When read that Vang Vieng was a one-time hedonistic party playground, now trying to eek out a space for itself as the next eco-tourism hot spot in Southeast Asia, I was intrigued. And starting out my travels, I saw plenty of young scuzzy backpacker types roaming around the streets of Cambodia and Vietnam sporting their Vang Vieng "In the Tubing" and Sakura Bar over-sized tanks. I read reports online that described the town as a drugged out wasteland, just messed up kids lounging around cafés that played nothing but Friends on an endless loop.
To give you a little background, and to paraphrase a bit from my Lonely Planet, back in the '90s, Vang Vieng was a sleepy little town on the banks of a beautiful, slow moving river. Backpackers would show up to drift down the river in an old tire, "smoke the odd spliff" and drink at the chilled-out bars along the banks of the river as they floated along. Word got out, and Vang Vieng became Southeast Asia's next drugged-out mecca; make-shift rave platforms started springing up along the river, the drugs got harder, and suddenly there were several deaths a year as people zonked out of their gourd started drowning and overdosing. The government cracked down in 2012, shutting down all the riverbank bars, and, according to Lonely Planet, the party was over, with just outdoorsy activities left behind.
Was it true? Was Lonely Planet right? Or were the accounts of the travel bloggers? More importantly, could a 36-year-old solo traveller (read: single, sort-of older woman) entertain herself there for a few days without being miserable? Was it an endless rave? A town-sized opium den? Or a outdoor enthusiast's paradise on earth?
These were answers I needed to know, personally, so, casting myself in the role of intrepid investigative journalist/Nancy Drew set out for the town of Vang Vieng from Phonsavan, where I'd spent a day exploring the Plain of Jars while listening to NGOs detonate cluster bombs left behind from the Secret War. As we made our way through the winding mountain roads, the landscape shifted to giant limestone karsts rising up dramatically from the hills. If Vang Vieng wanted to remake itself as an outdoorsy, eco-tourism hotspot, it certainly had the right setting.
I got to my hotel, Laos Haven Hotel and Spa, which is a lovely place, although sadly the spa was closed for renovations (however, they're building a pool, which I might have to go back to "investigate"). I had done a lot of research to make sure I wasn't staying in the thick of the backpacker scene, mostly because I like to go to sleep during the night time without the sounds of a Calvin Harris mix thudding in my ears (imagine!). After getting settled, I set off to wander the town and see what it had in store.
It's not a big town, and within a couple blocks, I was in the thick of the 'action,' if you could even call it action, because there weren't that many people around and most of them were Korean kids. But I saw the places I'd so far only seen on oversized tanks around SE Asia, including the famous Sakura Bar (slogan: "Drink triple, see double, act single").
And sure enough, there were all the restaurants, which all were playing Friends, which I thought was suddenly a most hilarious phenomenon. How did it start? Did one bar back in the early '00s get their hands on a DVD and all the stoned backpackers flocked there and so every restaurant followed suit? Why had no other shows been introduced, like Workaholics or Broad City or weird cartoons on Adult Swim? (I'd heard rumors that there were bars showing perennial stoner fave Family Guy, but I didn't see it anywhere.)
Not wanting to look out of place (like a narc), I settled myself in at a restaurant, ordered a pizza (no, not a "happy pizza" or a "magic pizza," although those those were on the menu), and watched some episodes of Friends. I should stop right here and mention while I don't smoke pot (or eat it, for that matter), maybe from growing up in mellow Marin County, I have always had the knack for embracing Things Stoners Like, you know, things like sleeping, eating junk food, and watching lots of television. Also can we talk about how Friends was awesome!? I mean, it's corny and cheesy and just so '90s but let's be real, it was totally hilarious. We watched The One Where Chandler Sees Rachel's Boobs So She Spends the Episode Trying to See Chandler Naked And Hilarity Ensues and The One Where Janice Laughs (which may have been more than one episode). I mean, come on, Janice was probably one of the funniest characters created in comedy of all time. (Also, can you see why stoners love me? I don't even need to smoke their supply to get on their level.)
I decided while eating my pizza and drinking my beer and smiling at all the young happy kids and watching Friends that Vang Vieng might actually be the best place ever, because basically it's everything awesome about college with one major improvement -- you can also float down a river in an innertube drinking beer all day!
I actually did not go tubing the next day, because I'd signed up for a caving and kayaking day trip. There was tubing in the cave, which I thought sounded cool, and I felt like going with a group kayaking might be more fun than showing up solo in an innertube on the river and being mistaken for everyone's mom. The songtheaw rolled up and I joined two Korean guys, and then as we made our way around to everyone's hotel, I realized I would be the only non-Korean person the trip. They were super cute and endeared themselves inmediately to ke because they were all about 20 and their first question was "What do you study?" which melted my old, spinster heart.
