Vang Vieng is widely known as Laos’ main party destination, where every restaurant has a ‘happy’ menu and boozed-up backpackers float hazily down the Nam Song in truck tyre inner-tubes from bar to bar. Things got a little out of hand there for a while, and a few travellers died zip lining across the river, smashing into the shallows between drinks/joints/pills/whatever, so the Lao authorities cracked down on the area and shut all but a few bars down. Now, the ziplines hang still and silent across the Nam Song, and the wooden shells of former drinking holes quietly observe the river drift by. The revellers are still there, but it’s a fair bit tamer, by all accounts.
Everyone we know who’d visited Vang Vieng before us said they’d loved it – but they had been twenty-something singles, not (almost) forty-something married old fogies with two kids in tow. So, apart from stunning scenery – caves to explore, rivers to kayak, villages to trek – we didn’t know what to expect.
We rolled out of Luang Prabang towards Vang Vieng in this beauty. Known in Laos as a ‘VIP Bus’, we like to call her Madame Sardine Tin.
We specifically chose the ‘VIP’ bus to avoid minibuses, which are infamous around here for their crammage, but, alas, there were only twenty-five of us travelling by ‘VIP’ bus at 10am from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng on that day, so they downgraded us to Mme Sardine. We were lucky we booked early enough the day before to get actual seats. Some of our unfortunate fellow passengers had dicky fold-out seats in the aisle – not fun for a seven hour bus ride through winding mountains. That’s right – in Laos it takes seven hours to cover the 168km from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng.
The road between the two towns – one of the country’s main highways, is reminiscent of a goat track. Okay, it’s a paved road, but it’s a hairy one, climbing steadily, curving around steep mountainsides, across saddleback ridges, and through Hmong villages perched precariously on the slopes, a seemingly endless trail of twists and turns, and more twists, and more turns.
I can imagine that the scenery would have once been spectacular as the road cut through highland forests which once blanketed the hillsides. As it is, the journey is a very sobering reminder of what a destructive species we are. Fires spread across the ranges as we passed, as the Hmong villagers, some of the poorest people of Laos, slashed and burned the countryside to prepare for planting in the coming wet season. The Hmong were originally from China. Speaking their own dialect, practising animalist spirituality, and known for their indigo dyes and jewellery, the Hmong people have spread across the highland regions of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. If you’ve done a ‘hill tribe trek’ in south-east Asia, you’ve probably visited a Hmong community.
As we travelled through the hills, a thick smoke-haze blocked out the blue sky. You get used to the smell after a while, but the ravaged landscape, with its brown scars, is difficult to forget.
Unfortunately, given their poverty, and the challenges presented by the steep land they have to cultivate, the hill tribe farmers have little choice but to continue this practice. What they need is education of its impacts on the forests, land and air, and support from the government to introduce more sustainable agricultural methods. Again, unfortunately, the Lao government is much more interested at the moment in making money from Chinese investors in hydroelectrocity and lucrative cash crops than assisting their people to take care of the environment (or get an education, or access healthcare, among other things). The Chinese are paying big bucks to build dams in Laos, and to use Lao land to grow food to ship back to China. We saw big banana and watermelon plantations in the north where China is paying Lao people (and giving the Lao government kickbacks) to grow their food.
I can hear you now: ‘Get off your soapbox, Lisa. Yes, yes, greedy, self-interested governments are bad. Get on with it. Did you ever arrive in Vang Vieng?’
Okay, okay! Yes, after seven hours of sitting on sweaty arses and drooling on our neighbours’ shoulders, (which included a half hour stop for some boiled rice and something mushy that resembled pig intestines, included in our ‘VIP’ tickets) we arrived in Vang Vieng. Our average speed for the journey was 25.84km/hour, which I’ve calculated based on 6.5 hours of travel as I deducted the half-hour rest stop. (Did I mention there was an annoying Canadian who didn’t seem to know how air conditioning works and had the bus window open the whole way? I’m sure the breeze was lovely in his face while the rest of us just got the heat. Idiot.)
I should also mention that Phoebe and Blake were amazing travelling angels. They only started throwing their toys around the bus in the last half hour or so. I was secretly hoping they’d hit the idiot Canadian. I think it was a welcome distraction for the other passengers. That, or they hated our guts. By that stage I didn’t care.
For us, arriving in Vang Vieng was a culture shock, but not as you would expect. It wasn’t Asian culture shock. It was western shock. After the tranquility of Luang Prabang, which was full of tourists, but still felt authentic, Vang Vieng was like a Wild West town on steroids, full of young, loud, drunk people still watching ‘Friends’ reruns in bars with Rasta flags. (Really, guys? It’s 2016!) The roads were uneven, dusty and unguttered, and every second building was being knocked down and rebuilt along the main strip. I felt like a doddery old granny who stumbled into a striplclub, and I just wished I could find my way back to my knitting nannas.
Altight, it wasn’t quite that bad, but I did wish I was back in Luang Prabang, or that we had gone north to Nong Khiaw, a quieter town four hours north-east of Luang Prabang – we’d decided not to go as we didn’t want to have to backtrack – four hours there meant four hours back…
Then, we saw the sunset over the Nam Song, the limestone mountains rising majestically in the background, and realised everything was going to be ok.
Early morning was equally as impressive.
After all, it is the spectacular surrounds that drew travellers to Vang Vieng in the first place. Nature was why we were there. We ended up loving it. Ok, that might be a stretch. We didn’t hate it.
Next post… Adventures around Vang Vieng. Stay tuned.