Vang Vieng: Laos’ Outdoor Paradise
Vang Vieng, about a 5 hour bus ride north of Vientiane, has an interesting history with tourism. It’s a place that shows the possible negative effects when tourism gets out of hand and locals and local officials let tourists essentially whatever they want.
About 12 years ago, Vang Vieng started becoming a popular backpacker stop. Tubing, the process of floating down river in an inner tube, had caught on, and a party atmosphere was created. At its peak a few years ago, Vang Vieng is said to have had 25 bars in a 4 mile stretch down the river. The bars were equipped with zip lines and rope swings. Alcohol and drugs were plentiful. If you can imagine a backpacker hotspot of 18-30 year olds with too much alcohol and drugs, a river, and a zipline, you probably know the outcome. Several deaths and numerous injuries occurred before the government finally cracked down at the end of 2012 when the military came in and took down all the riverside bars. Now in 2014, there are just 4 bars along the same stretch, and Vang Vieng has a very different atmosphere.
With the crackdown of partying, the city has taken a turn in its tourism industry. And this is for the better. Tubing is still around, but tourists are turning to the various other outdoor activities like kayaking, cycling, and mountain climbing. Nicer, upmarket hotels and resorts are replacing backpacker hostels that were so beat up. The surrounding area is beautiful, full of limestone karsts and caves.
When I arrived, I was surprised to see what Vang Vieng was like. We arrived in the afternoon, and very few tourists seemed to be in the streets. I thought it’d be overrun with drunken tourists, but I saw none of that. It was eerily quiet. I was pleasantly surprised.
After our 4 nights in Vang Vieng, I would call it one of my favorite places that I’ve been to so far in Southeast Asia. Right now seems to be a perfect time to visit. It has been long enough since the destruction of the party scene, yet early enough before the more upmarket tourists are coming. We got an awesome deal at Phongsavanh Resort, paying just $16 a night for a very nice and clean air conditioned room. Food is cheap, and pretty much any type of food is available. And it now has a much more relaxed, calm atmosphere.
Tubing used to be the number one activity in Vang Vieng. But after the government restrictions, it has become less popular but still available. On our first full day in Vang Vieng, we decided to relax on the river in an inner tube. A company in the center of the city rents out tubes and a one-way shuttle transfer up the river for 55,000 kip ($7). Again, it was much better than I expected. The river is clean and has clear water, not dirty brown water like I expected. And the route is spectacular, as the river wraps around huge limestone cliffs. We did stop at a few places alongside the river with other travelers we met while tubing. It’s definitely a social atmosphere, and sand volleyball games are never too far away.
I can understand why tubing became so popular here. It’s a fun way to spend a day in the 100 degree heat. Unfortunately, it got out of hand several years ago. But luckily, it has changed and now has a more relaxed atmosphere.
Tham Phu Kham Cave and the Blue Lagoon
Another popular activity is the Tham Phu Kham Cave and the Blue Lagoon (entrance fee of 10,000 kip or $1.25), located right next to each other. People generally get there by private tour, taxi, motorbike, or mountain bike. We chose the mountain bike (20,000 kip, $2.50 for the day) and made a big loop in the countryside. We started by going south of Vang Vieng on the main road for about 5 miles and then heading west, passing through tiny villages and farms. It was not rare to pass by a handful of cows walking on the road, or to see a group of ducklings, or to almost run over a chicken who tried to cross the road. The road was very rocky, which makes it only do-able on mountain bike (a normal cruiser wouldn’t do it). It took us about 5 hours to do the entire loop ending at the cave and Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon is named that way simply because the water looks very blue. It’s a natural swimming hole about 50 feet wide (15 meters) and probably 300 feet long (90 meters). The water is cold but refreshing when considering the outside heat. A large tree hangs over the lagoon, which is now used as a place to jump off into the water. The high one is probably about 20 feet high (6 meters) and the low one 10 feet high (3 meters). The lagoon is very deep, so it’s a perfect place to jump in.
The cave is just a steep 10 minute walk up from the lagoon. We took our headlamps in and found our way around. Just inside the entrance was a Buddha statue. The light coming in from one side made it a cool sight to see. We continued heading back into the cave, a very deep and dark one. The ceilings were a good 150 feet high, making it feel enormous in the dark. We spent a good 45 minutes finding our way around the cave before getting to the entrance again.
We then cycled back to town, which was another 45 minutes or so, crossing over the bamboo bridge to get back into Vang Vieng.
Tham Loup, Tham Hoi, and Tham Nam Caves
On our third day in Vang Vieng, we again rented mountain bikes but this time went north to explore more caves. We rode about 7 miles (11km) on the main road and then turned west to a backroad. We cycled offroad again, on rough roads and over a small bridge. We then cycled perfect mountain biking paths along a small crick and through some tiny villages. Kids bathed in the crick as we cruised by. The dirty path was bumpy but was perfect for mountain biking.
We finally arrived at Tham Xang Cave. We had no idea what to expect were happy to see what was there. For 10,000 kip ($1.25), we rented inner tubes and lights, and we pulled/paddled our way on a river back deep into the cave. Most of the way had ropes built in so that we could pull ourselves on our inner tubes. As expected, the water was freezing and the cave was dark. It was really cool to be floating on water inside of a cave when the only things we could see were what our flashlights pointed at.
We then biked 15 minutes up north where we found the entrances to Tham Loup and Tham Hoi. A guide is required to go into these, so we paid 30,000 kip ($3.70) for a guide and flashlights. We walked only about 20 minutes back into the Tham Hoi Cave where the guide showed us the stalagmites and stalactites, formations on the floor and ceiling, respectively, caused by accumulations of materials dripped from the ceiling of the cave. Inside, we also saw a few bats, mandatory for to fulfill the expectations of a cave tour. We were the only ones back in the cave at that time which made it pretty cool. The ground was wet, but it apparently turns into a river in the wet season. We then went to Tham Loup which was more open but not possible to go back as deep.
The caves were nice to see, but the mountain biking made this trip really worth it. The offroad paths were perfect for mountain biking, wrapping through a few tiny villages.
We had a great time in Vang Vieng. It was pleasantly calm and quiet in the town, and the outdoors activities were varied and easily accessible. Between the biking, the Blue Lagoon, the caves, and the tubing, Vang Vieng has become one of my favorite stops so far on our trip.