Hazy Days In Vang Vieng, Laos

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March 16th 2015
Published: March 17th 2015
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Chill out space.
My pickup for the bus to Vang Vieng arrived just as I finished breakfast, on a moto. He put my suitcase between his knees, I jumped on behind him, and we headed into town. I expected to be dropped at the bus station, but instead, ended up at the office where I bought the ticket. With just enough time to stock up on water and chocolate, I was directed towards a songthaew which already held six others, luggage piled on the roof. They all shuffled along and made room for me and two others. Then our overloaded vehicle headed to the bus station.
I am doing this trip in a mini van, and hoping for a reasonable degree of comfort. The ticket cost me $21.50. Thankfully there was one person per seat and we left on time. The luggage was secured under tarps on the roof. I'm not sure which road we're taking, the old road or the new one, which cuts two hours off the journey. I was assured, when I bought the ticket, that it would be the new one.....

The road was bitumen all the way except for short sections of gravel. Rectangles of bitumen had been
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Deserted at 8.30am, this is where I enjoyed my BeerLao on my first day.
cut away from the edge on a long stretch of road, as if repairs were to be done, but the work never finished. So, there were lots of rough sections and huge pot holes to navigate around. If this was the new road I'd hate to think what the old one was like. We had a couple of rest stops and finally pulled into Vang Vieng's bus station at 4.00pm, 6.5 hrs later.

Vang Vieng used to be the backpacker party capital of SE Asia, but things changed following a government clampdown in August 2012. In 2006, it was still essentially a riverside village with dirt roads, a spectacular limestone karst backdrop and a small adventure tourism industry.

Then a different scene started. It was based around tubing – floating down the Nam Song river in tractor tyre inner tubes. Along the 4km tubing route, riverside bars sprang up as ports of call. Tubers made a day of it, fuelled by free shots of lao whisky, super-potent cocktails, and openly-sold drugs. To a backdrop of pounding music, the often blind drunk tubers would throw themselves into the river off the platforms, flying foxes and slides that the bars had
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More chill out space, it's very pleasant along here
constructed to lure people in. Unfortunately, intoxicated bravado lead to injuries, and fatalities. It's said at least twenty died in 2011, while seven, including two Australians, died in 2012, before the Lao government stepped in and shut everything down.

A boat trip up the Nam Song shows how thoroughly the Lao authorities blitzed Vang Vieng. The riverside bars along the tubing course have not just been closed, most of them have been dismantled.

So these days, Vang Vieng is a much quieter place.

I have booked into Laos Haven Hotel ($31p/n), situated on the main road through town, in a quieter area a block back from the riverfront. It's clean and spacious with a good bed and has a luggage lift which saved my suitcase being heaved up two flights of steps. Great idea! The small 7-Haven Restaurant is open aired and where I'll eat breakfast each morning.

After settling in I set out to explore the town. Easily done on foot, I had a map from the hotel, and headed towards the river. Vang Vieng is a backpacker haven with the small streets closest to the river full of guest houses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes,
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Bungalows to sleep in and a very protective mother goat with her twins.
tour agencies, mini marts and the usual souvenir shops.

I crossed a bamboo bridge to the opposite side of the river where loud techno music was blasting from a very small kiosk with a display fridge full of drinks, a counter crammed with empties which seem to be a permanent display, and a bored looking attendant.

Along the stony edge of the river were thatch roofed platforms where you could sit and dangle your feet in the water, whilst enjoying a can of Beer Lao, which I did. I watched people enjoying the water, the longboats taking passengers upriver and admired the three huge air balloons overhead.

I've discovered there's not a lot to do in Vang Vieng if you're not into adventure sport tours - kayaking, tubing, rock climbing, trekking, caving, motorbike riding. I was interested in taking a quad bike tour, 40klm through the countryside, but when I enquired it wasn't available.

I took a longboat ride upriver instead, which was interesting. We passed the now abandoned and dilapidated riverside bars, and the scenery was beautiful. The water was clear, I could see the rocky bottom for the entire trip and I could certainly see how enticing drifting downriver in a tube would have been. Tubing is still prevalent here and is included in many day trips, just not in this section of the river.

I found my way to the Aussie Bar for a late lunch. Nothing really Aussie about the decor, Chinese pictures decorated the walls, oilcloth on the tables, a couple of dogs underneath. Not a kangaroo in sight. But they did make the best fish 'n chips and sold Bundaberg Rum, so I stayed an hour and chatted with the owner, an old Aussie guy who has lived in Vang Vieng for six years....interesting to get a perspective on life in Laos from an expat.

I dozed and read the afternoon away then headed back to the riverside for another Beerlao, sitting under a thatched roof with my feet in the water again. Very pleasant!

The next day (Tuesday) I decided to do what everyone does and visit a cave. I walked to Tham Chang, about 1.5klm outside town. To get there I followed the river road south, past the toll bridge, then took a right turn down a gravel road towards Vang Vieng Resort. I paid
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My riverboat ride was in one of these longboats.
2,000 kip (35c) at the resort gate, no idea what for, then continued over the Nam Song River via the orange bridge, and followed the path to the cave ticket office. Here I parted with another 15,000 kip ($2.50) before starting the climb up the steps to the mouth of the cave.

Tham Chang is considered Vang Vieng's most important cave, and there are eleven of them marked on my map. This cave was used as a bunker in the early 19th century during a Chinese invasion. There is a spring 50 metres inside the cave which feeds a small crystal clear swimming pond outside. The inside is lit with a string of bare electric bulbs which follow the concreted path, so it's easy enough to get around. Many other caves in the area are unlit so you need a good torch, and a guide, to venture inside them.

I headed back to my air conditioned room after my cave visit. It's awfully hot during the midday hours and I have no interest in doing anything else in Vang Vieng. It's so hazy today the limestone cliffs across the river are barely visible from my hotel room. The
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Deserted bar along the river
haze is from Thailand fires, I'm told.

Tomorrow I head for Phonsavan, to cross another 'must see' off my bucket list. Geographically, it would have made more sense to visit there before Vang Vieng, but I have plenty of time. The big attraction there? The mystical Plain of Jars....

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


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Longboat Ride

Beautiful scenery along the river.
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Longboat Ride

Local walking over a bamboo bridge
Vang Vieng Street SceneVang Vieng Street Scene
Vang Vieng Street Scene

Lots of sandwiches and burgers in choose from.
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44 Gallon Bar Stools

No money is spent setting up bars here. Could you get away with this at home?
Old & New Vang ViengOld & New Vang Vieng
Old & New Vang Vieng

Looks like the huge hotel has had another floor added, and for the locals, it's business as usual.
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Air Balloons

For AUD$105 I could have a 45 minute ride in a air balloon. I thinkthe air was too hazy to get the most out of it.
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Orange Bridge

On the way to Tham Chang Cave
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Over The Bridge

On the way to Tham Chang Cave
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More Steps!

Steps to Tham Chang Cave
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Cave Buddha

Found in a smaller cave near Tham Chang

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