After our southbound minibus adventure, we arrived in Vang Vieng. We quickly settled into the balcony of our bungalow with a Beerlao and contemplated our tubing expedition planned for the following day.
Located along the Nam Song River, Vang Vieng is the perfect place to float along with the current in a tube, carrying a Beerlao or two (or three) in your dry bag. Until 2012, Vang Vieng was synonymous with backpacker hedonism. Bars lined the river offering not just beer and shots of Lao Lao, but also actual printed menus advertising weed, mushrooms, opium, and meth. The culture was so permissive that even the Lonely Planet contains a warning not to mix your opium with lime juice given its potentially fatal effects.
To add to the chaos, there were zip lines and diving platforms from which you could fling yourself into the river below. Given the (very) low tide, many people were simply flinging themselves onto rocks. Essentially, the entire tubing route and town were one big party – and a dangerous party at that. After a few too many people died, the government shut down all the bars without licenses (ie: almost all the bars).
Since 2012, Vang Vieng is (unfortunately?) a bit more tranquil. Although there is still tubing on offer, it’s no longer quite the free for all it once was. That said, we had a fabulous day floating down the Nam Song with a few Beerlao! There were plenty of people tubing (plus various large tour groups of Koreans kayaking). Everyone stopped at the few bars that were still open where the riverside party was still going. Each of the bars had workers stationed along the banks to throw ropes to pull us in along with our tubes. We stopped to enjoy a drink (or two or three), the music (Hey Ya! AND Taylor Swift), and the scene. (As usual, Steph was the only white tourist worried about getting sunburnt. Although she may have been overdressed, she stands by her decision to avoid skin cancer.)
Was this authentic Laos? No. Was it a really fun afternoon? Yes.
One day of tubing, however, was definitely enough for us (Steph decided) – after all, we have now both entered our fourth decade (Gio is still in denial, though). Instead, we rented another motor scooter (unfortunately, another Chinese model) and headed up the pothole-filled highway to find a few caves hidden in the jungle. Apparently, in China it is not necessary to know how fast you are scooting, or the distance you have travelled, or how much gas you have left – our dashboard was completely broken so we had no idea how far we had driven and missed our turn off. Doubling back, we eventually found the correct dirt road and parked our scooter alongside the river. Although a more permanent bridge is being built, we paid 10,000 kip (a little over $1) to cross the seasonal bamboo bridge spanning the water.
A seemingly helpful Laotian took it upon himself to show us the nearby caves and we set off behind him. As we climbed over various fences and cut across a few fields, we were glad we had a local guide. It wasn’t until we arrived at the caves that we found any signs.
Inside, we found stately Buddhas, rickety stairways, and caverns extending far into the darkness. One of the caves apparently extends three kilometers deep into the hills, but we certainly weren’t prepared for such an in-depth exploration and eventually turned around.
Following our brief spelunking tour, it turned out that our “guide” was not as helpful (or good-hearted) as we had initially anticipated. When Giorgio attempted to tip him for his services, he instead demanded hundreds of thousands of kip, which was his “usual fee.” Refusing to fork over the ridiculous sum that would have gotten us about five meals for two in Laos another negotiation ensued. As it became clear we were not going to reach an understanding, we handed him 20,000 kip (about $2.50) and simply walked away across the rice paddies. Given the lack of complaints as we turned around, we continue to think we may have over-tipped.
Our next stop (and last southeast Asian bus!) is Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Details to follow!