Two things you should know about me: first, I am not a party person. I enjoy a beer or two or a sampling of the local liquor, and I’ll even go out drinking with friends from time to time. But binge-drinking extreme quantities of low-cost, low-quality alcohol while dance music drowns out all conversation is not my scene.
Second, I like my outdoor adventures to be as low-tech as possible. Snowshoes over snowmobiles, hiking over ATVs, paddling over motorboats. I go into nature to get away from the kind of noise and air pollution that adventure sports tend to generate.
When I first saw photographs of Vang Vieng, Laos, I knew I had to experience such a shockingly beautiful place first-hand. It was only when I started doing research about the area that I discovered the town’s reputation as one of the most notorious dudebro-backpacker party towns in Southeast Asia. It still doesn’t make any sense to me: you can get drunk anywhere, why go to one of the most naturally beautiful locations in the world only to look at it through an alcoholic haze? Alas, facts were facts, so I attempted to experience everything the landscape of Vang Vieng had to offer whilst staying as far away from the gulp-and-puke set as possible. Here’s how I did it.
Where to Stay
The Riverside Garden Bungalows is far from perfect, but when it comes to a combination of ambiance, location, price, and convenience, it’s the best possible option for anti-party, pro-nature accommodation in Vang Vieng.
The bungalows offer magnificent, unobstructed views of Vang Vieng’s spectacular karst mountains. And while you can find other hotels in Vang Vieng with great views, you won’t find one as peaceful. The property is just far enough out of the town center to escape the noise of dance music from the many bars, motorbike engines, and frenzy of construction currently underway in town. But you’re not too far out of town that you can’t easily walk to get a meal or a motorbike rental. There are plenty of hotels with great views and quiet atmosphere in Vang Vieng, but most are all-inclusive resorts on the other side of the river (and a toll bridge) that cost an all-inclusive price. I paid 70,000 kip for a private, fan-only bungalow with a shared bathroom. Sure, it’s got its problems: weak showers, rock-hard beds, and electrical wiring that would make Tom Silva froth at the mouth. But for the price and the views, it’s paradise. Check out my TripAdvisor review for more photos of the facilities.
What to Do
Tham Jang Cave & Swimming Hole
I’m not much of a caver (I had a bad experience once) but I was intrigued by pictures of Tham Jang Cave and decided to give it a try. In the 19th century, Laotian soldiers used the cave to hide from Chinese invaders. If you’ve never been in a big cave before, it’s quite impressive. If you’re a seasoned cave connoisseur then you probably won’t be blown away but you’ll likely still be intrigued to imagine a group of people actually living in there. To get there you have to pay a toll to cross the river and another entry fee for the cave. You climb up a big staircase to access the cave, and there’s a nice view of Vang Vieng from the top.
After you’ve finished with the cave, take a dip in the swimming hole at the bottom of the staircase (across the bridge behind the ticket booth). The crystal-clear, blue-green water is surprisingly warm, and you can swim back into a small cave. The clear water makes for fun snorkeling, too, so bring some goggles if you have them.
Pha Ngeun Hike
This short, moderately-difficult hike offers the best views of the Vang Vieng area outside of a hot air balloon. To get there I recommend renting a mountain bike, but you could also walk or ride a motorbike (though the final stretch of road is extremely rough). Cross the main toll bridge from Vang Vieng town and ride along the main paved road until you come to a couple of signs pointing to Pha Ngeun on the right.
Then you go down a horribly pitted dirt road until you reach the trailhead where you have to pay 10,000 kip for a ticket. On a scale of 1 to 5 I would rate the trail a 3-going-on-4 for strenuousness. It’s very steep but it’s also quite short, so if you’re persistent and take plenty of breaks, your effort will be rewarded with spectacular views of the valley below.
There’s even a nice lady at the top selling sodas and freshly-made green papaya salad. If your legs haven’t given out at that point, there’s still plenty of things to do around Vang Vieng.
Hot-Air Ballooning – While the price was outside of my flashpacker budget, I looked on with intense jealousy at the brightly-colored hot air balloons drifting high above the Vang Vieng valley as it was flooded with golden sunset light. The prices I saw around town for a balloon ride were around $90 USD, and probably worth every penny.
