Sadly our visit to one of our favorite Southeast Asian cities, Luang Prabang had finally come to an end. However, we decided to extend our time in Laos by traveling to Vang Vieng. Years back the town had earned an infamous reputation of being a wild party town within the backpacking community. Ever since the government had restricted tubing on the Nam Song River back in 2012 things had calmed down considerably. Now Vang Vieng was known as a place with beautiful views, soaring mountains, calming walks and a great place to enjoy a variety of water centric activities.
We studied the reported pros and cons of busing and decided to take the larger VIP bus over the old route as opposed to taking the mini-van over the new and still being constructed route. The views on this – hour ride were incredible—there seemed to be a more spectacular view on almost every turn.
We arrived around six in the afternoon and checked into a mid-ranged hotel ($20 per night), “The Nice View Guesthouse”, that had been recommended by some fellow travelers we met in Luang Prabang. The view was nice and the bed was comfortable and we got a good night’s rest preparing us for the next day’s activity—the much anticipated “tubing down the river”.
Tubing the Nam Song River
Floating down the Nam Song River in a tractor sized inner-tube is a world-famous activity originating in Vang Vieng, Laos. This is the extremely popular activity widely known particularly amongst the backpacking crowd as “tubing”. If you’ve heard about the Laotian village of Vang Vieng it probably is because you’ve heard about “tubing”. While tubing is no longer the dangerous experience it once was it is still a great amount of fun that you don’t want to miss. Combining the cooling River water with hot daytime temperatures is a natural for an enjoyable activity on a hot summer day. When done correctly, without alcohol fueled slides and swings, it is not dangerous at all.
Before the Laos Government’s crackdown in 2012, tubing revolved around a wild drunken party frequented by hundreds of youthful backpackers swarming Vang Vieng from all over the world. Tubing included spending the afternoon floating down river from one shanty bar to the next, consuming alcohol and drugs to excess. With loud music blaring, there soon was added rope swings, giant water slides and “zip-lines” installed by the bars as a way to attract the inebriated, half-naked tubers who were floating down the river, inviting them to stop at their particular bar and party. The water challenges enticed the zozzled tubers to take their risky chances with the often too shallow and rocky river bottom below and soon lead to a disastrous conclusion.
By 2012 the annual number of backpack visitors had grown to the point where it was estimated to be over 170,000. Unfortunately, by 2012 at least 27 riverside fatalities were recorded in Vang Vieng alone. Not to mention the dozens of lesser injuries like scrapes, bruises and broken bones that were reported by the local clinics.
The reputation which was projected to the outside world resulted in a political explosion within the Laos Government. It was not long before the local government had ordered all but three bars to be closed and that tubing on the river was prohibited all together.
A year or so later “restricted tubing” was back on the Nam Song River. By 2015 “tubing” was back in full swing on the river. Only now the dangerous rope swings, zip-lines and giant slides were no longer in existence to temp the alcohol induced macho activities of the youthful tubers. In addition, the number of open riverside bars was limited by law to three per day. As a result, we learned that, thankfully, no one had died in tubing related accidents in over 10 years.
Today the system for tubing is the same as it’s always been. Go to the “tubing mafia” office around noon and pay a rental fee of 55,000 kip plus a refundable 60,000 kip deposit, refundable only if you return your tube by 6pm. A tuk tuk driver loads the tubes on the roof and drives you about 4km north to the Vang Vieng Organic Farm where we enjoyed an excellent lunch before beginning our floating adventure. We floated for about 3 hours including two beer stops of about 45 minutes each as we cruised back to town.
We loved our time spent peacefully floating down the river and weren’t even bothered by the backpackers noise in the two bars that were legally open as we floated by on our way back to town. Yes we got our tubes back to the tubing mafia before 6pm.
We returned to our hotel, tired and sunburn but satisfied with our time spent tubing on the Nam Sung River. The next day we would be off to continue our Vang Vieng adventure by renting an ATV with which to explore the beautiful local countryside.
