Going to Vang Vieng is not a part of seeing the “real” Laos. Let us be clear, Vang Vieng is a place for young foreigners to gather with other westerners in order to party and frolic on the river. The big event is to go tubing down the river. OK, this is actually the second biggest thing to do, after going to the riverside bars for the “spring-break” atmosphere and crazy swings along the river. In the past Vang Vieng was also a prime stop for those wishing to ingest “happy shakes” and watch endless re-runs of Friends, but the police have cracked down and so all items “happy” are not as publicly advertised as they may have been in the past. However, Vang Vieng earned its reputation as a tourist mecca because the tranquil river and surrounding countryside of beautiful karst mountains makes for a very nice setting.
We stayed on the west side of the river, away from the bars playing endless re-runs of Friends and all the riff-raff they attracted. The west side of the river felt like you were in a real Lao village and you could take the main road into the countryside to see limestone caves or tour the farm fields backed by striking karst mountains. Jason rented a scooter to visit some of the far villages and went into a few of the caves. This side had fewer guesthouses, bars and tour companies that make the other side more of a circus. The limestone cave we explored is considered sacred by the local Lao people and has a Buddhist statue in it with many offerings.
We met a really nice Dutch couple, named Ellen and Robert, with whom we did two days of floating on the river and generally relaxing in the nice settings for leisurely meals along the river. We had a good time with them and enjoyed getting in the cool water during the hot days. It was also nice to have another mellow couple to visit the “spring-break” scene on the river. It was definitely worth seeing all the ‘glory’ that this “must-do” stop is like on the ‘backpacker’ circuit in SE Asia, but it was also nice to have another relaxed couple to spend time with while watching the really crazy bars from the opposite side of the river. We enjoyed the swings, had a few drinks and floated merrily down the river, doing our best to avoid the swinging, flipping and flopping drunk people who launched themselves from the swings into the river.
We left behind this mecca of debauchery and headed north to Luang Prabang. Well, one can never really leave Vang Vieng behind, as you will always see people who wear shirts boasting that they went tubing in Vang Vieng. Like a t-shirt that says something to the effect of “I made a fool of myself over Spring Break”, we find that seeing people with these “I went tubing in Vang Vieng ” shirts is a good indicator of places to avoid staying, eating or drinking at, unless you want your entire evening and all conversation to revolve around drinking alcohol and boasting about how drunk you are/were/or will be.
***click to enlarge photos***