Situated halfway down the long Vientiane to Luang Prabang highway,Vang Vieng has become the pit stop of Laos. Surrounded by splendid karst scenery and overflowing with activities such as caving and tubing down the river, many weary travellers extend their stay here far longer than originally planned.
Until recently, Vang Vieng was the highlight of many people's trip to Laos. Scoffing happy pizza and quaffing buckets of lao-lao and coke to a background of infinite Friendsepisodes was the thing to do when in town, but now things are different. A government crackdown on illegal bars lining the river has severely curbed the party such that fewer backpackers of that ilk are visiting town, leaving the area to those more interested in enjoying the area's immense natural beauty.
For the party people, this was a multi-night and even multi-week stop on their itinerary through Laos while for everyone else it was more like a one-night stop. The opposite is now true, with people seeking a party staying for a couple of nights before deciding that the atmosphere is not as it once was. For everyone else, the true beauty of the area is being well and truly explored and a more laidback and peaceful vibe is in the offing.
Vang Vieng is riddled with such an array of guesthouses (some of which can be booked online), restaurantsand shops that it's hard to know what to do on arrival. Just about every shopfront on the main streets of this small but rapidly developing town caters to the tourist dollar. If you're looking for some genuine Lao culture, Vang Vieng is the wrong place
The reason this tourist mecca has sprung up is the gorgeous Nam Song river and the magnificent karst mountains lining it. The imposing limestone structures rise up out of the land and run for kilometres, framing the rice fields and lazy river. Though stunning at any hour, the mountains are particularly beautiful with the golden pink glow of sunset behind them, the perfect time to sit and have a drink at one of the plethora of riverside restaurants.
For action and adventure, there are caves to explore, trekking, kayaking and rafting trips and, for the ultra-adventurous, rock climbing. To chill out and enjoy Vang Vieng's scenery, rent an inner tube and float down the Nam Song basking in the beauty of the countryside – an activity for everyone these days.
This place is not Laos untouched, but just outside of the town you will find a peaceful version of Laos that has been overlooked for far too long.
Things to Do & See in Vang Vieng
Caves around Vang Vieng
Lusi Cave is three kilometres from town and 1.8 kilometres past Pha Poak. The cave is primarily famous for a lagoon inside in which you can swim in the pitch dark. Guides at the entrance to the cave are able to show you the way to the lagoon which is about a 25-minute walk from the entrance of the cave. We witnessed many people arriving to the cave entrance by bike and choosing to turn around soon thereafter upon realising that the swim in the lagoon was in the dark. If you choose to hire a guide, add 10,000 kip to the entrance fee of 10,000 kip. To get to Lusi Cave, follow the directions to Pha Poak.
Heading north from Vang Vieng on the main highway about 11 kilometres from town is a well-signed turn off to Pha Thao Cave. A further two kilometres down dirt roads and across a bridge is the ticket booth (admission is 10,000 kip) for the cave where you pick up your torch. Once inside the cave, the going is easy due to the flat, dirt floor and small ladders to help climb up ledges. Inside are some interesting features, large caverns and about 20 minutes worth of passageways. This is well worth a stop on the way to the Elephant and Water caves.
About a kilometre past the turn off to Pha Thao is the well-signed turn off to Tham Loup, Tham Hoi and Tham Nam better known as the Water and Elephant caves. Follow the dirt track to the village where the entrance to the Elephant Cave is. Inside the cave is a golden reclining Buddha with statues of worshippers standing around it. At the far end of the cave is another large and impressive Buddha. From there it is possible to walk across the rice fields to another large cave that stretches kilometres into the mountain. It can be slippery inside this cave and a guide is recommended for about 15,000 kip. Admission is 10,000 kip (plus 5,000 for bridge toll).
The main reason most people come all the way here, however, is for the Water Cave. The Water Cave is simply a network of rivers running through the mountainside. The cool thing is that you can hire a tube and torch for 10,000 kip and follow a rope right through the cave. This water is chilly, but the 30-minute return journey is worth the minor discomfort. Dry bags are also offered to guests so you don't have to leave your valuables behind.
The Water Cave is a short walk from the Elephant Cave -- ask villagers for directions.
Kayaking and boat tours
Tours differ depending on tour company, but a popular option is to include the kayaking tour with a tour of the Water Cave and Elephant Cave about 10 clicks north of town. This full day tour is a great way to see and do a number of different things in the one day without the hassle of having to figure it out all by yourself.
Tours include the hire of a kayak and lifejacket as well as a simple lunch. This is a great way to experience the scenery along the Nam Song and is fantastic value -- a chartered tuk-tuk ride to the caves alone would cost in the region of 100,000 to 150,000 kip.
If you'd prefer a boat tour, near the entrance to Nam Song Villa, you can charter a longtail boat for a scenic ride up the river. It's a good, considerably safer alternative to tubing. This is an especially good option if you've got young kids in tow.
