Vang Vieng

Nam Song river

Vang Vieng (ວັງວຽງ) (also Vang Viang) is a riverside town in Central Laos.

Understand

Once little more than a bus stop on the long haul between Vientiane at the Thai border and the World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng has managed to become a destination in its own right and a popular stop on the unofficial Banana Pancake Trail. Still not much more than three streets and a bus station, the main attractions are the river, laid back countryside and cave-filled rock formations.

Anyone who has travelled in Southeast Asia will have heard about tubing, an activity that dominates this town and its visitors. Originally opened up by hedonistic backpackers, the atmosphere of the town itself is one of lethargy by day and debauchery by night. Tourists sprawl out in the pillow-filled restaurants, termed "TV Bars", watching re-runs of US sitcoms, Friends and Family Guy episodes, until the sun goes down, and then party heavily until the early hours.

A couple of kilometres upstream, the pulsating music, drinking games and drug-fuelled debauchery of the increasingly lively riverside "tubing" bars starts at lunchtime. The majority of the bars from the start of tubing all the way back into town have now been shut down in a recent years in an attempt to improve security. As for instance, back in 2011 27 tourists have died while partying on the river. There are now only two bars open (Feb 2016).

Vang Vieng may have established itself as the exception to the rule that Laos doesn't have nightlife. It does have potential as a base for adventure tourism which attracts a few more sedate foreign sightseers. However, it can be considered a noisy "back-packer hell" and so those wishing to avoid noisy, selfish teenagers away from their parents for the first time and instead seek something Laotian would do as well to either use Vang Vieng only as a base to explore the surrounding countryside or avoid it all together.

Get in

By bus

Vang Vieng is on Hwy 13 between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. By bus (road and bus conditions permitting) about 6-8 hrs from Luang Prabang, around 3-4 hr from Vientiane.

Tickets for tourist buses and minivans can be purchased at almost every guesthouse and should include transport to the bus station.

VIP buses from Vientiane cost about 50,000 kip. Minivans leave Vientiane all day and cost between 35,000-50,000 kip. The express bus to Vientiane costs 60,000 kip. Slower local buses to Vientiane without air conditioning run in the early morning (05:30-10:00) and cost about 40,000 kip for a 5 hour journey. You can board them either at the northern bus station or the bus stop south of the airstrip.

From Luang Prabang, VIP buses cost 150,000 kip and minivans cost 120,000 kip. If you're susceptible to motion sickness you'll be much better off on the slower bus than the minivan.

Bus Schedule

To Departs hours Approximate price (kip) Duration (hours) Comments Last update
Vientiane (Songthaew) Every 20 min 40,000 Jun 2011
Vientiane (Local bus) 05:30,06:00,06:30,07:00,12:30,14:00 40,000 Jun 2011
Vientiane (Mini) 09:00 60,000 Jun 2011
Vientiane(Express bus) 10:30,13:30 60,000 Jun 2011
Luang Prabang (Mini) 09:00,14:00 100,000 Jun 2011
Luang Prabang (Express) 10:00 90,000 Jun 2011
Phonsavan (Mini) 09:30 100,000 Jun 2011

By car

Hwy 13 is a sealed two lane road that is slowly deteriorating. The road between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang is mountainous and boasts amazing scenery. The road between Vang Vieng and Vientiane is flatter and less interesting.

Get around

From the bus station

From Vientiane, buses will drop you off either at the old airstrip (from the Vietnam war, it's now just a giant gravel pad) and the tourist buses will drop you in front of a hotel on the main street in town. The airstrip is directly behind the main street, so in either case there is no need to take a tuk-tuk or cyclo if you plan to stay in the main area of town. The island and bungalows along the river are about a 10 min walk away. Buses to and from the north Laos leave from the new bus terminal 2 km north of town. When leaving Vang Vieng, transport to the bus station is usually included in the price of your ticket.

Around town

Vang Vieng is so small that everything is easily reachable on foot. If you want to venture out of town, bicycles are widely available and can be rented from hotels or local businesses. You should not have to pay more than 10,000 kip for a day's rental. Motorbike rentals are also available. You can rent a small semi-automatic scooter starting from 40,000 kip (from morning till evening, 60,000 kip for 24h) or a dirt bike from 100,000 kip (125cc for a day) to 200,000 kip (150cc for 24h). Good selection of scooters for instance at M/c Rental (across the street and about 50 m east from Whopping Burger). Always check the condition of the bike and details of the contract before signing anything. At some places you will have to sign a contract which makes you completely responsible if something breaks or fails to function, even if it's normal wear and tear. Also you are not allowed to go out of Vang Vieng District, so don't count on renting a bike here to go on a longer tour of the district.

