Bus/Courier Run From Vientiane To Vang Vieng
After a three to four hour bus ride north from Vientiane we found ourselves in the small town of Vang Vieng. Our bus was loaded up with passengers while our bags were strapped to the roof. Once everyone was seated the aisle was packed with all kinds of boxes and junk. Locals kept coming up to the bus and negotiating prices to have things transported. A large metal electrical box came on board as well several large coils of cable. We were trapped in our seats. Every time the bus came to a rest stop everyone had to climb their way to the exit.
The road between the two towns is in fair condition, but I guess it was a bit too winding for one Laos family on the bus. The little boy was the first to get sick. His grandma tried to comfort him by rubbing his back, but then she started to get sick and then the granddaughter as well.
A Strange Little Town
Vang Vieng is a strange little town that seems to be stuck in the middle of no where. It sits alongside the picturesque Nam Song river and is back dropped by towering limestone mountains. The town consists of little more than a few dirt streets with the main drag resembling the set of an old western movie. Cafes and hostels line the sides of the road. During our visit the roads were dug up and in shambles. We had to hike our way or cross planks to get into the restaurants. This was something we were getting used to, we had experienced the same conditions in many other towns in southeast Asia. When it rained it made it worse, some areas turned into knee deep mud pits.
Tourism Spoiled Town
Vang Vieng is the finest example of how tourism can be allowed to spoil a town. The streets are lined with cheap guest houses and restaurants, most of which serve crappy food. Many of the open air pub style cafes have platforms with cushions were you eat your food from a low lying table. The worst part is that several of these places have blaring televisions playing non stop episodes of Friends. It’s hard to find a place with out a television at full volume. The large majority of travelers that come here are in their late teens, being in our thirties we felt somewhat old. The town has gained a reputation for young travelers tubing down the river while stoned out of their minds. Apparently opium dens are not hard to find and we saw a number of cafes serving “Happy” pizza. It’s covered in marijuana and magic mushrooms. Despite all this don’t be discouraged about coming here if this is not your thing, there is more to Vang Vieng.
We found a pleasant place to stay along the Nam Song river. It is called Ban Sabai Bungalows. It was in a quiet location away from the majority of the chaos that occurs in town. Vang Vieng has a lively night atmosphere, it can get quite noisy. We had a bungalow with a balcony that looked down at the river below. The best end to our day was relaxing on the riverside patio at the restaurant. We enjoyed sitting in the tranquility while watching fisherman wade out into the water. They were putting out nets and some of them had large woven baskets for catching fish. They stuffed the baskets with tree branches and leaves and then submerged them into the water. They face the basket opening into the current so that small fish will swim inside and get caught up in the branches.
Beyond The Tourist Trap Is A Beautiful Countryside
We enjoyed getting out of the town and exploring the beautiful surroundings. We highly recommend renting bicycles to explore the countryside. We road 6 km’s south of the town to a cave called Tham Phu Kham. There are many caves around Vang Vieng to explore, more caves are being discovered all the time. Some of them you can swim into, others are pitch black throughout and require a strong flashlight. It’s best to take a local guide with you to the more difficult ones, you could easily get lost inside.
It cost us $1 to rent the bikes for the day, but then we were charged 80 cents to cross a river bridge with them. Somehow this pricing doesn’t seem right. We’re not even sure if the bridge toll is official. It was just some guy sitting there handing out tickets. He was making out of scrap paper. At least we know the money is going to someone local and staying in the community.
As we made our way along trails and dirt roads we passed by large farm fields and through several rustic villages. Occasionally we would have to weave our bikes around a stray chicken or pig running across the road.
Exploring The Caves Of Vang Vieng
We reached the site of Tham Phu Kham cave and paid some guy a $1 to be allowed to gain access. We had a steep 200 meter climb up the side of the mountain to get to the entrance. We had to carefully plan each foot placement while grabbing onto tree roots using crevices to pull ourselves up when possible. It was very slippery because it had just rained.
Natural light was coming into the entrance area, but we needed our flashlight to go in further. It was also very slippery inside the cave from the humidity and the seepage from above. An opening lit up another area of the cave where the light shone onto a reclining Buddha. The Buddha rested under a bright orange canopy. By this time a few other travelers had joined us. They went further into the cave beyond the Buddha. It was pitch black and steep, none of them decided to go any further. Now we had the hard part ahead of us, exiting the cave and descending down the mountainside. I don’t have any problems going up, but I always hate going down.
There is a swimming hole near the cave that is perfect for a dip after the strenuous climb.
A Walk Along Side The Nam Song River
On the opposite side of the river from town there is a long walking trail. We discovered a second bridge on the river that could be crossed without paying a toll. Many of these bridges are nothing more than some bamboo sticks and boards. They are taken down and rebuilt each wet and dry season. The water level goes higher than the bridges in the wet season.
It seems the rainy season was well into its start while we were here. It poured during most of the evenings and we experienced a few good rain falls in the daytime too. We saw the current increase and the water level of the river rose a significant amount in just a few days.
The walk lets you take in all the activity that goes on around the river banks and in the water. We saw water buffalo sitting out in the middle of the river, with only their heads exposed. A few times one would come out of the water and start walking right towards us. We weren’t sure if it would get aggressive or was expecting us to feed it.
The local kids spend most of their days in river. They love to play in the wooden boats along the banks, hopping from one to the next.
Only in Vang Vieng would it be perfectly normal to come across a thatch roofed bar sitting along the river bank in the setting of a beautiful landscape. It was surrounded by natural beauty and back dropped by jagged karst mountains, there was nothing else around it. A sign hung from the bamboo hut stating its name “Same Same But Different Bar.” The lounge platforms were elevated above the river water with bamboo poles holding up roofs to provide shade. The bartender came out to deliver the drink orders while the tourists were lounging on the platforms. What more could you ask for?
I don’t know if I would go specifically just to Vang Vieng, but it is a beautiful part of the country. If you are passing by it is worth a stop. Just make sure you get out and explore beyond the town area.