THE STUNNING SCENERY OF VANG VIENG
Nestled along the banks of the Namsong River, in amongst the karst hills of central Laos, Vang Vieng is a small town with a great laid-back vibe to it. The scenery around here is nothing short of spectacular and there are heaps of cool ways to enjoy the river, caves, and mountains that surround Vang Vieng. The town was known as a wild party destination for years, but has reinvented itself in recent years as the adventure sports capital of Laos. Mountain biking, trekking, kayaking, caving, swimming, and rock climbing, are all on offer here and you could easily spend a week or 2 enjoying everything Van Vieng has to offer. We chose to start our explorations of the area with a half day kayaking trip down the Namsong River and it was AWESOME!
Once little more than a bus stop on the long journey between Vientiane, the Laotian capital, and the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng became a destination in its own right in the late 1990s. The first backpackers who came here were attracted to the town’s beautiful natural setting, with the highlight being a ride down the Namsong River in an inflated tractor inner-tube. Tubing, as it’s know around here, is Van Vieng’s most popular activity. And with good reason – the stunning rock formations that loom either side of the river make for some great views.
Bars opened up along the Namsong River, selling drinks to backpackers as they floated past. Sounds idyllic, until you mix in drugs, debauchery, and a good dose of hedonism. At one stage as many as 20 bars lined the river, with pulsating music, excessive drinking games and rampant drug-taking the norm. After 27 tourists died while partying on the river in 2011, however, the local authorities clamped down on the “tubing scene” and shut down many of the bars. Today just 5 bars operate along the river and Van Vieng’s days a wild party town seem to be over (thank goodness – wild debauchery is not really our thing).
For breakfast we went out to the Luang Prabang Bakery, a local institution famous for its “real” coffee (i.e. espresso coffee, rather than instant) and French pastries. Once again we were able to take advantage of the colonial French influence here in South East Asia and enjoyed a wonderful morning repast of café-au-lait and croissants. Amazing really when you think where we are (i.e. middle of NO WHERE)!
Our kayaking guide picked us up around 8:30am and took our little group of 10 eager kayakers out of town about 12km to their “headquarters” – Lao style.
Here we were given a quick briefing and got fitted with life jackets, helmets, and water proof carry bags for our gear. There was a lot of talk of rapids and what to do if you fell out of your kayak, which made me a little nervous, but Shane assured me he would take care of me (we were all in 2-person kayaks).
A few minutes later we were in our kayaks and off down the Namsong River.
The scenery was spectacular, especially with the sun shining overhead and the cool waters of the river lapping at our kayaks.
We had to navigate 6-7 sets of rapids over the course of our 3 hour journey, most of which were pretty tame. We managed to stay out of the water thanks to Shane’s superior paddling and steering skills*
*We agreed up front that, as I’m not the most confident kayaker, my job was to paddle when he told me to and to take photos with our little water-proof camera, his job was to keep us as dry as possible. We both did admirably.
Along the way we passed a few riverside villages, where we saw kids playing in the crystal clear waters of the river, men fishing, and women washing clothes.
The current was pretty strong and we were heading downstream so it was actually pretty easy going most of the time. Often we were just drifting with the current, captivated by the scenery.
After about 2 hours we reached the riverside area once lined with bars. Here we pulled over for a drink at one of the few remaining establishments and got to sit on one of the raised bamboo platforms with our feet dangling in the cool waters of the Namsong River whilst enjoying a refreshing beverage.
A few tubers* floated past while we were there, enjoying the views as much as we were – though admittedly THEIR way looked waaaaay more relaxing!
*Not potatoes or yams, but people floating down the river on inflated tyre tubes.
Around midday we pulled into Vang Vieng, our journey at an end. We were a bit wet and sunburnt, but happy to have spent the morning doing something so great.
After a quick change of clothes, we went out for some midday sustenance at a local eatery. Lunch was a quick dish of stir fried rice, chicken, and vegetables, served with the usual Laotian dose of chilli and lime. As we’ve come to expect here in Laos, the food was simple but tasty – and it’s great how they give you the chilli on the side so you can add as much (or as little) as you want.
We had planned to just spend the afternoon in and around Vang Vieng town, but exploring the 2 main streets took all of 10 minutes so we had to find entertainment further afield. Our solution: visit Tham Jang cave.
Vang Vieng is surrounded by limestone caves, carved out of the karst hills over the millennia by rain and wind. We chose to visit Tham Jang as it’s the closet one to town, being a leisurely 20 minutes walk away. The dirt road we walked down took us past rice paddies and along the Namsong River, providing us with more great views.
Considered by many to be Vang Vieng’s most important cave, Tham Jang is situated up a steep set of steps, inside one of the karst cliffs. The views from the top of the stairs were pretty awesome, though the climb itself was hard work given how hot and humid it was!
The cave itself was huge, going back 150m of more into the mountain. During the years of the Laotian civil war (1955-1975), locals used the cavern as a refuge.
There is a spring in the cave that feeds the pool of cold, clear blue water just outside the entrance, and a shrine inside the cave dedicated to Buddha.
It was an interesting enough cave to visit, though for us the walk to and from Tham Jang was probably more fun than the cavern itself as it gave us a chance to enjoy the scenery and see a bit more of the town.
We ended our day with dinner at the local Laotian/German restaurant, where the beer was cold and schnitzel delicious. Who would have thought that you could find good schnitzel in Laos?! This country is full of surprises!