Vang Vieng was once the undisputed party town on the Southeast Asian backpacker circuit. Here you could hire a tube and float down the river stopping at any of the dozens of bars lining the riverbanks. Beer, and especially spirits, were essentially on tap costing less than a $1 a glass. After 27 recorded deaths of backpackers in 2011 alone, this finally was the wake up Laos needed to see that copious amounts of alcohol and drugs and floating down the river on a tube do not go well together. As a result, during 2012 a lot of the bars, mostly illegal establishments, were closed down and tighter safety rules were put in place to prevent any further tragedies occurring. So five years on, is Vang Vieng still clinging to it’s past as a place for young twenty somethings to let their hair down and party the day and night away or has it successfully reinvented itself as a destination for all travellers?
Despite reading about and being told by most people about the ‘new and improved’ version of Vang Vieng, I remain skeptical of a complete reinvention other than there being a lot less backpackers visiting now in 2017. Locals still like to speak about the glory days when tourist money flowed freely within the town’s hostels, bars, attractions and restaurants alike and parties raged 24/7. There are still night-long parties to attend if that is your thing, however these have to be searched out and are not just stumbled upon any longer.
The first thing you notice when you enter Vang Vieng are the rocky mountain range to the west of the town. They truly are a remarkable sight with the landscape undeniably beautiful, especially when the early morning sun starts creeping over the ranges, slowly bringing the mountains out from the darkness. We did venture onto the river to see what it was all about but in the slightly more family-friendly kayak than a boozy tube crawl. We had arranged a small tour with a local guide that included about 6kms of downstream paddling and some cave tubing for a total of 240,000 LAK ($43.64 NZD). After a short ride out of Vang Vieng we had a brief kayaking lesson before jumping into the kayaks and heading downstream. The scenery was fantastic, especially being at the foot of the mountains, we passed numerous twenty somethings on their way down in varying states of inebriation, however everyone was in a great mood with most splashing one another as groups floated down the river. About halfway down we stopped at the cave entrance, above our heads were numerous ziplines that zigzagged across the river with screaming tourists extending out their GoPro cameras. After selecting a headlight each and tube we jumped into the much colder cave water and made our way about 100 metres into the blackened cave. At this point we left our tube and continued on foot. As per normal, Lincoln was a skip and a jump ahead of us all, busy exploring the cave system and looking out for bats and spiders.After about 10 minutes of walking we reaching the daylight again, however not before having to squeeze through a couple of very small spaces; I was definitely thankful of the excess kilograms I had recently lost. Once we were back at the kayaks we slowly glided the rest of the uneventful kilometres back into Vang Vieng, stopping right in the middle of the town and just a short hop, skip and a jump from our hotel.
Throughout Laos, bicycles have proved to be a cheap activity which the whole family have enjoyed, so we thought it would be a great way to see more of Vang Vieng. Before hiring the bikes we had not really decided on where they would take us, but a little family research during the morning resulted in us agreeing on a nearby cave system, that had the added bonus of a swimming hole at the base of the entrance. The caves, named Chang Cave, were used by locals as a hiding place from the marauding Yunnanese Chinese in the early 19th century.
We had read they were a mere 10 minute bike ride south from the centre of town, so after picking up our bikes we headed off with our trusty maps.me app open to ensure we were heading in the right direction. After a couple of wrong turns we ended up down a dusty path and met some tourists who were travelling in the opposite direction asking if we knew where the Chang Caves were. Not a great sign at all, however a local soon passed by and in his small amount of English said we had to turn back and then turn left. Maps.me was still showing a route to the cave so we made the next left turn into a rice paddy field but with a pretty decent and well used path. After trudging through mud and harvested rice fields we could see a cave entrance halfway up the hillside, although having a wide river between us was proving to be a problem. Being late morning the heat from the sweltering sun was starting to take its toll on all of us. So we made the quick decision to start backtracking and head back to the main road and retrace our tracks.Sure enough we found our wrong turn and found the entrance to the orange bridge we had all seen earlier in the day during our research. Knowing we were not far away we locked up our bikes, and made the very easy decision to have a swim in the water hole before tackling the caves. We had the waterhole to ourselves and although they were not large they provided some cooling relief from the hot sun, there was even a small cave system you could swim into and explore.After the swim we paid our cave entrance fee of 15,000 LAK ($2.73 NZD) per adult and climbed the 100 or so steps to the entrance. Once inside the first thing you notice is the paths are actually paved and lights are scattered along the walls to the light the way. There is a small viewing platform from one side where we looked down upon the vast rice fields we had accidently found ourselves in a couple of hours earlier and we were now able to laugh about our very sweaty detour. The caves are very extensive and the boys enjoyed exploring them, creating echoes and making their shadows along the cave walls have dance battles against one another.We had initially planned to only spend the morning exploring the caves however it was now 2.00pm and we were all getting very hungry. We decided it was best to just head back into town, find some fried noodles and rice and wash it down with a cold beer, cider and a couple of fizzy drinks. Clinking our drinks together I think we all realised just how tired we were and that the restaurant we had now found ourselves in, opposite our hotel, was going to be the extent of our adventures for the rest of the day.
In the end, the six nights we spent in Vang Vieng was more than enough for us. However we were definitely glad we came as the landscape alone was worth the visit. Our home here was the basic, Mountainview Riverside Hotel, and our review can be found here.
Average Daily Spend – $126.10 NZD ($46.40 NZD under budget per day)