Day 368 – 3 March, 2016
Vang Vieng’s reputation was intimidating to say the least. In the not so distant past, this small village had been a boon for backpackers wanting to do drugs until sunrise, act stupid, and cause general mischief. (Wow, I sound so OLD typing that!). It was a must-visit destination for almost every party-minded traveler that was passing through Southeast Asia. Tubing on the Nam Song River was characterized more by the bars every 100m or so that sold alcohol, weed, mushrooms, and opium than by the actual tubing itself. In 2011, 27 partiers passed away when they were involved in careless accidents so the Lao government decided to crackdown on the activity they were accustomed to ignoring. As of my visit, only 4 bars remain, none of which openly sell drugs anymore, but the abandoned bars from the past still stand as a spooky reminder to what used to be the main economy in this sleepy backwater town.
Darcey and I arrived on different buses. On hers, she met Melinda, a flight attendant from Melbourne who was just on a short holiday in Laos. And because tubing is lame when you’re solo, the three of us were keen to give it a go together. It was all seemingly well organized in contrast to most activities of this sort in Asia. There was a central tubing office (a couple of guys sitting in a bamboo hut with a stack of rubber tubes), where you had to go at whatever time you wished to rent a tube, sign a waiver, and jump in the next available truck to the starting point. The waiver part surprised me because even if there had been accidents in the past, this was an entirely new concept in the Asia I had experienced so far. It was a sign that the west had touched this corner of the planet when the accidental deaths and ensuing turmoil had brought government intervention to the former party scene.
We put in about 5km upriver. The water was a milky brown, but it was calm and shallow. The karst mountains of central Laos loomed on both sides of us and it was beautiful. I don’t know what I expected, but I had never really considered the river would be so picturesque. No one ever mentioned that part. Each of the bars that were still open had a scout standing on shore waiting for us, beckoning us to join them. We skipped the first one, but as the second came into view, we signaled that we wanted to come in. A rope was thrown out and they pulled each of us toward shore. No doubt the scene was heavily subdued to what it may have been in the past. There were a few people playing nerf basketball and a couple of people reclining on one of several raised platforms with drinks, but otherwise, the atmosphere was quiet. The three of us ordered mojitos, making the most of the experience. We stopped one more time at the final bar that came complete with a sad rope swing that I’m sure used to be a favorite of the tubers (and also a death trap over the shallow water). Now it hangs limply, ignored.
Worth mentioning, perhaps one of the most quirky things about Vang Vieng is the abnormally high concentration of cafes, also known as “TV bars,” that play episodes of Friends on a continuous loop. I can’t even say how many there are, but I counted at least 4. Seating is set in a theatre-type configuration with pillows and cushions and you could potentially watch a Friends marathon for 12 hours a day. For someone who isn’t exposed to that much television these days, I wasn’t opposed to a few hours of comfortable lounging myself. The day after our tubing adventure, Darcey fell ill with food poisoning or something like it and I was suffering from a sore throat and headache that lasted off and on for the following week. As soon as she was up to it, Darcey left for Luang Prabang, needing a change of scenery. I stayed in Vang Vieng for another day with Melinda, hopeful I could knock off my sick feeling before I had to travel.
Melinda and I spent that extra day biking to the Blue Lagoon. I still didn’t feel great and I hate pedaling a clunky rusty bicycle on unpaved roads. I was hoping the lagoon would be worth it, but as it happens, there are three locations for the Blue Lagoon, #1, #2, and #3 creatively named, obviously. We visited #1, closest to town, and it didn’t resemble the gem seen featured in the photos (that distinction must be either #2 or #3). It was a sad theme park-oriented watering hole that left much to be desired, but the bike ride, although I had been dreading it, was peaceful and lovely and a nice way to see the treasured landscape of Laos.
Unable to shake the sore throat, which I blame on the heavy smoke and dust in Laos, I was ready to move on. Unfortunately, because of this, I missed so many of the other worthwhile features of the landscape. However, credit must be given to this little slice of Asia, where they are working hard to rebrand themselves from a party haven to an eco-tourism destination. Vang Vieng has a way to go in this regard, but the ingredients are there and it should still be a backpacker stop even if the party is long over.