Vang Vieng: impossibly lush, gorgeous stretches of crisp, winding river; towering jungle-clad mountains that make one contemplate the meaning of life; some a**hole in neon swim trunks, sipping Lao Lao from a plastic bucket, urinating off a nearby dock.
The problem with Vang Vieng (or the best part about it, depending on which side you’re on) is that this tiny, once-tranquil village has had the misfortune of being overrun by hoardes of drunk, half-naked college kids who descend on the banks of its river every day to party, go river tubing, and pass out in its gutters. In almost any other town in the world, this might be OK (well, everything except for the gutter part); in a conservative country like Laos, where women do not bare their shoulders or legs, and where married couples are not even supposed to touch in public, the mayhem that goes on in Vang Vieng is completely misplaced and utterly embarrassing for everyone observing (read: the locals), and everyone involved. This party scene doesn’t just happen quietly within the walls of bars and clubs – it now completely dominates Vang Vieng river life, where rickety bamboo bars line the river banks, offering “buckets” of Lao Lao (local whiskey) to river tubers and blast painfully loud music all day – all while Laos women bathe in full-length sarongs just on the other side. While some of the locals are becoming wealthy off of the tourism boom, the party scene that came with it has destroyed the once-quiet town and created an uncomfortable mix off hung-over tank-top-clad 20 year olds tramping over locals’ baskets of fish drying on the side of the road, with the village’s kids inquisitively watching the drunken craziness unfold.
Of course, Vang Vieng has much to appreciate outside the partying; despite the reputation it now has, we spent an incredible week there enjoying the natural beauty that made Vang Vieng so popular in the first place. Hearing about what Vang Vieng was like before arriving, we hoped to find a place that would be far-removed from the craziness. So after arriving via minibus from Vientiane, we threw our packs on our backs and strolled off down the lonely highway out of town…
After a long, sweaty walk we made it to the place where we hoped we would be able to stay, the Vang Vieng Organic Farm. The farm is run by people of the Hmong tribe (one of the many traditional Lao ethnic groups) and is set on a rugged piece of land nestled in a lush valley beside the Nam Song river.
Our view and surroundings:
What we didn’t know, is that despite our efforts to get away, the farm was set right at the starting line of where the drunk partiers launch their tubes into the river and where the first river bar is located. As a result, we have now memorized the words to every Katy Perry song ever written. For a little while, it was admittedly entertaining to watch. (I had to delete most of our photos due to my keen ability at accidentally capturing many scenes of partial-nudity and/or scenes of public urination, but you get the idea from the following…)
Don’t think it looks that bad? It’s hard to convey how LOUD it really is as it is amplified by the surrounding mountains, but also consider that the Vang Vieng tubing scene only started in 2009. Just imagine what the river will be like in 10 years. Sadly, the kind owner of the organic farm, “Mr. T”, blames himself for starting the whole Vang Vieng tubing craze. What was originally an activity that he set up for the volunteers who work on his farm to relax after a hard day of work has blossomed into the tourist attraction that it is today.
On one occasion we were trying to enjoy a peaceful dinner at the farm, when a lost, drunk, and horribly smelly tuber in nothing but a neon bathing suit sat down at our table with us; having no inkling of where he was, we had to get up from our dinner and arrange a tuk tuk ride for him back into town (you see, many of the “tubers” never actually get into their tubes at all – they party at the first river bar all day and then have to get a taxi ride with their tube back into town). The next night, the same thing happened to us again! …except this time the kid was wearing a Santa hat and was a whole lot smellier. Embarrassingly, he tried to “fist bump” Mr. T on his way out the door. It didn’t go over well.
Luckily, the farm itself is still a relaxing place to spend a few days (mostly when the music is off). The highlight of staying at the farm for us was that it unexpectedly ended up being quite the culinary adventure! The farm produces nearly everything that is served in their restaurant, meaning everything is fresh-picked and delicious. The main product that they grow is the mulberry, a small berry similar to raspberries. But they don’t only eat the berries; like many things cultivated in developing countries, nothing from the mulberry bush went to waste. We were inundated with mulberry tea (made by steeping the mulberry leaves in hot water), mulberry shakes, mulberry pancakes, fresh mulberries, even mulberry tempura (deep-fried mulberries leaves)! The tempura was subtle, but very crispy and unique:
Another great aspect of the farm is that they encourage anyone staying at the farm to volunteer for them, either through teaching English to local kids in a program that they have developed or by helping out on the farm itself, mostly to tend to their many goats. Although we were initially unsure we’d have time to volunteer during our stay, we were hopelessly sold once we checked out the goat facilities and saw this helpless little face staring back at us:
So we spent that very afternoon loading bale after bale of fresh-cut leaves into buckets to carry back to the goat house where their endless appetites made our hours of hard work non-existent:
The funniest part of the whole goat experience was that we were working alongside a local man named Pai, the head farmer, who did not speak any English (and we speak almost no Lao), meaning we never quite knew if we were doing anything correctly. One day without warning, Pai flung open the gates to the goat pen, causing about 20 goats to come stampeding toward us. Apparently we were supposed to try to herd them into their individual pens at that point, but our presence just ended up causing them to scatter into the surrounding bushes. After some confusion, we eventually figured out where Pai wanted us to herd them. Scott chasing goats into the barn:
The next morning, we awoke at 6:30 am to venture out in the freezing cold to scoop their poops, change their waters, and milk them to make goat cheese!
Right as we were getting our groove on, a huge tour group came through and bombarded us with a million questions about how to milk a goat. Scott giving his first lecture on goat milking:
Afterwards, Pai showed us how to make goat cheese out of the milk, which involved stirring the whey from the previous day’s cheese into the fresh milk and then setting the mixture at room temperature in the goat barn for 24 hours. Essentially, the cheese that you eat at the farm is unpasteurized, untreated, and completely dependent on how safe the volunteer or farm staff were on the day they made the cheese. (God help anyone who ate the cheese that we made, as Scott accidently dipped a goat teat directly into the milk while he was milking his goat! Eek!) Luckily, everyday that we ate the cheese (which was definitely every single day – it was delicious), the cheese was wonderful and we never felt sick.
The farm also had a slew of adorable pigs. Luckily, there was no bacon on the restaurant’s menu while we were there. Maybe they milk them too?
One particularly frigid morning, we bailed out of our volunteer duties to spend a warm day inside reading books, watching Christmas Vacation (downloaded on iTunes), and opening presents — Christmas morning!!!
From Scott, I got a book called Blood River about a guy who traverses the Congo (very interesting so far), some aluminum bracelets made of melted down U.S. bombs from the Vietnam War (the village that makes them collects the scrap metal and makes spoons and bracelets out of it for income – more on that later), some woven bamboo and paper bracelets, and a La Chouffe beer (it’s incredibly difficult to find really good beer here – we had carried these all the way from Vientiane)! Scott got some T-shirts, a Cambodian krama (traditional scarf), some carved spoons for cooking back home, and a painting on mulch paper.
This was our first Christmas away from both of our families, and we both separately commented on how sad we were about not being with our families for Christmas. I think we both thought that Christmas day would come and go like any other day, but there was a definite sadness to Skyping home, seeing everyone together, and not being there for it. In the end, we were glad we felt that way, as it was a nice reminder of how lucky we were to have amazing families back home to miss in the first place.
Once we had finished opening presents, we decided to do Christmas day right and go river tubing. We did not contribute to the above-mentioned drunken tubing mayhem (although we did sneak in a Beer Lao on the way down the river…). We could see why the tubing had become so popular in the first place – the scenery was stunning, and it was a great way to pass the day.
On our last day in Vang Vieng, went on a kayaking and caving excursion. We were driven 20 miles north of town, where we were given a kayak and led down a beautiful river by our guide, Chon.
Along the way, we stopped at two caves. The first cave was called Water Cave (entrance to cave behind us on right):
Seeing the water cave involved sitting on an inner tube in FREEZING water and pulling ourselves along a rope through an underground tunnel over ½ mile long. Of course, it was pitch black inside, and all we had were tiny headlamps to light the way (mostly to illuminate the creepy bats that flew around above us!). At one point when we were really deep inside the cave, we could see water rushing into the cave through a small side tunnel; although I’m sure this water rushes into the cave all day, I got overcome with some severe claustrophobia-induced anxiety and wondered why we had not asked about the possibility of flash flooding…. When we got near the innermost point of the cave, our group of five were all freezing and our hands were chewed up from pulling on the wet ropes for 30 minutes, when our young guide pointed to an opening that we would have to swim under to go all the way into the main cave “room”. He said that we could either swim into the main cave (“although it might be completely flooded once we get there”) or we could turn around and go back. When I couldn’t hear everything that the guide was saying because I was last in line on the rope, I asked the nice Aussie guy a few people ahead of me to translate for me so that we could make a collective decision on what to do. He smiled, and in a hilarious moment that no one in our cold, miserable group will ever forget, said, “Just go back”.
Luckily, the next cave, The Elephant Cave, was much warmer and easier to explore. It was a cave that doubles as a temple for the local Lao people in the area, who could not afford to build a temple. The cave got its name from a natural stone structure inside the cave that looks oddly like an elephant from one angle (oddly, today it looks very much like an elephant from every angle, and the rumor is that is has been doctored by not-so-natural means). (We did not capture a picture of the so-called “natural” elephant.)
Despite being over-run by the very worst kind of tourism, Vang Vieng (or the outskirts, rather) was a beautiful and charming place that we would recommend to any other traveler. Maybe by promoting responsible tourism and requesting that the Laos government cracks down on the current Vang Vieng tourism-disaster-fiasco, this beautiful town will once again regain its natural shine – a shine preferably no longer due to the mid-afternoon sun hitting beer-laden urine arching its way off a rooftop bar and into the Nam Song River.