One of the advantages of living in Asia is easy to access exotic destinations. I can just choose a place and get there quickly and cheaply.
This month the time came for my border run and I thought hard about where to go. Finally, after checking ticket prices and thinking of places I hadn't been before, I decided to go to Vang Vieng in Laos.
It was close enough to get there by bus from Chiang Mai, tickets were cheap and the town was a great place to relax and unwind - perfect!
I fell in love with Vang Vieng and really didn't want to leave. It could easily become a place, where I go whenever I have a few days off.
I loved everything about it: the scenery, food, bars and even the uneven, dusty streets. I'm looking forward to my next visit there.
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About Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is a small town, located around 2 hours north of the capital of Laos, Vientiane. It's surrounded by picturesque, green mountains and The Nam Song River, which slowly flows through the town.
Vang Vieng was once famous for crazy, drug and alcohol-fuelled parties. Backpackers from all around the globe used to come here to indulge in all sorts of shenanigans.
They would drink some beers for breakfast, go to the river and tube down, drinking more, taking drugs, swimming and drinking some more as they went along.
Tubing, floating on a huge tube down the river, was (and still is) one of the things to do when you're in Vang Vieng. The waters here are shallow and slow enough to provide you with a very relaxing experience.
But, as it happens when there is alcohol, drugs and swimming involved, every year a couple of people drown or break their necks. A few years ago the local government decided to close down some of the bars that lined the shores of the Mekong River and the notorious parties stopped.
Today, backpackers still come to Vang Vieng in search of drugs, alcohol, fun and relaxation. They find all of those, but the town is much quieter and calmer.
It now attracts a lot of Korean and Japanese tourists, who prefer different kinds of activities and have more money to spend than an average backpacker from England or Sweden.
However, I would say that Vang Vieng offers something for everyone. Young people will find places to party while nature lovers won't be disappointed with the surroundings.
Those looking for relaxation will be happy with chilling by the river and catching some sun while families with kids will also have lots of fun.
Visiting Vang Vieng
I travelled to Laos by bus. Beforehand I had decided that it would be better to get to Vientiane, spend the night and then take a bus, or a minivan, to Vang Vieng.
I knew I was going to be very tired after my 12-hour trip and I wanted to sleep a bit before going further. However, Vang Vieng is only around 3 hours drive from Vientiane and you can catch a ride there at any tourist office.
There are buses leaving from Vientiane every few hours, with the last one departing around 5 pm.
I didn't regret staying in Vientiane. I really liked the city, which is quiet and even more laid back than Chiang Mai. I relaxed a little, had some food, and a couple of drinks and did my shopping at the night market.
My accommodation at Backpacker's Garden Hostel was a little shabby, but the price was reasonable and it was only for one night, so I didn't complain.
I bought a ticket for a bus to Vang Vieng a day before at the hostel. It cost me 45,000 Kip ($5,50).
My bus was scheduled to leave at 10 am. We were picked up by a truck from the hostel and brought to a small bus stop in the centre of Vientiane. Then I waited for around 30 minutes for other people to arrive and we left after 11.
The bus was old and didn't have air conditioning. It was struggling to drive up steep hills and we had to stop once to cool off the brakes. Laos is very interesting when it comes to local transport, it's always an adventure.
At the bus station in Vang Vieng, there was only one big truck willing to take us to town for free. Not everyone managed to get on and the rest had to walk. The bus station is not far from the town, so don't worry if you don't catch a ride. Just make sure that you have a map of your hostel with you.
Top tip: To find the best prices for air or bus travel in Laos we would recommend using the locally-based travel website called 12go.Asia.
We used this site to book most of our journeys in Southeast Asia. Best of all, you can just show any ticket on your smartphone when boarding your bus. That saves any running around to find a place to print your vouchers!
Try their site via the search box here. Simply pick your travel date for a full page of travel options in Laos and beyond!
What to do in Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is a small, sleepy town and it's more suitable for those wanting to chill out and relax, but if you're looking for adventures, you won't be disappointed either. Here you can:
Tube down the river - this is a must and one thing Vang Vieng is famous for. Rent a tube from one of the rental places, located near the river bank. One day costs 60,000 Kip ($7).
If there is a group of a minimum of 4 people, the shop will drive you to the start point for free. If there are less than 4 people, you will need to pay 10,000 Kip ($1) extra.