Several tuk-tuks are also scattered around town. 10,000 kip per person will be plenty to get to anywhere within Vang Vieng. It's also the price you'll pay to get to the tubing bars irrespective of how many other people are on board. It's better to sort out exact change with fellow passengers as tuk-tuk drivers are notorious for giving incorrect change.

To rent a tuk-tuk for the whole day costs about 130,000-150,000 kip.

See

Do

Buy

The small shops scattered throughout Vang Vieng sell the standard assortment of snacks, trinkets, sunglasses and bathing suits. The majority of tourists seem to leave with at least one T-shirt, vest, or dress with "In the Tubing - Vang Vieng" emblazoned on it.

Prices for tourist packages are quoted in both kip and US dollars. Restaurants, hotels, and pretty much everything else is priced in kip. Most places will accept kip, Thai baht and US dollars for larger purchases.

There are several ATMs that now take all major credit cards, but are known for running out of cash. Some tourists have reported only being able to use cards on the Maestro (MasterCard) network.

The Lao Development Bank changes money at good rates and processes cash advances. BCEL will also do cash advances on credit cards.

Eat

The numerous TV restaurants are interchangeable and all have a similar theme. When it comes to Wi-Fi some offer it free, others sell access. Others offer access only at certain times only. They all have similar menus. A selection of Lao, American, Italian, Chinese and Thai food is normally fresh but often of indifferent quality and poorly executed. Small servings average 20,000-45,000 kip.

For quick eats and late night snacks, numerous pancake and sandwich stalls dot the streets. But be careful, food hygiene may have been compromised by being in the heat all day and your gastrointestinal system may react accordingly. The street running next to the river just to the west of the tube rental office has a few vendors selling large chicken and pork kebab skewers for 5,000 kip each.

Many restaurants offer "happy" shakes and pizzas. While this may be obvious to many, any food or drink with the words "happy", "special" or "ecstatic" will contain an undetermined amount of marijuana or magic mushrooms.

Drink

Beerlao is available everywhere in Vang Vieng, but the drink of choice is a cheap plastic bucket filled with liquor and soft drinks. A bottle of Tiger Whisky costs the bar 10,000 kip, so around a third of a bottle goes into your bucket, normally with a choice of 7-Up or Pepsi, lime and Red Bull.

Tubing area

There are eight bars within the first kilometre of the tubing route. Alternately, four of them open daily, two on each side of the river.

In town

Beerlao and buckets are available all around Vang Vieng in bars covered with Christmas lights (including all the "TV restaurants") and the buckets are usually very strong because Lao whisky is cheaper than soft drinks. There's no shortage of choice but a distinct lack of diversity, especially if you're looking for live music.

The Island

For serious drinking, the bars referred to collectively as The Island, reached via some ramshackle bamboo and wood bridges, are where most of the tubers end up after a day on the river, particularly after the bars in town start to close. The Sandwich Pancake pushers hover in a long line as people stumble over the bridge, waiting to prey on drunken Western tourists. But be aware of trying to buy eye drops for sudden onset conjunctivitis around this area. Stories abound of people being drunkenly extorted as much as 5x the normal price for treatment for their conjunctivitis

As of 2015, there are only two bars open on the former party island. One, River View Guest house, has a stretch of low wooden tables along the river next to the restaurant. Another bar has recently opened at the north end of the island, and is mainly a sunset place which closes early.

Sleep

There are now a couple of halfway-decent mid-range hotels and attempts at boutique-style residences.

Generally though, double rooms go for USD6-15, make sure you see the room (and bath) before paying. More local, low-key (which is pretty low-key in Vang Vieng to start with) places are by the market and more shiny set ups are on the main road. The party crowd tend to advocate choosing a bungalow on the island, but expect it to be quite noisy if you want to sleep during the night.

Most guesthouses have large TV-viewing areas, practically coated in the Southeast Asia signature triangular cushions, where they serve food. But be forewarned - you'll be hard pressed to find a place screening something other than the US sitcoms "Friends" and "Family Guy".

The Famous Spicy Laos Hostels is no more. Due to problems with ownership and corruption backpackers are advised to stay away from Spicy Laos VV and LPB Hostels. (Spicy Thai is still ultra successful and legendary as always)

Stay safe

NOTE: Around one tourist dies every month while jumping or tubing. Several more get severe injuries every month, as there are many sharp rocks not visible under the water in many places along the river. Do not jump if you are drunk. It's difficult to always predict where you will land in the water while jumping and there are almost always rocks nearby!

