Goodbye Luang Prabang! I left the French colonial city of Luang Prabang with a bit of sadness. I had spent 3 weeks in this town and fallen in love. It felt like home which is strange for someone that is on a round the world trip! I was asked by many of the students what I loved about Luang Prabang. I smiled and told them I loved the warmth of the Lao people, the French colonial architecture, the temples and the beautiful scenery. The restaurants were delicious and had a nice variety of options. And of course there was the morning market with the best fruit shakes and vegetable sandwich you could buy for $3.50. I loved walking home from the English classes past the beautiful lanterns on the streets. I will miss you Luang Prabang but I will return one day.
I had reservations on the 9 am bus to Vang Vieng. I arrived at the bus station and immediately noticed all the passengers were falang (Westerners). Uh-oh. Maybe I made a mistake. I was uncertain if I would like this town and finally decided to stop only because it would be a nice break on the trip to Vientiane. I know, not like me to be reluctant about visiting a fishing/farming village nestled between limestone karsts on a beautiful river. Why was I reluctant? Vang Vieng has a bad reputation for backpackers behaving badly. When Lao opened it's doors to tourists in the 1990's, the little village of Vang Vieng was forever changed. Someone decided the Nam Song River was a perfect location to start floating on inner tubes and it was all history. The town exploded with backpackers. Bars were opened along the river banks, enticing customers with throbbing party music and free shots of the Lao-Lao whisky. Rope swings, giant water slides and zip lines sprang up beside the bars, inviting the backpackers to take their chances with the rocky riverbed in unsupervised acts of drunken youth. The tourists went wild and indulged in alcohol, drugs and partying. Not my scene. I am too old for that scene and I hate when westerners leave their countries to act like idiots abroad. But, as I talked with tourists and did some research I found it may not be so bad. In August 2012, the Laos authorities cracked down on the partying due to 27 tourist deaths and multiple injuries last year. The bars were dismantled and shut down. As I talked to people that had been to Vang Vieng, everyone said it was nice and quiet. So, I booked a ticket to Vang Vieng and planned to stay a few nights.
I arrived in Vang Vieng and went for a walk. Vang Vieng is completely opposite Luang Prabang. No French colonial architecture here. The village caters to westerners with cheap bungalows, restaurants and cheap alcohol. But the natural beauty was breath-taking. I was happy I had stopped. I walked along the river bed and enjoyed watching the village life. There are tourists here but not like the guide book had described. It was quiet and relaxed. The first thing I noticed was all of the restaurants and bars have 2 things in common. First, all of them have beds with pillows and a low table to eat. Secondly, every restaurant has large flat-screened TV's with either Friends or Family Guy re-runs playing. People sit and stare at the tv and drink. I am not sure why they are doing this in the middle of the day. I was guessing they were drunk or stoned and too lazy to do anything in this gorgeous place. But, I did not see anyone partying and loud. I met an Australian couple on the bus and they were staying at the same hotel. We talked and laughed about travel over dinner and drinks. By the end of the night, they had convinced me to go tubing down the river in the morning.
The river tubing starts at 9 AM so, we decided to head over early in the morning. We loaded into the tuk-tuk with our inner tubes and driven to the drop-off point. It was 9:30 AM and we were the only people on the river. The locals stared at us. Guess they are not use to seeing sober people floating on the river this early in the morning! We jumped on our tubes and let the current take us down the river. We were on the river 15 minutes and saw our first bar. We didn't stop...it was too early and we wanted a relaxing day. The bars were busy transporting Beerlao across the river. As we floated down the river, we saw where the zip lines, slingshot and slide use to be. These kids had to be wasted to think any of it was a smart idea! No wonder why there were so many accidents! It was sad but I was happy the government had shut it down. The river was beautiful and the view is spectacular! We floated the river in 2 1/2 hours and arrived back in Vang Viang for lunch. We saw others leaving to float the river but it was all small groups of people. At lunch, we noticed everyone was well behaved and not too crazy.
After a shower and a nap, I decided to go rent a bike and see the area. I crossed the bamboo bridge and rode along the river. As I headed down the river, I noticed several children and families were playing in the river. One man told me he was happy that the town isn't as crazy as it use to be. The Lao people are very superstitious and many stopped allowing their children to swim and play in the water. He explained to me that because of the deaths they thought it would bring bad luck to their children to play in the river. Since the deaths have stopped, many villagers allowed their children back in the river. I was happy the villagers can enjoy the river as much as the tourists.
As I returned to town I stopped to indulge in the infamous Banana Pancake. Oh my Buddha! I watched as the woman pour the batter into the pan and sliced bananas on top. it was thinner than a crepe. It was cooked to a beautiful crisp color. Then she cut it and put it in a container. But first she drizzled it with Nutella and coconut flakes. Mmmm! I was ready for this little slice of happiness on a hot afternoon. It was delicious!! I went back to the hotel and took a shower and fell asleep after a fun and active day. I enjoyed Vang Vieng and decided to stay another night so I could spend a day exploring the area and caves.
I said my goodbyes to Kim and Wayne and took off on my morning hike to the cave. I walked through town before crossing the bridge to the cave.
It was an easy hike to the cave and then I explored the cave on my own. I am proud of myself that I did not freak out too much as bats flew at me. You all know how I hate anything that flies at my head! I kept it somewhat together to look like a sane person. Afterwards, I walked back down to the pool outside the cave. The guidebook had said that a fresh water spring feeds into the cave and swimming was allowed. I looked around and nobody was going in. Everyone was just standing there. A Chinese guy and I decided to at least climb down the ladder and stick our feet in. Brrrrr! It was so cold! I could not go in. The water was beautiful and clear and his guide said the water went about 80 meters into the cave.
I left and decided to explore the area. I wondered around the countryside just enjoying the area.
Another sun is setting over Vang Vieng. The village is alive and well. Tourists still come but are not as crazy and out of control as in the past. The banana pancake was yummy and I enjoyed my stay in this village. I hope tourists continue to come to this village. Enjoy the activities and the beautiful environment. Long live Vang Vieng and the Banana pancake!