Surrounded by breathtaking mountains, rice paddies, and rivers, it is no surprise that Vang Vieng attracts hoards of backpackers, vacationers, and adventurers. The town has a booming and still growing bar scene not unlike that of a spring break destination. At first it was overwhelming to see this Laotian oasis overrun by bars offering free drinks to partiers, however after 3 nights I found myself not wanting to leave. Vang Vieng seemed comfortable and friendly as we got to know the other backpackers whose paths crossed ours again and again in this small town.
DAY 1 – Thursday, January 22, 2015
By the time our bus arrived in Vang Vieng it was after 6pm. The mountains in the skyline were beautiful, but fading fast in the dying light. We were able to walk to our hostel, Pan’s Place, where we had reserved a private two bed room. Our private room turned out to be a private bungalow just big enough to house two mattresses on the floor. (At least we were given towels and soap, luxuries you usually have to bring with you to hostels). We found that our room shared two ‘garden bathrooms’ with the other 8 bungalows. Surprisingly, this was no problem at all. In the hostel was a booklet with town information and what mostly turned out to be safety precautions. We had not known that Vang Vieng had become a place where people go to find opium, mushrooms, and other drugs. The book did mention that the town was trying to shed that image and clean itself up. The rest of the book was precautions about dangers of tubing (more about that later). For dinner we walked down the town’s main street. As we approached the corner we were offered free drinks at the town’s Irish Bar. A few steps later another bar was advertising free drinks from 9-10. We wandered around town, and down to the river. We passed lots of bars, food booths all displaying the exact same menu, and restaurants with Friends showing on large TVs on repeat. We finally decided that the Beerlao Burger advertised at Kangaroo Sunset was calling our name. Outside of Kangroo Sunset was a beer pong table. Inside we had burgers which were disappointing to say the least. We did talk to the bar tender and found out that many of the patrons at Kangroo Sunset (and all of the bars in town) are found on Work Away and similar websites which offer travelers free room and board if you work nightly at the restaurant serving and promoting them. After Kangroo Sunset we headed to Gary’s Irish Pub for our free drinks and were each given a whiskey and mixer drink. We quickly learned that Lao-Lao, the local cheap whisky, runs very freely throughout all of town. While at Gary’s we were recruited to play a round-robin pool game called Killers. I didn’t do well, but Jon ended up within the top 10! We also had an order of cheese fries with gravy which were even more disappointing than the BeerLao burgers had been.
DAY 2 – Friday, January 23, 2015
Vang Vieng is known for a number of outdoor activities including inner tubing, rock climbing, hiking, kayaking, caving, and more. We knew our first priority in Vang Vieng would be to inner tube down the Nam Song River, so we decided not to waste time and do that. However, we had another day so we spent the morning looking into tours to book for Saturday. We ate a western breakfast (eggs) at a small noodle shop in town while looking over the guided tour options for several company. We made our reservation and got ready for the day of tubing. At noon we walked to the Tubing Service in town. For 55000K plus a deposit of 60000K we were given an inner tube and a ride in a tuk tuk up the river. The tubes are released into the cool river and left to float back down stream. The scenery is everything you could ask it to be; towering mountains around a clear river as you slowly drift along. But after about 20 meters of relaxing you reach bar #1 and are thrown ropes to get towed into the shore. Lao-Lao whiskey drinks and BeerLao abound. Music is playing and a volleyball game is going on, but mostly it is college aged kids drinking. We were lucky enough to recognize another couple from our tuk tuk and decided that the four of us should experience this journey together. Ashley and Dominic’s blog is at Aloha from Asia.
