VANG VIENG AND OTHER PLACES NORTH OF VIENTIANE AND SOUTH OF LUANG PRABANG

VIENTIANE PROVINCE

VIENTIANE PROVINCE is located in the central of Laos around the city of Vientiane. It has total area of 22,554 square kilometers, two thirds of which is mountainous and one third of which is plains. It shares borders with Luang Prabang Province to the north, Xiengkhouang Province to the northeast, Bolikhamxay Province to the east, Vientiane city to the south and Sayabouly Province to the west. Loei province ( Thailand ) lies across the Mekong River to the south and west. Vientiane Province has a total population of 450, 329 people, with 224,065 of them. There are 13 districts: Thoulakhom District, Viengkham, Keooudom, Phonhong, Hinheurb, Vangvieng, Kasy, MeuangMad, Meuang Feuang, Sanakham, Xaysomboun, Hom and Meuane District. The capital city of Vientiane province is Viengkham district.

The landscape in Vientiane Province varies from the flat, fertile alluvial plains along the Mekong River Valley to rugged limestone mountains in the northern and western part of the province. Vientiane Province is well-known for having the highest mountain peak in Laos: 2,819 meter-high Phou Bia. Outside of the main provincial towns the countryside is a beautiful, lush green mosaic of rice paddies, tropical fruit trees, and jungle vegetation dotted with quaint villages where traditional architecture and lifestyles can be seen.

Because there are so many water bodies brimming with aquatic life various types of prepared and preserved fish have become legendary in Vientiane province. First is the heavily-salted, fermented fish known as “pa daek” that can be purchased along route 13 near Hin Heub. And then there is “koy paa” (sour and spicy minced fish salad), “kaeng paa” (fish soup) and “neung paa” (a delicious dish of steamed fish and fresh herbs) served at floating restaurants on the arteries of the Nam Ngum Reservoir near Thalad Village and Vang Vieng.

With so many water bodies and pleasant warm weather Vientiane Province is a great place to get soaked during the Lao New Year or Pi Mai Lao celebrations in mid-April.

Xieng Khuane (28 kilometers from Vientiane) is a kitschy stone garden with 20-foot-high bas-relief of Buddhas carved in sandstone cliffs, and multitude of other Buddhist and Hindu images, some made from cement imbedded with pieces of broken glass. Its name means "Spirit City" but is also known as Buddha Park. Most of sculptures were made by an obscure Buddhist sect and spiritual leader who built a similar park across the river in Nong Khai, Thailand. See Thailand. Van Sang (65 kilometers north of Vientiane) boasts 10 tall relief Buddhas that have been dated to the 16th century but may be as old as the 11th century.

Nam Ngum Dam (90 kilometers northwest of Vientiane) is one of Laos’s major hydropower schemes. It generates much of Laos’s electricity (See Energy) and produces a 250-square-kilometer reservoir (Ang Nma Gum) that submerges a large chunk of forest. Ang Nam Ngum (Ngum Reservoir, at Nam Ngum Dam) a picturesque inland lake formed by Nam Ngum Dam. There is an underwater harvesting operation that includes hydraulic saws used to harvest submerged teak trees. An island on the reservoir is home to a prison that once housed 3,000 prostitutes and petty criminals rounded up after the Pathet Lao came to power in 1975. Fishing is an important industry. Some tourists come here for picnic and cruises of the islands.

Boat trips on the reservoir are a popular day-trip from Vientiane Capital but for visitors with more time, an overnight stay at Ban Na Kheaun or Tha Heua is possible. On a southern corner of the reservoir is the large Dansavan Resort where you can gamble and play golf. Visit the Thoulakhom Zoo at Ban Keun to see a well-kept collection of local species. At Ban Bo in Thoulakhom District are large natural salt deposits that are processed and packaged into the common table condiment using traditional technologies.

NATURE AREAS NEAR VIENTIANE

Phu Khao Khuay National Park (65 kilometers from Vientiane) is located in a forested 670-to 1690-meter-high plateau surounded byt peaks over 2000 meters high. Established around a former secret military base, it has a relatively cool climate, coverss 2000 square kilometers and is home to wild elephants, tigers (maybe), Asiatic black bears, white-cheeked gibbons, green peafowl, gaur and clouded leopard. There are some roads to waterfalls, a reservoir created by a dam on the Nam Leuk River and a visitors center. There are are also some Hmong and Mien villages.

Habitat: Dry evergreen and mixed deciduous forest. Also large stands of coniferous forest in association with extensive fire-climax grasslands. The Nam Leuk reservoir covers 1,280 hectares at the height of the wet season. Ecotourism activities include elephant observation, trekking, kayaking, village home stay, bird watching. Getting There: The park is not very developed and there is no public transport to get there. Easy access to the western portion of the protected area 65 kilometers from Vientiane up Route 10 to Ban Napheng at kilometers 54. To get to the eastern portion of the protected area, including Ban Na and Ban Hatkai, take Route 13 south for about 1.5 hours.