Tubing lasts a minimum of 3 hours - that's when you don't stop anywhere. You can spend a whole day enjoying beautiful views and having drinks at the bars that line the banks of the river. Just remember to return the tube before 8 pm.
Kayaking - this seems to be very popular among Japanese and Korean tourists who visit Vang Vieng. Quite a few foreigners like to do that, too. You can book a full-day or half-day kayaking adventure at any of the tourist offices in town. The average cost for a full-day trip is $25.
Driving - to some Vang Vieng might be a bit of an eyesore. It reminded me of Had Rin in Koh Phangan. The streets are filled with souvenir shops, bars and restaurants. The town is far from being a place, where you can experience the real Laos.
If you want to see the unspoiled side of the country, rent a scooter and venture out of town. Only a couple of kilometres away from Vang Vieng you will find small villages and picturesque, side roads.
The rental price for a scooter is 40,000 Kip ($4.80). You will need to leave your passport with the rental shop. Remember about good medical insurance as accidents do happen here.
Visit caves and lagoons - there are plenty of those in the area. It's hard to find them though. My scooter rental place gave me a hand-drawn map showing the nearby caves and the famous lagoon, but I couldn't figure out where it was. Finally,
I managed to find the right road, but on our way there we caught a flat tyre and we had to go back to the town.
Admire the area from above on a hot air balloon - hot air balloons do their flights every afternoon until sunset. They look so pretty in a cloudless, blue sky. One flight costs around $80.
Rock climbing - there are plenty of beautiful mountains around Vang Vieng and you can go for a whole day of climbing here. Book your adventure through one of the tourist offices in town.
Where to party in Vang Vieng
A while ago Vang Vieng was a party place. Today it is a bit quieter here. However, there are still places, where you can let your hair down and go a little wild.
Sakura Bar is a place where people dance to electronic music and drink cheap shots, and where Beer Lao flows freely. It is only open until midnight and after that, you can move to one of the bars on the main street.
Vang Vieng is a bit like the wild west of South East Asia. You won't see police here and illegal substances are widely available. Bars advertise their mushroom shakes and opium and weed joints can be ordered from menus.
If you are willing to try drugs in Vang Vieng, do it with caution. Mushroom shakes here are strong and it's better to have a sober friend with you who can look after you throughout your trip.
The main street is your best bet if you want to smoke some joints. Rasta Bar is a nice, small place that serves cheap beer and weed joints.
Where to eat and drink
I must say that the food in Vang Vieng was surprisingly good. Of course, everything here is targeted towards tourists, but you will find some cheap, affordable places to eat as well as some more fancy restaurants.
I've recently become a vegetarian and it was relatively easy to find non-meat options in Vang Vieng. Here are my favourite places to eat and drink:
Veggie Tables - I loved their vegetarian laap, which is normally a meat dish. Here they make it using tofu and some delicious, fresh herbs. Order Lao ice green tea and for breakfast indulge in one of their huge and fulfilling sandwiches.
Earth Recycled Restaurant - their burgers are fantastic! There is a vegetarian option, which is delicious and a few choices for meat-eaters. Another reason to visit this place is the beautiful view over the mountains and the river.
A sandwich stand - you will see many of those in Vang Vieng, but I found one in particular that I loved. You will find it just outside of the Phanith Guest House, located on the main street. An older lady who sells these amazing sandwiches is there every second day.
Where to stay in Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is full of guesthouses and hostels. If you don't book ahead, you can easily find a place to stay.
I stayed in Maylay Guesthouse, which is located 5 minutes walk from the main street. It's a clean, friendly guesthouse offering spacious rooms, daily cleaning service and breakfast is included. I loved it there and couldn't recommend it more.
Use the nifty Booking.com search box to find more options:
- ATMs are widely available and you can see them almost on every corner.
- There are pharmacies and one small hospital that can treat some minor injuries. For anything more serious you will need to go to Vientiane, or to Thailand.
- There are plenty of small shops in town, where you can buy cosmetics, snacks, clothes and souvenirs.
- There are also plenty of tourist offices in town that sell tickets to different destinations in Laos and South East Asia. Remember to shop around as prices vary from one place to another.
About the guest author
Joanna Szreder was born in Poland and moved away from her home country 15 years ago. After spending 10 years in London, she quit her corporate job and moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where she taught English in a local college and where she still lives now.