Vang Vieng was once a backpacker’s den of iniquity; rude, loud behavior, drugs and public drunkenness, and parties until dawn. The travel books and the travel blogs painted the picture that way anyhow. Not my scene. Why were we even stopping there? Oh, right. Vang Vieng was mid-way between Vientiane and Phonsavan and broke up the spine-jarring minivan ride into more manageable chunks.
Though I try not to have expectations, I was half expecting to not like Vang Vieng and doubted that the much talked about “clean up” in 2012 did a lot of good. I’m happy to report, that it did. The vibe was mellow and the tourists were well behaved for the most part. Vang Vieng is still geared for the younger crowd but we old farts fell into a comfortable routine in our few days there.
The Morning Routine
The Maylay Guesthouse was centrally located, so we’d start our days with a walk along the river or a stroll to a wat, or amble through town or out of town. We’d fallen in love with the food and the atmosphere at a grill-shack on the banks of the Nam Song River, so at lunchtime, we’d head there. Little, thatched-roof, wooden-platform, tatami room-looking seating areas crouched over the river. We’d carefully get to one via shaky wooden catwalks scattered willy-nilly between the platforms over the shallow flowing water. The ADA folks would have had a field day.
The grill girl would recognize us and give us a big, bright smile. That wasn’t a common thing as it turned out, probably because in years prior backpackers came in and changed the place instead of trying to appreciate what was here. Hopefully, those days have truly passed.
We’d order a chicken leg, a Lao sausage, and spicy green papaya salad. For our dining entertainment one day, the bus boy or whatever his official title was, fed the minnows right in front of our comfortable and shady platform. Hundreds of little fish arrived out of nowhere the moment the crumbs hit the water. He’d explain in great detail (in a tongue which we couldn’t decipher) and great animation how he intended to rig a net to catch the fish, another great smile.
After lounging around for a couple of hours, enjoying the wonderful food, cold BeerLaos, trance-inducing Jam-tronica, and the sights and sounds of the river, we’d eventually motivate ourselves to move toward our room for a shower, a little internet time, and a game of cribbage.
The Evening Routine
Evenings weren’t a heck of a lot different. Hey, you stick with what works, right? On the first night, we found the restaurant with the very best view for sunset encompassing the river and the karsts. Karsts are vegetation-covered, limestone, mini-mountains that stick up so vertically that they look like mossy tongue depressors stuck into the river bed. We’d kick off our sandals, sit cross-legged on the raised platform, and savor different Lao dishes until the sun was spent and the river of bats emerged from their cave.
The clean-up in 2012 did this town a great service. The relaxing atmosphere and the somewhat shy but ever-present smiles make it a destination that anyone can enjoy. It’s easy to get lulled into spending more time in Vang Vieng than initially planned. Actually, we did spend an extra day because the minibus to Phonsavanh was full. Oh well, sometimes you just have to roll with the punches.
Hike Drink Live Laugh
All photos: PK
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