First of all, to get to Vang Vieng, we had to travel back down the road to Muang Phu Kong, and we had a pretty scary moment just before this town. One of those guys with the guns decided to walk in front of our vehicle, half raising his gun! We all jumped in alarm, the driver stopped. The next thing we know after a brief discussion, a couple of cigarettes are handed to gunman,and we are off again. None of us knew what was said(since the driver could not speak good enough english to explain), but a collective sigh of relief was given.
Once we turned back onto Route 13, the scenery became really really stunning, with limestone karsts (large rock formations) looming up, and it is this and the river that makes Vang Vieng famous.
Vang Vieng is kind of an odd place. It has the most beautiful scenery, but it is not a protected heritage site like Luang, so the result is that it has become a real backpacker haven with loads of cheap places to stay and eat, but the town it self is becoming pretty ugly, and it is going to get worse. It was incredibly dusty place while we were there because it is pretty much just one big building site. And the bars/restaurants that have sprouted up pretty much show continuous episodes of Friends, and literally you can hear them all down the street. Having said that, we could see how some weary backpackers could get drawn into watching them, especially in the heat of the day - hell even we did!
On our first night here, we had the most amazing storm, even big hail stones!! very odd for these parts but they say it does happen at least once a year, and lucky us (NOT) we got to experience it, the rain kept driving us further and further to the back of our part open air cafe (Sakura Cafe) we were in until there was no where else to go, the staff were great and ran around getting us towels to wrap ourselves in, as one minute we were in about 36 degree heat then next massive winds,lightning,thunder,rain and then hail, very strange and must say little scary for a while, it lasted about an hour and then just went....life went back to normal....except roads were very very muddy, the next day all dried up and you would not even know it had rained, this the locals said was the first big rain of the rainy season, we could not help thinking we had got our rain cloud back again, thankfully the only rain we saw again was at night when we were safely in cafes or bars.
There are some great things to do in the town (apart from the scenery which I will come to soon). One is - choose a great hotel. There are not many, but ours was superb! The Orchid Guesthouse on the top (3rd) floor with a balcony and view out over the Nam Song River as it flows past the town on one side and the most stunning limestone karsts on the other and all for $10 US our best bargain room with view thats for sure...
2nd - eat at the Organic Farm Cafe. It is the only place we found in town with a really alternative menu, and boy was it superb. We stayed in touch with the people from our field of jars tour and we all went there for a great meal out. It had one of the best curries we have ever tasted (the harvest stew), and great fresh springrolls, downed with either an organic beer or mullbery shake. Needless to say we all went back there a few times!
And the scenery, well the photos pretty much tell it all, especially Our View! But this place is also a bit of an adventure playground for activities (especially involving water)
We cycled on first day for 6kms out to visit one of the cave temples in the karsts. It was very hot work on a dusty unsealed road - bur awesome scenery, followed by a pretty shear 200m rock climb to reach a very large cavern. This had beautiful limestone with a reclining buddha in the middle! And then had lunch by a lovely cool looking stream. Decided not to swim until we got back to town as we knew we still had a hot 6kms ride back and did not fancy with wet shorts... We then visited the most famous cave here called Tham Jang which actually has steps going up to it, and electric lights inside. This is a much more established cave network which has been used as a military hide out a few times, and the built in balconies have views over town. After the climb down, we found the very cold stream that comes out of this mountain to finaly cool ourselves in! Lovely
On our 2nd day, we did the thing that every backpacker comes here for. We sat in a big tractor tyre and floated 3kms down the Nam Song River!! What a relaxing way to spend the day. Apparently in the high water season, this can become a fair old torrent, even claiming the odd life (usually of a very drunk or very 'high' farang - they have the so called 'happy' shakes in town!) But in the dry season as in now, it is pretty serene the whole way down, with the odd bump on the rocks where the water has become too low. So you float in reasonably high water past loads of make shift bars (some people do floating pub crawls!) and then small rapids every now and then to speed up. We stopped at just the one place to retreat from the sun and have a well deserved beer! The scenery again is just beautiful and it is a wonderful way to spend a day. Just the last bit, after four hours, when the water virtually comes to a standstill, it becomes a bit of a pain, but then it ends well with a curving rapid that takes you back to Vang Vieng where you drop your tyre and head for a shower. Forgot to add, the water is a bit mucky when you get close to town, and round these parts, you are never quite sure what is in the water!
Two of our group - Phil and Caryn had left by this stage, but we then stayed in the company of Heather through to Vientiane and it was a pleasure to spend time with you all.
(Nancys little add on) make sure if ever in Laos you get a Lao traditional massage, I had one here in Vang Vieng (Caryn recommended place) it was my best massage yet, it was like Thai one but not as brutal and they use tiger balm, fantastic!