We got to the cave and it turned out the tubing in the cave was just us pulling ourselves along a rope inside a narrow, low-ceiling caved with the rest of the student population of South Korea. Maybe it's connected to growing up in Northern California where childhood is spent doing earthquake drills and watching semi-annual fear-mongering news broadcasts on The Big One, but when I get inside a cave -- especially with a big group, and there's no exit anywhere -- I start to get really claustrophobic. I become convinced that The Big One is going to strike and we'll all die in the cave. This is another way of me saying I practically had a panic attack, in part because the other five thousand people in the cave were having a waterfight (in my head, I'm like, I'm preparing how we flee the cave while swimming with innertubes during the Big One, how can you be having fun right now?!).
We made it safely back to earth, where we belong, and I decided that it's OK to not go caving anymore, at least not on this trip. We sat around and had some beers and enjoyed lunch, just me and the other hundred Korean students.
After lunch, we checked out a nearby temple in a cave, then drove down the river to get started with kayaking. One Korean guy befriended me and offered up that there is a popular show in Korea that features celebrities travelling to an interesting location in the world and films them doing activities in that place. Last year's show had been about -- you guessed it! -- Laos. The pop singers and movie stars had gone to Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, and now everyone in the country was following suit.
We all kayaked down the river, passing bars along the riverbanks and tubers floating down the river. I'm travelling during low season, so it might be a different scene during the Northern Hemisphere's winter, but the bars (which were not closed, thanks yet again for the incorrect info, Lonely Planet) were pretty empty and mellow. And the people tubing seemed to be all ages; I even spotted a few families with older kids drifting by. No one was drugged out at any of the bars we stopped at, although drinks were available (the Korean students seemed more interested in trying to push each other into a pool than drink to excess).
The Korean kids invited me to join them at a table and wanted me to teach them American drinking games, which, alas, I am not an expert on. Beer pong? Quarters? These were all that came to mind, much to their disappointment. They taught me a Korean drinking game, though, which is called something like "31 Cutey Sexy" and involved everyone going around the table calling out numbers in order and whoever gets 31 has to drink a glass of beer. It involves singing a song each new round and the "cutey sexy" part means you have to say your numbers either cute or sexy. This is when I decided I officially love Koreans, of course their drinking game had nothing to do with strategy or sport or shots, just an opportunity to hold up bunny ears and acting cute while saying numbers.
That night, I wandered around looking for this restaurant I was seeing in signs all around town for "Thai German Food." I finally located it and had maybe the best schnitzel of my life. The Thai restaurant owner-chef told me he lived in Bavaria for 30 years and learned some special 50 year old recipe that's no longer used that often. He also told me that with the humidity in Southeast Asia, you can fry food better than in a dry climate, so that probably explains why the pork was so unbelievably tender and the outside was crispy and light and delicious. They also came with some fried potatoes on the side that were perhaps the best fried potatoes I've ever tasted. The best schnitzel and potatoes in the world, in Vang Vieng, Laos. Who knew?
I had big plans for the next day: to rent a motorbike to head to the famous Blue Lagoon, an aquamarine natural swimming area up in the hills somewhere. But when I woke up, it was raining, and I was secretly relieved, because I had been fighting off another head cold and wanted to spend the day relaxing. I wrote for a while, headed to the Luang Prabang Bakery for lunch, then wrote some more, had my daily mango juice, wandered around town, and then popped up in to a French restaurant called Cafe de Paris for dinner.
It was pouring rain when I went in and poured and poured the whole time I ate. I feasted on another meal of salad with balsamic dressing and chevre on baguette on the side, plus homemade sausages with a heaping spoonful of buttery mashed potaotes. I drank wine, which was a splurge at 25,000 kip a glass, but when I got the bill and realized my wine had come to $3 a glass, it was a steal. I felt like some fat, sweating man in a Dutch painting of a Bacchanalian feast, wine spilling out of my cup as I gobbled up sausages and buttery potatoes and dribbled local Laos honey on my chevre.
Lonely Planet was wrong about another thing -- as much as the town might try to offer up new activities to appeal to outdoorsy types, Vang Vieng is always going to be about one thing. Tubing! It has this gorgeous river winding along the most incredible backdrop of limestone karst mountains shooting up to the sky. And what better way to relax than to float down this river watching the day drift by?
I talked to the owner of my hotel for a while and he said when he first came to Vang Vieng a few years ago, seven people died from tubing and drug accidents. Now, things have changed. People are building and renovating hotels so they appeal to families and couples and people who want to spend more than $5 a night to sleep in a dorm with people who were eating "magic pizza" for dinner. The riverside bars have reeled in the decadence so the focus is on chilling out, not going crazy. The town isn't quite sure what it wants to be, but I liked it that way. It lacks the sophistication of Luang Prabang, but that makes it fun, from the cafés all playing Friends to discovering the world's best schnitzel at some random restaurant on a random street.
I'm excited to see how Vang Vieng changes in the years to come. And I hope I get to go back. Because, um, hello -- I never got to go tubing!
Also I can't stop thinking about that schnitzel.