After a short two days in Vientiane (there's really nothing to do there) meant solely for acquiring a 60-day Visa to reenter Thailand in a few weeks, I took a four-hour excruciating bus ride up to Vang Vieng, a scenic town in the middle of the mountains famous for its tubing, nature, and backpacker culture.
Vang Vieng has been made quite famous over the last several years for its infamous backpacker culture, a culture which actually led to several traumatic and sad deaths due to its relatively ungoverned drug and drinking scene. In the last couple of years, though, the government finally intervened and cracked down on the excess partying spreading through the town.
Nowadays Vang Vieng, though still a big party area, is much more quiet and relaxed than in years past. I arrived in the early afternoon and quickly got checked in to my hostel. I grabbed some lunch with a couple of Canadians at one of the famous Friends bars in town (Vang Vieng is famous for its bars that play reruns all day long...I know, it's weird) and then walked around town for a while. In the city itself there isn't really much to see as most of the activities to partake in revolve around some type of extreme sport such as tubing, zip lining, rock climbing, or cave hiking. I planned to do a couple of those things over the following days, but I took the afternoon of my first day to just relax and get my bearings.
I met up with a friend I'd met in Vientiane who happened to be staying in the same room as me in Vang Vieng as well, and we grabbed dinner and drinks with a couple of others from our hostel. It's pretty easy (especially in Asia), to get on the same path as other backpackers, continuously running into the same people for a week or two as you make your way north, south, east or west through a country. I happened to be on his path, and we met a number of others out our first night with the same plan as us as well so we befriended them and ultimately spent the next week together picking our way through Laos.
The first full day we had we decided to visit a waterfall in the morning with a group of five and spend the afternoon tubing down the river through town. Tubing generally doesn't start until the afternoon, so we used the morning and early afternoon to take a tuk-tuk out of town and do a quick hike to the waterfall. It was a much smaller waterfall than the one I saw in Erawan National Park, but impressive nonetheless and much more enclosed by thick jungle all around it. I've never seen jungle so dense as it is in Vang Vieng, and it was a really impressive sight to see in real life spreading all through the surrounding mountains outside of town.
Following the waterfall we worked our way back to town and headed to set up our tubing rental. Tubing is something that everyone coming through Vang Vieng must do, and the town has the rental process down to a science. Vang Vieng is actually made up of eight surrounding villages, each who take turns hosting the tubing for a few weeks in order to bring in income for their towns. I feel better spending money on something so silly when I know it's going to a good fund, so the 50,000 Kip ($6.25) we spent on tubes was not too big of a deal.
Once acquiring a tube you have to get another tuk-tuk up to the start of the tubing area about 10 km upstream. It drops you off at the first of three bars along the river and there the festivities begin!
Sidenote: A few years back there were actually about 20 different bars all along the river specializing in both drinks and "happy" items. The latter of these two mixed with rope swings and zip lining over a three-foot deep rocky river bottom led to what you can imagine was a very dark time in the backpacker history of Vang Vieng.
Essentially tubing goes like this: You acquire your tube, begin drinking at the bar, have a few drinks, play some games, get in the tubes and float to the next bar, rinse, lather, repeat until a hundred or so backpackers eventually float there way back to town and stumble to the tube return place barefoot and broke. It' a glorious site to witness and an absolute blast to partake in (aside from the broke part). Many tubers don't actually float the entire length of the way back to Vang Vieng and bail early into a tuk-tuk in order to get their deposit back for turning it in by 6pm. The sun goes down quite early anyways and floating down a dark river isn't necessarily what everyone wants to do. I, on the other hand, enjoyed every second of the float, especially once the sun went down and the unfaded stars emerged brighter than ever. Though I lost 20 of my 60,000 Kip deposit (a whopping $2.50), I think it was worth it.
The following day I enjoyed a relaxing morning and afternoon lounging around, chatting with some new friends I'd made the day before. Vang Vieng is an easy place to get stuck in for four or five days given it being one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen in person and the laid back atmosphere present in town. I initially planned to spend a few days here, but found myself enjoying my time and extending to a full five.
My last full day in Vang Vieng a group of friends and I rented motor bikes (it's very cheap all through Southeast Asia) and spent a day riding around some of the surrounding villages and visiting the Blue Lagoon and a cave around town. We first stopped at the cave and explored the interior of it for about an hour. This particular cave would by no means be legal anywhere outside of this part of the world. There were no guides, no lights, and a very limited marked path inside. All of that combined with the fact that if you didn't have a headlamp you'd be relatively screwed as the ground was quite slippery, making holding an iPhone with a flashlight on it up the whole time nearly impossible. The cave itself was very cool though, with tiny passages opening up into huge caverns around a single turn. There was even a small Buddha temple inside as well just in case we needed to stop to pray briefly.
After the cave we ventured down to the Blue Lagoon, a deep hole in the middle of a stream with a jumping platform out of a tree. Again, something that wouldn't be legal outside of this part of the world, but fun nonetheless.
We hopped back on the motor bikes and continued to venture into the mountains and in into some of the surrounding villages outside of Vang Vieng. The roads were extremely rough and I was thankful that it was just me on my motor bike as having an extra body on the back would have made driving a bit tricky. The villages outside of Vang Vieng were really beautiful, though, and we stopped along the way to admire some of the local children and families walking home from school or setting up for a night time BBQ. Similar to the Mon families on the island near Bangkok, these people have hardly anything aside from their farms and animals, and yet seem happier than most people I meet back home. They have found peace in living a simple life, and though they don't have much, they find joy in spending time with their families and taking life day by day. It's a virtue I hope to carry back home with me once this trip comes to a close and I head back to the daily grind I happily left seven months ago.
We got back to Vang Vieng in the mid-afternoon and returned our bikes to the rental shop. All of us had plans the following day to leave town and continue north with the other hoards of backpackers to Luang Prabang, the next major town about four hours away on the other side of the mountains. With three weeks remaining on my visa in Laos, I'm moving a bit quicker through this country than I anticipated, but I plan to do a jungle trek for at least a couple of days around Luang Prabang and also hang out there for a few day. As much as I love meeting and traveling with backpackers from all over the world and staying in hostels, it would be nice to get away from the business and normal life I've gotten accustomed to the last two-and-a-half weeks in Asia. If you don't hear from me again for a while, it's probably because I'm somewhere in the Luang Prabang province in northern Laos trekking through the jungle.