Monday, 24 September 2012

Vang Vieng

I was sceptical about even visiting Vang Vieng in the first place. It has a reputation for being a loud and obnoxious party town that caters specifically to backpackers who want to get wasted on buckets (yes buckets) of cheap whiskey and BeerLao. Not my scene, at all. However, since Huay Xai we had started hearing rumours that things were changing in this central Laos party hotspot, and from what I saw, things really are.

Let me put it this way, in 2012 11 people have died whilst tubing down the river in Vang Vieng, they usually die because they’ve drank their body weight in Tiger whiskey and have decided to jump into a river full of massive rocks from a giant slide. On average 4 backpackers die every month in Vang Vieng. Tubing is the big draw for a lot of people. You rent a giant rubber tube from town, get a tuk-tuk down to the riverside and then sit in the tube and float back to town, only on the way back, there are several bars along the river most of which have water rides, a recipe for disaster if I ever did hear about one. Oh, and that happy pizza you saw on the menu, yeah, that ain’t happy because it’s so delicious, it’s happy because they’ve thrown a load of hallucinogenic drugs on top of it.

So, what’s changed? Well, on August 31st the Lao government stepped in and shut down all of the bars along the main tube run and have cracked down on all the drugs and heavy drinking going on in Vang Vieng. The result is a ghost town. There was just nobody there. We saw a few people tubing down the river but they weren’t drunk and they looked pretty bored if you ask me. The bars along the riverside in town were practically all empty despite the fact that they were playing re-runs of Friends and Family Guy on a loop. The Lao Culture and Tourism board want to completely reinvent Vang Vieng to pull in a less rowdy cliental, and a month in, it seems to be working. Once word gets around that the party is over in Vang Vieng, then those booze hounds will have to find a new town to destroy.

Outside of the video-bars and tourist driven downtown area Vang Vieng is a truly beautiful place. The river flows gently beneath these huge limestone cliffs that fade away into the clouds in the distance and they make for some great exploring.

We headed out to the ‘Blue Lagoon’ which is a lot more green than blue this time of year, no matter, the main draw of the place is a giant cave that sits half way up the cliff side. Unfortunately, like everything else in Vang Vieng, the cave has been subsidised and you have to pay to get in. The man sat beneath the path to the cave had a giant spider crawling all over him. It was about the size of his head, it was bright yellow with black stripes and black legs and the man said it was very poisonous. It was one of the scariest things in the world. It was huge and it was just crawling all over the man who seemed pretty un-phased by the whole affair. I took his photo and we started climbing up the side of the cliff.

It was quite a ramble up the steep slope that was covered with giant leaves and insects, as we got higher up, the more dense the jungle seemed to become, but after about ten minutes climbing we finally got to the entrance of the cave. We threw our headlamps on and headed inside. I have honestly never seen anything like it before in my life. The cave was gigantic, the sunlight poured in through a hole in the ceiling which illuminated all of the rocks below, there were passageways leading off in all directions, there were vast holes which fell into nothingness and there were pools which had formed in small pockets of the cave interior. It was like being in the mines of Moria.

This wouldn’t be the only cave we would venture inside on our stay in Vang Vieng. We didn’t fancy tubing or drinking so all that was really left to do was explore the countryside and the caves.

On our second day we went looking for adventure, we left the town on foot and headed out into the cliffs, we eventually stumbled across a sign that pointed to a cave and figured we’d been walking long enough and we wanted to do some caving. We followed the sign through a huge rice paddy and then through the jungle until we got to a small outpost that two guys were sat upon. They told us it was 10,000kip to go inside the cave so we paid up and headed through the forest towards the bottom of the cliff.

This cave was very different to the first one that we had explored. One of the guys from the outpost followed us to the entrance, handed us some headlamps and showed us the way inside. You had to duck down into a small puddle and under a rock to get in, inside there were some bats hanging out on the roof and the whole room was pretty large. The guide pointed to a far corner where a trail went off into the interior of the cave. As soon as we edged around the narrow rocks we were told to leave our shoes and our bags and we descended a rickety old ladder into an even narrower path a little lower down. There were huge crickets jumping around under foot, the mud was incredibly slippery and thick, there were puddles of water at every turn and the walls were wet and provided no decent grip.

I started getting pretty nervous about this cave, pretty quickly. If our lights went out then it would be pitch black and there would be no way out, if it started raining then surly the cave would fill up and we would drown, the ladders we were descending into the cave upon were made of rickety old wood and were falling apart, barely resting on the slippery granite walls. There was one hole that we had to cross on top of two old bamboo poles which were just as slippery as the floor and if we would have fallen we probably would have been falling to our doom. We kept going and the guide kept reassuring us that “it’s no problem, it’s very easy”. We walked further and further into the cave for a long time, climbing up and down ladders, ducking under giant rocks and splashing through deep puddles, thick with brown mud.  

Eventually we made it to the back of the cave and there was one final descent to a huge swimming pool below, however, to get there we would have to descend steps that were made out of the very mud we had been sliding upon our whole way through the cave and we decided it wasn’t worth the risk so we turned around and went back the way we came, which was just as daunting, nerve wrecking and heart wrenching as before.

We were happy to get out of the most claustrophobic space we had even been inside, we were covered in mud and filth and had a new found appreciation for our lives. The conclusion of this cautionary tale is that Vang Vieng doesn’t just have to be about drinking buckets of whiskey, watching re-runs of Friends and tubing down the river, you can in-fact do some pretty amazing things there, but you’ll probably still put your life on the line. It’s certainly not for everyone.

We’re in Vientiane now, the capital city of Laos and we just walked around the old run-down Lao National Museum, which is basically a communist propaganda centre, but it had a few interesting things going for it and I read a lot about the UXO situation here in Laos, which is truly devastating. We’re looking forward to exploring the city some more tomorrow and we hope not to go inside any more caves anytime soon, although it was incredibly enjoyable.


  1. Just started catching up on what you've been doing since you started traveling. Wow. I can hardly even imagine Vang Vieng like that. For me it'll always be the most lawless place in the world for spoiled trust-fund backpackers. Surreal.

  2. Hey,

    I've been keeping tabs on you as well, sounds like you're having an amazing experience and that you're really getting to know people along the road. Amazing! I'm very happy that everything's working out for you. In other news, Vang Vieng was like an abandoned theme park, there were certainly signs that it was once the trust fund backpacker playground you told me about, but the streets were mostly empty, the video bars mostly shut, and the tubing run, from what I heard, was nothing more than a river, no bars, no rides. It was a weird experience, we had a great time in the caves and countryside though. I'm happy to say I did what I set out to do: I went to Vang Vieng, didn't go tubing and didn't drink a single drop of alcohol. Life is good.