In the twilight zone of Vang Vieng

Posted: March 29, 2011 in South East Asia
Tags: , ,

The phrase “there’s no place on earth quite like it” is often used by travel writers to bestow praise on beautiful places. With Vang Vieng the phrase means something completely different; it’s a place where crowds of bright young things come and lose all sense of reason and trash their bodies with no concern for other people. Seeing is believing and it feels like the past 4 days have been partly spent in a moral and spiritual vacuum, inside a bubble of pikey chaos.

Carnage city

First I’ll give you a summary of the hedonistic urges in this place.  The main zone for carnage is down by the Namsong river where hundreds of makeshift bars on wooden platforms adorn both banks. The bars are crowded during the day by the young ones drinking themselves into a delirious stupor. Q Bar is the main hangout and is rammed full of college boys and girls in swimming costumes covered in hand drawn body painting, usually crude phrases. It’s like reading the tourettes dictionary. Some drink to remember, some drink to forget. The testosterone is pumping and casual sex is clearly on the agenda for many.

The daily routine is for people to turn up and go tubing, hiring inflated inner tubes that they use to float down the river. Along the way they stop off at the bars and get wrecked. The day descends into chaos as boys and girls try to out do each other for bragging rights. Many of the bars have water slides and swings, crude inventions that involve perching on precarious platforms high above the water, surrounded by rocks, then hurling yourself forwards and letting go when the water seems deep enough.

By the early afternoon most of the crowd are battered. Some of the bars also sell happy drinks and food, laced with marijuana and mushrooms. The heady concoction of booze and drugs turns the party people into lunatics. The antics are often insane and it’s a common sight to see blood stained victims staggering down the road after pushing the limits too far. An Aussie chap we met told us of one girl who smashed her head on rocks as she jumped in the water and surfaced unconscious. Some of the boys had to jump in and rescue her before she drowned.

Most people here do this day in, day out. Everyday is the same. Everyday involves downing as much cheap battery acid as the body can handle, and sometimes more. They all wind up staggering back into town from the late night bars about 3am and then wake everyone else up by slamming doors, screaming and having all-night parties until they come down and the buzz has gone. It’s Groundhog Day and we had 2 nights without any sleep because of the noisy bastards. Yes, that is bitterness. And yes, no doubt at some point in my life I’ve annoyed people in a similar way. Karma.

We met one girl at a breakfast joint whose foot had ballooned like an elephant’s. She had stumbled drunk into a flight of wooden steps and twisted it badly. The swelling suggested a break but despite our recommendation to seek medical advice, she insisted she was going to head to the river for a day’s tubing and see what happened. I was too hung-over to deal with the crap she was talking and people like her are too stupid to reason with. She’ll be the next statistic.

I tried the swings from one of the more serene bars but I was sober so could exercise caution and judgment. You fall from at least 20 feet above the water and you need to keep your wits about you because there are patches of rock and shallow water, so timing is everything. To do this drunk and high as a kite is extremely dangerous and explains the high number of injuries and annual death count. Yep, tourists die here every year, too dumb to realise that drink, drugs, water and rocks aren’t the best bedfellows.

River water slide on Namsung, Laos

Beyond the Groundhog Day set

Babysitting incoherent 18 year-old college kids is no longer my thing, so we booked a few trips out to see the local area. Away from the Khao San Road and its satellite lanes, Vang Vieng is actually a beautiful place. The town is nestled between incredible mountains that rise sharply and look like the rippled back of a huge dragon.  The climate is generally warm and sunny, though the mountains sometimes throw in a rash of clouds that makes it pleasingly temperate.

On Friday 25th we went on a day’s tubing/caving/kayaking with a group of 10 people. Luckily our local guides were really cool and most of them spoke good English so we could find out more about the area.

The caving/tubing consisted of sitting on a tube in a natural water system and pulling ourselves through a dark and narrow cave using a series of ropes. The cave entrance was just high enough to fit under without having to duck. Inside was dark and endless. The cave was about 10ft wide and 6ft high above the water level. After a few minutes I decided enough was enough. I’m claustrophobic and don’t like being under ground for extended periods. It was going to take 1hr to get through the cave system and back out into the light, so I opted to stay back and wait. Muneeza isn’t as much of a girl as me, so she went on and came back having had an enjoyable experience.

