Valley of the low sun in Vang Vieng


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Asia » Laos » West » Vang Vieng
January 24th 2020
Published: July 22nd 2020
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When the buffaloes fight, it is the grass that suffers… ~ Lao Proverb



HE SAID...
Today we were travelling south from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng.

After bearing witness to monks collecting alms from devotees (and non-devoted tourists) in the old city centre of Luang Prabang, we made our way back to Hotel Legend in pre-dawn darkness to finalise our packs and prepare for a gruelling seven hour road trip to Vang Vieng. We settled in the hotel’s dining area around 7am, where I enjoyed a reasonably simple breakfast of muesli, omelette, tea, toast and jam, along with a couple of glasses of the ubiquitous orange cordial that is a steadfast component of every Thai and Laos breakfast buffet.

After a quick trip in a songthaew (a converted pick-up truck with benches down either side) to a guest house outside the old city centre, we loaded our packs into a large minibus and headed off to Vang Vieng at 8:45am. It didn’t take long to get out of Luang Prabang – within 10 minutes we were driving through rural villages on the outskirts of the city, and not long after that we were driving on steep, bumpy mountain roads.

Every so often we would pass through a small village, and one had been completely dissected by the China-Laos Railway Project. An unsightly gash had been carved through the settlement, and this scar stopped short at two huge concrete pylons jutting out of a nearby river. The rail tracks were yet to be laid, and I couldn’t help but wonder how life will be changed forever when high speed trains zoom through the village and break the mountain silence that has prevailed for so long – shaking each tiny wooden dwelling to its core. However, I think I’m being overly romantic here. Maybe the villagers will embrace the ensuing benefits that China’s global progress will bring them.

The further we climbed into the mountains, the worse the roads became. They became narrower, windier and bumpier. The steep drops to the right side were daunting, with absolutely nothing in place to protect wayward vehicles and their occupants from plummeting down the mountain slopes. There were times (on steeper sections of the road) when I thought the minibus would grind to a standstill. However, right at the last moment the driver would change back a gear, and we would all lurch forward with the engine’s new found torque.

A soft haze spread to the horizon, which significantly reduced our visibility of the surrounding mountain vista – I could barely make a discernible outline of their key features. There were plenty of large trucks on the road, and there wasn’t a lot of room when we passed them on tight corners. A disconcerting rubbing noise was coming from under the chassis of the minibus, and I hoped with all my heart that it wasn’t the brakes succumbing to overuse…

Every so often the road changed from pot-holed bitumen to rough dirt, which slowed our journey considerably. Tiny Hmong villages subsisted on the roadside, where wooden huts sat on diminutive plots of habitable land on the sheer mountain slopes. As the road became progressively worse, the drops to the right side became steeper, and I wondered what daily life was like in such a precipitous and exposed roadside community.

There was a moment during this mountainous journey where – in my overly vivid imagination – I had become an unwilling participant in an episode of World’s Most Dangerous Roads. The drops to the side were sheer, the road was rubble and large trucks spewing black diesel smoke were pushing our minibus to the very verge. I welcomed any form of foliage on the right side of the road, because it hid from view what lay below. The Be Careful of Accident signs certainly didn’t help!

After a quick toilet stop at a roadside café, we continued our mountain crossing to Vang Vieng. As we climbed further, the haze began to lift in the late-morning sky, and the extent of deforestation on the breathtaking slopes around us became all too apparent. These grotesque scars can only be seen when the pervasive mist enshrouding the mountains suddenly lifts. What an ironic twist of nature that an unassuming mist hides from view the activities of loggers.

As we passed through each roadside village, I gathered so many fleeting glimpses of life – a daughter plaiting her mother’s hair, a dog sleeping in the middle of the road, a teenage boy walking with a makeshift rifle slung over his shoulder, an emaciated old man carrying a long bamboo branch, a young boy cutting branches with a knife, a baby sitting alone on a roadside verge, a pup playing with baby chickens.

In the early afternoon we stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, where Ren and I shared a chicken fried rice at an outside table with an amazing view of the mountainous surrounds.

