In 1994 the Song river flowed sedately through Vang Vieng, a small village-town just off Route 13 in Vientiane province, Lao PDR. Local women washed their hair in the river’s shallow waters, men pushed their bicycles across the smooth pebbles lining its bed and children pointed and cried when they saw some of the first western backpackers arrive to visit.
By 1998 the Nam Song Hotel had been open for some time on the river’s banks. Trucks occasionally ferried materials from quarries on the outskirts of town across the river to the Chinese-owned concrete company on the other. Backpackers getting off the daily buses from Vientiane or Luang Prabang elbowed each other to snare a cheap bed at a guesthouse.
By 2000, it seems that every second building in Vang Vieng is a guesthouse. Restaurants present English-language menus offering fruitshakes, pancakes and baguettes. A rickety bamboo bridge spans the Song – or most of it, anyway – and pedestrians are charged a 500 kip toll for its use. The concrete trucks are still ploughing their way across, but in ever-increasing numbers: a second factory is due to open soon.
While the town itself might be changing quickly, the essential geographical wonder of Vang Vieng remains. Nestled under immutable limestone karsts lining one side of the Song, Vang Vieng is the Lao equivalent of Vietnam’s Halong Bay and Thailand’s Pha Nga Bay – but blessed with a river instead.
My sunset arrival in the middle of an out-of-season downpour is not auspicious. While I hang around the bus station waiting for the rain to ease, I am approached by a Lao man asking me if I am looking for somewhere to stay. I mumble something in reply, thinking he is a tout.
“I am looking for somewhere to stay myself,” he says, in near-perfect English. “I have never been here before.” It turns out that my fellow traveller is a Lao student making a getaway from the capital, Vientiane, for a few days to write a paper. The approximately four-hour trip from the capital makes Vang Vieng a reasonably convenient getaway – by Lao standards, at least – for Vientiane’s inhabitants.
Eventually a real tout approaches us both. He tells us his guesthouse is just on the other side of the market, itself adjacent to the bus station. We follow him through the rain to the two-storey Saysong Guesthouse, which, our host tells us, has only been open since November last year. Rooms are clean and cheap at 15,000 kip per night. It’s difficult to not stay somewhere central in Vang Vieng as there are only a few streets making up the town, so we take rooms there.
Food is one of Vang Vieng’s great pleasures, and it’s truly difficult to go wrong with any choice. From the upmarket Le Pavrot, offering French wine, steaks and souffles to the generous guesthouse curries and local noodle soups, the choice is outstanding. I opt for one of the local curry soups with a generous serving of pumpkin and potato for my first meal (2,000 kip).
Early the next day, my new friend and I take a walk to the Vang Vieng Resort, a large tract of land featuring a network of caves, a panorama of Vang Vieng’s surrounds and peaceful walks along a stretch of the Song. A small entry fee is charged both to enter the Resort grounds, and then to access the steps leading to the caves.
My companion noticeably gathers some courage to ask me a few questions about foreigners.
“Why do so many foreigners – put things here and here?” he asks, indicating his nose and his eyebrow. Body piercings. I manage a reply about individualism and fashion. He seems unconvinced.
“And why do they make their hair look like muu daet diow (sun-dried pork)?” he queries. Dreadlocks. Same response. He commends me for not looking like a typical foreigner, and casually points out a snake slithering past our feet.
The resort rents bungalows for US$20 a night, and the receptionist who shows me one tells me that most of their guests are Laos from Vientiane. I don’t ask whether they are snake-proof.
I spend the rest of my time in Vang Vieng exploring on my own. Activities available include hiring an inner tube to float down the river for a couple of peaceful hours, or hiring a bike (of reasonable quality for around 7,000 kip a day) and exploring the surrounding caves. I’m told there are still many to be discovered . You can try an invigorating Lao massage (20,000 kip per hour) or take a Lao language lesson (15,000 kip per hour), both at a local English teacher’s home located on the main road leading to Vang Vieng Resort.
I take yet another option, and negotiate in Thai with a local boat pilot to hire his vessel and skill at navigating the river for an hour at 30,000 kip. The pilot has no watch, and tells me I will need to tell him when I want to turn back.
We commence our outing at the river crossing, flanked on either side by tourist accommodation.
The first, the Nam Song Hotel, is ideally located for sunset and is well established as the most expensive place to stay (US$32 to 36). Next door, however, the aptly name Sunset Bungalows has been offering very small longhouse rooms for US$10-15 dollars, and exactly the same view, since November 1999.
Or, if you eschew water views and just want to catch the sun dipping behind the karsts, wander down to Sunset’s restaurant for a Bia Lao as dusk begins.
But we leave the hotels and the tourists behind as the fragile wooden boat gains speed and manoeuvres deftly around sharp rocks – whose peaks are barely below the surface. I feel my life is in the pilot’s hands and it probably is. I’m soon past caring however, and gaze in awe at the magnificent sheer limestone cliffs towering above us. Except for the soft putter of our engine, there is complete silence, and the air, crisp at this time of year, is clean and refreshing.
The pilot points out a half-built collection of bungalows, which he says have stood incomplete since the owners ran out money three years ago. They certainly had foresight, though: had these bungalows been complete, there is little doubt they would now be a roaring success.
Buses leave Vientiane bus station at 1:30pm daily. The return trip leaves Vang Vieng at 1:00pm.
Vang Vieng Resort, telephone + 856 23 511 050
Hotel Nam Song, Vang Vieng, telephone: +856 23 511 016
It seems best to carry dollars (for larger hotel bills), baht (often accepted at cheaper guesthouses) and kip (sometimes the only currency accepted for small purchases).