Vang Vieng is truly a weird place. The ugliest town set in the prettiest surroundings, it feels strangely historical even if there are no buildings or temples to visit. It’s history –recent, sometimes tragic- is the story of a backpacker’s paradise of tubing in a beautiful river combined with bucket drinks and TV bars serving magic shakes over the counter, other drugs under, and police officers never too far away ready to catch you red handed and escort you to the nearest ATM for convenient payment of a hefty fine.
As your guidebook will duly report, the Laotian authorities cracked down on the debauchery after several backpackers (mainly Australian) died or went AWOL and, in time, Vang Vieng has bloomed as a destination that caters to outdoor enthusiasts ranging from backpackers, flashpackers to package tourists. As a result, the town offers a bizarre mix of both patrons and the services that they are supposed to enjoy.
Them – the patrons: large parties of Chinese in wetsuits or ready to ride quads at full speed on dirt roads. (Well, really, all but the main road here are dirt roads). White bare-chested farang kids and their bikini clad girlfriends drinking beer Lao on the street coming back from tubing or kayaking. Older farang couples walking around, sporting huge reflex cameras and hopelessly walking or mountain biking in the hottest hours.
Ek and I got there in the early afternoon after a long but beautiful bus ride from Luang Prabang. After checking in at our modest but well-reviewed hotel, we looked for a restaurant to grab a bite. One of the restaurants we saw was showing reruns of the sitcom, Friends, on its TV screens, just as I had read in so many accounts of the bygone party days. I noticed a young waitress attentively watching the screen. I wondered if she missed the old TV bars, or was simply practicing her English.
We entered a second restaurant, where I had a completely tasteless red curry (I’d read that food was not VV’s strength, but was expecting slightly better), but where Ek was able to get information and book a tour.
“He’s a nice guy”, he said about our waiter. “At least he was honest enough to tell me that he gets a commission from the booking. I like that.”
And the kayak tour went as desired. It was beautiful and fun. We only noticed one river bar packed with young farangs drinking cocktail buckets in swimsuits, but otherwise it was good clean fun peppered with many a joke from the Laotian leaders and some of the other customers, who turned out to be Thai. And, all along, we enjoyed beautiful views of Van Vieng’s craggy mountains while leisurely paddling downstream.
Day 2 was a tad more adventurous. Ek and I hired a motorbike to roam around the backroads freely.
“Go to Blue Lagoon 2, yesterday’s waiter had told us. “It’s the only one of the three lagoons that is actually blue.”
And blue it was. Beautiful, – with an impressive backdrop of thickly forested jagged peaks. The place would have been idyllic, really, if it hadn’t been for a party of thirty rowdy Chinese who made a huge fuss every time one of them dared to jump off the platform – or made a last minute retreat!
The swimming in the lagoon’s cool waters was still a treat, and Ek and I were able to have our own fun with the platform once the Chinese graciously decided to leave the lagoon almost completely to us.
The morning motorbike ride had been quite uncomfortable once the tarmac ended and the road became filled with potholes and muddy puddles. But it was still a highway compared to the never ending 11 kilometres leading to Kaeng Nyui waterfall, which we tackled in the hot afternoon hours. This challenging ride involved stretch after stretch of slippery mud on plenty of steep treacherous terrain. Needless to say, it was Ek who did most of the riding.
We did get there in the end, to enjoy a beautiful waterfall and cool mountain torrent in peaceful surroundings, about an extra ten minute hike from the convenience area – complete with a small shop, restaurants and a poor idle elephant!
Luckily the way down felt somewhat smoother than the way up, and before sundown we had already showered and were sipping beers at a riverside bar in Van Vieng.
“Tomorrow we’re not renting a bike”, said Ek after some minutes in silence.
I nursed my beer Lao, contented just to be there and then. I nodded respectfully. Tomorrow could take care of itself.
Travel book: South East Asia, A Tale of Drugs and Debauchery, by Bryce W. James. A candid account of what Vang Vieng and other SE Asian destinations were like not so many years ago, coming from someone who was into the magic shakes, the weed and the opium.
More background reading Article published by Independent.co.uk