GoKunming Articles

Getting Away: Vang Vieng

By in Travel on

Photo by Yereth Jansen
Photo by Yereth Jansen

Once upon a time, Vang Vieng, Laos was a tranquil and less frequented destination for travelers in Southeast Asia. As more tourists became aware of its lagoons, caves and Karst mountains, Vang Vieng quickly transformed into a rolling frat party centered around tubing down the Nam Song River.

It is now a place where 'magic' pizzas are on all the menus and backpackers walk down the dust filled streets covered in body paint. The music in the bars starts at 11:00am and doesn't stop until the wee hours of the morning.

We decided to forego the party scene and spend a day exploring Vang Vieng's natural beauty and do some caving. To get there we took a four hour bus from Vientiane. Buses to Vang Vieng from Luang Prabang cost 100,000 kip (80 yuan).

Photo by Yereth Jansen
Photo by Yereth Jansen

The Vang Vieng Organic Mulberry Farm, where we stayed, is four kilometers from the city center. Baby goats wandered through the mulberry fields while we checked into our room. Not surprisingly, the farm's restaurant has delicious goat cheese as well as mulberry pancakes and shakes.

The farm is a quiet haven that feels like a throwback to a different time. Many guests volunteer to help out on the farm or teach in a nearby village called Phoudindaeng.

Ironically, mulberry farm owner Thanongsi Sorangkoun started the now famous inner tube trips as a way for volunteers at his farm to relax. It proved to be so popular that local bars followed suit and tubing became one of the biggest reasons Vang Vieng evolved from sleepy town to party city.

We woke before sunrise the next morning and rented a hot air balloon at Green Discovery in Vang Vieng for 557,000 kip (440 yuan). For an hour we drifted silently over the town and out into the countryside, passing over the thatched roof houses that line the Nam Song River.

Safely back on the ground, we rented motorbikes for 40,000 kip (32 yuan) and headed out to explore a 33 kilometer forest trail that led to numerous caverns and lagoons. Distance on the trail is marked on roadside telephone poles and at pole number 24 we stopped to hike up to Tham Khan Cave.

The trail to the cave passed under cliffs, through the forest and finally led up to a craggy nest of rocks that was utterly deserted.

Photo by Yereth Jansen
Photo by Yereth Jansen

We put on our head lamps and ventured into the darkness. A narrow passageway barely wide enough for one person was the first obstacle. From there we ducked under jutting rocks and at one point got on our bellies to wiggle through a long tunnel. We emerged from the cave grinning and sweaty 20 minutes later.

Continuing down the road we next stopped at the Blue Lagoon, which along with a nearby cave, is the most famous landmark on the trail. Along the way locals stopped to tell us not to be fooled by signs advertising other "blue lagoons" where the water in question was often more of a mud hole than an actual place to swim.

The lagoon is hidden behind a small village where weavers displayed their crafts on the side of the road. The water was aquamarine and streaks of sunlight danced on its surface.

Tied to a tree growing over the water was a rope swing from which tourists and locals took turns diving into the deep water.

Tham Phu Kham Cave is a few hundred meters away from the lagoon and it's a steep climb to get there. Inside the cave there is a huge open chamber with a golden Buddha reclining on a platform.

Behind the Buddha, the real caving experience begins. There are guides and headlamps available for a small fee but we had brought our own lamps and decided to wander the cave ourselves. There were no marked paths, signs or handrails and exploring the cave was simultaneously disorienting and exhilarating.

By the time we left Tham Phu Kham it was nearly dark and our motorbikes were due back at the shop. Somewhat grudgingly we drove back into town. We had only scheduled a day in Vang Vieng, but now that we were there we could not imagine leaving.

Getting there:
There are no direct flights to Vang Vieng but Lao Airlines and China Eastern both have daily flights from Kunming to Vientiane. From Vientiane one can book a bus or car, both of which cost 50,000 kip (40 yuan) per person. Vang Vieng is a four hour drive north from Vientiane and the road is extremely pitted and bumpy.

Vang Vieng is a 6-8 hour bus ride from Luang Prabang and tickets cost 100,000 kip (80 yuan). There are currently no direct flights linking Luang Prabang to Kunming. However, there is a bus that takes around 28 hours and leaves from Kunming's South Bus Station.

There are also daily direct flights between Jinghong and Luang Prabang.

© Copyright 2005-2024 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Share this article



I believe there are two daily flights from Jinghong to Luang Prabang. There is not enough demand for daily flights at this time, so this information is incorrect.


Sorry, I mean 2 weekly flights!!

Vang Vieng is a great place. I stay at the Elephant Crossing hotel. Quite nice but $45USD a night. A bit steep for the backpackers and consumers of 'magic" goods. So it is pretty quiet.

Rooms face the river and Karst formations. Clouds and wisps of clouds in and around the Karst mountains provide a constantly changing view.

Vang Vieng is my favorite sit-and-do-nothing place on Laos.

Regarding the roads, my impression was the opposite. I left Vientiane for VV via bus and found the road ok. From VV to Luang Prabang the road was quite miserable.

