The first thing that tends to come to mind when “Vang Vieng” is mentioned is tubing and boozing down the Nam Song river. Or the lack thereof.
Since the latter part of 2012, the riverside bars, rope swings and ziplines have all been pretty much banished following a crackdown by the Laos government, after a number of drunken tourists deaths. This has been accompanied by a demise in the throng of party folk looking for a good time on the river.
As someone who doesn’t participate much in the drinking or partying scene, I can’t say that I’m sorry for missing the pre-clampdown version of Vang Vieng. There are currently just 3 bars left by the river, apparently present only due to substantial bribes paid to the government. Passing by just one of these bars, with loud music blaring, crowds of young party-goers dressed in bikinis, short shorts (that’s the men by the way) and covered in body paint (mostly green as it was St. Patrick’s Day when I was there), most holding cans of Beer Lao, I shudder to think what the atmosphere must have been like back in the day.
Things have clearly quietened down since, with less of the young backpacker booze-filled party-type atmosphere and the emergence of a more relaxed scene, with a greater focus on the natural attractions this small town has to offer. And when I say small, I mean tiny. The town mainly comprises one main street, with a few side streets leading off it. These are filled with shops, basic restaurants and bars, a number of which seem to screen Friends episodes continuously (why tourists would even want to watch this all day, I don’t know, but they do). To fill your time therefore, you’re going to want to head out of the centre of town.
I spent two whole days here, spending my time keeping active with rock climbing and then kayaking down the Nam Song river.
Rock climbing the karsts around Vang Vieng
First and foremost on my mind was safety. I went with a reputable service provider who had a good safety record, eventhough the price was higher compared to some others. Opting for the full day option, there was just one other lady with me, in addition to two other half-day climbers who joined us in the morning. Our guide for the day was a real professional, explaining the basics of climbing and belaying clearly, leading with good examples.
The day comprised of a tuktuk ride out to the limestone mountains, a very short wooden sampan ride across the river, four climbs before a lunch stop and 2 climbs post-lunch. This might not sound like much but if you’re out of rock climbing practice like I was, 6 full-on climbs are more than enough for a day. My forearms in particular, were screaming out in protest during my post-lunch climbs and my knees were covered with little scuffs and bruises by the end of the day.
Irregardless, I thoroughly enjoyed my day and only wished I had a longer time to spend in Vang Vieng to do the 3 day course.
Exploring the caves and kayaking the Nam Song river
My second day in Vang Vieng was spent kayaking down the Nam Song river. Also included in the day tour was a trek (lasting all of hmm, 10 minutes?) and a quick exploration of two caves in the surrounding area.
The first cave we visited was the Tham Nam aka the Water Cave. There’s nothing of note to see here – what happens instead is that you grab a rubber tube and head torch, hold onto the guiding rope and pull yourself / float through the river that runs through the cave. The second cave we visited was the Tham Xang or Elephant Cave, so named because there’s a limestone rock formation that somewhat looks like an elephant in the cave (though the locals did have to shape the rock a little to make the ‘elephant’ more prominent).
After these “distractions”, we were finally taken to the river to start our 2 hour kayaking trip. Following my unenjoyable foray into sea kayaking at the Abel Tasman National Park, I decided to take a single seater kayak this time round. I therefore only had myself to blame for my slow progress down the river… But well, the lack of water in the river due to it being dry season didn’t help much either. 😛
I’m beginning to think that kayaking just isn’t for me as I once again found this activity to be a bit slow and boring. Higher water levels would’ve improved things for sure, so perhaps I just came at the wrong time. That being said, I wasn’t all that impressed with the “trek” or the cave visits either. There are a number of tour operators in town offering similar day packages, so I may perhaps have just been a little unlucky, choosing a sub-standard tour. If you’re thinking of doing something similar therefore, be sure to check out reviews or get recommendations from other travellers before committing!