Vang Vieng – The Reformed Tourist Destination

About a decade ago this small town was the hub of sinful travel in SE Asia. It was a drug-heaven, a center for flesh trade, and a place for wealthy backpackers to enjoy various gifts of nature. A swift government action took away all the crime and what was left was a lot of tourist infrastructure and the beautiful nature. Soon Vang Vieng found a new USP as it evolved as an ecotourism destination. The beautiful river and lagoons allowed for some amazing tubing and diving while the waterfalls made for lovely hikes and a lot of offroading. The only thing missing was safety measures but when the media is state-controlled, it matters less.

It all came with a few large pinches of salt. When there were other sinful distractions, the flood of tourists had very little time to spend at the truly natural spots so they were well preserved. Now there are hundreds of ATVs driving around the popular trails, a few hundred tubes flowing down the narrow river and the fabled blue lagoon-1 looks more like a pretty pond than the romantic images associated with the name. There is even a sign that doesn’t jump in when drunk – which makes you think of what would have made the sign necessary. No one follows it anyway! There is a lot of commercial development around it, taking away any sense of it being this isolated blue lake in the middle of the hills.

The town is small and completely packed with hotels, massage places, restaurants, adventure tour companies, and a few souvenir shops. There is a small night market that sells some interesting things – especially paintings. Roads are narrow and the town has a true backpacking destination feel to it, just a very large one. The best part of the town is the river and the cliffs around it. It is quite a narrow meandering river with several very dangerous-looking bridges to go across. A lot of restaurants have riverside seating in local style and serve international cuisine with a lot of cheap drinks. The food quality wasn’t top notch but it wasn’t bad for a tourist-focused town.

We didn’t have much time here and in hindsight, the one night was enough. I wasn’t too keen on adventure sports which have a very poor safety record and are very crowded. In the evening we settled down at a river-side restaurant for some local food and beer. There was a consideration for a massage as they seemed to have a very local flavor but it was swapped for a walk in the night market. I didn’t buy much but it was a good flavor of the city and in no time we had reached the end. The party moved back to the hotel which was right by the river and had a view. At night we could see the lights of all the restaurants, the outline of the river, and some scary looking bridges.

The view in the morning was just another story. Right beyond the river, there were some stunning rocky cliffs that were completely hidden from the view in the dark. In the morning there were part covered in a low hanging cloud and made for some picture-postcard views. The clouds changed their colors with the sunrise and these made for some even more memorable moments. The hotel had a pool overlooking these stunning views. It was a good place to sit after breakfast and soak in the surroundings.

We worked with the hotel to get a Tuk Tuk to take us around and get some local sightseeing and then a private SUV to drive us to Luang Prabang. The SUV was a great idea, the Tuk Tuk not so much. The broken roads, some overnight rain, and hilly terrain don’t go well with a vehicle without rear shock absorbers.

The first stop was a waterfall, something slightly offbeat and not on the typical tourist map. The road, if it can be called that, passed through some beautiful green areas and views of hills and cliffs. The non-tarred road kept getting worse and on one of the slopes, our tuk-tuk got stuck. It could go back not further up. We decided to convert about the rest of the drive into a trek and it was a nice walk to the foot of the waterfall. The waterfall wasn’t big, but quite secluded and made for some amazing pools. There was a hike up to the top of the waterfall. We turned back halfway just because we were out of time, we had to drive up to Luang Prabang post-lunch. There was a lot of discussion on jumping into the pool of water, but some floating spiders made the decision for us and we walked past, mostly dry.

The next stop was the fabled Blue Lagoon, a lake of deep blue water, in the middle of a hilltop. The creek of water has a lot of colorful fish and several trees leaning over that can be used to jump into it, through a swing or otherwise. A bridge crosses over the water to add to a viewing point but messes up the natural look of the Blue Lagoon. There is also a lot of small construction around the place and the crowds that destroy the serenity. This one is definitely on all tourist maps. There are two more Blue Lagoons – very innovatively called Blue Lagoon 2 and Blue Lagoon 3. We did not venture there, but I don’t think much was missed.

We got back to a quick Lao lunch at a place across the Amari hotel, where we were staying. By the time we were done, our car was ready to take us to Luang Prabang. Unlike the rough ride the day before, this was a smooth and beautiful ride. A ‘short cut’ on the way takes you up the largest mountain in Laos to about 1500mts making for some beautiful views and stunning scenery. Right at the top of the mountain, there is a small rest area and washrooms to take a break. The parking lot is beautifully positioned on the edge of the mountain and would have offered great views, but it was fully clouded out the day we were there. That was beautiful and serene too!

It was late evening by the time we reached Luang Prabang and my favorite part of the trip started…

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