Vang Vieng Eco Tourism

19 02 2009

Vang Vieng, Laos

Having rethought our original plan to visit random far-off cities in Laos, Gage and I decided to cut down on bus ride time and make smaller hops. From Vientiane the next closest destination is Vang Vieng. This is a city that we specifically wanted to avoid. Though said to have tons of natural beauty, it is also a major backpacker pitstop that seems to attract the worst type of travelers. Aside from landscape, Vang Vieng has two unique attractions, the riverside beer bars catering to people tubing the river and restaurants with platform beds setup in front of TV’s that play endless episodes of Friends. I have no idea how these sorts of things evolve, but they are now staples of Vang Vieng and attract the sort of people that want to get drunk while tubing down a river or veg out in front of a TV for hours on end. After unloading from the bus and crossing into town our fears were confirmed. Drunken, half-naked white kids in swimsuits were wandering around town and the colored lights of Friends restaurants glowed all the way down the street. We were scared. We thought we had made a mistake. But after checking into our hotel we decided to wander the town and give it a shot. When we got down to the riverside we saw this….

Vang Vieng & the Nam Song River

Vang Vieng & the Nam Song River

And suddenly everything was OK.

Vang Vieng borders the Nam Song River which winds through magnificent limestone karsts, almost all of which house expansive caves. Songthaews regularly ran into and out of the city carrying loud white kids in their skivvies and a load of tubes. After seeing the first three of those we decided that the famous tubing scene was not for us. Laos is a very conservative and traditional country. Men occasionally swim without a shirt on, but otherwise the Lao people swim fully clothed. They find people who do otherwise quite embarrassing. So we decided to go on a half day kayak trip with Green Discovery Tours, an eco-tourism company. Early in the morning we loaded into a songthaew with four cool people, Kate and Ben from Australia and Oded and Yurim from Israel, who were to be part of our kayak group.

Getting ready to kayak.

Getting ready to kayak.

Despite the low water of the dry season, the current on the Nam Song River moves pretty fast. Good thing too because we spent most of our time looking around at the beautiful scenery instead of paddling.

Should be paddling.

Should be paddling.

The beer bars were indeed lining the river, however we were out pretty early so they were empty except for a few morning drinkers. As our boat occasionally scraped the river rocks I couldn’t help feeling bad for the tubers who would inevitably have a very scraped and bruised rear end. We even saw one tube girl take to a rope swing which I thought was pretty death defying since the majority of the rocks in the Nam Song are limestone and razor sharp.

Riverside bar for tubers.

Riverside bar for tubers.

Half way down the group pulled their kayaks ashore and we went into the brush to check out the Sleeping Cave, a cave famous from the days of American carpet bombing where the villagers went for shelter. I could see why, out of all the caves in the region, this would be a good one for sleeping. Accessible from the river and filled with large, smooth ground surfaces, it wouldn’t be hard to find a place to put a sleeping mat. Of course the massive amount of bombs being dropped from the sky probably precluded sleep.

Entrance to the Sleeping Cave

Entrance to the Sleeping Cave

After paddling down the river a bit further and challenging our new friends to a kayak race (in which the Israeli team made it look like we weren’t even paddling) we were pretty exhausted. We let our muscles rest for a day and then decided to rent some bikes and see one more cave. We got up early and rode seven kilometers over very bumpy dusty roads to reach the popular Poukham Cave.

Scenic Bike Ride through Vang Vieng

Scenic Bike Ride through Vang Vieng

Amazingly enough, by getting out there before 10am we managed to miss all of the tour groups. I have no idea how someone found this place as it is at the top of the mountain, which is painful to climb. After several minutes of burning leg pain and sucking wind, you enter this massive space filled with fallen boulders and narrow passageways that open up to caves large enough to fit your house in.

Find Gage in the Poukham Cave

Find Gage in the Poukham Cave

After spending over an hour trying to figure out how to get through the cave (not exactly well marked) we descended the mountainside and went for a dip in the natural blue lagoon at the base. And yes, we went in with all of our clothes on.

Gage in the Blue Lagoon

Gage in the Blue Lagoon

It was our last day in Vang Vieng, so despite our sore butts, we decided to bike an extra two kilometers beyond the town in order to visit the Vang Vieng Organic Farm. Our Australian friends, Ben and Kate, said that they had had an excellent meal there, which sounded like an great way to refuel our tired bodies. The Organic Farm has a restaurant and guesthouse which provide proceeds used to run a community center, school, and handicraft training for locals. Ever in seek of supporting a good cause, we ordered a glass of star fruit wine, a glass of mulberry wine, a plate of toasted goat cheese, curried veggies, and fried mulberry leaves. Everything was excellent and the leaves were testament to the fact that anything fried tastes delicious.

Fruit wines at the Organic Farm

Fruit wines at the Organic Farm

For more pictures from Vang Vieng, click here.

Suggestions:

  • Flashlights can be rented outside of most caves for about 10,000 kip. If you’re only seeing one or two caves, it’s better just to rent the flashlights as they are usually the headlamp variety and very bright. And yes, you need a flashlight as the caves a pitch black.
  • Cave entrance fees have recently risen from 5,000 kip per person to 10,000 per person. Make sure you bring enough cash.
  • The Vang Vieng Organic Farm has a restaurant in town called the Mulberry Organic Cafe which serves amazing grub at good prices. If you want uber cheap though, across the street from the cafe are some local no-name restaurants serving rice congee for 5000 kip each.
  • If you take a kayak or mountain bike tour, show up early and ask to check out the equipment. Even the best companies have a habit of using broken life jackets or not repairing gear shifts on bikes.
  • If you choose to see caves by bike, be sure to get a mountain bike with plenty of shocks. The rocky roads will leave you vibrating long after you have gotten off the bike. Belgian bikes are only acceptable for riding in town, though unnecessary as most places are reachable on foot.
  • Internet cafes are everywhere, but at 300 kip per minute it’s pretty expensive. Free wifi can be had at Babylon cafe if you buy 20,000 kip worth of food and can put up with the rude owner, IQ-impaired staff, constantly changing password.
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3 responses

21 02 2009
Garrett Bryant

It makes me so happy to read ya’lls blog. I love it. Keep on.

22 02 2009
petra

hi, i found your blog a couple of weeks ago and have been following it ever since. we (my husband and i – we got married last spring in a similar way you guys did) are planning on a big trip to asia in 2010, so i read through everything you have written along the way in that part of the world. great information and always fun to read. just thought i’d let you know who’s reading you! have fun and safe travels! (i’m from Prague, Czech Republic)

16 04 2010
Tubing Laos

Cool!!!

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