Vang Vieng - where backpacker cliches are born.

Fishing on the river in Vang Vieng. 
Vang Vieng, Laos is the birth place of almost every backpacker stereotype I have ever heard.  Backpackers roll in with little care for the locals except when they need to book a tour, buy supplies or buy beer. There is a general attitude that everyone is there to serve them. I've heard that it is much better than last year and a few years ago, they have "cracked down." Even so, it is clear that the focus here is to lie around in the sun by day and party by night, sometimes one crossing into the other, losing time completely (in a bad way). Vang Vieng is place where people get "stuck."

I tend to dislike places that look like they exist solely for tourists no matter how pretty they are. This was no exception. I just couldn't get into it, I felt like my soul got dirty just being there. Sure, it was pretty. I enjoyed the karst rocks that seem to have shot out of the earth like a baby that couldn't wait to be born, but I didn't have any desire to party. I didn't have any desire to hang around in my bathing suit, something which is offensive to a lot of locals given their modesty. And I didn’t want to tube. Vang Vieng is known for river tubing. Tubing isn't my thing, probably because I did it as a child and regularly ended up with bites and bruises from the experience. This is different, it's more relaxed but I still didn’t like floating in a river with hundreds of other people who are drunk, high and sober alike.  

I hate to be age-ist and I always swear I won't be, but I feel like it might have been fun if I was 22 or maybe even 25, but not at nearly 32. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I would have liked it if I was a different person than I am. Maybe I’m just not “fun.” But  a serious part of me thought for a while that the horrendous bus ride to Vang Vieng hadn't been worth it. 

With that said there are things to do that do not involve the things I have mentioned above. Rock climbing, hot air balloon rides (it was too hazy during my visit), dune buggy riding, renting a bicycle or scooter, kayaking, boat tours, caving and swimming. Basically an adult playground.  A note, about kayaking, I couldn't find a place that would rent me a solo kayak. They all wanted to send me with a guide in a tandem kayak and since I was alone the price was higher. Plus I didn’t fancy going alone to a random river place alone with a guide. If there are a few of you, you'll be much better off.  They also have trekking, caving, kayaking combo day trips. If you want you can also add in a village stop or overnight stay. 

It was pretty hazy when I was there but plenty of people took balloons out for sunset. 
At the local Wat. I've never seen a Buddha quite like this one.
In the end, I visited one of the small Wats in town and I rented a bicycle for 15,000 kip ($1.86US) for the day. I took this bike around town for a bit before deciding to try to find the blue lagoon on a whim. I won't lie, I've had better ideas. The road was dirt and rock with the occasional deep hole. If the scenery wasn't so enjoyable I would have turned around 5 minutes into the dirt road. Instead I pressed on. My body was a milkshake by the end. I was jilted, jolted and jostled. It is a small miracle that I didn't fall, crash, or pop a tire. I had not rented a mountain bike like some, I should have. I had a more city cruiser style bike that you would see in say The Netherlands. I felt every rock. 

The road. It made me think of everyone who has to ride tis type of road all over the country every day. Ouch..

I should have known this was the wrong place based on this sign. That's what a stressful bike ride will do to your travel smarts, make them soup. 

About 5km into the supposedly 7km ride, I took a wrong turn and went to a fake blue lagoon. As soon as I saw it I knew it was the wrong place but at that point I had already been scammed and paid 10,000kip. I stayed for a few minutes just to rest from the bike ride. Someone came over and asked me if I wanted to explore the cave, I said no. He hung about for a few minutes but then realized that I was serious and left. As soon as I was sure he was gone, I sped back out to the main road and continued on my original path. After a kilometer or so I reached a village and a sign that said Poukham Cave, the cave associated with the Blue Lagoon. After a kilometer, there was another sign that said 1km. I said, come on really, out loud, and kept going. After what I am sure was more than another km, I arrived at the right blue lagoon which was obvious because of the massive entrance gate, sea of scooters, bicycles and tuk tuks. I paid another 10,000kip. 

I parked my bike and surveyed the landscape. There was a foot bridge crossing blue water with bathing beauties in it. Some were on tubes, some were swinging from a rope on a tree, some relaxed on a tree swing that sank just below the water. Across the bridge there was a party complete with a volleyball net, people doing handstands and of course a bar. This may sound like a backpacker paradise, but to me it looked like a bizarro Hollywood movie set that I had no desire to be an extra on. I don't know what it was, but I immediately didn't want to be a part of it. Maybe because I was alone and not feeling particularly social, maybe because I knew I had a tough bike ride back, maybe because I was still under the weather from being sick the previous few days. I guess it doesn't really matter the reason. In that moment I took advantage of one of the greatest perks of solo travel, the ability to make a decision for yourself and follow through immediately. The ability to leave at will.  I stayed about 10 minutes, watching people show off by climbing higher and higher up the tree over-hanging the river and doing all sorts of dives with little regard for depth. Then I promptly left.  

The ride back was just as rocky but I knew where I was going so it went faster. When I got back to town I rode around on the pavement for a few laps to get the other road out of my system fully before I brought my bike back. Recommended for blue lagoon – a mountain bike with thick tires or a tuk tuk ride.

A note about backpacking and blogging - You aren’t going to like every place you go. It’s a fact. It’s also a fact that your experience is entirely colored by who you meet, your state of mind and your past travel experiences. I am sure my experience would have been completely different if I hadn’t been sick part of the time and been unable to do some of the adventure type activities offered. Still I probably wouldn't go back. So take everything I say with a grain of salt and explore it for yourself.