Laos: Vang Vieng – Land of Friends, Tubing and Magic Shakes

After a couple of nights in Vietniane, we decided to head up to Vang Vieng. Plenty of hostels and tourist shops will sell you bus tickets for around 50,000 kip (which is about £3.80/$6). At first, a songtheaw picked us up from our hostel, drove around Vientiane for about an hour before dropping us off at a bus stop approximately 10m away from where we started. We climbed onto an old, rickety bus whose seats were two long benches facing each other. Squashed up on the seats, our backpacks filling the centre, every tourist made eye contact with those opposite them, the unspoken thought “Oh, crap, we’re on this thing for the next three hours”.

After a 15 minute drive, however, we stopped and were put onto a nice, big double-decker with toilets and air conditioning. How fitting for our spoilt, first world sensibilities – you could almost feel the tension dissipating.

Vang Vieng was once just a stop on the way to Luang Prabang, but has more recently become a tourist hot-spot in its own right. The main reason for this was the attraction of getting blindingly drunk while riding massive inflatable tubes along the dirty river. As one tourist per month died while tubing or jumping in the river, and several more were injured, the government has cracked down on this. At the moment, according to Wikitravel, only four bars are open for tubing now, the swings and slides are gone, and there are restrictions on music volume. Shucks.

We had no interest in tubing, but Vang Vieng did look beautiful and we were curious about seeing a little more of Laos. The drive in took 3 hours or so and we were rewarded with some amazing views:

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The bus stops in a pretty central spot – Vang Vieng is mostly one long street and a river, so it’s hard to get too lost. There are plenty of hostels along the main street. We opted for Sengkeo (Bob)’s guest house, at the southern end of the road, as we’d been considering helping out with their eco-project and had not been able to, so instead thought we’d support the project with a bit of money. You can view the website for the guest house and the project at  saelaoproject.com/guesthouse/ .

When we arrived, Bob’s wife was having a nap on a sofa in the living room while her two children raced around with little plastic cars. When we awoke her, she sleepily dragged herself into one of the bedrooms and started to clean, the children running in and out like excited chipmunks. She asked us to help her flip over the mattress. Good times. It was something like £4 a night, so who can complain?

After a while, we decided to walk into the “centre” of Vang Vieng. There are a couple of spots where you can cross the river. One is a bridge where you pay for a ticket to cross. Halfway across one of the bridges, you stop at a small island – where a man of Thai/German descent has decided to set up business. We stopped for a chat and a Radler! Yes, he made the most delicious radler (beer/lemonade) with pieces of lemon peel and a lot of crushed ice, and he even talked us into a chocolate pudding, lamenting the whole time that Lao people don’t actually like chocolate. Still, he had a nice mix of German and Thai food, and we vowed to return… although we didn’t. Sorry, dude. It’s a cool place, though, and he even had a variety of beer that wasn’t Beer Lao!

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There wasn’t really a lot to do in Vang Vieng once you took away the idea of tubing, but we’d kind of anticipated that. This was one of the last days of the honeymoon and we just needed to relax a little. Still, we had a little walk around, and in between torrential rain we were able to find a few amazingly cute kittens and puppies..

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LOOK HOW TINY IT IS!!! Also..

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These two adorable puppies were at the Kangaroo Sunset bar, a cool place with delicious kangaroo burgers (yeeep), pool tables and, of course, Beer Lao. It goes without saying that Beer Lao was everywhere. What you might be a little more surprised to hear about was the prevalence of drugs.

While drugs are technically very illegal in Laos, this doesn’t seem to stop tourist restaurants from selling shakes, pizzas, teas and pancakes made with weed, magic mushrooms or opiums.

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Yes, that’s £7.70/$12 for a “joint of weed and opium”. These pages only existed on about a third of the menus in any given place, just in case the authorities turned up, perhaps. If you’re wondering where to find this, look for one of the places with raised cushions and pizzas… I can’t pinpoint exactly where this was, but near the river and a lot of the restaurants/bars, on the right of this picture I think!

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The second day presented nothing but torrential rain, so we decided to be lazy and do what the other tourists do… set up home in one of the cushion places! By this I mean bars that stretch out across the river on piers, covered with bamboo roofs and full of high-rise seats where you can sit all day and watch Friends or South Park while eating stir fry and sipping coconut shakes.

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Points if you can name the episode.

Yes, we really travelled halfway across the world to watch Chandler and Monica jumping into bed together. But when you’re travelling for nearly seven weeks of travelling, it’s important to give yourself relaxing days, too, otherwise you’ll just burn out. I don’t think we really did much else that day… Friends is really addictive. But check out the view from the end of the restaurant…

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Vang Vieng’s a good place to stop over for a night or two, probably especially if you’re on your way to Luang Prabang or perhaps the Plain of Jars – sadly, we didn’t have time to visit those, but we told ourselves “next time”, so we’ll see!

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