If you Google Vang Vieng, a town 156km north of the capital of Laos, it is likely that you will come across an article about the town’s notorious party image. Tubing, a way of floating down Vang Vieng’s Nam Song River by means of an air-filled tube, is a popular traveler’s rite of passage. Tourists on the tube would come to a number of bar stops along the river to get loaded in whatever means. Though this has led most to an ecstatic frenzy, the act unfortunately has also led to a number of accidents and deaths.
This was the scene in Vang Vieng that is until the wild trips were put to a halt by authorities. Tourists can still tube down the river but the riverside bars, the rope swings, the zip lines and the slides are all gone.
Unfortunately, Vang Vieng’s reputation has been so tainted that most travelers are encouraging future tourists to skip the town and head to other areas of Laos instead. What they’ve been missing however, is what they’ve been seeking to experience – the true serenity of Vang Vieng that has shone through since the debauchery has subsided. And I felt it most when I was there in November, the perfect month for the best weather in Laos.
Vang Vieng is way beyond what I’ve imagined. And it’s not surprising why most visitors never left. One of the guesthouse owners told me he arrived in Vang Vieng in mid 2000 and has stayed there since. Apart from being flood and typhoon free, Vang Vieng can lure any tourist with its natural beauty and calmness.
One afternoon, I sat down in front of my guesthouse and marveled at the town’s picturesque limestone karst terrain. The breeze was fresh and cool, and there weren’t enough cars to distract the senses. I then noticed a tuktuk driver parked near the guesthouse’s entrance. He positioned himself in the front seat with his arms placed at the back of his head. He stared at tourists passing by and started to sleep. I too started to feel sedated, and I couldn’t help it. I felt at peace in Vang Vieng.
Even as I went tubing down the river, the only noise I heard was from Laotian children enjoying themselves or my own voice screeching once in a while after a hard rock bump. There was no sign of mayhem. I was, in all honesty, in my own natural psychedelic trip induced by the beautiful landscape that surrounded me.
The present scene is a far cry from what most articles have described. CNN once wrote about Vang Vieng, citing hedonistic acts that eclipse the quaintness of the Laotian town. However, my own experience gave me one of my best travel memories. Though I did find myself in the local hospital with an extraordinary skin rash (probably from something I ate), Vang Vieng became my favorite paradise throughout my journey.
There’s no point in skipping Vang Vieng. It’s a town to be experienced. Though you can still catch a person or two baked as early as 3pm (like anywhere in the world), the chaos has dwindled. The town’s beauty remains and everything and everyone seems to be calm now, including the tuktuk driver.
My heart goes out to the families of those who passed away in Vang Vieng. And may the victims rest in peace.
A few photos of Vang Vieng: