Soaking in Paradise with Ross, Rachel, and the Griffins

Anyone that’s travelled around SE Asia has most certainly heard a thing or two about Vang Vieng. It’s considered THE party paradise for early twenty something westerners and burnout hippies; a superfluous buffet of drink, drugs, and whatever else you can think up.

Admittedly, I had my reservations about visiting what sounded like the living epitome of tourism gone wrong. Every travel podcast and article we came across preached its evil and calamitous existence. “Don’t go there because you’ll contribute to something horrible,” and “If you spend your money in Vang Vieng you’re sending the message that Westerners want that sort of tourism.”

On the other hand, people like our friend, Steve, continued to tell us, “Don’t you dare visit Laos and not go to Vang Vieng.” Steve’s no burnout hippy (depending on who you ask) and he enjoyed it. Devil and angel on shoulder, Nick and I made our way to this very curious point of interest.

The six hour bus ride from Vientiane, though scenic, was a motion-sick haze. When we arrived at the station, we dodged a herd of pushy tuk-tuk drivers and shuffled our way through a crowd of young folks all too anxious to partake in the town’s legendary festivities. If there was ever a time when we felt like the post-college grads at the high school party, this was it.

Much to our surprise, Vang Vieng is little more than a sleepy town on a river – couple of roads and basic shops, surrounded by a picturesque landscape of mountains, streams, and lush greenery. What’s so horrible about this? Point for Vang Vieng.

As we made our way to our guesthouse we noticed that each restaurant we passed (and there are a lot of them) had several large flat screen TVs all playing one of two shows at a deafening volume – Friends or Family Guy. Every restaurant was the same setup – young travelers sprawled out on dirty cushions around coffee tables, eyes glued to screens of Ross and Joey’s banter or Peter making ill-timed fart jokes. It was like the writers from the Twilight Zone just called this one in. We couldn’t help but wonder who spearheaded this phenomenal citywide effort. And should we shake their hand or punch them in the face? Point for the critics.

A 15 minute walk later, we managed to escape the sitcoms and settle in a bungalow on the quiet side of town. The hotel manager lead us through an awe-inspiring tropical garden to a hut with a porch overlooking the majestic Lao mountainside and the Nam Song River. For only $12 a night we felt a little like we were robbing them. Moreover, the hotel restaurant served delightful meals as well as large bottles of Beer Lao for less than a dollar. It was enough to bring a tear to one’s eyes. Point for Vang Vieng.

The next morning we went for a jog around the countryside and unintentionally stumbled upon a popular cave. Glad we’d beat the crowds, we paid a small fee to the guardsman at the entrance and grabbed a head lamp to begin our decent. As we looked for the unmarked entrance the guardsman politely motioned for us to follow him. He lead us inside, pointed out the highlights, and even showed us how easy it was to navigate thanks to the red arrows spray painted on the cave walls. The twists and turns of the inner cave were fascinating and as we neared the end we found ourselves gradually creeping onto the cave floor. From bear-crawling on our hands and knees to eventually slithering like a couple of cobras we inched our way through a pass too narrow for most American midsections. Claustrophobia was involved.

Nick and I emerged from the cave, brushed ourselves off, and thanked our friendly guide who curiously stuck with us the entire way. He smiled softly and said, “Yes, now you pay me.” What? Really? We hadn’t asked for a guide, just where the entrance was. When we asked him how much he wanted he replied, after a three second delay, “100 Kip?”. We laughed politely and accepted the fact that we had just been swindled by a local. Nick handed the caveman 20 Kip and recommended he advertise his services beforehand. Point for the critics.

After an eventful morning, we headed into town to rent a tube; it was time to hit the river. We made our way to the tube rental place armed with some cash, a digital camera, and a dry bag. They scribbled some shit on our arms with a permanent marker (presumably to identify our cold dead corpses in the event of an accident) and we waited with some Euros for the next tuk-tuk departure. To pass the time, we ordered our first drink of the day – the whiskey bucket. When in Rome.

Nick and I eventually hopped in a tuk-tuk with the others and made our way to the drop-off point, upstream. A French girl informed us that she had already been in Vang Vieng for a week and hadn’t yet floated the river because her regimented schedule of partying hadn’t allowed her the time. “Everyone deserves a break,” we told her.

We rolled our tubes down to the first bar utterly unprepared for the enormous dueling speakers of the back-to-back bars lining the river’s edge. Music bumping, liquor flowing, kids dancing – this was a sheltered 16-year-old’s wet dream. The whole thing was both hysterical and shameful. Therefore, we’ve awarded points to both sides.

We ran into some folks we had met earlier and decided to sit together and watch the circus over a couple of beers. Each bar had its own theme and form(s) of entertainment; ours boasted a very tall and questionable slide, a risky rope swing, and a zip line that would surly fail even the most liberal of safety inspections. The same sorts of attractions were sprinkled throughout the bars along the river in various forms, shapes, and sizes. It was a risk analyst’s worst nightmare.

One of the more awkwardly hilarious events was watching two men fly down the zip line at particularly high speeds. As they neared the edge, the handle bars caught a stopper, sending them whirling and flailing like crash test dummies into the murky water below. The crowd froze for a split second before the two gentlemen surfaced and signaled their okays. We all had a good laugh and rated it poorly due to bad form and lack of synchronized landing.

After another beer, our inhibitions began to fizzle and down the shoddy slide we went. Nick and I waved goodbye to our friends and made our way down the river with no intention of making it very far. We had spent too long people watching and the sun was setting behind the mountains. The best we could do was make it to the end of the strip of bars and get a tuk-tuk back.

As we continued downstream, the base thumped and the amateur water acrobatics ensued. Bar staff offered free drink promotions and beckoned tubers over to their bars with the help of floating water bottles and rope.

Our final stop was a bar with tables and chairs out on the river rocks. The jolly owners were merrily serving cold beers and mushroom shakes. Yes, mushroom shakes. Already far removed from reality, we climbed aboard the psychedelic bandwagon before making our way out of the river to the tuk-tuk.

As we chased the setting sun back into town, our ears were still ringing from a hundred blaring sound systems. Still confused and bewildered as to what the hell just happened, we turned our attention to the three young German boys with whom we were sharing the fare. Eyes as big as grapefruits, they were staring back at the river, longingly. When we asked them if they enjoyed tubing, they replied, “Eet vaz soo incredible!”

Miraculously, Nick and I made it back to our bungalow before sundown. As soon as the door opened, Nick took a nosedive straight into the bed. I followed soon after. 6pm and we were spent.

The next morning, slightly hungover, we made our way to the mountains for three days of climbing. For about $20 a day Nick and I were able to hire a guide, rent equipment, and eat lunch. All of this with a majestic Lao backdrop. We even tried our hand at lead climbing for the first time. Point for Vang Vieng.

So what did we learn from all this? If skeptics are so pissed about the state of affairs in Vang Vieng, then they should do their self-acclaimed moral duty and opt out of the Friends-fed party scene and partake in the area’s more extraordinary offerings. By simply not going they’re contributing to the problem almost as much as the diehard party-goers themselves.

Vang Vieng is one of the most incredible places we’ve ever seen and its landscape is some of the most beautiful SE Asia has to offer. Sure, it could probably stand to lose the noisy strip of river bars and the sitcom-crazed restaurants but at least the locals are happily making a living. Therefore, we declare Vang Vieng the winner. Please go there. It really is worth it.