Houay Nhang Forest Reserve (20 kilometers north of Vientiane) has nature trail and is a good place to watch for birds. The Houay Nhang Forest Reserve was established in 1958 on 800 hectares. Bird watching is particularly good during the migration season. Interesting insects such as butterflies and walking sticks can also be seen. Get a guide booklet at the entrance and walk along a marked nature trail through the forest. Though the ecosystem has been somewhat degraded due to hunting, the reserve still offers a nice day-trip from Vientiane.

Getting There: Hire a tuk tuk in Vientiane for the day trip.and take Route 10 towards the bird watching destination of Ban Sivilay; the park entrance is about 8 kilometers after the junction of Route (Km 12S). The forest is on the right directly along the road, and a green signboard marks the entrance.

Phou Pha Nang National Protected Area (off Route 13 N just outside Vientiane) covers 1,525 square kilometers.Among the animals found there are: Gibbon, inornate squirrel, elephant. Habitat: Mostly degraded forest with a small area of semi-evergreen forest. Elevation from 200 meters - 698 meters.

TREKKING IN THE PHOU KHAO KHOUAY NATIONAL PARK

Visit “PKK” just outside of Vientiane for a choice of easy-to-moderate treks to Tad Leuk and Tad Xay waterfalls and cliff-top vistas. Launch your trek from Ban Hatkhai, where home stay accommodation, guides and boat rides are available. http://www.trekkingcentrallaos.com/html/possibletrips_banhatkhai.htm

Mountain Trips at Ban Hatkhai: Ban Hatkhai is a small village just outside Phou Khao Khouay, where you can experience authentical village life. Mountains, dense forests and bright-green rice fields surround the village. Its beautiful location at the banks of the Nam Mang River offers an ideal setting for a picturesque picnic under a fig tree.

Trekking at Ban Hatkhai: The village is an ideal starting point for exciting trekking tours into the nearby mountainous area or some startling waterfalls. Most trips include a rewarding boat trip on the Nam Mang River prior to the trek. From here you can visit the twin waterfalls of Tad Xay and Pha Xay. More trained hikers can do a trekking up the mountain of Pha Luang, a breathtaking cliff which offers views over Phou Khao Khouay and the Mekong lowland as far as Thailand. You can combine this tour with walking up to Houey Ki Ling, a small stream that leads to a beautiful sandstone plateau, where you can spend a night in the forest. Houey Ki Ling is also worth visiting as a one-day trip.

Rural Village Life: More than 200 years old, Ban Hatkhai is a quiet, typically Lao rural village. Its inhabitants belong to two ethnic groups, of which the majority is the Lao Lum. Only about 86 families, or 600 people, live here. The villagers are farmers and predominantly produce rice and vegetables. Local village life mainly consists of working in the nearby rice fields or herding water buffaloes. The quietness of the village is only disturbed by the sounds of the tinkling bells on the neck of these buffaloes, or by children jumping down from the high fig trees into the Nam Mang River. In the evening, villagers meet in each other’s houses to drink a Lao Lao (locally brewed rice whisky) and eat sticky rice with fish or soup. Trekkers can visit the local ‘pub’.

Getting There: Ban Hatkhai is relatively easy accessible by car or motorbike from Vientiane via National Road No. 13 (South). Turn left at kilometers 90, short before entering Thabok. Here you will also see a big bill board pointing to the Nam Leuk hydro power plant. The road leads to Ban Houay Leuk (after 5 kilometers). Follow the signs and turn right at a junction just 1 kilometer after this village (and crossing an iron bridge over the Nam Leuk). The village of Ban Hatkhai is just two or so kilometers away. The collapsed bridge 400 meters before the village has finally been repaired and Ban Hatkhai can now be reached directly. Ban Hatkhai can also be reached by boat from Thabok (in just over an hour). It’s not a regular tour, so the only way is to find someone to bring you there and negotiate for the price.

Public transportation is available from the southern bus station in Vientiane. Most of the buses are passing Thabok and you have to disembark here. Don’t take a VIP-bus, though. There is no regular bus going to Ban Hatkhai. In Thabok you have to look at the market for a Songtaew going Long Xan, passing the junction to Ban Hatkhai. From here you walk about two kilometers to the village. With some luck and negotiation you may find someone in Thabok to bring you directly to Ban Hatkhai with a motorbike – or call the guide leader in the village to pick you up. (Please note that such a “personalized extra service” may be a bit expensive). However, the most comfortable way is to hire a vehicle with driver, which can be provided by various tour operators in Vientiane.

