David Whitley searches for respite in a world of fancy dress, bad music played loud and people who like to ‘party’


There is a girl I used to work with who now appears to live in Laos. I know this, because pictures of her regularly appear on Facebook, and she seems to be continually be surrounded by young people having fun in a bar. You may be tempted to think that this seems like the ultimate life; ensconced in Vang Vieng, where life is a constant party and everyone’s up for a good time after going rafting. To me, it sounds like hell.


There are certain places along the well worn backpacker trails that become hubs of continual enforced fun. Amsterdam is one, the Khao San Road in Bangkok is another and – even though I’ve never been there – Vang Vieng appears to be one too. Enforced fun is a catch-all term I like to use for things such as 100-person organised bar crawls, table dancing contests, shot drinking competitions and playing Twister on a stage for prizes. It is for cretins who like shouting “woooo” a lot and being surrounded by a combined IQ of well under 50. Get caught up in it, and you either have to pretend to enjoy the ‘party vibe’ or have the misery compounded by hundreds of people you secretly despise telling you to cheer up and drink more tequila.


Queenstown can err dangerously close to this. It is full of young backpackers who have been travelling around New Zealand on buses together, and have designated Queenstown as the place where they’re going to party every night. (Incidentally, if anyone ever uses the phrase ‘let’s party’ in your presence, run a mile). My first night was spent in a hostel where the bar was pumping out The Black Eyed Peas at ear-splitting volume, interrupted every thirty seconds by an MC saying: “YEAH! We’re gonna have a great night tonight.” It was, all told, horrible.


The next day, I walked downstairs to discover that the evening’s entertainment was to be a toga party with cheap shots. Time to check out and move elsewhere. Part of Queenstown’s problem is that it is New Zealand’s adrenalin sports capital. You can bungy, you can skydive, you can raft, and you can do all manner of other weird things that require far more detailed description. I actually enjoy this sort of thing – skydiving and white-water rafting are particularly great. But I don’t like the attitude that surrounds it or – whisper it – the type of character it attracts. Extreme sports bring out the enforced fun lovers in their droves, and before you know it, you’re trapped on a bus with dreadlocked white blokes, pumping fists and watching endless videos of dull people snowboarding.


But despite this, I thoroughly recommend Queenstown as a place to go. It is beautiful, and surrounded by some of New Zealand’s most incredible scenery. Skippers Canyon, in particular, is sensational if you get the chance to go there. The secret is to make it what you want it to be. Do a bit of prior research, and avoid anything that bills itself as a party hostel, backpacker bar or the like. You’ll still meet other travellers by going to a good pub instead of a booming hellhole that’s full of drunks in Viking helmets singing along to something drenched in Auto-Tune. They’re just more likely to be the types that are interesting to talk to. The enforced fun capitals around the world don’t have to be that way; it’s just a case of being aware of what you’re going into and exploring the quieter heart that surrounds the shrieking.


*Incidentally, before I’m accused of getting old, it should be pointed out that I felt exactly the same way about enforced fun when I was 20.