Hundreds of years ago
the first body floated down the river
in Vang Vieng.
When the opposition defeated Vientiane
they captured the King
and sent him north to receive his sentence
in the royal city of Luang Prabang.
But the King fell ill and when he died
they sent his corpse to drift downstream.
A prophecy for the town’s modern age.
For centuries fishermen lived peacefully on the river
but the cavernous mountains beyond them
foreboded the darkness yet to come.
When the borders of Laos
opened to the land of smiles
falangs became enchanted
with Vang Vieng’s Ha Long Bay on land.
Tubing began with volunteers at an organic farm
who escaped the day’s sweltering heat
by lazing on the river in rubber rings.
As this pastime progressed
shakes swapped mulberries for mushrooms
afternoon herbal tea turned to opium
dirty sweaty farm work led to dirty sweaty sins.
Whispers of a hedonistic heaven
flooded the backpacker trail
barely legal bare bodies flocked to the river
the river of substances, of freedom, of fun
became the river of death.
Flying high on liquids and powders and plants
some pushed their own limits
following the fate of the King.
The energy in the river shifted
to something quite morose
the bars lining the river
full of the living dead.
they had reputations to uphold
the bars shut down
the zombies filtered out
only the ghosts remained.
I crossed the rickety bamboo bridge
across the glassy river
in search of a place to lay my head.
The strip of land once coined “party island”
lay as vacant as a foreclosed home.
Couples paddled in kayaks
families sunbathed and swam.
Restaurants screened reruns of Friends
patrons ate beans on toast in a comatose daze.
But further up the river
at the original organic farm
I found the heart of Vang Vieng
that still throbbed.
“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.
I opted for mulberry leaf tea instead
and watched Lao children innocently swim in the river
the tranquility drowned by the thumping electro beats.
The scene though far tamer than in years past
set in the conservative country of Laos
still disturbed me by contrast.
Yet once I escaped the river’s eerie rhythm
I became enveloped in the supernatural vibration
that only nature can provide.
Karsts towered over glistening rice fields.
I hiked steep paths to caverns that sucked me into their dark voids
until light brought me to pristine glowing green pools.
Cows and pigs and goats and chickens and puppies played on single dirt roads.
Butterflies landed on my face my fingers my toes.
This may have once been a backpacker paradise
but in the aftermath I found my own
laying on the grass in the dark under the stars
in cathartic silence
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.
$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.
$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.
$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 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.
$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.
$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.
$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.
$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 it classy and remember that you are a guest.
$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.
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.
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.
$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.