Accommodation: In Ban Hatkhai you can stay with a home-stay family in one of the typical village houses. Here you can experience the hospitality and friendliness of the villagers. You will stay in a traditional wooden pillar house and participate in local family life. The home-stay in Ban Hatkhai are basic, but clean and are equipped with mattresses, pillows, mosquito nets, bed linen, French toilets and 'village showers'. It is also possible to do a 2- or 3-day trekking, and sleep overnight in a tent or hammock in the forest. Pre-arranged tours can be booked through various tour operators in Vientiane.

If you consider going for an overnight trip by yourself, we advice you to inform the villagers of Ban Hatkhai in advance. Call the guide leader (probably Mr. Bounthiang or Mr. Khamoune, but it may be someone else since the guides of Ban Hatkhai apply a rotating system for their services) under 020 224 03 03. This way they will be prepared for your arrival. We would like to inform you that if you visit Ban Hatkhai without contacting the villagers in advance, they might not be able to provide you with accommodation, food supplies or trekking equipment (boats, guides, etc.).

VANG VIENG

VANG VIENG (150 kilometers miles north of and three hours by bus from Vientiane) is a popular backpacker hangout. Situated on a bend of the Nam Song (Song River also spelt Xong), it is a town of 25,000 people nestled among some spectacular karst scenery, with caves, limestone cliffs and interesting rock formations. The main attraction for backpackers are the town’s party scene, cheap beer, marijuana, opium and other drugs, swimming and scenic and relaxing inner tube ride down the local rivers.

Among the primary sights in Vang Vieng are some monasteries and wats that date back to the 16th and 17th century and some caves (tham ) with mythological and historical significance. Tham Kjang was used as a hideout by Lao forces during an Chinese invasion in the early 19th century. That Pha Puak is a cave surrounded by red cliffs. Tham Phu Kham has a reclining Buddha and a nice stream to cool off in.

For a small fee guesthouses rent out large tractor tubes that are used for tubing down the river. The put in spot is near Phoudindaeng Organic Farm. All the tuk tuk drivers know it. Drifting down the river is relaxing and fun and not so dangerous unless there are flood conditions. Some guesthouses sponsor combination tubing and rafting trips.

Vang Vieng is small. It has just three streets, a market, a bus station and a few temples. It can become very crowded in the high (dry) season and the party scene can be too much for some to bear. Still it is possible to escape the crowds and find yourself a quiet spot in the lovely countryside around town If you want to go outside of the town, bicycles and motorbikes are widely available for rent. A day’s rental is around 10,000 kip for a bicycle and 30,000 kip for a motorbike. Renting from hotels or guesthouses is more expensive.

The Nam Song (River) bisects the town. The landscape of limestone peaks and sheer cliffs along the river and in the area around it is quite stunning. At the base of the town’s limestone mountains are a network of caves to explore. There are a variety of well-developed tourism services in Vang Vieng and a wide range of accommodations.

VANG VIENG: LAOS’S BACKPACKER PARTY TOWN

Vang Vieng, deep in the jungle of Laos, is a backpacker paradise where there are no rules. Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Vang Vieng is the planet's most improbable party town. Located deep in central Laos, one of southeast Asia's poorest countries, the once-tranquil farming village has become a seething epicentre of backpackers behaving badly. "God no, you don't come to Vang Vieng for the culture, like temples and stuff," laughs a 19-year-old Australian called Louise, who is dancing to a Flo Rida anthem with a beer bottle in each hand at one of the many riverside bars. "You come here to get wasted." Half an hour later I spot Louise vomiting over her sparkly flip-flops before passing out. Got it. Vang Vieng is a four-hour bus journey on mostly dirt roads from the capital Vientiane. After Communist-run Laos opened up in the early 1990s, the town first earned a place on the so-called Banana Pancake Trail – the path beaten by budget travellers across southeast Asia – thanks to its natural beauty. Along with its towering limestone peaks, the area is dense with caves, lagoons and forests. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“As tourists started to trickle back into Laos in the 1990s Thanongsi Sorangkoun, a Vang Vieng native, built a guesthouse for foreigners who wanted to volunteer on his 30 acres of mulberry trees and vegetable gardens. Then, in 1998, he made a fateful purchase. "I bought some inner tubes for my volunteers. I thought it would be a cheap and ecological way to see the river." He grimaces. "I accidentally started this whole thing." In the early 2000s, “the pastime of riding tractor-tyre inner tubes down the meandering Nam Song river started to gain word-of-mouth popularity. Tubing became so popular that locals started up a business co-operative to rent out tubes, which now comprises over 1,500 households. Many shareholders are now caught in a classic tourism catch-22. They've become too dependent on the income tubing generates to stop the business, but they're paying a much higher price than they expected for its success.” In the late 2000s “the scene has exploded. Ramshackle wooden bars opened along the river banks, enticing passing tubing customers with throbbing party music and free shots of the local Lao-Lao whisky. Rope swings, giant water slides and zip lines sprang up beside the bars, inviting sozzled gap-year kids to take their chances with the rocky riverbed in unsupervised acts of derring-do. ||||

