I had heard the stories about Vang Vieng, I had read about people’s bad experiences and the general accusation that if there was one place that you should avoid in Laos, it’s Vang Vieng. I had already decided that it was a place that I wouldn’t like, that although natually beautiful, all Vang Vieng was good for was getting drunk and tubing down a river one day, then the next day lazing in a cafe watching “Friends” episodes while nursing your hangover. I had judged Vang Vieng without even going there and I had planned to skip it on my way through Laos.
The only reason I decided to stop there was to break up the long bus journey from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. I decided to stay for a night at least to see the beautiful scenery that the town was set in.
After an uncomfortable 4 hour minivan ride from Vientiane, I arrived on the edge of town at around 6pm. As I wondered down what seemed to be the main street, I thought that it seemed unusually quiet. I passed a few of these bars that I had heard about that were playing endless “Friends” repeats, but there was hardly anyone in them. As a first impression, although the town looked a bit touristy because of all of these bars and travel agents, it seemed quite sleepy and laid back, just the kind of place that I like.
I found a nice guesthouse right on the river and checked into my room. This was the view from my balcony.
The location of the town is quite spectacular, the river with the huge limestone karsts surrounding it already made me want to stay longer. Still I had seen none of these “drunken tubers” that I had heard of. That night I explored the town a bit and found some bars with a few people partying it up, but nothing as bad as what I had thought, and they were far enough away from my guesthouse on the river that I could barely hear the music off in the distance. I had also run into some “tubers” returning from the river and they all seemed pretty docile, disappearing in the opposite direction.
After a good nights sleep and having found a new curiosity about the town, I decided to stay for another two nights to really see what else there was to do. Mid morning I rented a mountain bike and crossed the river to head to Poukam cave, which I had heard was interesting and had a nice swimming hole nearby. The bike ride was amazing, dirt road all the way passing rice paddies, streams and little quiet villages with locals and animals going about their business. It was a Sunday and all of the kids were out playing and running a muck. In Australia kids tend to just stay indoors and play video games, it was so good to see kids out riding bikes, swimming and chasing dogs and chickens. Life here seemed peaceful.
I spent some time exploring the cave, inwhich I was the only person in there, and then I went swimming with some locals in the Blue Lagoon, a lovely little swimming hole near the cave. In the hours that I spent there I ran into a handful of other tourists doing the same thing, far from crowded. That night I decided to have dinner at one of these “Friends” restaurants, I sat overlooking the river with a Beerlao and thought “I like this place”.
The next day I went on a kayaking and caving tour that I had booked earlier. I knew that I wanted to spend some time on the river, but drunken tubing wasn’t it. This suited me perfectly. I went tubing after all, but not down the river while stopping at bars, I went tubing through a cave! An adventure in itself, I went tubing, crawling and swimming my way through an amazing cave system with a stream running through it, before kayaking the 20km down the river back to Vang Vieng.
About 2km before the town is where the tubers launch off and all of the riverside bars begin. We stopped in at one of these bars for a rest, which gave me a good opportunity to witness these famous “drunken tubers”. It was possibly one of the funniest things I’ve seen before in my life. People trying to steer their tubes through the fast flowing river while the bar workers throw bottles tied to a rope out to them to pull them into their bars. Half naked people trying to prevent their body parts from popping out while desperately grasping for the rope was a site to behold! After scrambling up the river bank, muddy and bruised they all lined up at the bar for drink, before hitting the “dancefloor” and yelling at their fellow tubers that missed the ropes. Now I had witnessed the “drunken tubers” and I didn’t really care, because then I hopped back in my kayak and paddled my way back down the river to Vang Vieng.
As I found out, there is a lot more to Vang Vieng than getting drunk and tubing down a river. A place is what you make it and your experience is based on the things that you do and the people that you meet. If you ever find yourself ruling out a place from what you have seen or read, give it another look, you might be surprised. Vang Vieng is a place that I was never going to visit, now it is a place that I will definitely return to.