As I hope you have already read, we started our Laos trip by taking part in the Gibbon Experience which left us on a massive high. After that things took a bit of a slump in terms of excitement. We made our way downstream on the Mekong’s slow-boat to Luang Prabang. This small town turned out to be way quieter (in terms of activities) than we had expected and we only really visited Kuang Si Falls during our stay – which was totally worth it because, just wow.
Enduring yet another bumpy, winding mini-bus journey (my insides are well and truly muddled by now) we arrived at Phonsavan. Here we explored the ‘Plain of Jars’ which is an expanse of land filled with mysterious, old stone jars. It was actually very interesting, if not a little sad, since this was one of the most bombed areas in Laos during the Vietnamese War. Huge craters and unexploded bombs can be found everywhere. We read that an estimated 30% of all bombs dropped during the war were unexploded meaning around 80 million UXO (unexploded bombs) still remain across the country. Just in the Plain of Jars around 60 people a year die from UXO, so the best advice is to stick to the paths.
The jars were supposedly used for decomposing bodies in rice wine, but where they came from no one knows.
Moving on, we made it to Vang Vieng. There is certainly more life in this city but what we loved most about it is the surroundings. Encircled by mountains with the river flowing lazily through the town the natural beauty of Vang Vieng wins you over instantly. There is also far more to do here than at any of the previous towns we had visited in Laos.
Ten years ago river tubing in Vang Vieng was big business. The river essentially became a day time party for backpackers, floating along and stopping at the many bars on the riverside for drinks (and drugs). Unfortunately, like is the case with these things, a few people would take it too far and eventually people ended up dying. After this, the government cracked down on tubing so what is left is a more toned-down version of the previous experience. Nonetheless, we enjoyed ourselves.
There were 3 bars still operating along the river (albeit at inflated prices) and in the sunshine it was glorious. Floating down the river a little tipsy, enjoying the mountain view was great. Then we realised somehow, somewhere along the way, we had lost track of time and we were only half way back to town with a rapidly falling sun. Before you knew it we were floating in total darkness along the river. It became a little less relaxing and a little more of a struggle to speed up and get back at this point, but we still had fun.
I’m sure 10 years ago river tubing would have been an unforgettable experience, now its just something nice to do. I definitely saw a couple of disappointed faces amongst the crowd who were expected utter craziness. If that’s what you are expecting, maybe give it a miss.
There are at least 5 blue lagoons in the nearby vicinity. When I say blue lagoons I mean natural swimming pools, except not that natural since they are all man made (as far as I could tell). But they are outside, in the beautiful countryside with fish swimming in them and things to jump off! In other words, they’re good fun.
We rented a moped and zipped across to lagoon 3 (40 minutes away). There are zip lines and bamboo floats and even a couple of bunny rabbits hopping around. There was also a cave you could explore, which we walked too but then decided we valued our lives too much to go in. It was pitch black, very tight and had no evidence of any safety checks.
The only other lagoon we stopped off at was lagoon 1. It was already 5pm at this point but even with the sun behind the mountains we jumped into the fresh water and had some fun. There is a tree maybe 10 metres high you can jump off of, if you’ve got the guts!
There a few hiking trails around Vang Vieng that take you up some of the surrounding mountains. Since we didn’t want to spend another £7 to hire a moped for a second day, we began our hike from the town. It was a 45 minute walk (4km) in 35 degree heat to the base of Pha Ngern mountain. Then a gruelling, steep ass climb up the mountain which depending on your fitness could take 30-60 minutes. On our descent we even met a couple that had climbed 70% of the way up the mountain, given up and started climbing down again. Once you reach the 3rd and final viewpoint though, you are rewarded! The flat green fields and encircling mountain peaks stretch out in front of you. A great place to recover and bask in the glory of reaching the top!
By the time we got back to the base of the mountain again, I was well and truly pooped. Me and a friend hitchhiked back to town whilst Brad and the others we were travelling with carried on to the next peak. This was another 4km or so away from town, still in the draining heat. Upon reaching Nam Xay viewpoint Brad climbed an almost vertical path to the top, taking around half an hour (short but tough). Again, rewarded with absolutely breathtaking views and remaining there until the sun started to set.
If you’ve got what it takes, dig deep and make it to at least one of the view points. This may be one of the most scenic places in Laos (on the tourist trail at least) and is worth every bead of sweat!
If, like the many young Koreans that we saw here, you are after a party scene or you just want to enjoy the lovely surrounding environment, Vang Vieng has something for you! It was a welcome stop after a slightly dissapointing stay in Luang Prabang.
Apart from an overnight stop in Vientiane, the capitol, Vang Vieng was our final destination in Northern Laos. We moved on to the even more peaceful South to witness the vastness of the Mekong- blog coming soon.