The small of Vang Vieng, nestled in gorgeous karst peaks, is a popular topic of conversation among travelers. It is known for both its serene, natural beauty with trekking and caving practically at your doorstep, and a legendary party scene where you can bar hop via inner tube down the Nam Song river and where you can buy a smorgasbord of drugs, from marijuana to opium. Due to the prevalence of the latter, many skip this lovely town in search of a more authentic Laos experience, or perhaps just some quiet.
We, too, were ready to bypass Vang Vieng on the way to Luang Prabang, until we learned that due to outside pressure after 5 deaths had occurred in only one month’s time, the Laos government shut down the bars along the river, as well as “party island”. Some of these bars had been serving opium-laced beer. Add an inner tube, a fast-moving river, and 400 drunk/high tourists to the mix, and it’s easy to see why, long before it closed down, there had been an average of one death every month. With the promise of a diminished, obnoxious party scene, we decided to make a short stop in Vang Vieng. Needless to say, we weren’t quite sure what to expect.
The 2pm bus from Vientiane timed us perfectly for arriving in Vang Vieng, as the sun was slipping behind the mountains, making the detail of the rich, green forest on the karst peaks fade to silhouette.
The next morning, in daylight, it was easier to see the dichotomy of this town, as we passed numerous restaurants playing looped episodes of either “Friends”, “Family Guy”, or “South Park” with the beautiful karst mountains, draped with jungle, as the backdrop. Walking through town felt like flipping through channels on American TV! The party tourists and nature lovers often collided with the former usually overwhelming the latter with their loud and what we consider to be disrespectful behavior. It didn’t take us long to realize that we could enjoy the peace and serenity of the locale without the party-goers in the mornings, as they were likely sleeping off their hangovers.
It was clear from the get-go that a couple days in this magical place would not suffice. There was just too much to do!
We went spelunking in caves (most often, we were the only ones in the caverns!):
We graduated to renting a motorbike and drove through villages, both to the north and south of Vang Vieng.
…and here is a video of our take off:
- Watching a thunderstorm roll over the mountains from the safety of our balcony, as the rain drowned out the noise and canned laughter of the “Friends” episode playing loudly next door.
- Falling asleep to the sound of crickets and waking up to roosters calling to each other from across the river.
- Getting kisses from a family of cows.
- Sharing a pomelo with a Lao farmer, which he had just picked from his fruiting tree.
- Trying a mulberry shake at the Organic Farm.
- Waving to locals from the seat of our motorbike and the basket of our hot-air balloon.