View our location map in Vang Vieng
Our one or two planned nights in Vang Vieng turned into six nights when Karen got too sick to travel. (First sickness in 4.5 months of travelling though so not complaining!) By the end of our time there we both felt kind of vindicated in our original decision to not go to Vang Vieng – we were going to fly straight out of Luang Prabang to Hanoi because it didn’t sound like a place we would enjoy – and we were mostly right.
Vang Vieng is an incredibly beautiful place. It has everything – huge rice fields, endless limestone karsts, a beautiful river, quite a few enormous caves, turquoise swimming holes and waterfalls. It is a shame that most tourists who visit Vang Vieng don’t get to see many of these things. Some people do come to town to do tubing on the river, others come to break up the trip between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, a few for the beauty. However the majority of tourists in Vang Vieng are there for one thing: the adult disneyland that the Lao’s have cleverly created to draw tourists to their beautiful country.
Let me elaborate. When Eric told us it was the disneyland of Laos we didn’t quite get what he meant until we went and saw it for ourselves. The Lao people are extremely intelligent and know how to create opportunities for themselves. So, there is tubing down the river. Instead of this being a tranquil, beautiful, safe thing to do, they have put bars along the edge of the river, which throw ropes out to people tubing past to catch and pull themselves into the bar. When they have finished drinking, they can use rope swings to get back into the river. Now I don’t think anyone expects the safety standards to be the same as in western countries – you might as well stay at home if you want that – probably though many people don’t realise how many rocks are in the river below the rope swings that people die on every year. So many people walking around Vang Vieng are injured – many are hospitalised – and some die every year. This seems pretty extreme for a place that is the main tourist attraction in Laos.
In addition to this, many bars and restaurants in town have ‘happy menus’ which means that printed alongside normal food items are joints, magic mushrooms and opium, all of which can be made into milkshakes or pizza, all listed as though they are a normal menu item. They market Vang Vieng as a safe place to come and try these menus. What they don’t tell people before they arrive is that every single day, plainclothes policemen (who are all sons of the family and friends of the chief police officers in Vientiane) then go around and fine as many tourists as possible for using the drugs that are on the menu. So in a country where the average wage is around USD$60 per month, these plainclothes policemen are earning between 5-6,000,000 kip per bust. (Around USD$600-700). In low season, they bust a minimum of 4 tourists per day, and in high season many more. They drive around town in their BMW’s and Mercedes and easily have the cruisiest and most well-paid job in Laos. Many of the plainclothes policemen are also fakes, so they are just clever Lao’s who have figured out how to make big bucks from the silly falangs who come to their town to indulge in craziness.
So all in all Vang Vieng is an extremely beautiful, and horribly ugly place. The natural beauty surrounding the area is phenomenal but the town itself really is an example of how stupid many tourists will be if given the chance (and how entrepreneurial Lao people are). By the last day we ended up being glad that we came here, especially with Eric and Emma because without them we probably would have left before we saw the beauty. We saw some amazing waterfalls and caves and had an awesome, tranquil view from our room. In terms of natural beauty it is one of the most beautiful places we have been, sadly though with the crazy development of the town we couldn’t wait to leave and got out of there as soon as we could. Our photos are here.