We love traveling with flexibility, and this trip has given us plenty of time to be flexible. So we get a little irritable when we have forced travel plans. That was the situation we faced when we thought we had to suffer through hours on a bus to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, to get our visas for Vietnam. It’s a city we went to five years ago, and unless they installed an adult sized Chuck E Cheese style ball pit, it wasn’t worth the trip back. So it was a happy day when we found out we could obtain our visas in Luang Prabang, where we had just arrived. We opted for the three day wait for the lowest price.
With a couple days to spare, we headed to nearby Vang Vieng. For the uninitiated, Vang Vieng has a bit of a reputation for being a hard partying town. Like, people dying from partying too hard partying. At least that’s the way it was several years ago before the government cracked down on some of the pot pizza and opium shakes and drunk tubing with high rise water slides that were wreaking havoc. So we went there with a bit of trepidation, but balanced by eagerness for the reports of stunning scenery we’d repeatedly gotten. And stunning it is. We went to a guest house on the west side of the river, away from the masses and closer to the amazingly scenic limestone mountains poking out of the ground.
In Laos, we found that each town is more unique than in other countries we’ve visited. There don’t seem to be carbon copies of cities the way that most countries have them (especially India). Vang Vieng is unique – a place like no others we have been – and changing like no others. It was the first place we’ve seen a crane. The backpacker party crowd is quickly getting overrun by Chinese and Korean tour groups, and they’re driving a massive development boom. They’re also driving these loud and smelly dune buggies in caravans down the road. They’re paddling down the river Song in three person “Tri-aks” by the flotilla-load.
And they’re getting bused into town by the, uh, busload. What we found was a town that was more picturesque than we had anticipated, less druggy than a few years ago, but more developed than it should be. We had a lot of pity for the local people living in the city or nearby, seeing their small home completely overrun by foreigners. The story goes that a local organic farmer with some farm hands pumped up some tire tubes and sent them down the river for some relaxation. Then some entrepreneurs saw that and started luring in the backpakers. So in a few short years a sleepy little town became the go-to spot for thousands.
Any rational person living there would try making a go of it in the tourism industry. But it means that those people are transitioning out of some other occupation they had been doing – probably something that makes Laos such a nice and low key place to travel. Instead of smiles and waves, local kids look at us indifferently, and we have to treat any adult with suspicion of selling us something.
We spent just a night in Vang Vieng before taking a dramamine and the bus back up to Luang Prabang to pick up the passports. In LP the tourism industry has been settled in for a long time, so it doesn’t have the same new money feel. It’s beautiful, but after a few walks around town there’s kind of not much else to do. Passports in hand, we took a minivan northeast into the thousand turns towards Phonsavan.