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Vang Vieng, Laos – The Backpackers Black Hole

I last left my story in the quaint and quiet town of Vientienne, the capital of Laos, as Craig and I had arrived to by crossing the Laos-Thailand border.

Due to the South East Asian Games 2009 and lack of entertainment we quickly booked a coach to take us further North to the town that backpackers share stories about – Vang Vieng.

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We arrived in the early evening and followed the pack of travelers leaving the coaches. Heading down the dusty road it was clear that this town was unremarkable in its architecture and amenities – later we would learn for ourselves that the main attraction involves a flowing river, tractor inner tubes, hallucinogenic drugs and makeshift riverside party bars.

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We picked a quaint little hotel next to the river, with great views over the surrounding mountains. It was already clear from spending time in Vientiane that nothing much happens at night, due to an 11pm curfew, and the action occurs during the day mainly.

As with all of Laos, the western food was really good and after eating mostly local food in Thailand the pizzas and baguettes tasted even better.

Mushrooms and Opium for sale in Vang Vieng, Laos

“Happy and Funny for You :)” it says on the opium, weed and magic mushroom menu. It was happy and funny for us watching people try it and trip out all round us while we ate wood oven pizzas and drank mint shakes.

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The main attraction of Vang Vieng is tubing. Although there are many places across Asia where you can do this, I am led to believe that this is where it all originated. The premise is simple – you hire a tractor tyre inner tube, catch a ride up the river and float all the way back down.

Except you spend more time drinking at the riverside bars, playing mud volleyball and swinging into the river than you do drifting.

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When it starts to get cold, the sun starts to wain and the bars start to empty you know its time to head down the river. Getting back before 6pm was essential to avoid a fine from the tyre rental shops.

Fortunately, a few enterprising local kids had realised that pushing and dragging you down the river meant a few dollars for them and a few dollars saved for us.

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It was easy to see why many visitors had settled here for days, weeks, months and in some case years longer than they had intended. One odd character wandered the town with the number of days he had stayed painted to his chest in neon paint; well over a year when we paid a comparatively fleeting visit.

Another had spent the best part of a year “on the river” (i.e. drinking and tubing) every day before he broke his ankle swinging into shallow water… we were informed that a brief day visit to Bangkok was all he needed before he was back drinking with the masses.

Many people had got work in the bars and restaurants in exchange for accommodation, food and drink.

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It was really great fun here and so far away from normal life. This was like a mini utopia created by young people who just wanted to have fun, get drunk, make new friends, take the occasional happy pill and do it all in a hidden corner of a beautiful Asian countryside. Nothing really shattered this image except for a nagging feeling that you were getting sucked into a world away from the world.

There was of course trips to see caves, trekking expeditions and the opportunity to explore on a bike but most people we spoke to said this was pretty unremarkable. Tubing, sleeping, the occasional Laos massage, wood oven pizzas and Q Bar until 11pm was our only entertainment and with a pressing schedule we were soon ready to leave. Not before staying an extra day or two, of course.

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On our adventures across South East Asia we really struggled to settle down to a good few hours of sunbathing. We were constantly arranging flights, coaches, hotels and our plans while of course making the most of our time in each place, and it seemed a waste to just sit out in the sun. Despite the slightly cooler climate, with us moving further North, we still caught a few rays in Vang Vieng and later on in Cambodia.

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No matter the invading backpackers, hotels, touristy bars or lack of local culture; this place was simply beautiful. The mountains surrounded us like a protective gate of green trees, letting only the river pass through from the horizon. Many of the locals lead happy, fulfilled and simple lives; washing their clothes and themselves in the rivers, selling cheap food on the streets while bantering with the outsiders, tending to chickens and small cafes.

Nothing seemed complicated here and it didn’t need to be.

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We left our hotel room on a hazy morning, following a long day of drinking and partying. We couldn’t have imagined a longer or more arduous journey taking us from this rough paradise to the pretty and pleasant town of Luang Prabang.

Next up; a drugged up driver, “everyone is asleep?”, learning to cook, trekking and chilling in the cultural Luang Prabang, Laos.

Vang Vieng Photos

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Written by Carey

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