Nothing better than floating down the river with some of your friends; however, avoid the bar with the giant concrete slide. A Swiss guy drowned last year after using the slide, and it's cause innumerable other injuries to party-goers. Also, the tube doesn't make up for not being a good swimmer.


Yeah in fact you should avoid most of the rides. There used to be a slide that three people died on before they changed the angle... Not so big on health and safety. Just don't be blackout drunk and go down a flowing river, it's generally not a good idea.

I was really repelled by the party scene and the general vibe of the foreign backpackers in Vang Vieng when I passed through in 2010.

In particular I recall my one and only evening in town meeting a group of foreigners who had been in Vang Vieng for weeks. They told me I shouldn't rent an inner tube, but just go to the river, and steal one from one of the riverside bars. "That's what everyone else does", they said. Yeah, and whoever's tube gets stolen then either has to steal someone else's, or lose their deposit from the rental agency. What a misanthropic attitude.

So repelled that I just spent one night and went on to Vientiene the next day. After reading this report, I regret that I didn't make more effort to explore some of the nicer spots they write about. Sounds like it's worth a second look.

On the other hand, Luang Prabang and Muong Ngoy to the north were fantastic locations I'd recommend to anyone.

I am going back to Laos this summer after being away for seven years. Will be going back to Vang Vieng. I am shocked about how large Vang Vieng has gotten by the look of the second picture with the balloon in it.
Even back in 2004, I could see how this could happen. My guesthouse had signs in many languages including Thai and Hebrew. The place was famous way back when.

I have been on that river several times and it is a relaxing, fun ride, but one has to respect the river. I was sober (and I was) and accidentally tipped the intertube over trying to stay near the bank so I can stop at the beer stop where the river takes a curve. I hit some branches and out I go.

It was scary, because although I could swim and keep my head up, the current disallowed me from swimming to the bank, with the proprieter of the beer shack to throw me a line and PULL me in (I am a big guy). Got to the bank and discovered my hotel key and the money I brought went down the river to Cambodia. No beer for me.

I would not swing or slide into the river either. I watched those kids do that (I was in my late 30's then and they averaged about 20) and then it did not look safe. In my opinion, Beer Lao is delicious, and it is easy to get drunk out of and do foolish things.

As the article states, there are other things to do there, caving is one of them. I went on a local tour and went into a cave and got all muddy. There was another cave deep in a cavern where I elected not to go. Above me however, I saw the BIGGEST bee hive I have ever seen. There must have been thousands of bees living in there and if they were disturbed, we could be killed from the stings. And then there were the butterflies by the hundreds if not thousands.

Unlike a lot of backpacker places, the food is good basically because of the ingredients the locals put into it. I remember a simple "fried rice" dish served to travellers that was really a work of art. The French taught them how to cook while the Czecks (under a Communist friendship program) taught them how to make beer.

Laos is strict about two things, one that a Lao citizen cannot sleep with a foreigner unless they are married and the law is strict about this, to control the sex trade. A second thing that foreigners may not like is that the bars have to close by 11 PM, by law. The local people in Laos (as in Cambodia and the region) wake up early in the morning, and also that the kiddie foreigner needs to go back to the guest house and sleep off the 12 hours of Lao Beer fury.

It is easy to escape the 20 somethings and their partying. I hope to teach at the school near the Organic Farm. I may want to rent a motorbike and see the countryside (again). It is a beautiful place in a beautiful country. I am looking forward to it and wish I were there already.

@Senorboogiewoogie, in Laos everything is flexible due to the power of money aka corruption. I was in Vang Vieng around midnight back in 2009 and it was still noisy in parts, but generally quiet outside the center of action.

Also, while perhaps not a good idea, every foreigner living in Laos knows you can sleep with a Lao citizen of the opposite sex in the same room if you are discreet about it and you'll only get in trouble if you piss someone off. I also think that the government only sees the images of westerners in Thailand and the Philippines "buying" girls at girlie bars and wants to maintain a more lowkey image, but naturally no Vietnamese or Chinese (or Thai) truck driver would be without his karaoke and Lao prostitute in the border provinces. The reality is that prostitution is as big in Laos as anywhere else, but maybe just a little less visible. However, in Vientiane there are large numbers of local girls with western or other foreign "boyfriends", or in genuine relationships.

Yeah there are lots of hebrew speaking travellers in Vang Vieng these days. Same with regional tourists from Thailand - frankly given that Thai and Lao are nearly the same language I don't see how a Thai speaker can't read Lao, but apparently many can't hence the reason for the Thai signs you saw. Same in Thailand - at petrol (gas) stations near the Lao border, which are popular with Lao motorists you can see signs in Lao next to the Thai since there are some subtle differences between the two languages.

With regards to the roads, I have some first-hand experience, riding a bike in February 2012. Luang Prabang to Phou Khoun and Vang Vieng on highway 13 is pretty smooth sailing, until the last 15-20k before VV, where you suddenly get intermittent road-wide gravel gaps (at least one every 500m) until, well over 100km past VV, you reach the junction to Thalat, where you can opt for the much better maintained highway 10 to Vientiane.

Here is "highway 13", on one of its longer street-wide gravel gaps (imagine the dust):


Login to comment