If you’ve been following me for long enough on this blog, then you’d know that I have a thing for taking photos of sunsets. Plonk me anywhere facing the direction of a saturated setting sky with a large cold beer and you’ll find me most content. That’s what I did the time that I spent in Vang Vieng. Of course I did a few things during the day but for me, Vang Vieng was all about being still, reflecting and enjoying the afternoons by the river.
Before I even contemplated coming to Laos, I was told that Vang Vieng was the party capital of Laos, if not Asia outside of the islands of Thailand. It was also one of the most dangerous places if you had a penchant for tubing where a few tourists would die each year from tubing accidents. However by the time I left town after five days, I felt like things had been cleaned up its act and was a kind of place that I could probably go back to.
Tourism is the main driver of business here with most places being set up as either a guest house, restaurant or a tour operator. As much as they call out at times to solicit business, they’re not as pushy in these parts and some execute their callouts with a witty smile. Rather than responding with a hurried stride and a firm response, you just can’t help but smile back, say no and even go out of your way to say hello each time you pass again. With the town of Vang Vieng being so small, chances are you will a lot of people over and over again.
One thing that I was looking forward to the most was the food. Back home in Sydney, an old colleague of mine opened up a Laotian restaurant and ever since my first visit, I was hooked. In my 6 weeks back in Oz prior to moving on to Asia, I even visited the place three times. So by the time I arrived in Laos, I was frothing to wrap my gob around some proper Laotian tucker. However after my first night in Vang Vieng, I was feeling pretty disappointed. Each restaurant that I walked in to investigate had identical menus. It was incredible, every single one of them as though each neighbouring restaurant had gone in with a camera and photographed each of the menu items and decided to copy it.
On each menu was primarily western food with some Laotian food at the very end. Even the crepes and sandwich stalls that lined the streets had the same menu in red and yellow writing as though the same person had written it. Chicken and avocado, chicken and bacon, chocolate crepes, banana crepes, it was all identical from one stall to another. I asked one of the sandwich ladies where she goes for Laotian food and she said, where they all lived a few miles out of town. So after two laps of the town I gave up on finding an authentic local restaurant.
Despite the fact you can enjoy pizzas and burgers at any of the restaurants and chill out to Friends repeats on television for what felt like all day, everyday, the limited Laotian food at the back of the menu was still pretty good. Each day I’d start my day with rice soup with pork and egg or a noodle soup. The noodle soup is similar to the Cambodian variety with the use of spices to boost the flavours to make up for a lacking in any richer flavour from the use of soup bones which is prominent in countries like Vietnam. It was fine though, and in the heat of the mid morning, something lighter would be better. In the evenings, I would rely on the local laap which is a minced meat salad. Similar to the Thai laab, the Lao variety uses more herbs in the recipe and is made with beef, chicken, pork or duck. Mainly served with sticky rice, Vang Vieng would mark the start of my sticky rice addiction.
Despite the lack of Laotian food, Vang Vieng is still a pretty nice place to chill out and explore. You have to get a bit out of town and explore the neighbouring villages as there really isn’t anything of interest to do in town. The easiest way is to grab a scooter and head towards the mountain caves or the blue lagoon about 8km out of town. The best time of the day is mid to late afternoon where it’s slightly cooler and the sun is setting over the limestone mountain ranges that engulf the western side of the town on your way to the blue lagoon.
Farms and small villages along the way provide opportunities to slow down and enjoy the striking landscapes. Children will run out with snot running down their face, waving hello and wanting to take photos with your camera. During this time, the older children are on their way home from school, riding their bicycle with somebody double up on the rear with an umbrella pitched up to keep the suns rays off their complexion.
I was quite surprised at the lack of tourists when I was in Vang Vieng. Despite being what is considered the high season I could easily walk into any of the guesthouses and negotiate a price. It could have possibly been due to from many of the government forced bar closures along the Nam Song River that resulted in the fewer number of people tubing. While I was kayaking the 15km stretch of river, we passed remnants of what used to be bars that dotted the river. In total there would have been about 4 or 5 bar that were still operating under tighter government regulations. I could see why people would become seriously injured as the bottom of the river is covered in large boulders no less than a metre beneath the surface in some areas due to it being the dry season. At times I’d hang my legs over the kayak to cool down and my feet would kiss the boulders below.
To truly experience the beauty of the landscape, a trip to Vang Vieng is not complete without floating through the air, drifting past the mountain ranges and above the town in a hot air balloon. I’ve been in a hot air balloon before which cost $500, but here it’s only $80. For just under an hour, you will go up thousands of feet above the height of the mountain range and as low as being able to touch the tips of the bamboo forests. At that cost, it’s an absolute steal and something that won’t be repeated that I know of anywhere in Asia.
I thought I wouldn’t enjoy Vang Vieng as much because of the touristy nature of the town that it is known for, but it surprised me even with the lack of Laotian cuisine on the menu. I really enjoyed the quiet pace of it all and it wasn’t the town overrun by 20 year olds on their gap year that I had had previously envisioned. To me it was a good mix of travelling demographics. Yes you’d have the odd person sunbathing in a g-string despite not considering the modest nature of the Laotian people who would swim in the river fully clothed, but those were few and far between.
The impression I left with was that is was a town that was going through a transformation with the potential to turn itself from being a party place to something with a more chilled out vibe. Perhaps it’s also an opportunity for restaurants to revamp their menus and try not to be everything to everyone.
Just a competition reminder that I’ve picked up a two beautiful gifts that are handmade from the local Red Dao village women just outside of Sapa to give away to two lucky readers. For a chance to win, just leave a comment on what theme you would like to challenge me with in a future This week in photo post. You can either tell me in the comment section of my latest week in photo post below the post or on my Facebook page post. It can be anything, It’s that EASY!
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