Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Vang Vieng, Laos—Backpacker Nirvana. August 2012

One of the older
visitors to the town.

A small town with a big reputation. A town for younger people, a town for all people, a town for fun and relaxation.

One of the guest houses in town.
Vang is a popular, tourist town maybe four hours and 120 kilometres north of the Laos capital of Vientiane. What sets Vang apart from all the other small towns along the way is its new found importance as a backpacker hangout. Many young folk from all over the world head here for a few days or a few weeks (along with a smattering of older visitors) to kickback and relax, drink, eat, socialise, and swim or paddle in the River—and Vang is dedicated to helping this happen. The town consists of a dozen or so streets, in a square kilometre or so, filled with low cost guest houses, cheap restaurants, dozens of tour companies. All this in a square kilometre, and a dozen streets, all stretching along the Nam Song River.

Your bus from Vientiane to
Vang Vieng.

Map of the town.
Two reasons why this a fun spot to visit. The first is the relaxed lifestyle. For say 80,000 kip (~$10) you can rent a single room for one night, maybe a third of that for a dorm—and there is no shortage of guesthouse accommodation. $10 a day will feed you adequately. To date there are no large hotels or restaurants in the town. Nothing more than three stars.

The second reason the town is popular is the River, and first and foremost is "tubing". Tubing involves travelling north from the town 4 kilometres or so, jumping into a large tyre inner tube, and then floating down the River back to the town. This was once an informal activity, but is now big business, or at least as big as Vang gets. This is how it works. You sign up with a tubing agent, this can be anyone in town, at your guest house or an agency you see on the street. Then, a truck picks you up or you can rv at the agency. Next you are conveyed to the tubing point. The tricky part is steering to the left to reach the shore as you cruise past the town. To keep you dry every store in town sells water proof containers. Cost $10.
Guest house

When you grow tired of tubing there is kayaking. Rent a kayak and you can slowly paddle up and down the River or head off to one of many cave sties near the shore. The water is smooth, but there are stretches of rougher water. Cost for half a day is ~$10.

View of the hills surrounding the town

When you are tired of the water there are caves to visit, native villages, hills to climb. You can do this by yourself, but it is better to sign up for a tour. There are about four main tours, which cover all of these activities. An all day tour on a bike is maybe $40.

Another popular activity is to drink, sometimes too much. The small bars here come with music (recorded), and provide a pleasant way to pass a few hours. Sit with a few friends, sit alone and read a book, eat a tasty meal, enjoy a drink, and the evening will pass quickly and very happily. Most of these bars are in the town, but also along the River a few kilometres north. These can be reached from the town, or as you tube down the River.

For those of an historical interest. I was told that in 1998 there were only five guest houses in Vang, and that it was only in 2005 that tourism took off in a big way here.

One attraction of Vang rarely enunciated is the weather, it is cool, very cool as compared to 99% of the rest of south east Asia. I found during my stay in August that I did not need aircon, unlike every other place I have stayed. That was good, what was bad was the rain. There were several bouts of rain during the day, nothing too heavy, but enough to be a nuisance. I found different versions of the local climate from different internet weather sites, also different locals told me different versions of their interpretation of the climate, however, what ever the details, it is cool. Vang is at 250m altitude, so this is one additional cooling factor.

Getting around the town is easy enough, most people walk, 20 mins from one side to another, but bikes can be rented for $1 a day, a motorbike from $10. Keep in mind that most travel insurance will not cover you if you come acropper on your bike. On the eastern side of the town is an abandoned airstrip. This strip, so the story goes, was part of the illegal USA "secret war" in Laos, used by Air America to kill people. The airstrip is now used by locals as a market place, a place to race bikes, and designated as the unofficial bus station of the town.

street food

There is something of a stigma attached to Vang. There have been deaths from tubing, largely due to the presence of drugs, largely alcohol, and as usual, stupidity. I understand that there are a few tv documentaries highlighting the dangers. As usual, these dangers are exaggerated and embellished for the sake of "journalism". Vang is no more dangerous or less, than any other spot on the Earth. It is how you make it. As always, the greatest safety tip is to use your brain.

Getting there is easy. There are regular flights and buses from Vientiane. From Vien there is the official northern bus station on the western side of the town. Also, as I did, you can take the "informal" bus station next to the national museum. This has regular bus trips north to Vang. Expect to pay $5-$10, depending. If you are coming from the north there are buses from the Chinese border and from Luang Prabang, the next major town north from Vang. Easy peasy.

Vang Vieng is recommended. It is a great place, whether you want adventure, whether you want company, or whether you want to relax alone, it can all be done.

Cat and Buddha.

A street in Vang.

Crossing the River.

Things to do around town. 
Ticket office.
One of the many caves.

Entry to the cave.

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