Getting to Vang Vieng. In Vang Vieng, there is a feeling of remoteness that overwhelmed my American spirit. First, I flew 12,000 miles to the other side of the planet to land in Thailand. Then a month later I took 2 more flights (from Koh Samui to Bangkok and Bangkok to Vientiane). After 2 days in the very strange (to me) Vientiane, I boarded a bus that looked like something out of 1972.
The drive was very deliberate. Through the city at first, then it gradually becomes less of a city. The buildings go from very crowded to normal, to a bit of space, to more space, to much more space, to no buildings. Every so often we hit a village and cruised on through.
The first hour is just a very flat, straight road as you get closer and closer to the hills. The rest of the journey get's hilly, the road starts to wind, you look out the window to see 1 foot of road and a 2,000 foot drop, then there's a cow. It really is an amazing trip.
Eventually things level off (at a higher level than you began) and after passing 1 more village, you reach Vang Vieng.
Most people entering Laos will fly into Vientiane, the capital. If you came from Vietnam or China you might come into Luang Prabang first. The directions are essentially the same: find a bus in the city you're in that is going to Vang Vieng. If you're American, this might sound hard, but it is dead easy, as every tour company operating in the city books buses to Vang Vieng.
There really are only 3 destination in Laos. (This is an absurd over-generalization and doesn't do this gorgeous country justice, but it's also true.) Those destinations are Vientiane, the capital city and in the south of the country bordering Thailand; Luang Prabang in the North, nearer to China, a pretty cool place and worth visiting for the culture; and then Vang Vieng in the mountains in the middle of it all.
So if you're in Luang Prabang or Vientiane you just find a bus to Vang Vieng. One will be going north, the other south. If you stay at any hotel while in the city, the desk clerk will be able to arrange it. Tour companies are ubiquitous in Asia and if you stop by any one of them they can get you to where you need to go (and they are actually a good resource while on the road if you need some info). If you want to go straight from the airport in Vientiane you can rent a private A/C car to take you to Vang Vieng for about $100 US (it's a 4 hour drive). And most of the time you can find a bus going as well. I usually just stay in a hotel in Vientiane for a day or two, then book the morning bus to Vang Vieng.
In Vang Vieng
I wouldn't be exaggerating if i said that some of my fondest memories so far in life have taken place in Vang Vieng. It was the second country I spent anytime in when I left the states. And I'd never heard of it before.
There is just something about this place.
I heard that 20 years ago this little mountain village was nothing more than a brief stop for buses to refuel on the long drive from Vientiane in the south (Laos' capital) to Luang Prabang in the north (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). That is no longer the case. Now, Vang Vieng is a destination in and of itself for anyone on the Banana Pancake trail (the backpackers circuit around Southeast Asia).
Without a doubt this tiny place is worth the 4-hour bus ride through dangerously curvy mountain passes.
But why? Let's dive in.
First, it's the only place in Laos that I've found with ANY solid action. Laos is laid back, quiet, slow moving, and I love it for that. But after a few days in Vientiane, the fact that pretty much the entire city is shut down by 10pm can be boring for a solo traveler like me. Even armed with, "Vice in Vientiane" it's still a lot of work to find the action, which seems wasteful if you just came from Bangkok (note: in Bangkok, find the action is a very doable task for anyone.)
They also have a lot of seriously enforced laws about sex which makes it difficult to bring girls back to any respectable establishment. I respect the culture, but it's not for me for very long. Vang Vieng on the other hand is a different world inside of Laos.
Here's a few reasons to consider checking Vang Vieng out:
#1. Packed with travelers from all over the world, this place is a mecca of cool young people and free-thinking individuals.
#2. Easy access to marijuana, mushrooms, and opium. I don't recommend taking any of these. But for folks that are into them, you won't be disappointed.
#3. The food's actually not bad. Pretty much every restaurant serves the same menu. It's not fantastic, but a bit of it's not bad and it's SUPER cheap. Beer Lao is the national beer: it's strong and surprisingly good, and rings in at about 80 cents per liter.
#4. All the outdoor activities you could possibly want. I'm talking river tubing and rope swings, water slides, kayaking, mountains to climb, tons of great hiking, it's like the Swiss Family Robinson on steroids! There's even hot air balloons.
#5. CHEAP (the view below only cost me an extra 4 bucks a night. Picture from my balcony at Domon Guesthouse)
This place isn't hidden anymore - it's a regular stop on the backpackers circuit, and that in my opinion is adding some of its allure.
The locals are extremely friendly and charming. In fact, they run the risk of being too nice and are the type who wouldn't say anything even if you insulted them. So please be sure to adhere to proper etiquette in Laos. Take your shoes off before entering someone's home (and the guest house you're staying at usually prefers this as well). Essentially take your shoes off before going into any domicile. Don't raise your voice to anyone in public. Respect people's personal space. And smile when greeting strangers. There's nowhere in the world that that doesn't apply really, but it especially applies in Laos.
I think you can get away with just about anything in Laos depending on a few factors (time of day, place you are staying, and stealth). I advise stealth here. It is easy to do a lot of things that would be considered inappropriate in Laotian culture, so just do them under the radar to be polite. When being a scum bag, it's always best to do it in private. This also applies everywhere in the world.
Like I said, respect the locals and don't litter or be rude. Also, know that almost everyone gets sick their first time in Vang Vieng - that nasty stomach bug that affects those of us who travel to foreign countries. If it happens, just lay up and eat bland food. There isn't a hospital in Vang Vieng. The closest thing resembling a hospital is in Vientiane and for any serious medical care you'll probably want to go to Bangkok which is the closest place with 1st world medical establishments. I got trapped in Vang Vieng for 6 extra days my second time there, unable to be more than about 10 minutes from a toilet. I don't really recommend this.
Now that you know there is no help to be had if you get injured, I should mention that Vang Vieng can be an extremely dangerous place. Several travelers die here every year. You can party your face off. But realize it's different from back home. If you get hurt back home, an ambulance shows up. If you get hurt here, you bleed out and die. Stay out of the river at night. Avoid the river entirely when on shrooms or other psychedelics. Anytime you are partying, have a babysitter or else keep yourself sober. Make some friends and keep an eye on each other.
Also... Bring toilet paper :).