By: Paula Wallis
Nobody knows how to chill like the locals in Vang Vieng, Laos, and they’re willing to share all their secrets (and delicious beer) with any adventurous travelers who make the trek through the mountains to this beautiful riverside village.
At first glance, you might feel deeply uneasy about being dropped off on the side of the road in the heart of, well, seemingly nowhere. The stunning views of the limestone mountains looming up around you will soon distract you from any feelings of unease, however. And just a short walk from the side of the highway brings you into the ultra laid-back, low key village of Vang Vieng.
Make no mistake; Vang Vieng is not the most convenient place to get to in a country which has the dubious distinction of being the “most bombed country in history.” Quite often it’s a welcome pit stop on the long, hot bus ride between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. It’s a 6-8 hour bus ride from the lovely Luang Prabang, if you’re coming from the North, or a 3-4 hour bus ride from the capital city of Vientiane, south of Vang Vieng. The bus ride is one of the most scenic, albeit long and winding, you’ll ever have the opportunity to enjoy. So have your camera handy. And your gravol.
There is no shortage of budget hostels, guesthouses and bungalows in Vang Vieng, usually running in the price range of about $1-$5 US, so don’t worry about booking ahead. The stilted bungalows near the river can be quite charming, but make sure to check them and the bathrooms out before committing to a night there, some can be extremely run down. Roosters crowing, chickens softly clucking and pigs snuffling their way around underneath your raised bungalow adds to the charm, some find. Of course, not everyone finds these goings on “charming” at 3 am.
Consisting of a mere three dirt roads with dirt footpaths in and around the market down to the river, one might get the impression that there’s not a lot to do in Vang Vieng, but give it a chance. Most travelers end up extending their stay here, due to the funky vibe and welcome atmosphere. Some people may attribute that to the lure of not-so-secret Opium dens or the ready availability of “Happy” or ”Ecstatic” pizzas (pizzas sprinkled liberally with marijuana or mushrooms.) But if that’s not your thing, and trust me, you might decide that it most definitely isn’t after paying the hefty “fine” (read bribe) when caught purchasing goods from an undercover police officer, then Vang Vieng still has plenty for you to enjoy.
The first thing you’ll probably hear about is tubing. Do it! I cannot tell you of a more chilled out day. Anywhere. For about 115,000 Kip (just under 15 dollars Canadian) you are provided with an inner tube, a ride about four kilometers up the river, and all the relaxation you can handle in one lazy day spent floating down the Nam Song River. The striking limestone mountains provide the perfect backdrop for your day and they reverberate with cries of “Beer Laos, Beer Laos!” Locals on bamboo rafts hook your tube, sometimes whether you wish it or not, with a long bamboo pole and pull you over to sell you cheap, ice cold beer, and a joint, if you’re so inclined.
Stop along the way and explore the myriad of ancient caves, giving you a chance to get out of the sun while you’re at it. Rope swings dot the riverbanks as well for a bit of fun on the river.
The perfect topper to a day like this is relaxing on one of the many riverside patios and taking in another gorgeous sunset while you watch the local women gossip, wash clothes and try and bathe their reluctant, playful children at the water’s edge.
Night life in Vang Vieng can get pretty lively, and you won’t have any trouble finding a place to dine or to mingle with other travelers. However, electricity is not a guaranteed thing in Vang Vieng, and when it does go out, it can take days to restore. I highly recommend you take advantage of this! The locals have power outages down to a fine art, everything but the internet cafes remain open and in a matter of minutes the whole village is lit by candlelight and you’ll hear the first twang of a backpacker’s acoustic guitar. Stay as long as the power is out, trust me, you won’t miss it. It’s one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see; a village in the mountains lit by nothing but candles and the moon, with nothing but the river quietly lapping at it’s banks and the soft conversation of fellow backpackers sharing tales of their travels to accompany the guitar.
Other things to do in Vang Vieng include renting a bicycle and exploring the countryside, plenty of photo-ops along the way. Another river activity is kayaking – a little more physically demanding than inner tubing, but still something any novice can enjoy.
One final tip: if you’re making your way on to Vientiane from Vang Vieng (which can be a bit of a shocking change of pace after so much chill-time), forgo the bus for a kayak. For a minimal cost, you get two experienced, friendly, and very professional locals to guide you down the Nam Song River as you head on to Vientiane, with stops along the way for lunch cooked over an open fire on the riverbanks (try the BBQ’d bat if you’re feeling brave), cliff jumping, rapids, sampling some Lao Lao made by locals (very strong liquor!) and stops in villages along the way to see how the locals live. Once again, any novice can enjoy this, and a bus picks you up midway through the day and transports you the rest of the way to Vientiane, which is a whole other story!