After a huge lunch (surprisingly good for a tour company) we took a brief trip to Elephant Cave, a huge cave where some of the limestone formations resemble elephant trunks and heads. It’s now a Buddhist shrine where the local villagers come to worship every day.

The main activity of the day was a half-day’s kayaking along the river back to Vang Vieng.  Muneeza and I shared our own double kayak and we all set off in the afternoon sun. The journey down the river was amazing and incredibly tranquil – no teenage drunks in sight. The river was quite gentle so the kayaking wasn’t too demanding. However, at the only major rapids we encountered, I managed to get my oar stuck in the rocks so it pinged out my hand and I couldn’t paddle to keep us away from the bank. We got dragged quickly into the trees and towards the rocks and the kayak flipped. I shouted to Muneeza to jump but she didn’t hear and instead was dragged under. Luckily she was wearing a life jacket (I hadn’t bothered) so was ok but came out of it rather shaken. Still, we had a good laugh at our malco efforts.

Muneeza getting to grips with something large and hard

We got back to Vang Vieng satisfied at a day well spent and for $12 per person, it was great value. If you ever come to Vang Vieng we can recommend TCK Amazing Travels.

Trekking in the mountains

Having been impressed by our tour company, we decided to book another day’s trip instead of hang around town and listen to the frat boys. This time we opted for the mountain trekking and left early on Monday morning. It is low season here and there was only one other person on the trip, a lovely English girl called Maddy from Farringdon. Our guide, Sipsong, spoke good English and led us off down a narrow path towards the mountains.

The first part of the trek saw us climb sharply upwards on perilous rocks and slippery mud. It wasn’t technically difficult but it certainly wasn’t easy. After 40mins we hit the plateau and were rewarded with beautiful views through the valleys. We strode on through farmer’s rice paddies and vegetable fields towards the lunch stopover at the Namsung Waterfall. Though slightly smaller than we had anticipated, the waterfall was in a secluded place and was miles from the sounds of modern life. We had the place to ourselves and after a few minutes sizing up the rocks, I dived in to the rather fresh water. The water cascaded down from 20m above and it was a serene spot at which to cool down after the morning’s hike. Sipsong whipped us up a BBQ and we stuffed ourselves on chicken kebabs and fried rice.

Somewhat reluctantly we headed off to make the return leg of the trip. Instead of climbing over the mountains, this time we went straight through them. It was time for me to face my nemesis, the enclosed space of an underground cave. The Hoy Cave runs right through the mountain. The entrance is huge but it soon tapers down to a narrow corridor that is eerily quiet. Sipsong led the way with a huge flaming bamboo stick. It reminded me of the scene from Lord of the Rings where Gandalf uses his staff to illuminate the underground passage. I was clearly nervous and had to focus my mind on happy thoughts so I didn’t start to imagine what it would be like if the cave collapsed and we were crushed under the rock, or worse still, trapped underground. Thankfully we emerged 10mins later unscathed and I breathed a huge sigh of relief and wiped away the nervous sweat.

Gandalf's Cave Vang Vieng

The rest of the hike involved walking through farmers’ fields, saying the occasional hello to local workers. The scenery here is stunning, it’s like being immersed in wilderness. On one side you have huge valley floors dominated by farming land and intersected by the rushing river. On the other side, immense mountains whose inverse cliff faces loom over you as a stark reminder of your insignificance. We met the truck on the far side of the river and had to pass by the start of the bars where all the crazy things are.

The contrast between the serene day’s hiking and the booming bass of the bar, with its cacophony of drunkards, was poignant. It was the difference between a world I love and a world that I no longer relate to. That’s not to say I don’t like a good session, I just can’t handle drunken teenagers out of control. Been there, got the t-shirt!

Vang Vieng is a fun place, no doubt about it. You can really have a good time here. However, there are too many idiots who will test the patience. If you can switch off to all the bullshit you hear and ignore the loud, whining voices of the US and UK College kids, you’ll find a friendly town with a good soul. The Laos people are wonderful; shame they have to put up with some many rude tourists but that’s the price you pay for the falang dollar.

We headed back to Vientiane on Tuesday 29th by bus with 1 day left to enjoy Laos before moving on to KL enroute to Sumatra, Indonesia.

Love jamer & Muneeza x


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