“The rapid development quickly earned this once pristine stretch of the Nam Song a new label on the town map: "Water Fun Park". And after some enterprising locals printed the T-shirt – "Tubing in the Vang Vieng, Laos" – there was no going back. In Vang Vieng province (population 51,000), backpackers now outnumber locals by about three to one. In the main town, where nearly all the tourism is concentrated, the figure on any given day is an astonishing 15 to one. ||||

“A low-rise mix of French colonial bungalows, wooden houses and small concrete buildings, the entire town has become a backpackers' bazaar catering to the estimated 170,000 who arrive every year. The two main streets are a jumble of restaurants, bars, internet cafés, pancake stalls, travel agents and £3-a-night guesthouses. Most tourists are European and Australian, but other nationalities have found their way here, too: recently de-mobbed Israeli boy-soldiers, Japanese college students, South American rich kids. A bunch of nattily dressed Indians in wraparound shades turn out to be IT workers from Bangalore, who've come to "blow off steam" after finishing a big telecom project. ||||

PARTYING WESTERN BACKPACKERS IN VANG VIENG

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “It is Adam Axford's last day in Vang Vieng. We know this because scrawled across his naked torso in jumbo marker pen are the words "Last Day!" The 26-year-old Essex boy is returning to Ilford ("the real world") in the morning, and the message is designed to elicit "snogs and sympathy" from the spray-painted, bikini-clad women partying at a riverside bar in this tiny town in rural Laos.A tattoo on Axford's hip reads: "Viva Vang Vieng". The same words adorn the baseball cap he wears over his sweat-matted hair. "You must really love this place," I yell above the techno music shaking the rickety bamboo bar beside the Nam Song river. "Yeah," shouts Axford. "I really, really love this place. Every morning I hug these mountains. I thank them because I've never been happier in my life." [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“It's midday on the banks of the Nam Song. Adam Axford, who's a part-time magician back in Ilford, is spending his last day organising drinking games. "Lime in the eye!" he shouts, inviting the crowd to join a contest involving downing a shot, snorting salt and squeezing lime juice into their eyeballs. "It doesn't get any more stupid than this!" he enthuses. Axford, however, is drinking shandy. He's spent the last five months working as a "volunteer" at the Q Bar and knows to pace himself. Around 60 to 70 westerners work in the bars informally. Painted in party slogans, they hand out free shots and keep the atmosphere cranked up. It's a clever move on the part of the mostly Laotian bar owners, and a big factor in Vang Vieng's singular hedonistic excess. "Backpackers trust other westerners. They don't worry that the drinks are spiked or that they're getting ripped off," explains Canadian volunteer Scotty Balon, 31, who's sporting the invitation "Kiss Me. I'm Shit-Faced" across his chest. ||||

DRUGS AND ALCOHOL IN VANG VIENG

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Blowing off steam is one of the more grandma-friendly ways to describe Vang Vieng's backpacker appeal. The riverside FU BAR, where the Indian IT workers are hooting with laughter as they jump into the water fully clothed, is more direct: a giant sign explains that the name means Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition. It's also more accurate. At around £1 a litre, Lao-Lao is so cheap it's served in beach buckets. Bottled water, as everyone here loves to mention, is more expensive. Lao-Lao has an alcohol content of around 45 percent. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“Drugs are plentiful, too. Nearly every restaurant offers "happy" pizzas and "magic" shakes or teas laden with marijuana, opium and mushrooms. Most places advertise such fare on sandwich boards right outside. And many travellers are high not only on booze or drugs – a euphoria pervades the riverside bars and clubs that has more to do with the complete absence of rules or responsibilities, a kids-in-a-candy-store incredulity that you can go wild here and nobody will stop you. It's a similar scene to Thailand's infamous full-moon parties, except for one crucial difference. The party in Vang Vieng doesn't occur only one night every six weeks. The party here never ends. ||||

"Vang Vieng sells JOY, it sells an illusion of total freedom," says Sengkeo "Bob" Frichitthavong, 38, a local guesthouse owner who was born in Vang Vieng, but spent 12 years in Canada. "Lao people are very peaceful and tolerant; we don't complain. Backpackers think we don't care how they behave because we're making money from tourism. But there are many dark sides to what is happening." ||||

