I fell in love with Laos years ago, for its empty, tranquil landscapes of rolling, green hills, blue skies reflected in rivers, lakes and turquoise swimming holes at the feet of waterfalls. Since then, it’s always held a spot in my top three favourite places and I promised myself I’d come back.
On that first visit, I “did” Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Don Det (Si Phan Don; the “Four-thousand Islands”) but avoided the tubing at Vang Vieng because I’d heard from everyone I met that it was just full of British twats with a deathwish.
I’m not sure at what point I realised I was a British twat with a deathwish, but whatever, I wasn’t going to miss out this time.
In the meantime, I’d also learnt to appreciate the joys to be had drifting slowly along a river with a bottle of wine and a cigar in hand, when I stayed with Alexia in Las Cruces, New Mexico and me, her and Dylan rafted “the Rio”.
Back to the present day, after a couple of weekends of drunken debauchery and Game of Thrones with Adam, who now lives in Bangkok, Ruth flew in from the UK and the three of us decided to head for Laos.
We took the night train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, on which we drank Cabernet Sauvignon and French brandy and quite fittingly met Marion for the first time.
We crossed into Laos and, with everyone keen to get clear of Vientiane – one of the most boring (or peaceful, depending on your point of view) capitals on the planet – we got on a local bus headed for Vang Vieng.
A couple of hours out of Vientiane the road climbs into the hills and sweeps through the lush, green vistas that I remember. I couldn’t help but be pleased when Adam, who’d been highly skeptical, turned to me and said “Roy, you were right. It is beautiful.” It may be the first thing we’ve ever agreed on. To be honest, with all the beautiful places I’ve seen in the interval, I was afraid Laos wouldn’t compete anymore, but I can now say with some surety, it still holds its own.
The occasional new, concrete building seems to have appeared amidst the wooden shacks and villages and the buses, decommissioned and donated by Japan and South Korea, are much more comfortable and carry less chickens than I recall, but Laos remains a rustic, laid-back place.
Where to Stay in Vang Vieng?
We’d booked a night in Pan’s Place, which is perfectly nice. Lonely Planet, who’ve been paid for the listing, describe the owner as an “old hippy from New Zealand”. I’d only go as far as to say he’s an “old guy from New Zealand”. When they were full, on the second night, we moved to Vang Vieng Guesthouse. Both are on the main street (Banh Vieng Keo) and are ridiculously cheap, considering the relatively high standard of the rooms - £1-2 per person. You shouldn’t struggle to find a good place.
What to Do in Vang Vieng?
There’s not a huge amount to “do” in Vang Vieng, with the obvious exception of:
- Eating baguettes
- Watching Friends
Where to Drink in Vang Vieng?
As well as the “tubing bars” along the river, and the more-than-weekly “jungle parties”, there’re also plenty of cool places in town:
- Jaidee’s – Great place. Sociable lounge seating. Great music, drinks and food. Recommended to us by Tim and Jenny and where we met Rachel, Jacob, Shaun and the rest of the crew.
- VIVA – The (only) place to be in Vang Vieng when all the other bars close. Open ’til 2am or later. Dancefloor. Also has rooms. For obvious reasons, I can’t remember much else about it.
- The Moon Pub – On the other side of the old airstrip/bus station. Loud. Mostly local crowd. Seems a bit sketchy, but probably isn’t.
- Full Moon Bar – Down by the riverside. Free shots of Tiger “whisky”. Cocktails. Pool table. This place actually is sketchy, but in the good way.
- Luang Prabang Bakery Bar – Not great or cheap but there’s something to be said for drinking in a “bakery”.
- Milan Happy Pizza/DK3 – The pizza’s neither good, nor bad. Comfortable lounge seating. On the main street.
- Gary’s Irish Bar/The Rising Sun – We spent an entire day in here playing pool when the rains hit town. The bar actually flooded. Food’s amazing, plenty of drinks offers and Gary’s a great guy.
- Kangaroo Sunset Bar – Another popular place on the same street as Gary’s and with similar drinks deals.
At least three of these places have “happy menus” with extra pages offering Mushrooms, marijuana and opium teas, joints, shakes and pizzas. In all my travels it’s the first time I’ve ever seen opium openly advertised on a menu.
The “Tubing Office” has a complete monopoly on the tubing thing in Vang Vieng. It’s not hard to find. Everyone you ask will know where it is.
First, if you haven’t got one already, pick up a waterproof “tubing pouch”. They sell them just up the road from the office, for 10,000 Lao kip (less than £1), and they’ll keep your camera/phone and cash safe.
The “tubes” are actually old truck tyres. It’ll cost you 50,000 kip (£4), plus a 60,000 kip deposit, which you’ll get back in full if you deliver the tube intact by 6pm. This is almost impossible, unless you start early and it’s the wet (rainy) season. If you get it back by 8pm you’ll get some of your deposit back. After 8pm, you’ll get nothing and the tube is, in theory, yours – though in practise I think you’d be lucky to leave town with it.
If there’s more than three of you, which there almost always will be, you’ll get a free transfer to the starting bar, where you’ll get a free shot (of Tiger – the watery but quite pleasant Lao “whisky” brand). Also available are Beerlao and Nam Khong (that other Lao beer).
These bars are, as I was warned, patronised almost exclusively by rowdy, white, English-speaking 18-to-30-somethings, but it only takes a beer or two before you’re a part of the party.
For those who want it, there’s beer-pong, volleyball, basketball, hammocks, caves, music and dancing. It’s like a club in the West, only it takes place during the day, in the jungle, is surrounded by beautiful scenery and is infinitely better. Some may complain, but for me, this is something close to paradise.
Up until recently (2012, I think) the number of bars along the river was well into double figures, plus all the associated dive-boards, rope-swings, zip-lines and even something called “Death Slide”, but way too many people were dying on a monthly basis, so they shut down all but four bars…although I’m not sure if their counting is quite up to scratch as, after the first two bars, we encountered the sign for “Second Bar”.
We were smoking a sweet cigar from Myanmar, when we ran into Marion again. She introduced us to Kayla and Theresa – three very cool girls who we would continue to bump into throughout our trip through Laos.
We passed the occasional concrete platform and wooden structure jutting out of the jungle – the remnants of the other bars, torn down.
As the sun began to set, we tied up to a convoy of Yanks.
A tuk-tuk driver kept appearing on the bank at various intervals, shining his torch in the gathering darkness. Eventually, the group accepted his offer, while me and Adam, determined to finish what we’d started, ploughed on into the blackness.
It was the shoulder between wet and dry seasons and the current was still slow. We had to paddle with our flip-flops (sandals; thongs) on our hands, and even tried running along the river bed, but to no avail.
It was only now that it dawned on us; maybe Ruth hadn’t got on the tuk-tuk with them, maybe she was still on the river looking for us.
After what felt like hours, unable now to see Adam, I ran aground on some rocks and pulled myself ashore, only to see the “Tubers Stop Here” sign. If I hadn’t happened to stop there, we’d have sailed right past Vang Vieng. I called to Adam in the darkness and his voice came back, surprisingly distant.
We trudged back through the town, wet, exhausted and still pretty drunk, to get roughly half of our deposits back and find Ruth sitting comfortably in the TV lounge below our hostel, watching Friends, of course.