Upon arrival in Vang Vieng, I took a jumbo (tuktuk) with a Thai guy who thought I was a college student on holiday (Come on, man. What’s a college student doing in Vang Vieng at this month? Researching for his college thesis?). I wasn’t sure where to go. There were a couple of hotels on my list. I opted to check out Lonely Planet’s most recommended budget dwelling, Maylin Guesthouse. But the driver said that it was far from the main road. That he will take me to a street, then I can walk from there. Sounded like one sketchy deal. He was asking for 10,000 kip more than the Thai. Ten minutes later, we were at the High Street in the heart of town.
WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAMES
Vang Vieng hasn’t named their streets. Walang pangalan ang mga daan eh! At least I didn’t notice any. There were few vehicles plying the main street. This is a town for walkers. I saw a few tourists on rented bikes. For purposes of reference, the street pattern of the town is shaped like the capital letter T, with its head facing west. I shall call the "T-tail" as the High Street. If you go further from the T-head, you will reach the Song River (Nam Song). I saw a map from some website and it looked more complicated. It’s really way simpler navigating it. I came to Vang Vieng with hardly any preparation. No maps, no detailed plan.
FINDING MY ACCOMMODATION
When the driver dropped the Thai guy at Dok Khoun 1 Guesthouse, I decided to check it out. Maylin Guesthouse seemed way off the town center. Lonely Planet and Wikipedia have Dok Khoun on their list so it couldn’t be bad. Indeed I soon found out that it wasn’t! The main street is flocked by other guesthouses and tour operators, restaurants and souvenir shops. Despite that, it felt like one sleepy town. I was ushered into an average-sized room at the second storey. From my window, I can see the towering karst limestones. Not bad for a $5.60 (45,000 kip). I’m told that there were cheaper ones available ($3) with a communal bathroom outside. No, thank you. I prefer unlimited access to my own bathroom. As budget rooms go, this will do. It's far from being the perfect place. The paint is chipping off. The electric wires are clumsily pasted on the wall. And the toilet-flush drains incompletely, if you know what I mean. Having said that, I was aware that this wasn’t a luxury tour afterall.
Once refreshed, I headed to the High Street . Caucasians leisurely walking around in their shorts and flipflops. Shops advertising local tours, cave visits, kayaking and tubing activities. There were a couple of ATM machines although I couldn’t find a post office. I looked for Vang Vieng souvenir shirts, but couldn’t find one either. This town is still on the verge of losing its soul to commercial excesses.
There are more than 40 guesthouses around so a reservation is hardly required or needed. But I have a feeling this will change very soon. Vang Vieng is, after all, considered as the backpacking capital of Laos; the tubing capital of Asia. Now that people – like myself – have heard of it, things can only get busier.
Number 17 is Maylin Guesthouse. Number 5 is Dok Khoun, my guesthouse. The marked letter T is the High Street. The broken white line near number 34 (Thavornsouk guesthouse) is the Song Bridge. The arrow is the Main Highway going towards the Bus Station. Vientiane the capital is headed south. Number 7 is Wat Kang where I had a full-on monk encounter.
I went westward. I saw jumbos carrying layers of tubes (inflated inner tubes of tractor tires). Salbabida po. River-bound tourists. I turned right at the end of the road. There were stores selling market produce, fish, grilled bits of pork and chicken, coconut drinks, juices. As I didn’t have a map, I mentally noted the turns on the road. The temples didn’t have English labels. There were monk novices doing their chores. Some were sweeping the grounds. I didn’t see other tourists sneaking about. Ako lang. I turned to one of the side streets and came into a footbridge. The Song River flows southwards under it. Then someone tapped my shoulder. It's the Korean guy I met at the border! He had a wide grin on his face and eagerly shook my hand. He just came from Vientiane, while I am headed there - from here. It felt like seeing an old friend. Ang saya. It was bound to happen, meeting the same people traveling within the loop (this is a loop that most backpackers follow and includes Pakse, Vientiane, Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang, Phonsavanh). Further along, I ran into the Thai guy from the bus station. He told me that he had visited Maylin Guesthouse, and that i would have to cross a pay-bridge to get to the other side. I said I will check it out myself.
THE MONKS AND I
I saw another temple - Wat Kang. Although I wasn’t too keen on admiring another, it wasn’t a bad preoccupation when you’re just discovering a place on your own. Some young monks said hello. They were a friendly bunch. There wasn’t a lot of conversations, but sign language sufficed. Heck, they can’t even tell me the name of the wats (temples). Not long after, I was taking their photographs. They would become some of my favorite photos from this trip. I didn’t have to retrace my path as I later found myself back in the High Street. I trudged back to the riverside and headed south this time. It was an unhurried walk. Then I saw another bridge, bigger and wider – the Song Bridge. The view across the river is picture perfect. You can hardly get a bad photo from such beautiful landscape. I paid 4,000 kip (for foreigners) to cross the bridge to the other side. Locals pay 1,000 kip. Bicycles are charged 7,000 kip.