DEATHS AND INJURIES IN VANG VIENG

In 2011 at least 27 travellers died in Vang Vieng, and countless more were injured. Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Frequent tragedies occur as a result of mixing alcohol with tubing, and other river stunts. Vang Vieng's tiny hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths in 2011 due to drowning or diving head first into rocks, including that of a 23-year-old Dorset man, Benjamin Light. A senior doctor at the hospital, Dr Chit, says the overall figure is higher because "many fatalities are taken straight to Vientiane". [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“In early 2012, two Australian backpackers died within a month. First, Lee Hudswell, 26, somersaulted into the river from an area marked with a "Do Not Jump" sign and fatally cracked his skull on a large rock. (The sign, hastily rewritten by hand, now reads, "Do Not Jump or You Will Die".) Daniel Eimutis, 19, drowned while tubing a couple of weeks later. Both had been drinking, said their friends. ||||

“Dr Chit says five to 10 backpackers a day arrive at the hospital with injuries such as broken bones or infected gashes, or sickness caused by alcohol or drugs. One tourist scraped all the skin off her face on the rocks. "There are no safety measures or supervision, no helmets," says Dr Chit. "We're not equipped to treat anything serious." People with broken limbs must go to Vientiane, an agonising journey over the pot-holed roads. Dr Chit, a stocky man in his 50s, never stops smiling, but says hospital staff are "frustrated". ||||

“Most fatalities occur on the same bar-heavy stretch of river that's less than 1km long. "It's pure Darwinism," says backpacking travel expert Stuart McDonald, a regular visitor to Laos and the Australian founder of travelfish.org. "If kids keep getting tanked and jumping off trees or ropes, they're going to keep dying." The Laotian authorities, he adds, do nothing because they have vested interests in the river bars. Many drug-related deaths in Vang Vieng go unreported. "We often get first-hand accounts from travellers about people dying from overdoses or bad batches." ||||

IMPACT OF VANG VIENG DEATHS ON LOCAL PEOPLE

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “For Laotian villagers living near the river, the deaths have brought bad karma. The Nam Song was once a central part of family life, a serene spot for bathing, playing, fishing and washing clothes. Today, very few locals will go near it. As in much of rural Asia, animist-Buddhist beliefs in powerful spirits that inhabit the natural environment are still woven into everyday life. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

"We don't want to swim in the river any more," explains La Phengxayya, 25, a primary school teacher in Phoudindaeng, the village closest to the tubing area. "We believe there are evil spirits in the water because so many young foreigners have died." She says the locals have a refrain for when backpackers stagger back into town after a day of tubing and debauchery, covered in body paint and grubby bandages and wearing skimpy, ragged clothes: "The zombies are coming." ||||

“Laotians are hardly teetotallers – they home-brew Lao-Lao and down it in vast quantities on special occasions. Smoking opium is part of traditional culture, particularly among hill tribes such as the Hmong. But the culture is modest and conservative when it comes to human relations. Phengxayya politely admits that she's offended by the sight of Westerners walking through town wearing nothing but board shorts or bikinis. "In Laos we cover up our arms and legs. I don't want my four-year-old daughter to copy the foreigners." ||||

“There are signs asking tourists to respect dress codes, but many ignore them. At peak party-time on the river, there are frequent episodes of boob-flashing, mooning and boys waggling their privates around for the hell of it. McDonald says couples having sex in inner tubes as they float along the Nam Song is known to happen, too. That mass tourism has an impact on local communities in both good and bad ways is well documented. There are countless examples in Asia alone, from Kuta Beach in Bali to Angkor Wat in Cambodia to just about everywhere in Thailand. But few places are such models of total self-implosion as Vang Vieng. Go two or three miles in any direction outside and the gentle, bucolic Lao lifestyle remains unchanged. But the town, says Frichitthavong, has been utterly destroyed. ||||

"Our traditional way of life has been eaten alive," he says. "The noise pollution, the nudity, the rude behaviour, and now we have problems with our own youth stealing from tourists and getting addicted to alcohol and drugs." Frichitthavong's 12 years abroad have helped him develop a nuanced view of Vang Vieng's ruination. "It's a complicated dynamic. Rural life is hard. Everyone wants the economic benefits of tourism – of course we do. But we shouldn't sell our souls to get it." ||||

VANG VIENG PEOPLE WHO WORK IN TOURISM

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “Young men like Khamkeo Doungsamone, 19, wrestle with this conundrum daily. Doungsamone grew up in a mountain village with no road or electricity. His parents were rice farmers. He had to walk for two days to attend a school in the town. "I would sleep on a relative's floor while I studied and then walk home again." His parents encouraged him to learn English "for his future", so he taught himself from books. "They didn't want me to work in the fields like them," says Doungsamone, a short but wide-set youth who looks 12 when he smiles.[Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“When he finished school he found a job in a big tourist restaurant with a huge TV screen and seats facing forward cinema-style. (After bingeing, backpackers zone out in front of re-runs of Friends and South Park.) Doungsamone worked from 6am to 1am every day for 500,000 kip (£41) a month. He hated it. "I had to deal with drunk people all the time, and my boss blamed me when they broke glasses or threw up." He missed his parents and cried when he called them. "They wouldn't let me come home. They said I had to keep trying because there was no other choice." ||||

