The bus journey from Phonsovan to Vang Vieng was a quick 4 hours, but was absolutely stomach churning and, for Caro, was one of the worst ones yet. It was still breathtaking; Laos has to have some of the most underrated countryside that we have come across.
Matt was still with us, lucky him, and given that he was the tallest amongst us he’d taken the back seats of the car where he could stretch his legs. This had been marvellous until our driver pulled up on the side of the road and disappeared in to a house, returning ten minutes later with what we realised later were dead birds. He plonked them in the boot behind Matt from where they started to issue an odour which did not reach us but nearly put him in a coma.
We were deposited at Vang Vieng bus station and shared a tuk tuk with Matt, who had to put up with us for another 2 days because we were staying in the same homestay. As we drove through the eerily quiet streets of town it was difficult to picture Vang Vieng as the party town of old, it seemed practically catatonic to us. We were staying on the far side of the river so disembarked from the tuk tuk, paid our toll for the bridge and continued the rest of our journey on foot. Proper backpackers once again.
Our first full day in Vang Vieng was dedicated to doing very little. We slept in, which for us means 7:30am, had breakfast and then went to explore town. The town itself is a bit of an armpit.
It feels exactly like a town that used to have an enormous party scene and now doesn’t and hasn’t quite figured out what to do next. Because that’s exactly what it is. Back when we were first-time backpackers Vang Vieng was an absolute must on the South-East Asia itinerary; the most popular activity was to get drunk and/or stoned and cruise down the river on an inner tube. This turned out to be as dangerous as it sounds and the death toll climbed alarmingly until 2012 when the party scene was shut down. There is a way to go yet before the image is revamped and the town remains just a bit grubby for the time being.
What they do have is a vast selection of massage parlours, and as we were having a relaxing day we thought we may as well get a massage whilst we were at it. The Nam Ha kayaking had taken its toll on Caro who had strained her right arm through excessive paddling and struggled even to zip up her bag. We were hoping that a massage might help to ease the pain. It started out weird, we were with two young girls who seemed a bit nervous and not really sure what they were doing. But after the odd foot wash with Carex they soon got in to the swing of things.
As often happens, Caro ended up with a gentle rub and James ended up with an elbow dug in to his shoulder. At the end of the massage we were asked to sit up with our hands behind our heads, the teeny Laotian women then wrapped their arms around us and swung our torsos through 180 degrees. It was terrifying and awesome.
We half walked, half ran back through town to get to our hotel, it was the peak of the day and we were covered in oil, not an ideal combo. After a shower and some admin we wandered along the river bank to find somewhere to watch sunset, settling at the Inthira Hotel. With the scabby town behind us we could now appreciate what a beautiful spot Vang Vieng is in, perched on the Nam Song with towering karsts behind.
There was a dragon boat race due to take place in a couple of weeks and there were at least 10 different teams out training on the river. The skill level varied enormously; one shirtless group came powering back and forth several times whilst we were there, all in perfect time, another boat capsized right in front of us. There were also hundreds of little two seater long boats zipping up and down and an enormous multi-coloured hot air balloon hovering in the distance. It was the kind of scene that could easily make it on to a puzzle.
We sat back with our drinks and watched it all unfold in front of us.
This was one place where we were sure we would be able to track down the Irish bar, and so it transpired. We sat and played cards and listened to some cracking tunes from our teenage years.
We were awoken at 2am by the most incredible crashing and banging; we thought that someone was trying to break into the building. The front door slammed into the wall as it opened and we were surprised to find that it was still on its hinges the next morning. We deduced, by the sound of a key clattering somewhere in the vicinity of a keyhole, that it was our neighbours and assumed that they were drunk. Once inside the room they proceeded to beat the crap out of every piece of furniture in it. Then silence reigned until 4am when they decided to crash back out of the building. We felt that surely at least we would get to sleep in, as there is no way that they were going to be able to function before midday. CRASH! 7am and it was time to start banging in and out of the room again. Caro lost her temper and had to have a word, the sour faced cow that she confronted couldn’t have been less apologetic. By some stroke of luck, they were moved to another room that night and our new neighbours kept even more elderly hours than we did.
So, we weren’t feeling too rested but it was a lovely day and we were keen to head out for a cycle. We rented bikes from a shop opposite our hostel and set off for Blue Lagoon 1. The road was paved almost the whole way but most other signs of civilisation faded within minutes and we were once again surrounded by rice paddies and cattle.
Blue Lagoon 1 wasn’t quite what we had anticipated; we knew that it would be touristy but it was practically a swimming pool with ziplines whizzing overhead. There was absolutely nothing natural or soothing about it.
