I traveled yesterday to Vang Vieng, a small town about halfway between Luang Prabang and the country’s capital city, Vientiane. I splurged on a VIP bus ticket, partially unwittingly, but wanting a higher level of comfort than a local bus. I’d heard that the ride was a miserable six hours over bumpy, unpaved mountain roads that wind and twist relentlessly.
It was all that and more. Thankfully, I had the two seats of my row to myself and I hunkered down with my iPod and braced myself. Before long, the Lao child across the aisle was puking into the barf bag supplied to all passengers when we boarded. Then the woman behind me started, too–and gripping the headrest of my seat for support as she retched violently. And that continued for not six, but eight hours, due to heavy fog. We stopped at a roadside stand where, thanks to the VIP ticket, we all received a free dinner of Vietnamese-style pho soup with abundant fresh herbs and a peppery broth. Absolutely delicious.
I was feeling apprehensive about my arrival in Vang Vieng. It’s a town that was unheard of just two years ago–but now it’s hit the backpacker radar in the worst way possible. Young, drunk Aussies (and others, but I do love to pick on the Aussies) come year-round to get obscenely drunk and high, float down the river on an innertube, stop at makeshift bars floating in the river and watch looping reruns of Friends and Family Guy in TV bars that have mushroomed (no pun intended) along the town’s only majorish road.
I was, in a word, reluctant. I had also heard that the scenery is spectacular and the region therefore warranted a visit. I hadn’t made any sleeping arrangements, dreading staying in places called “Chill-Lao” and “SpicyLao Backpackers.” I knew of an organic permaculture farm with beds a few kilometers out of the town, but was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find transport as I was arriving late at night. Thankfully, the bus unexpectedly stopped for a moment at the road leading to the farm and three of us tumbled out.
The farm was immediately a relief. It was a warm atmosphere and the cafe was serving dinner to a small group of chilled-out looking travelers. I was so glad. I chatted with Dennis, an American in his late 50s who basically just wanders the world. He most recently owned a few bungalows for backpackers in rural Guatemala. For cash, he goes back to the US a few months at a time and works as a pipefitter. Initially I wasn’t impressed, but his smoker’s cough, Texan’s drawl and traveler’s tales eventually won me over. We became friends.
I also chatted with Ryan, another American, who has been living on the farm for a few months. He filled in the details about the tubing for me. The idea was pretty repugnant to me as it is, but then there are the fatalities. Three people have died this year alone–and it’s barely February. Last year, the cumulative number was 22. They die by drunkenly jumping off of rickety plastic slides into the shallow river, falling drunkenly out of their inner tubes and drowning, or drunkenly thwacking their heads on the stopper bar on the zip lines recently installed here.
The innertubing has changed the town, too. Travelers stumble around in bikinis and board shorts, pissing and puking where they please. They grope each other, yell the cringe-inducing party “whoooo!” at all hours, and haggle relentlessly with the tuk-tuk drivers charged with returning them safely to their backpacker flophouses. The New Zealand Herald said it best–“If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng.” The farm folk, it suffices to say, aren’t impressed with the new influx of foreigners.
The launch for the tubers is, tragically, located exactly at the bank of the river occupied by the farm. In fact–it’s technically the farm’s fault that the tubing exists. Mr. T., the wonderful Lao founder of the farm, bought a few tubes for his volunteers to relax on the river in their downtime. The trend caught on, and now thousands of tourists clad in florescent Beerlao muscle shirts and string bikinis stumble past the farm to the tube launch everyday. Mr. T is devastated–and is considering moving the farm because of it, undoing a decade of hard work.
After a pleasantly chilly first night in the dorm ($3.75/night, with a hot shower and mosquito net!), I sat around the cafe chatting with Peter, a Danish man who has been cycling from Cambodia to Laos over the past month. He is absolutely delightful–maybe 50 years ago and owns a garden shop back home. When the weather is too cold to open his business, he comes cycling around the world. Dennis and I saw him off as he pedaled south to Vientiane to slowly make his way back to Cambodia.
Dennis walked to town and I hung back, waiting out the rain. Eventually it did let up, and I walked to town as well to get a motorbike to ride around on. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my passport and therefore wasn’t allowed to rent one–apparently a few have disappeared lately and they’re being extra cautious. So I instead rented a bicycle and spotted Dennis as I was pedaling north. He was renting a motorbike, and we joined forces on the road together.
We thought we’d just cruise around, but I’d snagged a fake copy of Lonely Planet Laos (take THAT, lanky Brit) from the farm and it mentioned a 20-mile loop through some amazing countryside. Having nothing better to do, we set off.
They say that the journey is the destination. In this case, I’d agree. Dennis on motorized wheels and me on leg-powered ones, we pedaled and scooted our way through lush scenery. It was still foggy, and heavy low clouds clung to the surrounding mountains, lending an air of mysticism and tropical appeal. Entire Lao families rode by on a single motorbike. Temples sat atop small hills and shone brightly against the multiple greens of the backdrop. The limestone karsts all around defied logic. It was astoundingly beautiful and I stopped several times to snap photos and marvel at the surroundings.
Despite the appeal of the countryside, the roads weren’t quite as pleasant. I was wearing a dress with tights underneath and was completely splattered with mud from the morning’s rain. The road itself, while adequate, was only patchily paved and the bike I’d rented was not off-road-ready–and this is the country’s national highway we’re talking about. It was a long ride of body-jolting rocky riding, but it was kind of fun. I was glad for the exercise and chance to explore the area.
The LP had said to find Km 169, turn left, and hunt around for some caves. We ended up visiting three caves in the area, one more spectacular than the next. They were full of stalactites and stalagmites and the floors were earthy and muddy. Some had water running through, others had unimaginably high ceilings, and others were full of quartz. Dennis is an amateur geologist and was able to explain a lot of the natural phenomena around us, which was extremely helpful.
We biked back to the farm–a long, hard haul uphill on bad roads. We arrived around 6 p.m. to thumping American dance music and drunken cries from the revelers on the water. Mr. T. sat at the reception desk, head in hands.
Much has been written about what’s happened to Vang Vieng at the hands of unchecked tourism. It’s tragic, but it sounds like at least the sheer number of fatalities has prompted discussions about safer, less disruptive ways to move forward here. But if the ubiquitous sound of hammers hammering and drills drilling is any indication–the industry is growing, not shrinking. It’s sad to see fellow travelers participating in something so clearly destructive and disrespectful. I’ve loved Laos so far and it’s been good to me, but Vang Vieng is a place I never need to visit ever again.