Vang Vieng aka the Missoula of Laos

By Nate

      We came into Lao through the Wattay airport in Vientiane, spent one night there, then made our way north to the ‘sanctuary’ of Vang Vieng(VV).  It was a five hour bus ride from Vientiane, half filled with curvy, bumpy roads that brought us to Main Street VV just after sunset. We booked five nights at the Chillao hostel. Normally we’d never book that many nights in a row, but we only had a fixed amount of time to enjoy VV and didn’t want the hassle of moving or not being able to extend our stay. Upon arrival at the Chillao we were told to go put our stuff away and come back to the lobby soon, it was almost 7, and from 7 to 10 every night there was free whiskey. We assumed it was one free drink that they poured for you; nope as much whiskey as you wanted for 3 hours. They sold coke and sprite and provided filtered ice, but you were the only one who would be controlling the amount of Tiger Whiskey you consumed.  

      We woke up the following morning a little groggy, but no worse for wear. Vang Vieng had stood out to us because of the rivers, the floating, the mountains and of course the caves, all things except the caves reminded us a lot of Missoula. Our first day in VV we decided on renting bicycles and making our way to the blue lagoon and visit the cave just above it. After a beautiful 8ish mile bike ride through farm land smattered with hills, mountains and cliff sides we reached blue lagoon; a swimming hole turned tourist attraction. First, we went to the cave.  A steep climb lead to a wide opening which then lead to a well lit gargantuan rotunda displaying a life sized lying Buddha. This cave had a few different openings throughout one side that let in a pretty fair amount of light, as far as caves go. We made our way about a third of a mile into the cave before we were dead ended, but really enjoyed the very wide ranging cave. There were lots of different routes to take, as the cave was 200 yards wide in some places and it was fun to climb around on the dark playground.  

      Next we went swimming in the Blue Lagoon. It was more than a little crowded but we had fun going off the rope swing. There was also a ‘high dive’ as long as you climbed a janky latter to access an overhanging tree limb about 15 feet above Lagoon. 

We took turns enjoying the cool water. I nearly got kicked in the face by a transvestite doing a backflip but she missed and it all worked out. The ride back was mostly downhill so we took our time to enjoy the breeze and take in the views. 

      Our second day in VV we decided to head north to water cave where you could sit on a tube and pull yourself by a rope into the cave.  There were guided options but we decided to rent a moto instead of going with a tuk-tuk service. This place met my two requirements for Moto rental: little to no traffic and mostly paved roads. I know, high standards. It’s a good thing we went on our own, we noticed when we got there the tours weren’t going to two of the caves just down the path from the main attraction. It worked out well for us, we had the two caves entirely to ourselves. The first was a pretty crazy natural tunnel that was big enough to fit a bus. It continued into the Earth a half mile or so before we reached the end. The second had a maze of passageways and some really good acoustic stalactites perfect for amateur drumming. As usual, both had a Buddha guarding the entrance. It was nice to have those caves all to ourselves in the quiet darkness.

        After returning our headlamps, we made our way to the river to get changed and ready for a tube ride into water cave. We slowly started pulling ourselves into the cave.  Little by little the cave entrance got smaller and darkness engulfed us all while drifting reclined and relaxed. While this was an excellent way to see a cave, this one was not quiet and peaceful as the first two had been and was chock-full of noisy tourists trying to hear their echo. 

      The Moto ride went smoothly and for the third night in a row we took full advantage 3 hours of free whiskey.

       We did make our way to the river to watch the sunset at a place called the Smile Bar. It had a row of hammocks, a row of individual docks, a firepit and a stage. The dock had a sign that said we had to purchase one beer for one hour of sitting time. So we bought two – one each. It was a nice spot to watch the sunset, a few tardy tubers, fire twirlers, hot air balloons and low flying fan parasails. The signs call them paramotors. Though they look awesome, not sure Laos is my place to try one. Also, we heard they’re $80 for a ride. That’s not a bad price, but honestly I’d rather pay a little more when my life literally hangs in the balance.

    The following day was December 21st the winter solstice, what better way to celebrate\mock winter than to spend the day floating on a river.  Our hostel had an advertisement that offered tubes for rent and transportation, so we booked.  We’d seen tuk tuks overflowing with tubes and tourists heading north, the idea was to get dropped off north and float back south to town.  However, our tuk tuk kept going further and further south.  At first, we thought he was going somewhere to pick up more tubes, but we both got a little nervous when he started heading down a dirt road 4 or 5 miles south of town.  Turns out we booked with the new company that took you south of the city, then McKayla and I would float alone for ‘about 2 and half hours’ further south then we’d see where to get out and the driver would be waiting to take us back to town.  After an awkward talk over the phone (because the driver didn’t speak any English), we made him take us back into town.  I’m sure it all would’ve worked out, but south to go south, no clear exit, no idea where we are, no thanks.  I’m glad McKayla was persistent about going back, because I probably would’ve just gone with it, but we got back to VV, got a refund and found the right company with enough time to get on the river by 2pm.  

      Within 5 minutes of getting our asses wet, we saw bars along the river trying to fish tubers out of the river.  If you gave a wave ,a shirtless Laotian guy would throw a water bottle attached to a small rope over your head, you grab the rope, they real you in and you can go grab yourself a beverage with your fellow tubers (it was a pretty sweet system).  We waited until the third bar before we gave the signal; it was still warm at 2pm, but we only had until 6pm before the sun went down and we had about 3 hours worth of floating to do.  Taking the ‘lure’ we were pulled into shore, grabbed a beer, and started talking to some fellow tubers.  It wasn’t long and they were ready to head out and invited us along.  Alright, better to keep moving, we didn’t have much time to sit off of a tube anyhow.  There were 8 of us in total – 3 guys, (a German, a Brazilian and a Kiwi), an English couple and a Dutch girl.  They’d all met on the bus ride to VV that morning, and were all a little different in their own ways.  I’m fairly certain the kiwi was the only other one who’d been on a tube before, not to say it’s a difficult skill but the others had a lot of questions and didn’t quite seem comfortable.  The longer we drifted, the further apart the bars became and we actually got to enjoy some relative quiet and some pretty great mountain views.  

      The later it became in the day, the more our group began to collectively break down.  We had to calm people down that we’d actually make it to town before sundown and had to listen to constant complaints about how ‘it’s soooo cold, are you not cold?’, no and if I was I wouldn’t be whining about it.  The skinny tour boats passing us on the river only made things worse as they would wave at us, and our group would start yelling to be towed in.  We pointed our group to the Smile Bar. ‘You can get back from there’, while McKayla and I took the last boat exit available, a block from the tube rental place.  The river stretch was great, but nothing can match those Missoula floats when it comes to the company.

      For whatever reason in VV, ‘Friends’ was still all the rage.  There were at least 5 bars set up with lounge seating, a table your feet would slide under and you’d lean or lay back, order some food or drink and watch reruns of ‘Friends’.  It was hard not to get sucked into the coziness of soft pillows, hot tea and Jennifer Aniston.  

      For our last day we rented bikes and went out of town to a nearby waterfall.  It was a fairly bumpy ride, but we made it up to the fairly unimpressive little waterfall that wasn’t flowing that strong here in the dry season.  There was a small rainbow playing against the falls that we took full advantage of for some colorful, ‘ha’ photos.  The ride down was much more fun than the ride up, but equally destructive to our undercarriages.  

      The last night in VV we hit the town, heading to the famous Sakura bar where McKayla had originally wanted a shirt until she found out what it translated to – “drink triple, see double, act single”.  It was a fun night, and we had a blast in VV, but it was time to head back to Vientiane to spend Christmas in the capital.  


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