Vang Vieng was little more than a staging post Vientiane and Luang Prabang until the US airforce built an airbase there during the Vietnam War. Since the war the town has attracted backpackers who have flocked there as a site of adventure.
Four hours by bus north of Vientiane, Vang Vieng is nestled on the Nam Song river surrounded by mountains. It was perhaps the second worst bus ride of my travels but on arrival it felt glorious to be in the mountains again. But even though Vang Vieng is only 234 metres above sea level, the days are cooler and the nights often chilly. It’s the first time I’ve had to wear long pants in Asia.
Vang Vieng has a reputation. The New Zealand Herald once suggested, “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng.” And I would have to agree with them. Vang Vieng’s target audience seems to be backpackers in their 20s.
Well duh, it’s a temple. Wat That is one of five such temples in town in the typical Laotian style.
Pha Poak Mountain
Not far from town is a small rocky hill which gives great views over the larger mountains and a panoramic view across the town. While on a casual stroll around town, I followed a sign across the river and through a set of fields to the hill.
I hadn’t intended to climb anything as I was only in flip-flops, but since I was there I climbed it and indeed the views were superb.
Take a large tyre inner tube, a backpacker and a river, and you have tubing. An idea formed by the locals who organised themselves into a cooperative business involving more than 1,555 households. Tuk-tuks drop groups ten kilometres upstream where they launch into the water and drift their way slowly back to town a handful of hours later.
While the views are amazing along the way the scenery isn’t the only drawcard. At various points along the river, locals have set up river bars for tubers, throwing out ropes to drag them in. Along the river there are other adventures to be had, trekking to caves, zip lining and other such activities.
Unfortunately, the safety levels are fairly low and 22 tourists were killed during 2011 on such tubing trips. Supposedly safety measures have been better implemented since then. and while it has reduced the deaths, they haven’t stopped entirely. I chose not to do the tubing, instead choosing another method to float down the river.
As part of a full day tour, I kayaked with a group along the river. Unfortunately because it’s dry season the river was low, so we only kayaked for about 6km instead of the usual 15km. I managed to get a solo kayak to myself and this allowed me more freedom.
The views of the river and surrounding mountains were marvellous. A little way along, we started encountering the river bars and stopped at one for a beer.
Then it was back in the water and paddling along through brief periods of rapids and slow patches. On my smaller solo kayak I was able to quickly paddle back up the river to some of the other kayaks, spin around and paddle backwards, or just drift sideways. It was a lot of fun. I found that many of the more dangerous swings and other activities had been closed.
I did end up on an inner tube at one point. As part of the kayaking day tour, we floated into a low-roofed water-filled cave with head lamps on.
The water was quite cold, but I quickly became accustomed to it. The cave was perhaps only 50 metres long with a loop at the end.
Perhaps one of the smaller of many dozens of caves in the region, we went to a cave where elephants used to sleep when it rained. When humans moved to the area and planted crops, the elephants ate it all, so the locals were forced to move the animals. The cave is now a buddha shrine.
Overall, Vang Vieng is a peaceful little town on the backpacker route. It’s just a shame that the backpackers are often attracted here more for the partying aspect rather than the adventure, but thus is South-East Asia. If I had more time, I would have hiked through the mountains for several days. Perhaps another time…
Next I head north for my final Laos destination, Luang Prabang.
The Long Trail Wanderer