“Later, at their stilted wooden home, Doungsamone's parents tell me that the fate they most feared for him, even more than rice farming, was that he'd go to work by the river. The bars employ young Laotians to sit on the banks and throw out fishing lines to drag in passing tubers, and also to dredge the riverbed for debris. Many get sucked into the infectious party atmosphere. "Lots of adolescent boys are dropping out of school to hang out at the river," says Doungsamone's older brother Khamming, 26, a youth worker whose job partly involves counselling them. "Our cousin almost died because he worked for a river bar and barely ate for three years. He only drank and did drugs. He ended up in hospital with severe malnutrition." ||||

As for Doungsamone's career in the tourist restaurant, it ended abruptly after a French backpacker accused him of stealing her camera, to avoid paying her bill. His boss took his side, but he was so mortified he left. He now works at Sorangkoun's organic farm. "I will never forget that French person for as long as I live," he says. ||||

ADDRESSING THE NEGATIVE SIDE OF PARTY TOURISM IN VANG VIENG

Abigail Haworth wrote in The Observer, “I chat with backpackers about the views I've heard from local people about their party paradise. They scrabble for reasons that make it all OK: if the locals didn't want them here, they'd make them leave; there are more drugs in Ibiza; more deaths at ski resorts; more loutish behaviour in Manchester. A Swede argues they've helped the local economy by increasing the production of beach buckets. The conversation skips a beat as everyone wonders whether she's serious. She is. It seems almost cruel to tell her the buckets are probably made in China. [Source: Abigail Haworth, The Observer, April 7, 2012 ||||]

“But it all misses the point. "It's not about them," says Stuart McDonald. "Nobody blames the backpackers directly. Of course they want to have a good time, get laid, get wasted, get high, it's all normal. But it's not their country. It's just gone to such an extreme, and there's no consideration whatsoever for local sensibilities." ||||

“Vang Vieng natives such as Frichitthavong and Sorangkoun say responsibility lies with the Lao authorities to enforce regulations with regard to problems like noise pollution and wild behaviour, and to improve water safety – all of which wouldn't take much effort. But they also believe there's too much corruption and cronyism surrounding the river-bar scene for that to happen. Many businesses are owned by the town's most powerful people, who pay off the tourist police and other officials. Certainly, the will to implement change doesn't seem to exist anywhere that it counts. When contacted for this article about their future plans for the area, both the Vang Vieng local government and the tourist authorities gave the same meaningless response: "We are considering the situation." ||||

“As Laos develops further, McDonald says the country might learn from its mistakes. "Tourism promoters in southern Laos recently told me they were using Vang Vieng as an example of exactly how they didn't want to do things, so that's one positive." He's not sure whether the remote town can ever come back from the brink, but it's clearly hard to give up hope. Earlier, McDonald's wife and business partner Sam had told me that, of the countless tourist hotspots in Asia they've revisited to update their backpacking website, Vang Vieng is the only place that made her husband cry when he saw how it had changed. "I don't recall actually bursting into tears," coughs McDonald. "But yes, it's very likely that it provoked that reaction. It used to be such a special place. It still is, underneath it all."

ACCOMMODATION, BARS AND RESTAURANTS IN VANG VIENG

There are, close to a hundred places to stay in this tiny town ranging from low-key home-stay and guesthouses to boutique-style residences and hotels. There are numerous restaurants along the main road offering a selection of Lao, Thai, Chinese, American, Italian and Indian food, though all of them have similar menus.

The Organic farm Café as the name suggests, offers organic food, original and interesting menus. Nazim - Serves great Indian food. Nisha Indian also serves great Indian food. Open from 2pm. If you’re into pizza, there are a few good pizza places such as DK3 – Milan Pizza (offers woodfired pizza) and Enjoy Restaurant.

For those looking for a chilled-out atmosphere bar to have some drinks, Jaidee Bar, on the riverside, is a great place to escape the loud music. Good prices during Happy Hour (6-10). For those seeking for a more raucous time, there are many bars near the river playing loud music, some have DJs and an outdoor dance floor.

The “special” shakes offered in many bars or “magic” food can contain ganja or magic mushrooms. These can be dangerous and should definitely be avoided if you are planning to go tubing, jumping or engaging in any other water sports. Several people have died in Vang Vieng in recent years because of stupid drunken or drug-related behaviour. Don’t become one of them. Also drugs are illegal in Laos. Buying or consuming them in public (eg smoking opium) can lead to arrests, heavy fines and passports being confiscated. Do not engage in any deals with anyone, many police work under cover and many restaurants are working in collusion with police.

