I hear stories about Vang Vieng before I arrive...
-‘happy menus’ with mushroom pizzas and grams of opium for sale
- weed by the joint, bag or happy shake in restaurants
- death by drowning in the Nam Song River
- tourists face-planting into rocks from motorbikes
- a guy suffering brain damage (he failed to pole vault a 40 foot crack inside a cave with a bamboo stick).
So I thought, okay, I’ll just stay in Vang Vieng for one night to break up the journey to the south of Laos.
Then move on.
I soon admit my mistake
Vang Vieng is much more adventure playground than cainers’ paradise. I end up staying a week.
In Vang Vieng, I live in a tree house
I remember The Enchanted Wood, my favourite story as a child.
In Enid Blyton’s classic tale, Moonface and Silky live in the Faraway Tree. Joe, Bessie and Fanny climb the Faraway Tree each day to explore different lands at the top.
In Vang Vieng, locals and travellers climb trees too.
Some perch in the tree for hours.
Others plunge from branches into deep blue lagoons.
A spider lives in the corner of my tree house
I’ve named her Charlotte after the spider in Charlotte’s Web.
I am not scared about sharing my room with a spider. She’s quite beautiful with long fine legs and a small body.
I've been looking out for messages in her web.
Hot air balloons take off at sunrise and sunset in Vang Vieng
It’s the way The Wizard of Oz likes to travel.
The balloons are like coloured lightbulbs in the sky – green, yellow and red.
From the comfort of my hammock, I hear the flames whoosh. And I wonder about the eccentric genius who invented the hot air balloon.
I search online and learn about Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier in 18th century France.
I love this fact...
“On September 19th 1783, in Versailles, a Montgolfiere hot air balloon carrying a sheep, a rooster, and a duck flew for eight minutes in front of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the French court.”
In Vang Vieng, kids and travellers swing on ropes in trees...
... like Mowgli in The Jungle Book.
There are giant trapezes over the Nam Song river
The launch pads are at the top of trees. I climb the stairs in the tree.
I feel the fear at the top of the tree.
It takes me 10 minutes to jump.
Flying through the air feels aaaaaaaaagh-mazing.
Watch my Vang Vieng trapeze debut here.
Vang Vieng has mountains to climb and caves to explore
The Hobbit landscape. The mountain tops are jagged – it looks like a giant has torn pieces of dark green paper and glued them to the horizon.
Friends and I cycle miles along dirt tracks to reach the mountains. We climb hundreds of large steps. Half way up the mountainside is the entrance to Poukham cave. Inside, the air cools at least ten degrees. Cold water drips on my skin. We climb over slippery rocks and walk down cave passages.
We’ve landed at night time on a cold, quiet planet.
Two local kids lead us through the cave, skilfully and silently. They shine their head lamps into grey clearings. Rocks sparkle with minerals. The kids light up dark crevices and deep holes for us – Gollum from The Lord of the Rings could live here.
Our child guides lead us back to the cave entrance then switch off their lights. They remind me of The Lamplighter in The Little Prince – the Lamplighter’s job is to light a lamp on his asteroid in the morning and put it out at night.
People mess about in boats on Nam Song river...
...like in The Wind in the Willows.
Kayaks and longtails and rowboats.
And there are Vang Vieng's famous tractor inner tubes. We float for hours downstream and marvel at the mountains.
There’s a midnight curfew...
The law in Laos states that everyone must be back at the place where they live or sleep by midnight – Cinderella style.
Most bars close at 11.30pm. Before we all turn into pumpkin curry, I guess.
And yes, I’m reminded in Vang Vieng of Lewis Carroll’s classic...
...Alice in Wonderland – the part where Alice eats mushrooms and her body changes shape. It’s the scene with the blue caterpillar – he sits on a giant mushroom, smoking a hookah.
Here’s one report from a traveller who ate a mushroom pizza in Vang Vieng:
‘I grinned for two hours in my hammock then was sick all night.’
As sick as a Cheshire cat?
But this is really only a minor part of what's on offer in Vang Vieng.
I’m only offered the ‘happy menu’ once – and it’s easy to tell the restaurant owner I’m happy enough already :-)
To quote a well-worn proverb...
...I’ve learnt from my Vang Vieng experience not to judge a book by its cover.
Vang Vieng has:
- outdoor activities (cycling, ballooning, tubing, kayaking, trekking, rock climbing, scootering, caving, swimming)
- mountains that stand guard around the town
- cafes with areas to lie down on enormous cushions
- mulberry pancakes, homemade goat’s cheese and mulberry leaf tempura at Mr T’s organic farm
- the tubing, waterslides and trapezes on the Nam Song river
- oh, and Vang Vieng has very photogenic cows...