Thousands of tourists pass through Vang Vieng without incident every year, but the combination of outdoor activities, drink and drugs still makes it one of South East Asia's most dangerous destinations for travellers.

Even the town's main street can injure the unwary traveller: you'll need to watch out for the large holes in the pavement through to the drainage ditch below as they are not fenced off.

The medical care available in the town's hospital is rudimentary at best - for serious injuries you'll want to go to Vientiane, or better still, Thailand.

Watersports and alcohol

Floating downstream at a sedate pace in an inflated rubber tube shouldn't be a dangerous activity, provided you leave enough time to get back before darkness falls.

What raises the danger level is the bars offering a combination of hard liquor and high platforms to jump from.

Whilst you may find that risk reduced somewhat by the dismantling of some of Vang Vieng's infamous ziplines, swings and slides following recent deaths, you're still going to have use your common sense. If you want to jump into the river, be very careful about where you do so - the Nam Song isn't very deep except where the bar staff have cleared rocks from the river bed. Don't even think of pushing others in: at least one person has died that way.

Needless to say, if the alcohol or drugs you've consumed may impair your ability to swim or climb out, don't enter the water, even on a rubber tube. Remember whisky buckets can be deceptively strong and their effects can kick in very quickly.

The river current is strong in many places - even the stone-cold sober should avoid sapping their strength by swimming against it. It should be easy enough to swim across to shallower water instead.

Drugs

Historically accepted drugs, such as marijuana, mushrooms and opium are freely available in many bars and restaurants around town. The majority of bars have "magic menus" offering most of these drugs. Consuming them on the premises is fairly safe, although drugs are illegal in Laos and nothing is totally safe.

Yaa-​baa (ยาบ้า), the Thai/Lao name for a narcotic made of methamphetamine and caffeine, is available in both pill and smokeable forms. It was formerly legal in Thailand as a way for long-haul truckers to stay awake. Yaa-baa is highly addictive. Manufactured locally, the drug can be cut with any number of substances.

Aside from the drugs already mentioned it is inadvisable to attempt to purchase any other substances not freely available on the magic menus around town. The dangers of most drugs should be well-known to travellers, and additionally there is also a police presence. Plain-clothed policemen frequently take unsuspecting tourists to the local police station for smoking a joint. The usual outcome of this involves having your passport seized until you cough up a hefty "fine", typically between 3-5 million kip. Once the fine is paid, however, the matter is generally taken no further and the passport returned. But the punishment will depend on the officer you are dealing with. Several local policemen are best friends and drinking buddies with restaurateurs who sell opium, mushrooms, cannabis and yaa-baa. Customers are not harassed at these establishments. The police wait until they leave. Some of these same cops own guesthouses near the island. Never surrender your passport if you can help it, and often the best way out of the situation is simply to pay.

Medical Issues

A minor annoyance around Vang Vieng (referred to by locals and long-time residents as the "Vang Vieng plague") is conjunctivitis, or pink eye. This is a viral, and sometimes bacterial, infection which can be caught from the river or other tubers. The onset of conjunctivitis is often felt as an unnatural tiredness, and inability to properly fully open your eyes. If you sense this, or have been sharing buckets with people with conjunctivitis or wearing sunglasses at night, the best thing to do is shell out for eye drops as soon as possible to prevent the onset. If this should happen late at night, be aware that eye drops alone should cost a maximum of 20,000 kip. Some of the late night pharmacies attempt to extort tourists, charging up to 5x the normal price for eye drops.

As well as eye drops, general antibiotics are available from any pharmacy. In some cases eye drops will cause an intense stinging sensation, this can be soothed with an eye bath formula also available at pharmacies. Of course the sensible solution would be to rest your eyes and ease the drinking, but Vang Vieng's non-stop party atmosphere makes this a hard option for most. Should your conjunctivitis last longer than a week you should probably seek proper medical advice, and stop drinking all that Tiger Whisky to give your body time to heal.

Taxiboat

When tubing home late and its getting cold and dark, there are taxi boats who offer to take you home for a price of around 10,000 kip each. These boats will just take you to some place and stop there, refusing to continue. They tie up the boat, take away the engine and go away, waiting for you to get out and grab a waiting tuk tuk for a high price back home, because they know that you are freezing and want to take back your tube. If you don't want to pay the tuk-tuk, the only way to get home is to walk.

Connect

Internet speed and reliability is variable but not bad by Laos standards. There are a few Internet cafes around town. Most guesthouses and restaurants now offer free Wi-Fi for their customers.

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This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, March 26, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.