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Vang Vieng, Laos

Feb 26 – 27

From Luang Prabang, Miguel and I took a minivan to Vang Vieng. Of course it left about an hour later than promised and made a few extra stops to squish as many more people in as possible. After polling all the other tourists in the van, it turns out we all paid different prices for the same journey. And we all sat in the hot car while our driver smoked cigarettes and waited to see if one more person would show up to fill the tiny bit of empty space. No one ended up coming and I felt like he was mainly waiting around just to annoy us. Eventually he got into the driver’s seat and left. That’s how transportation works in Laos. No schedule.

I was still feeling a little queasy and a long, hot bus journey sandwiched in between a bunch of other people was not helping. And it didn’t help that the obnoxious English girls in the seat behind us talked nonstop about stupid things the entire time. Luckily I managed not to puke and finally we made it to Vang Vieng. The bus dropped us off 3 kilometers outside of town (according to the driver) and the tuk tuks were charging a ridiculous amount to drive us the rest of the way. Everyone else piled into the tuk tuks anyway, but Miguel and I walked just to protest the whole thing. The town turned out to be a lot closer than they said it was. I was still not feeling 100%, so as soon as we arrived and found a hotel room, I went to sleep almost immediately.

Vang Vieng is a tiny town that consists of a bus stop and a few streets. With a beautiful, winding river and massive limestone karsts surrounding the city, there is no doubt it is a pretty place.

But like many tourist hubs, it’s charm has been squashed by the massive influx of teenagers invading the town each month to sleep in cheap hotels, watch nonstop Friends episodes, go on all day/night drinking and smoking binges, and march around as if they own the place. Many of these tourists are very insensitive to the Laotian culture and don’t seem to care that the locals used to (and are still trying to) live a calm and peaceful existence here. And despite all the signs posted around town asking the tourists to please be respectful and wear conservative clothing (specifically no swimsuits for girls), you see a lot of skimpy bikinis out on the water. I even saw some drunk girls parading around the street wearing their bikinis with stupid phrases written on their stomachs and chests in magic marker. My Lonely Planet guide describes Vang Vieng as “having lost its innocence.” Travelfish’s review of Vang Vieng also sums up this place pretty well.

Anyway, after scoping out the town, Miguel and I knew we’d only want to spend 1 day here. Since I went to bed so early the night before, we woke up pretty early. And after eating some quality food from the Organic Farm Cafe, I felt much better and ready to start the day. Profits from the Organic Farm Cafe / Guest House are used to provide support and education for the local villagers. Check out the Organic Farm’s web site to learn more about their projects: Laofarm.org.

Their menu had many tasty looking things on it, but a vegetable sandwich was about all my stomach could handle.

Vang Vieng is most known for tubing. We love tubing in Texas and with the weather in Laos being so hot, we were craving some time in the water. So we decided to join the masses and do the tubing thing.

But since Miguel and I woke up early and we couldn’t get a ride to the river until there were enough people to fill up a tuk tuk, we had to wait a while. While we waited, Miguel spotted some locals bashing up a concrete foundation with sledgehammers. And after a friendly nod from the guy who seemed to be the ringleader, Miguel joined them – and spent at least a good half hour pounding rocks with a bunch of tiny (but TOUGH) Laos women wearing long skirts. They amazed me. I sat to chat (well, gesture) with the women who were taking a break from the work. I shared my water with them and they were all smiles – seeming to really love the fact that Miguel was so excited to help and I was so excited to sit with them and watch. I would have loved a photo of this, but didn’t want to make anyone feel like a spectacle. We were just happy to connect with these people – even if just for a brief minute.

Eventually we said goodbye, joined a tuk tuk full of people to the river, and headed for the main event: Tubing.

Here is a note on tubing in Vang Vieng. Tubing is obviously always fun….but this type of tubing is not for everyone. This forum can help you decide if tubing in Vang Vieng is for you or not. Here’s a summary of what to expect: Rent a tube from the rental place (there is only one place), pile into a tuktuk with your tube and get dropped off a few kilometers upstream, and hop into the Nam Song River. Don’t expect there to be much swimming or floating involved – as every few meters you’ll be literally fished out of the water with a long rope or pole and reeled onto a wooden platform bar – often with loud music pumping, a frighteningly high swing or trapeze over the water, and cheap beer, shots, or buckets (sometimes served by an 12 year old Lao kid in his underwear). If you watch this video, you get the picture.

In short: If you fancy drinking as much as possible for as cheaply as possible, hanging out with a bunch of half naked foreigners, and using zip lines to hurl your drunk body into the water over and over, this is exactly the thing for you. If your goal is to float quietly down a river while observing serene scenes of daily life in Laos, you should probably give Vang Vieng a miss (well the end of the river trip is quite peaceful actually, as there are bars during this last section and many of the drunk people don’t even make it this far). Well…after spending a full day drinking, smoking, and throwing yourself into the river…can you blame them?

The tube rental guys are obviously happy to exploit this tourist attraction to its full. The tube rental price is already quite high, and if you don’t return your tube by the specified time, you don’t get your deposit back. And many people don’t make it back in time.

I honestly would have preferred a more low key tubing experience – like those little kids we saw tubing down the Mekong in Luang Prabang. But we still had a good time. Since I was still kinda ill, I drank more water than I did beer and I didn’t go on any of the rope swings or zip lines. Miguel did go down a really big water slide though. It’s really too bad I didn’t take any pictures of that, but I didn’t have my waterproof camera case and I didn’t want to ruin my camera.

Here’s a tubing photo I stole from someone’s blog:

Now…If the massive, makeshift bars over the river aren’t enough to to make you forget you’re in the middle of a small farming village in Laos, the “Friends” bars certainly will. Almost every bar or restaurant in town seems to be catering to backpackers wanting to bum around on sofa cushions and watch reruns of Friends episodes – often several simultaneously…and often very loudly. This is a very strange phenomenon and a true indication of tourism at its worst. Maybe some people consider this to be a paradise, but I thought it to be more like a bad dream!

And if you still have energy after your day of tubing or “Friends” watching, there are plenty of bars to choose from. Pretty much every building in town is either a hotel, bar or restaurant.

And if you’re sick of drinking and want to move on to something new, many of the bars advertise “happy shakes” or “happy pizza” (happy being a synonym for “made with weed”). I’m not sure what “Fried spacy with rice” is, but maybe it’s along the same lines…

Instead of chowing down on “happy” food, Miguel and I found our own truly happy place – a Vegetarian Buffet (I really have a knack for finding those).

This guy makes delicious vegetarian dishes every evening. Everything was cooked with love…and this was the first real meal I managed to eat after days and days of being sick (a credit to his cooking).

The next morning, I went to get desperately needed money out of the ATM. But…oh no….the bank was down! There was one travel agent in town who provided cash advances with credit cards, so I managed to get out enough money for Miguel and I to get on a bus to the next place. The guy at the travel agency told me it was a good thing I got there early, because he wasn’t going to have enough money for all the people who would most likely be showing up soon with similar problems. As we were leaving for the bus, we saw a long line of frustrated looking people outside the travel agents and Western Union office….and I was really glad I had woken up early and gotten the minor money crisis taken care of. I really didn’t want to have to stay in Vang Vieng another day.

Notes:

  • Here is another Rambo sighting.

  • It’s possible to kayak from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. I’m not sure about all the details, but it sounds like a fun alternative to tubing. If we had the time and energy, I definitely would have been interested in doing that.
  • Here is a link about Warnings and Dangers in Laos. One of the posts mentions the happy shakes.
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