As we began our descent out of the mountains, limestone karst formations began to appear on the horizon – a sure sign that we were getting close to Vang Vieng. On one particularly tight hairpin bend we had to stop and reverse uphill to allow an ascending truck to pass. The road remained narrow and bumpy, but we were travelling a little faster on our descent. At one stage a young boy (riding on the front of a motorcycle driven by his father) gave us the ‘up yours’ gesture (reverse two fingers) as they sped past. I’m not sure if it stemmed from youthful arrogance or a generational dislike of foreigners.

We emerged into a wide flat valley floor in the mid-afternoon, where life continued as it did in the mountains, albeit with a lot more space. The condition of the road didn’t change much. It remained narrow and full of potholes, as it had been for most of the day. We eventually arrived in Vang Vieng in the late afternoon, having been on the road for more than seven hours.

We dropped our packs at Phetchaleun Hotel (a very square, straight-lined and comfortable place) and headed out on a brief orientation walk of the town. First impressions are not always accurate, so I decided to reserve my judgement. But to be honest, I didn’t warm to this place. I knew its recent history – a toxic tourist mecca north of Vientiane where scores of inebriated backpackers had lost their lives through unregulated tourism. Vang Vieng has apparently cleaned up its act, but a dark undercurrent remains – or so it seemed to me. I didn’t like the feel of the place, but that may well be an age-related thing…

We headed out to dinner at Oasis Restaurant, which was located just behind our hotel. The stairs up to the rooftop dining area were very steep, but the climb was worth the effort. The view of the night sky was incredible, and the warm evening air was very atmospheric. We decided to share two dishes – stir-fried fresh morning glory (water spinach) with garlic, and red curry with chicken – and both were fantastic. Ren tried an Iron Collins cocktail, while I refreshed with a Beerlao.

The seven hour minibus journey was catching up with us, so we walked back to the hotel and retired to our room. We tried to catch up on our travel notes, but we were fading fast, so we succumbed to sleep at 11pm.



SHE SAID...
We left our hotel in Luang Prabang at 8:30am. We were on our way to Vang Vieng.

We caught two songthaews (small pickup trucks/utes with a row of seats on either side of the covered tray) to another hotel carpark where a large minibus was waiting for us (large vehicles aren’t allowed inside the UNESCO area). No one wanted to sit in the back seats, as the road had been described as very windy and bouncy! However, the minibus was a 16 seater and there were only 12 of us, so Andrew and I got the whole back row (four seats) to ourselves.

We had really liked Keo (the local guide) when he joined us on the slow boat trip, but he had curiously got quieter after the first two days. Bus trips can be great times to share insights into the local culture, or even to answer any questions we had… but all he did was tell us to yell out if we needed to use the bathroom – politely called ‘shooting the rabbits’ for men, and ‘picking wild flowers’ for women – before he went quiet again.

Just after we left the city limits of Luang Prabang, I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the first scheduled toilet stop two hours later. The bouncy ride that kept everyone else awake had lulled me into a deep sleep! A few of the group looked a bit ‘shaken’ by the drive, and Andrew described the road as being quite narrow and on the verge of sheer drops when we passed large trucks. Luckily for him, I was on the side with the drops (they drive on the right-hand side of the road in Laos).

We had stopped at a lovely family-owned restaurant and shop. After using the much needed squat toilets, we bought small Nescafé iced coffee drinks and a bag of fried banana chips (one of our favourite Asian travel snacks). They were delicious. The back of the shop had a beautiful outlook over a valley, and it was only then that I realised how far we’d already climbed.

Back on the minibus I willed myself to stay awake to see the stunning scenery and little Hmong villages we passed. Some villages were relatively large and had comfortable looking houses, but others were tiny isolated hamlets with a few small thatched huts on the side of the road – covered in road dust and precariously overhanging the side of the steep hills. I didn’t trust the thin slice of dirt they were clinging to, or the decidedly un-sturdy stilts propping up the huts.

We continued to drive on the zigzag road with some light forested areas in places, but very sadly the majority of hills had been stripped bare of all large trees. The village life we passed was fascinating… women carrying small babies on their backs while working the land, other women tending to small shops in their front rooms or cooking in their yards, while toddlers, chickens and dogs ran around unguarded through the village (on the edge of a major road with fast moving trucks and buses)! And as we’ve seen in villages all around the world, the men were sitting on verandas or socialising under trees.