Behind the lagoon there is a short steep climb up to a cave. Caro was still struggling with her arm and didn’t feel like slithering around a cave with no means of grabbing on to things to stop her from falling so she waited outside whilst James poked around.
We’d anticipated at least a cooling off swim but it really wasn’t appealing at all so once we got back down we cycled back to the hostel. We did keep hold of the bikes for later when we ventured in to town to find ourselves a couple of inner tubes for Vang Vieng’s signature activity, tubing down the Nam Song river. We left our bikes at the shop and joined a German couple and a Kiwi chap in the back of the tuk tuk with a pile of tubes. We rattled out of town for about 4 kms until we were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the river with no instructions whatsoever.
We lathered on the suncream, waded in to the middle of the river, sat down, and didn’t move an inch. The water was too shallow for the tube plus us. Everyone else got up and walked to a deeper spot but Caro refused to be deterred and dragged herself along the stony bottom until she reached deeper water.
Tubes aren’t the easiest things to steer and the river was pretty powerful at times so we mostly just sat back and let the water takes us where it wanted. Quite frequently this involved crashing in to each other and jagged rocks but it was all good fun.
The river banks used to be dotted with makeshift bars all the way down but the numbers have declined in parallel with the drug and party scene. There are still a couple going and after about 10 minutes we spotted a chap on the right-hand bank who was waving madly at us. We waved back indicating our desire to make landfall and made ineffectual flapping movements to try and move in the right direction. The guys on shore are pros; they had long ropes with plastic bottles attached to the end which they flung out to us, all we had to do was grab hold and be towed to shore. They have mad skills because there were only two of them and five of us in quick succession but we were all pulled in safely. We clambered up to the bar, ordered some drinks and sat around chatting for a bit, watching other tubers and kayakers make their way down the river.
We thought that one drink was probably sufficient for our first stop and we set off again, boarding our tubes as inelegantly as the first time round. We had planned to stop again but there was only one other place open and it didn’t really appeal to us, so we just sat back and floated along. The length of the trip depends on the time of year, we were on the water for about 90 minutes and that felt like plenty.
Every time a group of kayakers passed us they insisted on splashing us, which was hilarious the first 400 times. The real excitement comes at the end.
We had been given some vague instructions about a sign at a bar telling us to get out, but that was about it. At the exit point the current really unhelpfully pulls you to the other side of the river, it’s also the only spot with any kind of rapids. So, what happens is you round a bend in the river and all of a sudden a man is yelling at you through a megaphone; his words are completely incomprehensible. We assumed that he wanted us to head towards him so we attempted to paddle through the rapids and over to the other side of the river, whilst two women came pelting towards us with more ropes and plastic bottles. It was not the easiest manoeuvre and Caro, looking like Finding Nemo with her one injured arm, was paddling frantically with the other. The bottles sailed through the air towards us and we were safely pulled ashore. We had arrived at Smile Bar which has an excellent set up on the riverbank with hammocks and beer and food. We quickly secured drinks and settled down in our hammocks.
The very best thing about Smile Bar is the fact that it is at the end of the tubing so you get to sit and watch the very varied reactions of people as they round the bend and are confronted with the megaphone man. Nearly everyone panicked to some degree; one couple jumped the gun and got out of the water immediately and had to carry their tubes the rest of the way, one group of women all linked together just screamed and made no attempt to help in anyway, another girl lost her head entirely when it seemed that she was going to miss the landing point and simply fell out of her tube and had to swim after it. All the while Mr Megaphone is yelling. The poor women with the ropes and bottles put in so many miles running back and forth along the bank. (You can just see Mr Megaphone leaning against the sign)
Each person emerged from the water beaming and laughing and immediately got in a hammock of their own. Everyone lazed sleepily until the telltale sounds of Mr Megaphone started up, at which point heads emerged above the hammocks like meerkats and everyone sat up, eyes shaded, ready to watch the next set of victims. It was fantastic fun. Our favourite overall was an older chap who floated along in a very dignified manner, waving away Mr Megaphone imperiously as he started to shout. The megaphone fell silent as he sailed past without a care in the world, one of the ladies trotting off along the bank to try and convince him that he really needed to stop. We hammock-dwellers all looked around each other thinking the same thing: what happens now?!
There was a puppy too. That helped.
So, tubing the Nam Song river isn’t the drug fuelled activity that it used to be, thank goodness, but it is still superb fun and we thought it was the absolute best way to spend a day in Vang Vieng.