Day two in Vang Vieng
After spending the previous afternoon on the river we planned to spend day number two cruising around Vang Vieng’s beautiful countryside in an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle). Accordingly, after eating an early breakfast our first stop was an ATV rental place a couple of blocks down the street. The yard was fully stocked with a wide assortment of used ATVs. After checking them out and discussing the prices we ended up with a sturdy and very cool two-seater model which we rented for the day for only $75.
The ATV experience is all about your attitude. The thing you need to know is that when done correctly, riding on an ATV in Vang Vieng is that you are going to get muddy—100% guaranteed. But once having accepted that reality as a necessary part of the experience, you are definitely headed in the right direction and about to have a ton of fun.
The roads are unpaved and extremely bumpy and depending on the current weather conditions full of a varying amount of either dust or mud and puddles. The objective for most adventurous is to drive with as much reckless abandon as can be stomached and as fast as is safely possible—it’s all part of the fun. With a little practice you can get really good and the feeling is definitely addictive.
Laos is Southeast Asia’s only landlocked country. However, the Vang Vieng area pleasantly surprises in that there are several excellent watering holes available to those who would like that kind of thing. In addition to tubing down the Nam Song River there are three beautiful lagoons to visit especially if you’ve rented an ATV.
Blue Lagoons number two and three are the most widely known and are closest to town and therefore the busiest. Since we had rented the ATVs we decided to travel the 25kms out of town and visit Blue Lagoon number 3.
We were not disappointed. The lagoon’s water was a surprisingly radiant blue, closely framed by a vibrant green jungle and silhouetted by a background of karst limestone cliffs—truly a photographer’s dream location. The lagoon was complete with zip lines, rope swings, balance beams and tubes providing us with the perfect aquatic experience. A great place to spend a couple of cooling and relaxing hours in the heat of the Laotian sun.
Our next stop was Tham Nam Cave. The cave’s entrance is actually a lagoon which goes into the cave and requires the use of rented inner tubes in order to enter. Once inside you are guided by following a rope which runs the length of the cave. Once past the low hanging ceiling you will need a flashlight or head lamp to find your way around in the darkness of the cave. Both can be rented at the entrance along with the inner tubes. All are a necessary requirement for enjoying this caving experience. Floating in the cooling water and observing the cave’s fascinating interior was refreshing and definitely a great way to spend a couple of cool caving hours.
On the way back to town we passed by a disused airstrip, once known as Lima Site 6. This strip had originally been built for U.S. bombers which were used during the Vietnam War as a key part of their secret war in Laos. Between 1964 and 1973 the U.S., in alliance with the Laotian Government, operated a clandestine bombing campaign in an attempt to destroy the supply lines of the North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This bombing campaign earned Laos the infamous reputation as the most bombed country on earth.
The overgrown airstrip is a welcome part of the surrounding picturesque landscape. The stunning Laotian countryside is bordered by karst limestone cliffs amongst the lushly carpeted vibrant mountains displaying their needle sharp peaks piercing the deep blue sky—an unforgettably beautiful sight.
After returning our undamaged ATV we made our way to the vacant field from which we would embark on our best of all Vang Vieng adventures—hot air ballooning care of the only hot air balloon company, “Balloons Over Vang Vieng”. We had been advised to save ballooning to the end of our visit. The reason being that after once visiting the various places you would have a better perspective of what lay below when viewing them from high above—and they were correct.
I must say that the balloon ride is unlike anything else I have ever experienced—it was simply amazing. This is a one of a kind thing that combines the sensation of weightlessness with a feeling that time was standing still. We shared a wicker basket with six other passengers and I was amazed at how fast and how high it smoothly rose in only 20 seconds to the ultimate height of 1.2km. The price of $95 each seemed high at first but afterwards we felt it had actually been a great value.
Now I know what it must be like to soar in the skies like a bird. The perspective from that basket was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. As it turns out hot air ballooning in Vang Vieng is the most reasonably priced of anywhere in the world—and one of the most beautiful.