ACTIVITIES IN VANG VIENG

Water sports such as kayaking and white-water rafting can be enjoyed as well as tubing. The Nam Song is good for swimming. The river is calm, its water is relatively clear and the low water level makes it just right for swimming (most months of the year). However, I would not recommend swimming there in rainy season, around June-September, the water is muddy and the current is too rapid when the water level is higher.

Taking a ride on a long-tail boat, go up the river and down, before sunset is a good way to enjoy your afternoon. Among the other activities that can be enjoyed are rope swinging and playing rattan ball and volleyball games in mud pits.

Rock climbing is a popular activity. There are rock walls to suit every level Trekking destinations including karst mountains, caves and the nearby small Hmong villages of Nam Som and Nam Muang. Many caves can be reached from Vang Vieng on foot, by bicycle or by motorbike. The nearest one, Jang cave, is just across the Nam Song. Some of the caves offer natural pools for swimming. At the organic farms in Vang Vieng you can try mulberry shakes and purchase mulberry leaf tea, mulberry wine, jellies and jams.

The organic farm is four kilometers north of Vang Vieng town ans is open to visitors. You can learn about the production of silk, poultry rearing and the making of goat cheese. The restaurant that serves organic food and goodies such as mulberry pancakes, the signature mulberry shake and home made goat cheese. And if you want to stay the night, they have rooms for rent ranging from dormitory (30,000 kip per night) to more luxurious with a king size bed, private bath, and fan (150,000 kip per night). The farm offers volunteering opportunities including teaching English to village kids and farming, such as planting or harvests the fruit and vegetables that are grown here especially the mulberries for which the farm is famous.

GETTING TO VANG VIENG

Vang Vieng is accessible by land from the main tourist towns of Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Xiengkhuang, Udon Thani and Nong Khai (Thailand) via Vientiane. No direct air service available as there is no airport in the Vang Vieng area. Vang Vieng is located off No.13 North. If you are in Vientiane city just drive north on Luang Prabang road (the road to Wattay International Airport), that’s road No.13 North. The distance between Vientiane and Vang Vieng is around 150 kilometers (93 miles), of which around half winds through hills. The narrow, two-lane highway is sealed and in quite good condition, although some parts are deteriorating due to a lot of rainfall. Traveling time between Vientiane and Vang Vieng is around 3-5 hours by bus and a bit less by private cars or minivans.If you suffer motion sickness, it is wise to take necessary precautions especially when you go by bus, the motion can make travelers sick. [Source: Laos-Guide-999.com]

From Vientiane: There are several buses and minivans running between Vientiane and Vang Vieng daily. They range from slow local buses with no air-conditioning to express comfortable air-conditioned buses. Local buses cost around 40,000kip. Stops to pick up/drop off passengers along the way are fairly frequent. VIP or tourist buses (air-conditioning, faster and limited stops) cost 50,000kip and express buses cost 60,000kip one way. The normal bus departs from the Morning Market bus station every hour. The first bus is at 07:00 and the last one is at 16:00 (buses to Kasi also stop to drop off passengers in Vang Vieng). You can board the bus either at the central bus station next to the Morning Market (slow buses) or the northern bus station.

Tourist buses (run by Malany Company) depart from the city centre, or to be exact, from Santisouk restaurant opposite the National Cultural Hall. Another boarding point is by the Mekong River, on Fa Ngoum Road just opposite Wat Chanh temple. There are two buses daily, the first bus is at 10:00 and the last one departs at 14:00. For inquiries, call (856-23) 511 633. Once in Vang Vieng, some buses drop passengers off at the old airstrip that looks like a giant parking lot next to the main road which can be confusing especially if it is your first time here. Just walk west and Vang Vieng town is just a block away.

Minivans, the most convenient and comfortable transport, cost around 70,000 to 80,000 kip per person. Tickets for tourist buses and minivans to Vang Vieng can be purchased from most hotels and guesthouses or from travel agents in Vientiane. Transport to the bus station is usually included. You can also buy the tickets at the bus station prior to boarding, though buses do fill fast in peak season…so get there early to secure your seat. Tourist buses run by Malany Company depart 3 times daily (09:00, 10:00 and 13:30). Boarding is in front of the company office in Ban Savang. Tickets (50,000kip) can be purchased at the office before boarding.

To Vientiane: Buses and minivans leave from Vang Vieng bus station throughout the day. Normal (slow, no air-con) buses depart in the morning at 05:30, 06:00, 06:30, 07:00 and afternoon at 12:30, 14:00. Tickets can be bought at the bus station (40,000kip). Minivans leave at 09:00 and cost 60,000kip. VIP buses leave at 10:00 and 13:00, cost 60,000kip.