Back in the tubes we only got to drift another 20 meters until we were towed into bar #2, the Apple Bar. Drinks in hand, we enjoyed watching some scrappy guys try to box on a log over a pit of muddy water. Before we knew it Ashley had jumped up to give it a go against Dominic. Then Dominic did a great job when challenged twice by one of the scrappy guys. Finally the pressure was on Jon and me. This is why we are here, right? To try new things and step outside of our box, so we crawled on the log. The drop to the water looked very high from the log and overcoming the fear of heights was the real battle. Inevitability, Jon won and had me in the water. But, I am very proud that I lasted longer than I expected and held onto the log better than others had. Once I was in the water, Jon jumped in too because it was the deal we made before starting. Bars #3 and #4 were similar. At bar #3, the Bucket Bar, music was playing loudly and the party was really going. By this time Jon and I were sharing beers at each bar to preserve ourselves, although bar #3 was offering free Lao-Lao shots. We had found that as a group we were enjoying being just ahead of the party crowd so that we could get in and out of the water unrushed and skip the lines at the bar. We might have gotten to bar #4 a bit too early because it was mostly empty. We did stay for a while tho, met another traveler, and had a sandwich. We left bar #4 because the clock was ticking. To get our tube deposits back we had to be in town by 6pm. We had heard we at least another hour of tubing left. The sun was lower now and the water felt considerable cooler. We floated along for a while and paddled with our hands to go faster. There was a bridge with a sign indicating that we still had 2 kilometers to go before town, so we climbed out of the river and shared a tuk tuk with other tubers back to town. We made it back between 6pm and 8pm which meant we only got a partial deposit back. We had heard that most tubers don’t even get back into the water after bar #4 and instead take a tuk tuk from there. A few more thoughts on tubing; the river used to have rope swings, slides and other obstacles for tubers to enjoy, however those were removed a few years ago after too many tourists were getting hurt. Also, the bars are not evenly spaced. They are all near the start of the river, and if you stop at each one I don’t think it would be possible to get your deposit which feels a bit like a scam. However, I think we all agreed it was so much fun that losing part of the deposit was not a big deal. Each bar has bracelets if you ask and having them tied to your wrist is a badge of honor showing you drank your way down the Nam Song River. After cleaning up, we met Ashley and Dominic again for some noodles and drinks. We started and ended our drinking at Sakura Bar. Sakura Bar was advertising heavily to the tubers and is also the bar with free whiskey drinks from 9-10. For an entire hour the bar was lined with cups as whole bottles of Lao-Lao were emptied. Besides of the free drinks, if you bought two drinks you’d get a free t-shirt. In their quest for free shirts Ashely and Dominic got too many and gave me one. By this time we were starting to recognize other travelers from our bus rides, shared tuk tuks, and tubing. It was nice to see familiar faces and exchange a few words. At 10pm the bar completely emptied out and we enjoyed finishing our drinks quietly by their fire pit.
DAY 3 – Saturday, January 24, 2015
For Saturday we had booked the Discover Vang Vieng Tour by Green Discovery. As excited as we were, waking up at 8am for a 9am tour was brutal on us after the previous day. We got to the tour company and were seated in the back of truck with 7 others. We bounced out of town and towards the mountains. We stopped a few times, once at a market and the guides got out briefly. Finally we reached our first stop Thamxang, the Elephant Cave. We weren’t the only ones there, our truck pulled along side tons of other similar trucks. Elephant Cave was a small one room cave that had carvings of Buddha and Buddha’s footprint in it. For us, the most interesting feature was the single stalactite, which resembled an elephant and for which the cave was named. After Elephant Cave we did a short (1km) trek up to a picnic pavilion. While a few of the tour guides started cooking, we were led to two near by caves. Tham Hoi, or the Snail Cave was first. We were all impressed with the Snail Cave, which seemed to just keep going back further and further. The cave was again named for formations near the entrance. Our next cave was Loop Cave. Loop Cave was hot and humid but we had a nice walk through it. Back at the picnic pavilion we were given fried rice wrapped in a banana leaf, a loaf of french bread, bananas, and beef and vegetables kabobs. The food was really good and we enjoyed the meal. When we were all finished we set out on a trek through the hillside to a few villages. The villages were interesting to stop at and seemed to be much further away from other tourists than the Elephant Cave had been. We stopped at one final cave, Tham Nam the Water Cave, which did have a crowd. Water Cave isn’t decorated or pretty, but is filled with water so visitors can inner tube through it and pull themselves along on ropes. 