Vang Viang has taken on a tainted image over the last few years as it has attempted to lure in the tourist dollar. Most of these dollars come into the town in the form of backpackers, so in other words mostly young punters who are intent on drinking, toking and scrimping and saving on accommodation and any other overheads that can be eliminated. As such Vang Viang town is devoid of any of the crumbling grandeur that is so evident in place like Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The two main streets that run through town are characterised by guesthouses, bars and restaurants that serve up predominantly Western food. True, most of the menus will include a few local token dishes but the emphasis is on All Day Breakfasts and Cheese Burgers. The proliferation of cheap-ish guest houses in recent years means that most of the buildings in and around the town centre are soulless structures that blight the town, whilst the modest dress sense of the local Laotians contrasts sharply with the bikini clad Lovelies (and they are - mostly!) and bare chest-ed dudes that prowl the town on scooters and foot. Furthermore there are still several guesthouses going up, and the place looks like a construction site in some areas. On the small island that separates the town from the Nam Song river proper lies the Rock Bar, Smile Bar and countless other places that blast their music up until midnight each evening, completing to see who can play their music the loudest and therefore (in theory) draw the most people in. All in all the town is completely geared towards backpackers who are cultured out from their travels and want to party long and hard en-route to elsewhere. The handful of Wats in town are largely ignored by the travellers that pass through the town, who are more intent on watching re-runs of Friends, The Simpsons and Family Guy. It is not a pretty town, but it’s surrounds are majestic.
Vang Vieng lies alongside the Nam Song River and is surrounded by breathtaking limestone karsts that thrust up and through the low lying clouds that hang lazily in the sky when we were there. The view from our balcony was magnificent, providing you looked up slightly and thereby avoided the sight of the Rock Bar. As Vang Viang only consists of a handful of small streets it takes minimal effort to get out of the town and into the country.
On our first day in town we rented out bicycles and cycled out of town for three kilometres, ending up at the Organic Farm. The Organic Farm is a nother brilliant enterprise that raises funding for education in Laos, their goal being to provide equal opportunity and access to education for the local villages. The Farm consists of a guest house (specialising in mulberry pancakes and fruit shakes - delicious) and, no prizes here, a farm that grows organic fruit and bacon and eggs (Pigs and Chickens). They also have several goats that are milked and then they manufacture goats milk cheese which sadly we did not get to try. We spent a few hours here - feeding the goats, watching the pigs and piglets and exploring the fields where they grow pineapples and chillies. Again the setting is beautiful, though a little marred by the three bars that lie slightly down stream and cater for the tourists who go tubing down the river. Tubing is immensely popular and synonymous with the name Vang Viang. The idea is that you float down stream on an inflated tractor innard, stopping off along the way at the bars that line the river. Once
again the bars compete by playing their music as loudly as they can. The effect is that at any given time you can hear a medley of three songs all intertwined together which is a bit disconcerting, especially in such a seemingly tranquil setting.
The following day we went out of town on our bikes again, my bicycle being a lovely shade of pink and having a basket that was made to measure for my tripod. We went in a different direction, this time crossing over the river and stopping about 2km out of town for breakfast at a local Laotian shack that sold noodle soup and fried rice dishes. It was here that we met a handful of local kids who befriended us for the day and in effect became our local guides. They took us swimming in the lagoons and up to one of the several caves that penetrate the limestone hillside. The kids were really great fun, our introduction had taken place over breakfast when we gave them some pens and they wrote out the A, B, C’s for us. They spoke no English, and one of them was deaf and unable to speak at all (I hate the connotations of the word “Dumb“), in essence though he became our key guide for the day through a combination of sign language and an uninhibited enthusiasm. At the end of the day he tried to lash us with a fee for his companionship, but by this stage we had bought him and mates food and drink and he had been pedalled around the countryside by your humble narrator, so the fee was wavered. It seems that a hangover of the tourist industry is that a lot of the kids view Westerners as a source of cash, be it by blatant begging or more surreptitious methods. On our first day in town some kids tried begging from us and instead of money we gave them some children’s educational books that we had purchased in Luang Probing (at Big Brother Mouse) - they were ecstatic. We sat with them for ten minutes whilst Nipun made them write their names in the books and read out a couple of pages for us (they read in Laotian so who knows if they read them out or not!). When we left the kids behind they were still huddled around together, immersed in their literature and animatedly pointing out different pages to each other. It was a rewarding experience (very humbling as so much that we have seen is) and felt so much better than chucking away some spare change.
The rest of our time in Vang Viang was spent cycling around town and exploring. After a couple of decades of not getting on a bicycle Nipun is becoming a mean cyclist, whilst I on the other hand have déjà vu of having had to ride to school every day (how I loathed that!) and also rediscovering muscles in my body that I had long since forgotten. The next stage of our travels in Laos took us by bus to Vientiane, the capital of Laos that sits on the Mekong River which forms a border with Thailand on the other side.