CHECKING OUT A TOP PICK
Upon crossing the bridge, there was a small community to explore. The streets were very small; a muddy dirt road. 50 meters from the crossing is Maylin! I needed to see Maylin to find out why this was Lonely Planet’s top pick. I passed a drunk lao and from a distance I could hear children playing out loud. Then I saw a tributary of the Song River. On the shaky wood bridge were kids playing around. There were more kids and ladies bathing and washing clothes on the river. Maylin Guesthouse turns out to be a small but comfortable guesthouse with tall shrubs growing on the front yard. Kids waving their nets around, catching butterflies. Maylin looks like a nice place to stay, but its location leaves little to be desired. It is very far from the hub of activities, probably 15 to 20 minutes walk from the High Street. Moreover, you have to pay when you cross the bridge just to get there. When you’re going tubing, the jumbos will ask for more than what is being asked in town. At night, it wouldn’t be a very safe endeavor to leisurely walk back in the dark muddy roads from the bars and restaurants. I am content with Dok Khoun.
Much later in the day, before the sunset, I ventured into another path and saw a couple more temples. Kids were playing footballs (soccer) while nearby, other monks were bathing with their saffron robes on. From the street, I could see families sitting on bare floor, having their dinner. I noticed the other establishments listed in Lonely Planet. American-run Pan’s Place. Elephant Crossing. Vansana Hotel. Thavonsouk Resort. Riverside Bungalows. It was starting to drizzle so I began walking back to the High Street. I saw a vendor selling lechon kawali (roast pork) at 14,000 kip. Wow. I bought a cup of khao nio (sticky rice) at 6,000 kip. She didn’t have khao jao (plain white rice). I took my “dinner” back to my room. Yummy! After resting for a bit, I went out again to look for an internet shop. They charged 6,000 kip/15 minutes. While I was checking my mails, rain fell hard over Vang Vieng. At night, the bars fill with falangs (foreigners) lazily watching Friends with every other backpackers in town. I sat beside a couple from Athens and an Aussie girl from Canberra. There was a Japanese guy at the next table who hardly spoke. His contribution to the crowd was a constant smile. By 9 PM, I headed back to my hotel. Curfew starts in an hour.
What? Really? Oh my God! She said that? Good heavens!
Dok Khoun 1 Guesthouse and my $5 room.
The High Street
Most tourists visit Vang Vieng for its tubing activities. The 3.5 km trip from near the Organic Mulberry Farm, north of Vang Vieng, has become so popular in the backpacker circuit that bars have been set up on islands and beaches along the route selling Beerlao and food. Prices are fixed at $4 and include your trip to the launch point. You have to be careful though with your tubes. If you fail to return it, a stiff fine of $7 is charged. A scam has somehow developed in this cartel. After having such enormous fun, floating on your salbabidas through the rivers and swinging through ropes on your way down the stream, some locals will offer to return those tubes for you. But, you see, the kindness of strangers aren’t what they always seem. They sometimes cost you. And the next morning, you will probably have someone knocking on your door asking for $7 for unreturned tubes.
In A Nutshell
The area’s main attraction is the dramatic landscape surrounding it. Honeycombed with unexplored tunnels and caverns, the cliffs are a spelunker’s heaven. The Nam Song (Song River) meanwhile plays host to kayakers and travelers floating along on tractor inner tubes – a pastime so thoroughly enjoyable and popular that it has become one of the rites of passage of the Indochina backpacking circuit. People are oblivious of the tacky Greco-Laotian architecture of the guesthouses. Elsewhere, there are the TV clubs and “happy” bars. Take note of the word “happy” as these refer to menus that allow tourists to sit on an axe pillow, sucking down a shake laced with marijuana, mushrooms or opium and tripping through endless reruns of “Friends”. In fact, Joey Tribiani and company deserve royalties for their services in Vang Vieng. This is Friends Country. It ‘s also important to note that Vang Vieng is not Amsterdam where drugs are legally sold in some areas. Don’t get caught taking or possessing one. This is, after all, a communist country with very traditional values and rules, as well as punishments.
Nam Song (Song River), a tributary of the Mekong.
The exquisite tasting, locally brewed, French-tech distilled Beerlao.
One of the footbridges, northwest Vang Vieng. One of the "happy" bars (above).
Champa Lao Guesthouse
Hopetal de Vang Vieng. Yeah, it says "hopetal".
Song Bridge, southwest Vang Vieng. Had to pay 4,000 kip to cross to the other side.
Catching a butterfly.
Vang Vieng Fast Facts:
Tubing Capital of Laos.
Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang – 231 km, 6-7 hours of travelVang Vieng to Vientiane - 153 km, 3 ½ hrs – 4 hrs of travelATM machines: There is a Bcel machine right across Dok Khoun 1 Guesthouse.Money changers: Your guesthouse will gladly change your dollar for you, although rates in Vientiane are a little better.
Temples to Visit: (There are only 4 as far as I know.)
- Wat That (Wat Si Vieng Song), Wat Kang, Wat Si Suman and Wat Si Mixayaham
Wat Si Suman, southwest Vang Vieng, near a school and the Song River. Couldn't get a better photo coz a dog was barking at me.
· Dok Khoun 1 guesthouse – $5.60 or 45,000 kip or PhP252
· Jumbo/tuktuk from the bus station to the High Street – $1.25 or 10,000 lip or PhP56.25
· Jumbo/tuktuk from the bus station to the stop near Song Bridge – $2.50 or 20,000 kip or PhP112.50
· Song Bridge crossing (return) - $0.50 or 4,000 kip or PhP22.50
· Tubing adventure (transportation and tubes included) - $4 or 32,000 kip or PhP180
· Penalty for failure to return the tubes - $7 or 56,000 kip
· Roast pork (liempo)– $1.75 or 14,000 kip or PhP78.75
· Khao nio (sticky rice) – $0.25 or 2,000 kip or PhP11.25
· Internet use for 1 hour – $3 or 24,000 kip or PhP135