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Stronger than the Drugs in Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng

 

Hundreds of years ago

 

Vang Vieng

 

the first body floated down the river

in Vang Vieng.

 

Vang Vieng

 

When the opposition defeated Vientiane

they captured the King

 

Vang Vieng

 

and sent him north to receive his sentence

in the royal city of Luang Prabang.

 

Vang Vieng

 

But the King fell ill and when he died

they sent his corpse to drift downstream.

A prophecy for the town’s modern age.

 

Vang Vieng

 

For centuries fishermen lived peacefully on the river

 

Vang Vieng

 

but the cavernous mountains beyond them

foreboded the darkness yet to come.

 

Vang Vieng

 

When the borders of Laos

opened to the land of smiles

 

Vang Vieng

 

falangs became enchanted

with Vang Vieng’s Ha Long Bay on land.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Tubing began with volunteers at an organic farm

who escaped the day’s sweltering heat

by lazing on the river in rubber rings.

 

Vang Vieng

 

As this pastime progressed

shakes swapped mulberries for mushrooms

 

Vang Vieng

 

afternoon herbal tea turned to opium

dirty sweaty farm work led to dirty sweaty sins.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Vang Vieng became a legend.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Whispers of a hedonistic heaven

flooded the backpacker trail

barely legal bare bodies flocked to the river

 

Vang Vieng

 

the river of substances, of freedom, of fun

became the river of death.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Flying high on liquids and powders and plants

some pushed their own limits

 

Vang Vieng

 

following the fate of the King.

 

Vang Vieng

 

The energy in the river shifted

to something quite morose

 

Vang Vieng

 

the bars lining the river

full of the living dead.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Governments intervened

they had reputations to uphold

 

Vang Vieng

 

the bars shut down

the zombies filtered out

only the ghosts remained.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Years later

I crossed the rickety bamboo bridge

 

Vang Vieng

 

across the glassy river

in search of a place to lay my head.

 

Vang Vieng

 

The strip of land once coined “party island”

lay as vacant as a foreclosed home.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Couples paddled in kayaks

families sunbathed and swam.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Restaurants screened reruns of Friends

patrons ate beans on toast in a comatose daze.

 

Vang Vieng

 

But further up the river

at the original organic farm

 

Vang Vieng

 

I found the heart of Vang Vieng

that still throbbed.

 

Vang Vieng

 

“Get your free shots! You’ve got to start the day right!”

Backpackers welcomed me into their riverside bar

with invitations for shotguns and beer pong.

 

Vang Vieng

 

I opted for mulberry leaf tea instead

and watched Lao children innocently swim in the river

the tranquility drowned by the thumping electro beats.

 

Vang Vieng

 

The scene though far tamer than in years past

set in the conservative country of Laos

still disturbed me by contrast.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Yet once I escaped the river’s eerie rhythm

I became enveloped in the supernatural vibration

that only nature can provide.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Karsts towered over glistening rice fields.

 

Vang Vieng

 

I hiked steep paths to caverns that sucked me into their dark voids

 

Vang Vieng

 

until light brought me to pristine glowing green pools.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Cows and pigs and goats and chickens and puppies played on single dirt roads.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Butterflies landed on my face my fingers my toes.

 

Vang Vieng

 

Fireflies glowed.

 

Vang Vieng

 

This may have once been a backpacker paradise

but in the aftermath I found my own

 

Vang Vieng

 

laying on the grass in the dark under the stars

in cathartic silence

 

Vang Vieng

 

high on my drug of choice.

 

 

 

Where to Sleep in Vang Vieng

 

If you want to be immersed in Vang Vieng’s true tranquility and beauty, head across the river to peaceful bungalows among the karst mountains and rice fields.

 

Maylyn’s Guest House

$4 to $12 for private rooms and bungalows

A favorite in Vang Vieng since before the tubing even began, Maylyn’s has a wide range of rooms from modern to rustic all set in a quiet setting with sweeping views. I opted for the more expensive, which had a hot water shower and a big luxurious bed. All rooms have a porch, many with views of the karst mountains. I highly recommend this place to budget and solo travelers, as they have rooms to meet all budgets and a friendly, social atmosphere. There’s a reason it’s the top rated place on Trip Advisor and a solid Lonely Planet recommendation. Be sure to order the mulberry pancake and mulberry shake, yum! The only caveat is that the staff are hit or miss, ranging from super friendly to dour.