5 people from our tour group decide to brave the dark, cool water and went to into the cave. Once getting over the shock of the water, it was a lot of fun. About half way through the cave the other tourists seem to fall away and the 5 of us had fun splashing in the darkness. The remainder of our hike was beautiful, along dirt roads and canals with grazing cows. The hike took about an hour until we met our tuk tuk in the village of Phathao. We were driven about 20 minutes down the road to a field next to the river. The guides unloaded kayaks from the roof of the tuk tuk and helped launch us into the water. The kayak ride was about 10km, the last 2.5 of which were the same as the inner tubing route. The river was beautiful and the upper part was calm with little boat traffic. There was a bit of excitement when one of our group’s kayaks flipped going through some of the mild rapids along the way. Overall the kayak trip was soothing and lovely. That evening we met Ashley and Dominic for dinner. They had raved about some street kabobs, so we wanted to try those. The kabobs only cost 5000K ($0.70) and we happened to find 20000K on the street walking there, so free kabobs for everyone! The kabobs definitely lived up to their reputation. Still a bit hungry, we decided that while in Vang Vieng we had to try one of the many restaurants in town that show Friends on repeat. I’m not sure why restaurants like this are around, but patrons sit on cushions around low tables and face two TVs which constantly air reruns of the American TV show Friends. I didn’t care for the restaurants, they turned four sober, lively tourists (us) into zombies that just sat starting at the TVs and not talking much to each other. Before calling it a night, we stopped for chocolate pastries at a bakery that always seemed full. Sitting in the bakery was a girl who we had met earlier on the kayaking trip. Sitting with her were other people that Ashley and Dominic had met earlier that day too. And that’s how Vang Vieng starts to feel like a small town; after two days there we recognize tourists as being from our bus, hostel, and tours. As we walked back to the hotel we passed the Irish guy who had started the Killers pool game two nights before.
DAY 4 Sunday January 25, 2015
Our Last morning in Vang Vieng was also the one with the prettiest view of the mountains. The haze lifted and we could clearly see the mountains while we ate breakfast at our hostel. A shuttle was scheduled to pick us up at 9:40am for the 10am bus. Around 10:30am we were finally picked up and driven just around the corner to the bus. We had our choice of seats and waited for other shuttles from hotels to arrive. When the next shuttle pulled up Dominic and Ashley boarded the bus! The bus finally pulled away around 11am. The view of the Laos country side was beautiful, although the ride was bumpy, long, and rough. The bus stopped twice, for 15 minutes each, at rest stops along the way. We wished that the bus had stopped once at the top of the mountains we eventually climbed so we could take photos of the view.
Travel throughout country: Laos does not have trains, so buses are the way to travel the country. The roads are in poor condition and land travel takes time. Vang Vieng is typically reached by bus from Vientiane or Luang Prabang. Bus tickets are widely sold throughout each town in Laos. We purchased tickets in Vientiane on the ‘VIP’ bus, only to find ourselves crammed into a minibus and seated in jump seats on the middle isle while our bags were strapped to the roof. The minivan took over 4 hour to reach Vang Vieng, a journey which google maps says should take 2 hours. Transportation within cities: Tuk tuks seem to be the best transportation for tourists within Laos cities and they are plentiful. You can usually negotiate a lower price than they will offer, so don’t be scared to try. If you are going to or from a large tourist attraction, finding other tourists to share a tuk tuk with will also reduce the cost.
Money: The Laos currency is the Kip which has an exchange ratio of $1= 8,025K (as of January 2015). We found that most establishments will except Kip, US dollars, and the Thai Baht. Modernized restaurants and hotels accept Mastercard and Visa, however they often applied a 3-5% surcharge to use a credit card instead of cash. ATM’s were widely available.
Visa Information: For Americans, most major entry points into Laos will offer a visa on arrival; including airports, train stations, and some land crossings. A visa is good for 30 days and costs 1500B ($45) for Americans. You will need one passport type photograph.
Water: Don’t drink it. Bottled water is widely available and most of our hotel rooms included either a water cooler in the lobby or two bottles in the room daily.
Malaria: Malaria exists in Laos, although if you are in cities, the risk is low. We took malaria pills (Doxycycline), which we purchased cheaply from a pharmacy in Thailand. MAKE SURE YOU TALK TO A DOCTOR BEFORE DOING THIS as there are a number of possible side effects and the pills must be continued for 30 days after leaving an at risk area.