Vang Vieng – backpacker haven in Northern Laos

September, 2014
You know it’s not going to be a good trip when the driver starts handing out plastic sick bags and anti-sick tablets, before your minivan even leaves for Vang Vieng!

Travel

Vang Vieng, LaosThe crammed smaller minivan (60,000K), leaves from the Phonsavanh bus station at around 09:00hrs (other times are available) and takes around 6 hours. The driver stopped once along the road somewhere in-between as people heeded to the call of nature. Another stop for lunch in a nondescript overpriced roadside restaurant and then on our way again to arrive at around 15:00hrs. I’m sure these drivers get a kick-back or free lunch for stopping at these random places.

About 15 minutes into the trip and just like clockwork, several passengers became violently sick, lurching forward, with heads into their conveniently provided sick bags, and continuing throughout the journey!

The locals don’t travel well, but this doesn’t stop the gorging at a lunch stop to then hop back in the van, only to be violently sick again. Arriving in Vang Vieng without me throwing up was a minor miracle as the stench in such a confined area was overwhelming. I owe this to sucking on Fisherman’s Friend’s (throat lozenges) for the entire journey, skipping lunch, and only eating dry cracker biscuits. There’s always one passenger (typically female) that doesn’t want to open a window so not to mess up the hair, then does so when it’s too late, and the throwing up starts in unison – madness.

Vang Vieng, Laos, street sweeper

Vang Vieng street

Vang Vieng’s reputation

Since 2012, gone are the infamous sordid days when Vang Vieng’s reputation was ‘the’ destination for foreign tourists because of the numerous drinking and drug-taking parties.

The change was a result of when in 2011, 27 tourists died while partying on the river and so, local authorities clamped down on drugs. Many tubing bars were shut down and restrictions placed on the music’s volume in bars. Riverside swings and “death slides” were also removed. Walking around town, you come across many quiet but open bars and one can only imagine what these once filled rowdy places must of been like.

Vang Vieng, Laos, landscape

Town views

Walking around town

Preferring to walk around town and especially around the outskirts, provides some very stunning photo opportunities. It’s a beautiful picturesque region. Mountainous limestone karst backdrops envelop luminous green rice fields, whilst the Nam Song river snakes confidently through the town. The lushness is also one of the advantages of travelling in the wet season.

Just a point to remember when travelling in Laos (or SE Asia) during the wet (low) season, without a doubt, you will definitely experience frequent torrential rain – this is not a myth. So, be prepared and don’t be too disappointed if you have to cancel activities or they’re just not available.

Vang Vieng, Laos, landscape

Gorgeous views!

Sights

A backpacker haven and renown as a party town, Vang Vieng is firmly concreted on the tourist destination map when visiting Laos.

This small town offers a plethora of activities from treks, tubing, kayaking (also river rapids during the wet), walks, caving, experiencing the Blue Lagoon, zip-lining, mountain biking, hot-air ballooning, and rock climbing. The choices are endless, just bring buckets of cash and you’ll be right!

Vang Vieng, Laos, landscape

Around Vang Vieng

Personally, I preferred this town when it was just a mere sleepy village, back in 1989; such a different and raw place! Mind you, these days this town offers much more with roads for a start, power, accommodation, and restaurants.

Vang Vieng, Laos, landscape

Hitching north of Vang Vieng – March 1989

C.I.A. Air Strip

A nondescript and pot-holed short runway nowadays, and used as a shortcut by numerous motorcycles and animals, through to the northern part of town.

To find the airstrip, take a short walk through town, cross 13th Nothern Road, and on to reach “Lima Site 27”, which isn’t supposed to exist. This airstrip was built and kept secret by the American CIA so as to supply the Royal Laotian Army and the Hmong Clandestine Army during the Vietnam War.

The reason for its secrecy was that it was in violation of the 1962 Geneva Accords prohibiting American military involvement in Laos but also in violation of American Law…some things never change.

Vang Vieng, Laos, air strip

Remnants of Lima Site 27 – CIA’s ‘secret’ airstrip

Accommodation

The Songthaew from Vang Vieng’s new bus station 2 kilometres north of the town to the Inthira Hotel in town cost 10,000K per person.

A great stay at the Inthira, which is close to town and you can walk to most places.The accommodation is great value, clean, and serviced daily. The breakfast is excellent with several choices made fresh for you each morning and served with a baguette (jam and butter), juice, good strong coffee (or tea), and fresh fruit. Very accommodating and friendly staff, but the wi-fi is average in the room and only slightly better in the restaurant.

Returned to the hotel after dinner one night to find a birthday party on for a staff member at the restaurant. Invited to join in and drink beer, who could possibly pass this invitation up? Even though I don’t drink beer, I did so this time as I didn’t want to offend; it was great fun seeing the already drunk staff getting drunker with every mouthful.

The custom is to say “khob chai” (cheers) before taking a swig from your glass – get’s funnier and funnier and had loads of fun. Although we’d eaten, everyone insisted we shared some fried noodles; this was the Lao hospitality I remembered from years’ ago.

Vang Vieng, Laos

Wet and moody

Observations

When travelling, other traveller behaviours never cease to amaze me and Vang Vieng was no exception.

Apart from many travellers in this town in bars, I was incredulous at the open-plan restaurants with large TV screens blaring out various episodes of Friends.

I can honestly say, I’ve never watched one of these shows and not interested much in TV, especially when travelling (occasional movie is cool though). Anyway, the amount of 18-25 year-olds glued to these TVs daily, was depressing. Albeit, there was rain about, but, when you only have limited time and choose to sit and vegetate in front of a box, instead of enjoying the country, then I just don’t understand the point of travelling. Why leave the comfort of your living room?

Food

Side-tracked a little with the observations but these are restaurants that didn’t have Friends blaring – at least when I ate here:

  • Inthira Hotel’s restaurant – Offers good local and Thai food but the prices are a little high. If you walk along the tourist strip that runs along the river, there’s a multitude of stalls selling baguettes for 15-25,000K. This is a rip-off price as typically, the going rate in Laos so far, is 10,000K, which is also the price on the main road in Vang Vieng.
  • Luang Prabang Bakery (Sisavangvong Rd, 17/01 Choumkong Village) – Only tried the coffee and cakes here and although a little pricey, both are excellent! The meals are also expensive here but I’m sure they would be very good.
  • Chaleun (Main Street, ThLuangPrabang; Left toMalani Guesthouse) – Sadly, discovered this restaurant too late, so only ate dinner here twice. This is by far the best restaurant around serving good quality local food (western choices also available) at cheaper prices than elsewhere. VangVieng seems to be over-priced food-wise. Good friendly staff that go out of their way for you. On both nights, we weren’t even charged for our fresh fruit juices and when we questioned the bill (thinking they’d forgotten), staff said the juices were on the house! This saved us a couple of dollars on our meal each night.

Vang Vieng to Vientiane

From Vang Vieng, the next logical stop-over travelling from north to south of the country is the capital – Vientiane.

Decided to buy the next leg’s journey from the Inthira Hotel, which after the last minivan trip, we were willing to pay extra for an “Express VIP ticket” (60,000K) for the comfort promised. But, as always in Laos, the transport or journey was not as expected, or was it…

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more images. More blogs on Laos at Image Earth Travel.

Vang Vieng, Laos, river

Cross-river ferry – without a motor and only on a pulley system

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