 

Mulberry Organic Farm

$4-7 for dorms, $13 for budget rooms, $18 to $23 for bungalows

Set on a tranquil stretch of the river, the Mulberry Organic Farm is a wonderful place to experience the countryside in Laos and learn about farming through volunteer work. However, bear in mind one of the tubing bars is directly next to the restaurant. I spoke with travelers who stayed there and all had great experiences and no trouble with noise from the bar at night. I believe because it’s the first bar the only ruckus happens midday.

 

Vieng Tara Villa

$35 to $100 for luxury rooms and bungalows

The location of Vieng Tara Villa, against the dramatic backdrop of karst mountains and a stunning rice field, is positively breathtaking. Rooms are luxurious yet sit entirely in nature. The facilities include an outdoor saltwater pool and a nice restaurant in the rice field. If you don’t stay here, be sure to come to at least come to the restaurant for happy hour.

 

 

Where to Eat in Vang Vieng

 

Vang Vieng is hardly a culinary mecca, but you can get some tasty, reasonably priced Lao and Thai dishes.

 

Mulberry Organic Farm

$2 to $5 for drinks, snacks, and meals

You must, must, must have at least one meal here during your time in Vang Vieng. The food is absolutely delicious, local, organic, and the setting is beautiful. The service leaves something to be desired, but with food this good who cares? I had the fried tempura mulberry leaves which were surprisingly crispy and light dipped in honey, the fresh spring rolls with pineapple chili sauce, and the homemade goat cheese pan fried with white wine which was spectacular.

 

A.M.D. Restaurant

$3 to $5 for lunch and dinner

Yes, you will wait a very long time for your food. And it most likely will not come all at once. BUT the cozy environment feels like being in someone’s home, the staff are so nice, and the Lao/Thai food is very tasty. I had a flavorful red curry and I’ve heard the cashew nut stir fries and the phad thai are delish.

 

Sae Lao Organic Farm

$2 to $5 for drinks and mains

This darling restaurant and volunteer center on the road to the blue lagoon is owned by environmentally conscious locals hoping to set the model for sustainability in Vang Vieng. Pay them a visit on your way to the caves and enjoy a fruit smoothie and some local food in the laid back setting. Longer term visitors can volunteer here by teaching local children English, helping with sustainable farming and building, and working in the restaurant.

 

Inten Restaurant

$2 to $5 for Western, Lao and Thai cuisine

I ate most of my meals here while I was in Vang Vieng for several reasons. First of all, it’s right next door to Maylyn’s and Vieng Tara Villa making it super convenient. Everything I ate here was also good, particularly the red curry with all kinds of green vegetables. However what kept me coming back again and again was the service. The local family who ran the place were so kind and accommodating and even gave us free water refills. The children of the owners were adorable and would often come over and say hello.

 

 

What to do in Vang Vieng

 

There’s plenty to do in Vang Vieng that has nothing to do with alcohol, drugs, or rubber inner tubes. If you do go tubing on the river, keep in classy and remember that you are a guest.

 

Blue Lagoon

$3 covers the admission to the blue lagoon and the cave

The main attraction in Vang Vieng these days is the blue lagoon, which tuk tuks and tours bring groups to daily. I recommend going early in the day before the crowds with a bicycle or a motorbike. I found the lagoon itself disappointing, but the cave is phenomenal. Be sure to wear proper shoes, bring a torch, and prepare to get dirty. If you do you’ll experience a gorgeous, enormous, vacant, untouched cave.

 

Kayaking

A more tranquil way to see the river while getting some exercise is to kayak. In town you can rent a kayak and be transported upriver, or consider taking a kayaking tour with Green Discovery.

 

Rock Climbing

The many karst mountains in Vang Vieng make it a playground for climbers. I met a few who came with their own gear and headed to the mountains every morning for some climbing. However, if you’re a novice Adam’s Climbing School offers courses for beginners starting at just $25 for a half day.

 

Explore the Caves

$1.50 entrance to all caves, $1-$5 for a tour guide

My favorite thing to do in Vang Vieng was simply pedal out on a bike, or walk along dirt paths in the rice fields to explore caves. I can’t imagine anywhere else in the world where you follow a small handwritten sign to a rice field, pay a local a dollar, and walk into a gorgeous cave on your own to crystalline swimming pools with no other tourists. It’s truly amazing. Go to as many as you possible can. Some of the karst hills you can climb on top of as well for great views. Get the rundown of some of the more popular caves.

 

Hot Air Balloon Ride

$70 for a 1 hour ride

This might be the cheapest hot air balloon ride in the world. Considering seeing the sunrise over the karsts, but use your discretion as I’m not sure about the safety standards.

 


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Comments

  1. I’d love to go. I know a lot of bloggers did tubing, and now it’s a little bit controversial but I always like to see things myself and make a decision. Gorg photos!