Our next stop was for lunch at a restaurant that was two hours from Vang Vieng. It was quite opportune that we stopped at this point, as a large truck loaded with Beerlao had broken down just downhill from the restaurant, creating a massive traffic jam. The restaurant was situated on a picturesque hill with a 360 degree lookout (with amazing views out of the open-walled ladies squat toilets!). 😊

Unfortunately, many of the options on the restaurant’s menu weren’t available, as the chef was off sick. Keo was quite irate about this, as he had talked up the restaurant's food. It didn’t bother us too much, as we don’t eat much on travel days anyway. We shared a tasty fried rice dish with chicken, accompanied by a small can of Beerlao for Andrew and a Lipton lemon iced tea for me.

Back on the road, the broken down truck had been cleared (thankfully), so we didn’t have to sit in a convoy of dust and fumes. The road was now so narrow that we had to reverse and make space when two trucks were passing each other on a bend! There were also times when our driver had to drive on the wrong side of the road to avoid crater-sized pot holes... I was very glad that I was at the back of the minibus on those occasions. But the sharp intake of breath and muffled shrieks from the front kept me well informed of the potential dangers! 😱

We eventually started driving into scenic limestone karst country. And after another brief nap I found we were back on flat ground with karsts rising on either side of us. There were also lush small farms on the side of the road… some were dormant rice fields now filled with cabbages and spinach-like plants.

We had to make an emergency toilet stop at one point, and when we stepped out of the minibus I loved the feeling of being towered over by the gigantic karsts. I’d only ever seen karsts like this in Vietnam’s Halong Bay, and in southern Thailand’s Krabi region / Phang Nga Bay, so this was the first time I’d seen them inland… and it was fabulous. 😊

We finally arrived in Vang Vieng and pulled into the driveway of Phetchaleun Hotel. The hotel looked new and comfortable from the outside, but was much bigger and commercial looking than we like. As we were checking-in, Keo bade us goodbye. He had been with us since we crossed the border into Laos, and I’d really appreciated his knowledge, humour and sincerity (while also acknowledging that as a local guide, he could only do so much). Our group leader Naa hadn’t been that great so far, and this meant we were back relying on her for information. Sigh.

We dropped our bags in our room and left for a short orientation walk around town, which included a detour down to the loud and tacky bars on the Nam Song River. The river is the life blood of the place, and it was the main source of tourist income when Vang Vieng was a seedy backpacker party town a few years ago. It was famous for drunken near-naked foreigners tubing down the river that (back then) was lined with bars. The bars would hoist them in, ply them with a range of alcohol and drugs, and send them off again. What could possibly go wrong??? Well apart from disrespecting and decimating the local culture, a number of deaths of Australians and British backpackers caused both governments to pressure the Lao government into closing down the bars and discouraging drunken tubing.

The town has been cleaned up somewhat since then, and the local tourism operators have redirected their energy into promoting other outdoor activities like cycling, caving and kayaking… but there’s still an element of that unruly backpacker vibe in the town – and I just couldn’t warm to it. I decided to reassess my feelings in 24 hours (i.e. after a day of walking around the town in daylight). But at this stage, I was very much of the opinion that there was just no beauty in this dusty town. At all. Zero. Nada. Nothing. 😞

We regrouped for dinner across the road from the hotel at Oasis Restaurant. We struggled up a steep metal ladder that was masquerading as a staircase and sat upstairs on the open air deck. Andrew and I had a fabulous meal of red curry with chicken and stir-fried morning glory (water spinach) with garlic. The meal was delicious, as was my Iron Collins cocktail (with vodka instead of the normal gin in a Tom Collins). We sat across from Pete and Beth and had a lovely night. They are in their late 70s and early 80s and are an amazing couple. It had been a long travel day and we were complaining about our aching and tired travel bodies, but they were full of energy and didn’t have a single complaint to make! Talk about being brilliant travel role models for us…

It was the Chinese New Year weekend, but apart from seeing a few paper lanterns being released into the night sky while having dinner, there wasn’t a noticeable celebration in the town. I was quite surprised by this, as we had been warned that the town was full of Chinese tourists on their New Year holidays. As an aside – it was the Chinese Year of the Rat, which is my sign. 😊

We have one more day in Vang Vieng, and I very much hoped that my not-so-favourable first impressions of the place would be improved.

