Vang Vieng, Laos: From party capital to eco-adventure paradise
Like the spine of a sleeping dragon, dramatic limestone mountains rise above the luscious paddy fields of central Laos. In the middle of it all, you’ll find Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng lies in a perfect location, halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. If the authorities manage the activities, keep the river clean and limit the noise, the destination will have a bright future and enjoy the benefits of tourism for a long time to come.
Vang Vieng, reinvented
Sitting on the banks of the Song River, the rural town might seem serene now. But Vang Vieng has seen a tumultuous 15 years, evolving from an agricultural community to a hedonistic party capital when it was “discovered” by Western shoestring travelers in the late 1990s.
Excessive drinking, drugs, trash, concrete construction and fatal accidents were detrimental to the local community. But in 2012, Vang Vieng’s narrative changed completely when the government shuttered most of the problematic bars and activities and repositioned the town as an eco-paradise.
Since then, a refreshed Vang Vieng has risen from the ashes of its erstwhile excesses. The town has reinvented itself as the country’s hub of adventure travel, offering a lengthy menu of adrenaline-fueled experiences.
Rolling down the river
Kayaks provide more freedom to explore the Song River.
While Vang Vieng has closed the dangerous water slides on the riverbanks, one thing hasn’t changed: A relaxing river tubing ride remains the outdoor experience of choice.
Sitting in an old inner tube and drifting down the Song River into town, beer in hand, is a quintessential outdoor excursion on any Vang Vieng itinerary.
Travelers who want to enjoy the river in a more proactive way can rent one of the many available kayaks and rafts in the afternoons, paddling into spectacular sunsets amidst mist-shrouded hills.
Hit the road
On the western side of the Song River, a 15-mile (25 kilometer) loop of dusty roads leads travelers to ethnic minority villages, pastoral fields populated by water buffaloes, several caves, viewpoints and a series of so-called Blue Lagoons– turquoise waterholes.
These watering holes are numbered from one to five, and the further one travels, the more peace and quiet one can expect.
Visitors can hire a tuk tuk to make the short, 7-kilometer journey to the lagoons.
Those thirsting for aerial thrills can have a go at zip-lining. There are a number of tour companies in Vang Vieng offering tours.
In the dry season, from November to March/April, Vang Vieng offers some of the most dramatic rock-climbing and hiking opportunities in Southeast Asia.
The short but steep climb up one of the area’s highest peaks, Pha Hon Kham, offers incredible sunrise and sunset views.
Standing on the rickety 360-degree viewing platform, floating above valleys and rock formations is as dizzying an experience as the sweat-soaked ascent through dense forest, across rickety wooden steps and giant boulders.
Visitors searching for more untethered views of the spectacular landscape can climb aboard a hot air balloon for a ride over the beautiful countryside.
Caving is another popular outdoor activity.
The rock formations and many caves on the west side of the river are best reached by mountain bike, though many tourists now opt for ATV rides or motorcycles.
Some of the caves contain Buddhist artifacts, while others once served as the locals’ hideaways from traveling marauders.
Tham Pha Daeng even offers a swimming opportunity in its very own lagoon.
At sunset, hundreds of bats escape this cave and others into the night.
Spooky stories of travelers getting lost in dank darkness abound, so it’s essential to take a guide, water and a good torch.
Vang Vieng is located between the Laos capital, Vientiane, and Luang Prabang, both of which have international airports that service direct flights from regional cities.
Taxis, vans and buses can be booked for the journey to Vang Vieng from either city. Drive time ranges from 3.5 to five hours.