Rock Climbing – The steep karst mountains around Vang Vieng are ideal for climbing and you’ll have no trouble finding a tour operator to take you on an adventure.
Caving – As mentioned above, I’m not super interested in caves, but there are dozens of the darn things all over Vang Vieng. You can find many along the road across the river on the way to Pha Ngeun, all marked with helpful hand-painted signs. There are a number of caves marked on Maps.me as well. The Laotian word for “cave” is “tham”, so just look for anything called “tham” and you’re in business. Check out the Raising Explorers blog entry A Tale of Six Caves for inspiration. I’ve heard the “Elephant Cave” is extremely lame, so you’ll have to decide for yourself if it’s worth your time. Laos being Laos, you’ll probably have to pay a fee to enter most of the caves, c’est la vie.
Kayaking – A kayak is a nice way to experience the river without getting drunk or scratching up your butt (see below). You don’t need any kayaking experience to do it – the river is pretty tame. But do wear long pants because your legs are stretched out in front of you under the afternoon sun for quite a while.
What About Tubing?
The most popular activity in Vang Vieng is to ride an inner tube down the river, stopping at riverside bars along the way and drinking irresponsible amounts of free whiskey. Originally I had planned to take a tube down the river without stopping at the bars, simply enjoying the natural scenery and the cool water. However, after talking with some backpackers who’d already had the experience, I learned it takes much longer than I expected – up to 5 hours. I knew that even with sunblock my pasty Pacific Northwest skin would not be able to handle that much time in the afternoon sun. Additionally, it seems the river is not as ideal for tubing as the local tourism companies would like you to believe. The river can get extremely shallow and rocky in places, causing cuts and bruises to your butt and back. All in all it sounded like the experience would be far less relaxing than I had anticipated, so I decided to opt out.
Where to Eat
Cafe del Villa – A short walk from the Riverside Garden Bungalows and located across the street from Earth Bar, this is the best place to eat breakfast on the North side of town. Nestled in a serene, leafy garden patio, this cafe makes great coffee and delicious Western and Laotian breakfast dishes for reasonable prices. A plate of banana french toast and a cup of coffee will run you about 34,000 kip. On top of that you get friendly and fast service with great (for Laos) wifi – around 4Mbps.
Bamboo Tree Cafe & Bar – A delicious dish with a funny name, larb (aka larp) is a native Laotian dish made from ground meat mixed with chiles, thai basil, mint, coriander, shallots, fish sauce, and lime juice. Bamboo Tree makes a mighty fine larb for a great price. The Laotians come correct with the chiles, so if you order your larb spicy I recommend accompanying it with a banana smoothie to put out the inevitable face fire.
Smile Beach Bar – Vang Vieng may be silly with drinking establishments, but every evening at sunset you’d find me in a hammock at Smile Beach Bar drinking a Lao Sunrise and watching the tubers drift in at the end of their long drunken voyages. The music selection at Smile bar is on point – no top-40 dance party beats or tiresome reggae jams – just perfectly chill ambient electronica to soundtrack the sunset.
Roti Stands – No drinking-based town would be complete without an army of street vendors dispensing low-cost, high-fat drunk munchies. You will have no trouble finding cheerful Laotian women with steel griddles whipping up hamburgers, omelettes, and roti (called “pancakes” on the signs). I reckon one stall is much the same as another, but if you want a religious experience, get a banana-Nutella “pancake” from the woman across the street from Garry’s Irish Pub. The combination of salty, buttery, sweet, and crispy will haunt you for days.
The roads in Laos are quite terrible, so unless you are an experienced motorbike driver, I recommend tuk tuk or mountain bike for getting around. Here are the rental places I recommend for two-wheeled conveyance:
Mountain Bikes: Wonderful Tours – Mountain bike rentals are 20,000 kip per day until 6PM with one piece of ID, not necessarily a passport. Brakes and shocks were good on the bikes I used, though they would fall out of gear if I pushed them too hard.
Motorbikes: This Place – It doesn’t have a name that I could see, but it rents well-maintained bikes for a reasonable price – 60,000 kip per day until 8PM for automatic transmission. The brakes were in extremely good condition – almost dangerously so if you’re used to spongey rental bike breaks – smooth acceleration and nice, wide tires. They only require 1 piece of ID for an entire group and it doesn’t have to be a passport if you have another form of ID available.
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