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22nd July 2020
song river

Beautiful
Very beautiful setting
22nd July 2020
song river

Re: Beautiful
Thanks Melanie, yes the view of the karsts was very beautiful. I’m glad you were able to eventually comment on this blog :)
23rd July 2020

Loving Laos
Laos remains one of my favorite countries. We loved every minute of our experience. The drive is memorable. We were there in the height of the toxic tourists getting drunk and having accidents in the river. It was a sad village in a scenic setting. While we were there the annual boat races were going on so we had an enjoyable time. We used Van Vieng for some downtime on a longer trip. We stayed on the river.
24th July 2020

Re: Loving Laos
I can absolutely see why Laos is one of your favourite countries. When we'd talked about trips to Laos in the past, I always thought we'd skip Vang Vieng due to its bad reputation... I like your word 'toxic'. It's the perfect word for how some tourists can totally destroy such beautiful places! Glad you managed to make it work to your advantage :)
24th July 2020

drunken near-naked foreigners tubing down the river
Guilty as charged. It was the worse behaviour I have seen on my trips, and I have even been to phuket and ibiza. We all regretted doing it because it wasn't even as fun as it looked to be. Good that it has been cleared up.
24th July 2020

Re: drunken near-naked foreigners tubing down the river
Hi Brodie. It's easy to get caught up in the hype of things when travelling, so I can understand how people were attracted to the tubing activity; but from all accounts, it was totally out of control. It would be interesting for you to see how the place has changed since your last visit :)
27th July 2020

Vang Vieng ...
Hi Ren and Andrew, Yep!! same toilet! - room with a view! :) Seems as though not a lot has changed in 5 years, or the state of the roads, either. :) Reading through your blog - a former life has just flashed in front of my eyes! :) I haven't forgotten your challenge and, was ready to publish today but, a computer crash overnight has filled me with angst and frustration today. What's worse, I had cut and pasted my blurb onto Travelblog late yesterday, just awaiting the photo additions today but, upon checking the site earlier, via another computer, found that, for some reason, it didn't save. Grrr! So, even more angst! Thought I was saved from my computer crash, as everything would be on the site except for the photos that I only had to add. But, no ... so, back to Square 1, I'm afraid.Thank goodness my trip diary and photos are stored on an external hard drive. :) Jxx
28th July 2020

Re: Vang Vieng ...
Hi Jan. I didn't know how to feel about that loo with a view... the view was nice, but I wasn't totally comfortable/relaxed with the 'missing' wall :) So sorry to hear about your computer hassles - hope you didn't lose anything too important. In my experience of losing text, re-writing it the second time takes far less time, and can even result in a better version for the extra thought put into it. Hope you and Ted are nowhere near the COVID hotspots flaring up in NSW xx
29th July 2020
view through the roadhouse toilet

Best view in the house?
Would make people spend more time in the loo than usual. Lol
3rd August 2020
view through the roadhouse toilet

Re: Best view in the house?
There were a few people who walked in / waited in line just to get a photo :)
4th August 2020

Road Trip to Van Vieng
Great blog, Ren and Andrew! Wow, the description of your road trip through the mountains sounds harrowing but the sights of village life along the way sounded very interesting, and the meals you had looked delicious. Love all your photos! I had never heard about Vang Vieng's seedy backpacker past or the deaths of tourists attributed to bad practices. I do like river tubing but I have respect for what can happen on any river -- too sad that those young people didn't. Your fellow travelers, Pete and Beth, sound amazing -- hope we'll still be traveling at that age!!
4th August 2020

Re: Road Trip to Van Vieng
Thanks for your lovely comment Sylvia. I thought that everyone knew that mixing alcohol and water was a potentially lethal combination... but apparently not. I'm so glad they have been able to clean up the area (despite the strong lure of business from those idiot tourists who have no care for anything but their 'fun' while on holiday). Pete and Beth are an inspiration to us :)

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