees and rope swings to jump off of. I could have gotten lost there.
It’s very easy to want to get lost in Southeast Asia. There’s always a little bit of home to be found in even the most remote places: Friends reruns, 80s American ballades blasting from a roadside bar or the occasional local sporting an American flag t-shirt. It’s easy to take these similarities and internalize them, embracing the Asian culture but also remaining separate, unknowingly creating your own version of the Southeast-Asian life. Because the truth is, you don’t see locals watching Friends. The only people that relish in this feaux-American village are the Westerners that are trying to run away to something different, but only to find something similar. As we move on from Vang Vieng to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, I decide I prefer to take these Americanizations with a grain of salt. I left home to escape and don’t want to escape back just yet. For now, I will choose to see the foreign in the familiar, even if I am eating Ritz crackers as we wind away through the jungle.