Climbing Pha Poak is a popular activity for many who visit Vang Vieng and it's an easy walk to the base though more difficult climb to the summit.
It's a 30-minute climb from the base of the hill to the summit. The path is steep with sharp jagged rocks, making the going quite tough, especially when wearing flip-flops -- shoes are highly recommended. Along the way you encounter makeshift ladders built from bamboo and wood, which aid in the climb but they can be unnervingly rickety. From the top of Pha Poak the views are sensational, with the entire town of Vang Vieng on one side and the dramatic karst mountains on the other. Getting back down the mountain is in some ways as difficult as the climb up and having long legs is an advantage when negotiating the large cumbersome rocks. For some this climb will be impossible, for others it'll be a walk in the park. For most it'll be a medium-difficulty climb ensuring sore legs the next day, and a worthy excursion.
To get to Pha Poak, walk down the main road to the river in the centre of town, pass the tubing shop, head down the track to the river and cross the bamboo bridge. Follow the small path between Banana Bungalows and Cliff View Bungalows for 1.2 kilometres until you reach the base of the hill with the red flag on top. Signs point the way to Lusi Cave and Pha Poak.
Up until August 2012 when the Lao Government cracked down, bars lined the river and drinking at them was a prime reason people tubed down it. The party along the river would last until sundown when tubers would rush down river to get their tubes back before the 18:00 cutoff time. These days tubing is a much different scene, with about half as many doing it as before and few bars in operation albeit on a much more subdued scale.
It's still a popular activity in Vang Vieng and many tubers carry plastic bags with bottles of beer in them for the journey down river. At strategic points along the journey, tubers move up onto the river bank to throw frisbees, drink more beer and relax in the fading sun.
Inner tubes and songthaew transport upstream to the launching place is a part of a co-operative Village Development Group arrangement and they have two buildings in town near the river. Tube rental costs 55,000 kip plus a 60,000 kip deposit. You'll get the full deposit back if you return the tube before 18:00, otherwise they'll keep a 20,000 kip fee. Most people choose to buy dry bags before hitting the river and these can be had for as little as 5,000 kip with five-litre versions going for 35,000 kip. Life jackets are also available but are unpopular.
Without any pit stops, it takes two and a half hours during the dry season to float down the river. During the rainy season the river really speeds up and there are deep patches and a current. Make sure you're a confident swimmer and tell your friends where you're going; people have died in the past on the river and booze, drugs and swimming do not mix. Be sensible.
The party on the river as it was once known is now over. But there is still a good time to be had and many people still come to Vang Vieng to participate in this legendary activity. And so they should -- the scenery is magical and the feeling on the river so relaxed.
The bridge toll at the start of the journey is 4,000 kip per person, 6,000 kip per bicycle and 10,000 kip per motorbike. Along the road to the Blue Lagoon are a few turnoffs to caves and lagoons including one leading to a fake Blue Lagoon complete with sign and ticket booth.
The fake Blue Lagoon is a simple bend in a creek with a swing rope and a couple of pavilions in which to relax -- you'll know you're at the fake one if there are only a couple of other people around. The fake Blue Lagoon is two kilometres short of the real one and is not worth visiting. Head straight on past the turn off to the first Blue Lagoon you see and continue until the real one where there will definitely be numerous tuk-tuks, dozens of motorbikes and bicycles and 50 or so people swimming, eating, playing guitar and generally chilling out family-picnic-style.
Many people choose to come to the Blue Lagoon for the whole day as it's a great spot to just relax. The lagoon is a beautiful turquoise colour, clean and filled with an abundance of large fish. The nearby cave is usually explored with a guide which costs a relatively hefty 50,000 kip. Those needing a torch will need to stump up an extra 10,000 kip -- the people working here know how to charge.
There's a restaurant on site selling food and beer and the entire area is set up perfectly for travellers. This is a great activity to check out while in Vang Vieng.
Both Green Discovery and Adam's Climbing School offer half- and full-day courses under the watchful eye of their qualified instructors, or courses can be extended to two or three days for higher-level training.
The instruction and climbing routes cover different areas and levels of skill from basic knots to multi-pitch climbing. Adam's is probably the better choice given that rock climbing is their sole purpose for existing while Green Discovery is more interested in offering tours across the full range of activities in town.
A half-day session with Adam's Climbing school will set you back around 180,000 kip, although they do offer a range of different climbing options. Prices fluctuate dependent on numbers of guests and the option chosen. A full-day climb costs 260,000 kip.
Bicycle daily rentals start at 10,000 kip for street bikes or from 20,000 kip for mountain bikes. Renting a motorcycle for a full day starts around 40,000 kip.
The Hobo Map is a good investment for cyclists as it shows all roads (even the dirt paths) plus attractions, shops and toll bridges. Look for it at the convenience stores in town where it costs 25,000 kip.
A good trip to do is the loop out to the Blue Lagoon and around the mountains back to Vang Vieng. The roads are quite bumpy, but the scenery is unequalled.