    • Camille Willemain Says: May 16, 2014 at 3:51 am

      I felt like an anthropologist and even took video… which I will not post to protect all those involved 😉 A very interesting experience haha!

  2. stephan Says: May 17, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    On the positive side, there is everything good. The Government is not so good on foreigners making a life in the area. I would live their as a teacher if the government was more open like USA.

    • stephan Says: May 17, 2014 at 11:20 pm

      Correction, I would live there as a low paid volunteer teacher anyway, because I know I’m needed. Why? Because their system is not well arranged to allow Professional English Speaking Teachers to work with the people in their country. Former Engineer, Stephan

  3. Stephen Says: May 19, 2014 at 5:03 am

    Wow I completely agree with this! I visited Vang Vieng and worked on the organic farm while on a hitchhiking trip around SE Asia in 2012, and I’ve gotta say the whole scene at the bars down at river made me sick and a bit ashamed to be white. And the thing is, most of the people who go there to party never even think about the negative effects of their actions…actually, most of them tended to strike me as the type of people who didn’t do much thinking in general. I guess it’s a lack of consciousness that makes people that way, but it’s good to see somebody who’s got it.

  4. LillyBug Says: May 19, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    Had no idea. . . completely stupid. Thank you! See, THIS is why we read!

  5. just curious, how do you continue to support yourself?

    at some point, your sale of belongings income has to run out. then what?

    not judging, looking for guidance to do the same thing

    http://www.nursedbynature.info

    • Camille Willemain Says: May 24, 2014 at 8:23 pm

      Hi Leslie thanks for your message. I make my income through online freelance writing, but I have an article with lots more tips for funding travel on the road: http://www.thisamericangirl.com/2013/01/11/how-to-fund-long-term-travel/

      Some popular ways are freelance online work (design, photography, development, marketing, writing, editing, research), work trade (workaway.com), selling handmade arts/crafts on the beach or in markets, working in bars (depends on the country)…

  6. […] way to or from Cambodia. Most tour desks, hostels, and hotels can arrange tickets from Vientiane, Vang Vieng, or Pakse in Laos or from Cambodia. Boats depart from the mainland to either Don Det or Don Khone […]

  7. You didn’t go tubing? Lame. All the pictures are really good. Negatives of the tubing = tourism and money that didn’t exist in this area 10 years ago…

  8. I must say that this post was one of the contributing factors that led to my visit to Vang Vieng. I had hesitations as I was trying to avoid the big party scenes but I’m glad I gave it a go! I did end up tubing (and having an amazing time) but I also found peace and solitude on the ‘other’ side of the river as you mentioned. The scenery is breath taking and I couldn’t have had a better few days of solitude – also I absolutely loved Maylyns guesthouse, quite the find!

    • Camille Willemain Says: September 25, 2014 at 10:44 am

      Awesome! So glad you found the magic there! I’ve heard the entire North of Laos is incredible and I definitely want to go back one day and explore more with a motorcycle!

  9. […] I found a gem of a guesthouse on the north side of the river.  I actually read about this place in another travel blog, and am sure glad I did.  The garden setting is so beautiful, the price is right and the […]

  10. The town is still beautiful and tubing still exists but is definitely safer/tamer than previously which isn’t a bad thing. No more buckets, spray paint or zip lines/flying foxes. I was up there last week and the tubers were still having a good time. There are four bars a day open on the river (8 in total alternating) and if you want to zipline you can now do it on western standard lines instead of the dangerous homemade things that used to be on the Nam Song. The best one is at the water cave outside of town. http://www.vangviengadventuretours.com fun but still out in the beautiful countryside.

  11. Lovely shots and great write up about Vang Vieng. When me and Dale were in Laos we decided not to stop there because we didn’t like the whole tubing business, it looks like we made a mistake and clearly missed out because there is so much more to do and see that we would have enjoyed.

    • Camille Willemain Says: December 30, 2014 at 12:57 pm

      I hear that there are other towns in the North that have similar scenery and a more quaint village feel. Hoping to explore more one day with a motorcycle :)

  12. […] heard about Maylyn’s from This American Girl’s post on Vang Vieng.  I think her post also does an excellent job depicting the beauty that is this town.  Every other […]

  13. Nice write-up about VV. I was there myself this past summer and am working on a story about it. I’m glad I stumbled across your page.

  14. […] Walking home through the rice fields I felt a deep sadness. I thought of all of the towns I fell in love with the last time I traveled through Southeast Asia, especially Koh Rong and Otres Beach in Cambodia, Kuta, Lombok in Indonesia, Luang Prabang, the Four Thousand Islands, Vang Vieng. […]