Not that long ago, Vang Vieng was the party capital of Southeast Asia. The riverside town’s main attraction was party, tubing down the river, alcohol, and drugs. Not a good combination. A shockingly high number of tourists died on the river. But it took more than 20 deaths until in 2012 the Lao Government decided to close down most of the riverside bars that had sprung up along the river like mushrooms (pun intended).
A change of image
Since then, Vang Vieng tries to improve and change its image away from the party town to an outdoor destination and to attract a different kind of tourists. That works only partly. Sure, the music isn’t that loud anymore, only a few bars are left along the river and there are now at least as many mid-range hotels as cheap hostels. However, still plenty of bars advertise free shots and happy hours, it’s not uncommon to see drunk guys staggering through town at 6 pm, and some restaurants still offer – very openly – food and drinks with “special ingredients”.
Booking a tour – or not
Vang Vieng is situated on the Nam Song river and is surrounded by amazing landscape. The town itself, however, is – there’s not other way to put it – ugly. Nothing remains of an original village. Everything is geared towards tourism and judging by the many construction sites and new places, the tourism industry is booming. Vang Vieng is not a place to wander around and enjoy. It’s a place to book a tour and get out of town. Dozens of tour operators offer mainly kayaking and/or tubing tours. All offers are more or less the same and most are sold without enthusiasm – you’re just one tourist more. If you don’t buy, the next one will.
None of the offers really convinced us. Sure, kayaking on the river sounds nice but a) dry season is a bad time for kayaking since in some places there’s not enough water and b) there’s nothing special or individual about the tours. So instead of booking a tour and sharing a cave or the water with tons of other people, we decided to explore the region by bike. Before that, however, Hossam took a paramotor flight to appreciate the landscape from above.
The paramotors, powered paragliders that can carry two passengers, start from the old airstrip in Vang Vieng. Take-off and landing are smooth, as is the flight. The machine is very loud, but the views, of course, are spectacular. It’s definitely one of the best ways (if not the very best) to take in the stunning landscape of Laos. Just hold on to your valuables; we’ve heard of people losing their GoPros.
Renting a bike
Many places in Vang Vieng rent out bikes and most have two types: City bikes without gear and mountain bikes with gear. The latter are more expensive (still very cheap though) but if you have a look at the roads outside the village, it’s clear that you need one of those. As always with rental bikes, the quality – or rather the maintenance – of the bikes is bad and you end up swearing every time you try to change gear. Nevertheless, cycling is a great way to explore the surrounding countryside, or at least part of it. To tell the truth, we didn’t get very far.
Our first stop was at a small, rocky hill (Par Poak, according to the map we received when renting the bikes) just across the river. An extremely bumpy farm track leads through fields to the base of the hill where you park your bike and pay an entrance fee. Or a climbing fee, in this case. The way up is a scramble but that’s part of the fun and the views from the top are fantastic.
The karst mountains surrounding Vang Vieng are full of caves, the biggest one of them is Jang Cave. In the 19th century, it provided shelter to the people of the surrounding villages from marauding Chinese.
The cave entrance is high up a mountain and is reached via a long, steep stairway. Despite its interesting history, we didn’t expect too much from this cave but were positively surprised. It really is big and there are some impressive stalactites and stalagmites, tunnels and chambers, and a small altar with donations.
Although the landscape around Vang Vieng is stunning and there are lots of activities to keep you busy, it’s not the outdoor paradise it is advertised as. The tours are too standardized and there’s not much variety on offer. For example, all offer tubing, but virtually no company offers hiking trips (longer than half an hour) – apparently, as we were told, because nobody is interested in hiking. Too bad, I’m sure it would be a fantastic experience to hike in the mountains or the countryside around Vang Vieng.