From Luang Prabang: There are many VIP, express buses, and minivans daily from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. However, most VIP and express buses are Luang Prabang- Vientiane buses. That means you can board them and be dropped off in Vang Vieng, but pay the price for Vientiane. VIP (Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng): costs 105,000 kip departs 09:30 and 12:30. VIP (Luang Prabang – Vientiane): costs 130,000 kip, departs 8:00, 09:00, 19:30 and 20:00 (sleeper bus). The journey takes 6-7 hours to Vang Vieng and around 10 hours all the way to Vientiane. The VIP buses have more leg room and are more comfortable for a long journey. Express (Luang Prabang – Vientiane): costs 110,000kip, departs 06:30, 11:00, 14:00, 16:30, and 18:30. Note express buses are just normal air-conditioned buses. They are not any faster than the VIP. All these buses depart from Ban Naluang – the southern bus station, around 15 minutes ride from town centre. Phone: (071) 252 066 A tuk-tuk ride to Naluang bus station from the town center costs around 20,000-30,000kip.

Minivan (Luang Prabang – Vang Vieng): costs 100,000 kip, departs 09:00, 10:00, 14:00 and 16:00, it takes around 6-7 hours. Minivans have a separate station close to the VIP and express station in Ban Naluang. Phone (071) 212 979. The prices are direct purchase from the bus station, if you buy tickets through travel agents or hotels/guesthouses they are more expensive. Tickets can be bought at the bus station prior to boarding. You can also buy them at most travel agents, guesthouses and hotels (more expensive, but a transfer to the station is usually included). Tickets for minivans can also be bought at the minivan station prior to boarding (100,000kip). You can also buy them at most travel agents or hotels, pick-up is usually included. If you buy tickets directly from the bus company and request to be picked up at your hotel you will be charged a pick up fee of 5,000 kip (total 105,000 kip). For inquiries call the station at 071 212 979.

To Luang Prabang: Minivans depart from Vang Vieng bus station at 09:00 and 14:00, costs 100,000kip. VIP buses leave at 10:00 and cost 90,000 kip.

From Udon Thani (Thailand): A direct bus service between Vang Vieng and Udon Thani, Thailand has recently been established (2 March, 2012). Malany, a Lao bus company, and a Thai bus company join hands to provide the service. At present there is one bus daily. The bus departs from Udon Thani bus station (near Central Plaza) at 07:00am. It stops at Nong Khai bus station to pick up passengers and resume the journey at around 08:30am. Then stops again at the border at both sides for immigration clearance.

Passengers of this bus can get Lao visa on arrival without having to worry if the bus will leave you behind. The bus will wait however long the visa processing takes. Other Lao-Thai buses such as Nong Khai - Vientaine or Udon Thani - Vientiane buses don't wait unless they've change their policy very recently. For inquiries, call (856-23) 511 633 (the bus company in Laos). Tickets can be bought at the bus station in Udon Thani or Nong Khai. A one-way ticket for Udon Thani - Vang Vieng costs 320Baht or 88,000Kip. For Nong Khai - Vang Vieng it costs 270Baht or 75,000kip. The journey from Udon Thani to Vang Vieng takes around 7-8 hours at present due to poor condition of the road between Vientiane and Vang Vieng. It normally takes around 6 hours.

There is one bus daily departing fron Vang Vieng town at 9:30am. The bus makes three stops, one at each side of the border for immigration clearance and another one at Nong Khai bus station (around 10 minutes) to drop off or pick up passengers. A one-way ticket for Vang Vieng - Nong Khai costs 75,000kip, and Vang Vieng Udon Thani costs 88,000kip. Buses used for the route are 45-seated air-conditioned. You can be confident that your Vang Vieng - Udon Thani bus journey is comfortable.

From Phonsavan, Xiengkhuang: There are four buses from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng daily, at 8:00am, 4:00pm, 6:00pm, and 8:30pm. The buses are 45-seat air-con. The 8:30pm one is a sleeper bus, costs 150,000kip, the other ones cost 110,000kip. For enquiry or seat booking call +856 20 5576 0231. There is also one minivan daily, departs at 09:00, costs 100,000kip. For enquiry call +856 30 517 0148. There are a few buses and minivans heading Phonsavan everyday. Departure time for buses is somewhat unclear at the moment, cost between 110,000kip and 150,000kip. Minivan departs at 09:00, cost 100,000. The journey takes 6-7 hours.

Kasi (56 kilometers north of Vang Vieng, about halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang) is a village located in a fertile valley. In 1995, a French expatriate travel agent and his staff were ambushed and murdered by Hmong insurgents in the mountains just outside the village.

The road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang is through the mountains and is filled with twists and turns and precipitous drops. Most drivers handle the curves very gently. The 44 kilometer section between Kasi and Muang Phu Khun follows a ridge to and offers some excellent views. As one approaches Luang Prabang the scenery becomes more spectacular, with some of the highest limestone formations in Southeast Asia.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.