Riding Through the Countryside in Vang Vieng
I hesitated going to Vang Vieng. All I had heard and read about this tiny town was that it was a haven for young, carefree travelers looking to party, drink and tube down the river. I was never into heavy partying or drinking but I did indulge slightly more when traveling – that is, when I was younger. The younger me probably would’ve gleefully enjoyed doing all those things all at once but the present me couldn’t fathom any of it. I couldn’t imagine myself engaging in any of those activities or even pretending to be interested in conversing with any of the younger Vang Vieng so-called party crowd. But, alas, Vang Vieng was the only option to cut short the already very long bus ride from Luang Prabang to the capital city of Vientiane.
We decided to walk the two or so kilometers from the bus station. Turning off the main road and heading towards the tourist center of Vang Vieng, the first travelers we spotted were, as expected, young and sunburned with glittering eyes telling stories of the night before. Ugh, what are we doing here? But it’s only for two nights, I told myself with not much relief.
But then I saw something else. Something unexpected. Something that actually gave me a shimmer of hope. What appeared before my eyes was a beautiful landscape of karst hills lining the Nam Song River basking in the glow of a setting sun. I immediately snapped a photo. Maybe Vang Vieng wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
After dumping our backpacks in our room, we checked out what Vang Vieng had to offer. Once again, that dreaded feeling beckoning the question of what are we doing here? resurfaced. The tourist-oriented center shamelessly (proudly?) boasted being exactly that – restaurants offering lots of Western junk food including “happy” pizzas – laced with a touch of marijuana (which is illegal in Laos but is tolerated for the sake of tourism although it can sometimes entail a small
Most of the restaurants facing the river all shared the same design concept – low wooden tables with cushions as seating (no shoes allowed) and all had a few flat-screen televisions blasting favorite old-time series such as Friends. I wondered if this was because the mostly-Lao owners thought these t.v. series were still trending on the other side of the world or if they simply tested it out one day and, lo and behold, the myriad of backpackers traveling through Vang Vieng actually enjoyed them. I didn’t attempt to find out.
We did find a small family-owned restaurant that served a minimal variety of Lao dishes. It wasn’t excellent but it was better than the “hippie-vibe” restaurants smeared with grease and lathered in dirt. Many people got sick in Vang Vieng – I’m thinking probably due to the lack of hygiene in those tourist-designated restaurants or maybe it was all the drinking or both.
Now back to that beautiful landscape. The vast countryside of Vang Vieng is dotted with a multitude of caves and stunning views of karst formations. The best way to visit is by renting a motorbike. You can also rent a bicycle (these are not heavy-duty mountain bikes fit for rugged roads) but keep in mind the roads are unpaved, uneven and dusty. The caves are spread and far away from town. Add to that the heat and sun which can be treacherous (there’s hardly any shade in the open countryside) – renting a bike isn’t the wisest option. We met a few people completely drained out on their bicycles (and trying to hitch a ride back to town) wishing they had rented a motorbike instead.
Rental shops all offer hand-drawn (not very clearly-indicated) maps of the various caves and their locations. The biggest and most popular caves (like the Blue Lagoon) have official entrance fees; at others you might be asked to pay a bunch of kids for rite of passage (I suggest not paying them) or an elderly woman or man attending to the cave. Some caves are left to their own demise and you can just walk in freely. Unless you’re really into stalactites and stalagmites, after 2 or 3 caves they all start to look the same so we decided to skip all the
most popular (crowded) caves and loosely followed the map (and roads) at our leisure instead. The countryside offered such stunning landscapes, we much preferred to just ride around taking in the views and occasionally stopping to chat with the villagers (and perfect my skills as a banana-carrier – those things are f’n heavy!).
We spent the whole day exploring the countryside of Vang Vieng and I can honestly say it’s totally underrated. It bares no resemblance to the town with a bad reputation. Though many travelers make their way to the outskirts of Vang Vieng, it hasn’t been ruined by mass tourism. The villages are left untouched rendering them charming in a very rugged way. The vastness of the countryside exuded such peace and beauty I couldn’t believe the town dubbed the most partying place in Laos was just a few kilometers away!
So what are my thoughts on Vang Vieng? First of all, the party scene has gone down considerably in the past few years. Locals complained about tourists causing havoc, being disrespectful, loud and under-dressed (please don’t walk around in your bathing suit – man or woman). The party scene had gotten so out of control that many young travelers drinking irresponsibly died (yes, died!) from tubing down the river drunk or swinging from a tree (another popular activity) into too shallow waters.
The government had to intervene and did so in shutting down many of the bars causing a drop in backpackers heading to Vang Vieng wanting to party. It was actually quite tame when we were there; most bars were almost empty and we didn’t hear any loud-mouth, drunken a-holes shouting nonsense in the streets. I’m sure the locals are relieved some changes have taken place but, on the other hand, all that development geared towards increasing tourism has caused some irreversible damage to a once quiet town and its people.
That being said, upon our arrival, I didn’t think I would like anything about Vang Vieng but much to my surprise I did enjoy our stay! Certainly not because of the town itself but because of its stunning countryside.
The town center has nothing genuinely Laotian about it save for some street food stalls. If you want to
escape the “happy pizzas” and beer-guzzling truly immerse yourself in local everyday life then head to the outdoors market located on the main road about 2 km from the tourist center. You’ll see foods and so-called delicacies not found on any menus in any tourist restaurants (that’s actually a good thing for once!). Rats, insects, squirrels, snakes, bats and other species I couldn’t identify were splayed out ready to be purchased and cooked. I walked around with a permanent disgusted frown on my face inciting laughter from the lovely ladies busy squatting flies from the bloody raw meat displayed on their tables. Some even offered a sample of their….worms? beetles? tiny frogs? larva? I don’t speak Lao but, fortunately, a “no” head shake is understood universally!
We had a really good time at the market and the vendors had a few laughs at our expense as well!
Vang Vieng had more to offer than just “happy” pizzas, drunk tubing and reruns of Friends but one whole day (two nights) was enough for us. It’s conveniently located en-route from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (or vice versa) so, like it or not, a short stop-over is almost unavoidable. And to enhance our experience, we met a lovely boho couple from France who we hooked up with several times throughout the rest of our travels in Laos and Cambodia (and with whom we remain friends).
Did someone say silver lining?
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