Images of jagged limestone mountains surrounding Vang Vieng in land-locked Laos and the tranquil Song River (Nam Song) that weaves down the valley have been etched into the minds of most backpackers for two decades. At least, they did to mine. Gap-year students and budget travellers talked about it with the same reverence as Koh Phi Phi (well, the iconic movie The Beach was filmed here), Kuta’s hipster bars, and Koh Pha Ngan’s full moon parties.
Lao beer and illicit substances were central to the parties held at makeshift bars along the riverbanks. All “good” things end when they went beyond control and authorities stepped into to re-build the town’s image.
The Vang Vieng that I recently discovered was more sedate than the Vang Vieng that young travellers in the past experienced. Adventurers still flock to the small town located between Vientiane and Luang Prabang although things have become a lot tamer. But I love the new Vang Vieng! The previously Lima Site 6 (CIA air base during the Vietnam War) remains adventurous, complete with the picturesque padi fields, limestone mountains, misty valleys, and lush forests.
Tubing for an old soul
Our stop in the town proved way too short but we managed to tube (float on the inner part of the tubes) on the Song River. Organised by Green Discovery (115 Kangmoung Street), it was a blissful time to relax and admire the scenery around the river. We got a ride to the northern part of the town, hired some tubes and jumped into the shallow river that flows at a slow pace.
There were a few bars along the riverbank for a constant supply of cool drinks. A can of beer in the hot afternoon sunshine; who can resist! While we were floating, several groups kayaked past us. I also found out that rafting was also possible. Downstream, the Lik River has low-grade rapids (class 1 and 11) while adrenaline-seekers should head upstream for thrilling class 1V and V rapids.
I was not in the mood for an active adventure so early in the day and chose to stick to tubing. After all, the laid-back ambience and picturesque setting were the reasons I came here. Tubing (like most adventure activities in Vang Vieng) is available during daylight hours and it’s best to get off the river well before sunset so as not to be stranded in the dark.
Break some sweats in Laos
We also had Green Discovery organise mountain bikes so we could explore the countryside, including a visit to some of the spectacular caves in the karst limestone topography. My favourites were Tham Nam Cave and Tham Phu Kham (Blue Lagoon).
Along the way, we saw beginners learning to climb rocks — a popular activity to do in Vang Vieng considering more than 50 climbing routes are available at Tham Nam and Pha Daeng Mountain. A hot air balloon over the river also caught our eye as we tubed down the river.
P.S.: It’s wise to have small amounts of kip (local currency) to pay children for ‘tolls’ along roads, bridges and entries in ‘their territory’.
Eco-tourism in Laos
We travelled to Phoudindaeng Village, just outside Vang Vieng, to visit Vang Vieng Organic Farm, well-known for its restaurant, guesthouse, shop and community service opportunities.
The most intriguing part of the visit here was sipping a cup of green tea made from farm-harvested mulberry leaves. Staff eagerly showed us around the farm, telling us about the importance of mulberry leaves as the primary food for the goats and silkworms in the farm. Not only that, the mulberries are also processed into wine, which is supplied to several restaurants across Laos. From mulberry tea leaves to silk textiles, you have plenty of options for souvenirs here.
We had our lunch at the restaurant, enjoying the fresh organic farm produce on our plates – possibly the most natural farm-to-table experience I’ve ever had. While spending time there, I saw a few travellers teaching English to the local kids and helping out on the farm. In return, these travellers got to stay there at a discounted price. Not bad a deal right!
Lao Food: It’s not only about the beer
My friend who often travels to Laos once told me about the subtle differences between Lao and Thai food. Truth be though, as much as I tried, I was unable to detect such differences, but that didn’t stop my gushing enthusiasm to the chefs who cooked my food.
That aside, if you love Thai food as much as I do, you will enjoy Lao dishes as well. The resemblance is uncanny! Order some pad Lao (noodles), larb (meat salads), green papaya salad, spring rolls, and Lao sausage, and you will understand what I mean. Most meals that I had there came with sticky rice served in bamboo baskets. I never failed to order either a cup of Lao coffee or a bottle of Lao beer, whichever took my fancy.
If you are sick of Lao food, there are lots of restaurants catering to the Western taste buds looking for banana pancakes, pizza, pasta, and brownies.
One of our favourite restaurants we ate in was Green Restaurant (northern end of the town near the bridge across the river) for its massman curry and great shakes. Our go-to pub was Gary’s Irish Bar just up the road from the Green Restaurant for its cool beer and bangers and mash. LP Bakery (Sisavangvong Road, 17/01 Choumkong Village) serves excellent coffee, muffins (the Oreo muffin is a must try), and cheesecake.
A Town on the Move
Currently, the only way to travel to Vang Vieng is by taking a 3.5-hour bus or mini-van ride from Vientiane. I made Vang Vieng a stopover on my journey to Luang Prabang (another 3.5-hour van ride from Vang Vieng). It was a much-needed change from the two bustling, touristy towns.
Best Time to Visit Laos
November to February is the best time to visit thanks to the cooling weather. However, that’s also the high peak season. July – September is for more hardcore river adventures when the river current is the strongest.
Best Accommodation in Laos
I found the accommodation here generally leaning towards the low-end tier. Since we wanted to splurge a bit more in Vang Vieng, we picked the luxurious Riverside Boutique Resort. The lavish yet traditional Lao architecture offers facilities such as pool and garden and is only a stone’s throw away from the river.