Nestled beside the Nam Song (Song River) amid stunningly beautiful limestone karst terrain, Vang Vieng provokes a mix of responses. In the last edition we wrote that people either love or hate it, but that was probably a little unfair. It’s more of a love and hate relationship – which parts you love depend on who you are.
The area’s main attraction has always been the dramatic landscape surrounding Vang Vieng. Honeycombed with unexplored tunnels and caverns, the limestone cliffs are a spelunker’s heaven. Several caves are named and play minor roles in local mythology – all are said to be inhabited by spirits. These caves and cliffs have also earned a reputation for some of the best rock-climbing in the region.
The Nam Song, meanwhile, plays host to kayakers and travellers floating along on tractor inner tubes – a pastime so thoroughly enjoyable and popular that it has become one of the rites of passage of the Indochina backpacking circuit. Other activities include rafting, trekking and bicycle and motorbike trips. Or you could just find a riverside seat for one of the regular postcard sunsets when, if you’re lucky, you might see thousands of bats pouring forth from the karst like an oil slick flooding the skyline.
So what’s to dislike, you might ask. The most common complaint is that in earning its stripes as a fully paid-up member of backpacker world, Vang Vieng has lost its soul. It’s probably not as bad as that, but the growth of Vang Vieng has taken its toll. Inevitably, the profile of the town has changed and the reason travellers first came here – to experience small-town Laos in a stunning setting – has been replaced by multistorey guesthouses. Even the local market has moved to a big, soulless slab of concrete north of town.
But if we accept that most visitors are going to enjoy the scenery and at least some of the activities, if not the misfit Greco-Laotian architecture of the guesthouses, then it’s the ‘TV bars’ and their ‘happy’ menus that provoke the real love and hate. For some travellers, sitting on an axe pillow, sucking down a shake laced with marijuana/mushrooms/opium/yaba (methamphetamine) and tripping through endless reruns of Friends is heaven on earth. For others, it’s a nightmare.
If you’re in the latter camp then take heart because it’s easy enough to escape this scene by staying a bit away from the centre. It’s also reassuring that the locals seem to have accepted this influx of falang without losing their sense of humour. And as Vang Vieng continues to evolve, its accommodation options have too. There are still plenty of cheap guesthouses where you can sleep off a hangover between long nights in the island bars, but there are now also more luxurious offerings.
No matter what you think of the Khao San Rd side of Vang Vieng’s personality, you can’t deny that this is a beautiful part of the world. So even if you’re not a fan of Friends, it’s worth stopping for at least a day or two.