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 in northern Laos!

Travel

map 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 stops once along the road somewhere in-between nowhere as people heed 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, continue throughout the journey!

Locals don’t travel well. But, this doesn’t stop the gorging at a lunch stop to then hop back in the van to only be violently sick again.

Arriving in Vang Vieng without me throwing up is a minor miracle as the stench in such a confined area is 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 as not to mess up the hair. Then by the time the window is opened, 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 is a result of when in 2011, 27 tourists died while partying on the river and so, local authorities clamped down on drugs.

Vang Vieng, Laos, landscape
Town views

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.

Walking around town

Preferring to walk around town and especially around the outskirts, provides some very stunning photo opportunities. This is a beautifully 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.

Vang Vieng, Laos, landscape
Gorgeous views!

Just a point to remember when travelling in Laos or through SE Asia during the wet (low) season, without a doubt you’ll 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.

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, 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!

Vang Vieng, Laos, landscape
Hitching north of Vang Vieng – March 1989

Mind you, these days Vang Vieng offers so much more for travellers with roads for a start, power, accommodation, and restaurants.

C.I.A. Air Strip

A nondescript and pot-holed short runway nowadays used as a shortcut, by numerous motorcycles and animals through to the northern part of town, this airstrip’s secret holds much history.

To find the airstrip take a short walk through town then cross 13th Nothern Road and on to reach “Lima Site 27”, which doesn’t exist, apparently.

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.

Vang Vieng, Laos, air strip
Remnants of Lima Site 27 – CIA’s ‘secret’ airstrip

The reason for its secrecy is 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.

Accommodation

Vang Vieng offers a myriad of accommodation for every budget.

Inthira Hotel

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

The room is great value, clean, and serviced daily. The Delicious breakfast is excellent with several choices made fresh for you each morning and served with a baguette (jam and butter), juice, good strong coffee/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. The Inthira is close to town. and you can walk to most places

Returned to the hotel after dinner one night to find a birthday party on in the restaurant for one of the staff. Invited to join in and drink beer, who can possibly pass this invitation up?

Even though I don’t drink beer, I did this time so as not to offend – great fun seeing the already drunk staff getting even more drunk with every mouthful.

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

Observations

Vang Vieng, Laos
Wet and moody

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

Apart from many travellers in this town in bars, I’m incredulous of 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 – an occasional movie is cool though.

Anyway, the amount of 18-25 year-olds glued to these TVs daily is depressing. Albeit, there is 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 from a TV.

Inthira Hotel’s restaurant

Our hotel offers good local and Thai food although 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 tad high as typically, the standard rate in Laos so far is 10,000K, which is also the price on the main road in Vang Vieng.

Luang Prabang Bakery

On 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 but I’m sure they’re very good.

Chaleun

Along Main Street, ThLuangPrabang, left to Malani Guesthouse, sadly we 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. Vang Vieng seems to be over-priced food-wise.

Good friendly staff that go out of their way to provide service. On both nights, we weren’t even charged for our fresh fruit juices and when I questioned the bill (thinking it was a mistake), staff said the juices were on the house! This saved us a couple of dollars on our meal each night.

Leaving Vang Vieng

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

Buying the next leg’s journey from the Inthira Hotel as after the last minivan trip, we’re willing to pay extra for an “Express VIP ticket” (60,000K) for the comfort promised.

As always in Laos, the transport or journey is not as expected or is 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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