In about an hour from now, we’ll be on our way to Luang Prabang, our last stop in Laos. Vang Vieng has been everything we’d hoped for, and more. I can’t remember a time when I loved a landscape this much. It even rivals my love for Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Vang Vieng is lush, raw and it has everything I love: trees, mountains, animals and gorgeous winding rivers.
There is plenty to do here, and although the main draw for tourism is tubing down the river, I much preferred our first day here, when we rented a motorcycle and spent the day cruising around the countryside. My former student, Ivy, said it best: a beautiful landscape can calm anxiety and help you relax. With scenes like this, I was finally able to unwind from my stressful fall term:
We spent 4 hours cruising around. I feel like it was impossible for me to take a bad photo! Even on the back of a moving motorcycle, I was in a photographer’s paradise!
We saw plenty of animals along the way. Cows, chickens and pigs roam freely in the area. Everyone watches out for everyone else’s livestock. And here, like India and everywhere else I’ve ever been, cows rule the road.
We passed countless children on their way home from school. I know that poverty is a real problem here; Laos is a 3rd world country and is on the UN’s list of the world’s ‘least developed countries’ (along with Haiti, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and others). Still, the people who live here have a sort of wealth that I envy. They may not have flat screen TVs, but they have a pretty spectacular view. They may not have Xboxes and Macbooks, but they play football with the world’s nicest backdrop. They are wealthy in their own way.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’d trade my life for the life of a Laotian. As I mentioned in my last post, 300 people per year die here from UXOs from the Vietnam war. Laos’ GDP accounts for only 0.02% of the world’s economy, and as a result, people live in extreme poverty. They rely on donations from other countries to do things like build bridges or fix roads.
Tourism is important in these parts, and I always take that into account when I pay more than locals for food, drinks and pretty much everything. I have the money. I don’t mind paying a bit more. Luckily, Laos does have incredible attractions for people to enjoy.
This cave was small and terrifying so I never went into it. There are more caves than I can even count around Vang Vieng. Dave braved his way up this terrifying ‘staircase’ and was at the top before too long, exploring. I stayed down below and took some pictures of the area.
Blue Lagoon is one of Vang Vieng’s most visited locations. Unfortunately, it are very popular with the crowds, so we never went swimming. It was crowded and they were closing soon after we arrived, so we never bothered to try.
Instead, while the rest of our group swam, we explored the area a little bit.
We saw some people giving elephant rides, which was discouraging. There are so many attractions around these parts that there’s no reason to include elephant rides. The tour guide tried getting us to come over, but I snapped a picture and turned away. Mostly I just wanted a chance to remind my readers again how awful elephant rides are.
The Blue Lagoon did end end up providing us with some entertainment at the end of our stop there. A Chinese man had decided to jump off the high trunk of a tree. It was about 20 feet up, and he had climbed up, but didn’t want to jump. We watched him for more than 20 minutes. He jumped just as we got on the bus. It was pretty funny. I felt bad for the guy, but at the same time, I KNOW I’m a wimp, and that’s why I didn’t go up there in the first place.
I’m not going to go into much detail about the zip lining because I decided to write a short story about our experience. My major focus in all of my writing classes was creative non-fiction, and it’s been ages since I wrote a non-fiction story, and our trip out into the mountains had everything that a short story needs: humour, suspense and a clumsy and terrified protagonist. I’ll link that story here as soon as I’m done. For now, here are some pictures.
Tubing on the Nam Song River
Tubing down the river is the main reason people visit Vang Vieng. A few years back, the tubing experience was wild. People were getting drunk, getting high and dying on the river. In 2011 alone, at least 27 tourists died in Vang Vieng (the number is actually higher because many of the injured are sent to Vientiane, where they later die). Tourists hurt themselves jumping off of trees in shallow areas and many drowned after drinking shot after shot of Lao Lao (a local whisky) before hopping back on their tubes. It didn’t take long before Vang Vieng became known as South East Asia’s party town.
In 2012, things began to change. South East Asian tourism was suffering because of Vang Vieng’s bad reputation, and the Laotian government was pushed into making changes. I’m happy to say that the river is now a lovely, relaxing place where there are still bars (but fewer of them), but, for the most part, the environment is controlled and safe.
One thing worth mentioning though, is that if you book your day of tubing with the wrong people, you may not have the best time…
We had planned to take the North river on own own. We figured that if we didn’t go with a guide, we could take our time on the river (which is very lazy and slow moving) and meet up with like-minded people along the way. Instead, we ended up going down the south river with a guide, along with 6 European 20 year olds…
We were definitely not happy with the fact that we were made to stay at the first bar for nearly 90 minutes. Eventually, we told the guide we were going to leave with or without him. He realized that we weren’t there to get sloshed and assigned us a different guide and let us go ahead. That hour and half was gorgeous. I actually fell asleep once or twice because the river was so comfortable and relaxing.
Our tour guide also fell asleep on the way down. He realized quickly that he didn’t need to worry about us, so he enjoyed the ride down.
I wish we’d had a couple of hours of this and that we hadn’t had a guide at all, but still, we made do and had a very nice time on the Nam Song River.
I took a video at one point down the river. Notice the silence. This sort of serenity is exquisite for someone who lives in China 10 months of the year…
When we reached the end of the tour, we found at ourselves at another bar…this time it was for 2 hours. You can’t exactly go flag down a tuk tuk in the middle of nowhere, so we were stranded and stuck waiting until our guide let us leave. We found out later that people who had started 2 hours later than us were leaving at the same time, because they hadn’t gone on a tour with a guide who forced them to stay at bars in the hopes of making extra money.
Travelling does something strange to nomads like me. When you visit all these different places, certain ones really stick with you. Kratie in Cambodia, Chiang Mai in Thailand, Goa in India… These places somehow manage to steal a piece of your heart, and they leave you feeling homesick for them, even if your time there was short. Vang Vieng is now a part of that list. I will always remember it and always feel drawn to it.
I hope one day we can go back and see Vang Vieng again. Until then, I have plenty more to look forward to!
Next stop, Luang Prabang!