We learned that in just a couple of years Vang Vieng has seen a meteoric rise in the number of Korean and Chineese visitors, specifically with tour groups that specialize in groups of more than 100 tourists at a time. To satisfy these big groups large, bland mid-range hotels are being built and existing restaurants are being converted into both Korean and Chinese cuisine offering menus specifically designed to service this market. What this means for the other travelers is that they now have more choices than before when it comes to food and accommodations—ranging in addition from the fun backpackers hostels and riverside bungalows to classy boutique hotels.
A recent change in local government ended the outdoor adventure monopolies so now for example there are over 15 kayaking companies alone vying for the business. Proving once again the value of competition when it comes to lower prices and a higher quality of service.
Day Three in Vang Vieng
After our hot air balloon adventure the afternoon before we decided to spend another day in Vang Vieng as we liked the place and wanted to spend another day checking out some new things we had seen from above. The first thing we did after breakfast was to visit the Tham Chang Cave located a short walk from our hotel. We were told that this was the most remarkable of all the caves in the area. We took the short walk south till we came to the impressive red steel bridge crossing the Nam Song River and crossed over and passed through the gate to the Vang Vieng Resort. Here we quickly located the caves entrance where we paid the 15000 kip each and entered the cave.
We were pleasantly surprised to find a well paved path with side railings leading throughout the large cave. It was fascinating to view the formations inside the cave as we could actually see quite well by using the torches we had been given. The cave had a beautiful blue lagoon at the opposite end where we actually took a short swim just to cool off from the day’s heat.
The Tham Chang cave had a colorful history dating back to the days of the Vietnam War. The local citizens spent many hours inside the cave as they escaped the constant danger of the American bombings. This went on for years between 1964 and 1973.
Our next stop was the entrance to the Phangern Montain Viewpoints. We had a short tuck tuck ride and then began the strenuous hike up the trail. Fortunately, we had been warned to wear good shoes as the trail was quite rough and steep in many places. There were two viewing places but the best was the second one a couple of hundred meters further up the trail.
The view at the top was amazing and definitely worth the climb. Looking out over the Van Veing Valley stretching out below was reminiscent of the hot air balloon ride from the previous day. This valley was really beautiful displaying the verdant landscape of the valley below.
The hot strenuous half hour climb had left us tired and thirsty. Fortunately, there was a small snack stand at the summit which surprisingly offered us cold drinks and water which we readily accepted.
That night we decided to try Amigos Restaurant for a change of pace from Asian food. We shared the guacamole with chips and the chicken quesadilla and chorizo tacos. The food was a welcomed break which we enjoyed along with the margaritas. It was both authentic and delicious—a pleasant surprise.
The next day we decided to take advantage of the beautiful Ang Nam Reservoir on our way going to Vientiane.
The Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir is located about ninety kilometers north of the Laotian capital city of Vientiane. It is on Route 13 on which we would pass as we headed for the capital city which would be our next stop on our Laotian adventure. So we decided to stop here at the Ang Nam Ngum Reservoir and enjoy a couple of days of rest and luxury at this fancy hotel casino.
This huge body of water is the result of the 1971 damning of the Nam Ngum River. The lake covers 250 square kilometers featuring dozens of small tree covered islands with a view stretching out to a dramatic horizon capped by distant mountains. Here are found secluded beaches, various swimming holes and a full menu of water sports such as kayaking and water skiing.
Built with foreign expertise and funding it is the center piece of Laos’ hydroelectric production providing electricity to Vientiane and the surrounding small villages on the Vientiane Plain. Thailand buys the substantial surplus of power left over.
The reservoir has been slowly developed over the years into a major recreational tourist destination featuring the Nam Ngum Resort Casino and 18 hole golf course as a major focal point. A smaller but attractive resort, Long Ngum View Resort, has been built on the Western side of the lake. The resort features cozy bungalows and rooms featuring excellent shoreline water views.
We spent a great couple of relaxing days on the water. We rented a two seater jet skis and cruised around the huge reservoir for hours. And we spent most of the the second day using rented golf clubs to play the beautiful 18-hole golf course. Then after dinner we spent a couple of hours playing black jack in the casino—I only lost $100 which I chocked up to the cost of entertainment.
The next morning we checked out of the resort and took a minivan to Vientiane. The next step of our Laos adventure.