Floating through the mountains of Northern Laos
on the ultimate lazy river
Just a few hours north of Laos' capitol city, Vientiane, sits Vang Vieng, a backpacker town in the mountains not unlike Pai in neighboring Thailand. In its hayday a number of years ago, Vang Vieng was notorious and almost synonymous for tourist debauchery but the town has calmed down a lot since then. It's now more of a haven for travelers looking to take advantage of the gorgeous mountain landscape for kayaking, rock climbing, and hot air ballooning. The vibe as you walk down the main street is that these young backpackers are most interested in finding the best 10-Kip sandwich stall and floating down the river while the sun's still high in the sky. Which is exactly what we did.
Around 11:30am, we piled into a songthew packed with six people and an equal number of large black rubber inner-tubes and drove for a few kilometers down the road. We instantly bonded with everyone in the truck and were happy we got lucky with a good group to float with down the river. It was a clear, warm day during the dry season so the river was lower than usual but refreshingly cold. At this time of year, it'll take you three hours to continuously flat back to town and closer to two hours during the wet season when the current is stronger. There are a handful of small bars lining the river run by locals who will cast out a string and tow you onto the shore. Grabbing a cold Beer Lao with new friends near the river is just about the best way to pass the time.
The river current was so slight it was almost unnoticeable. Time seemed stagnant and could only be measured in beer bottles. The sun shone on and we were in no hurry to get anywhere. We took our time exchanging stories, getting into splash wars whenever a cheeky group of kayaks passed, and basking in the sun like lizards.
Every sign you'll pass says "Last Bar on the River," but there's always another bar. They'll keep trying and trying to tow you in just to see if you'll buy a beer or two, so you have to take anyone attempting to reel you in with a big grain of salt. If I were to go tubing again, I'd invest in an ice chest and some cheep beer at the market to avoid the markup at these bars, but it is fun to pull over for a spell and extend your river experience. As you get closer to town, you'll pass a cool local spot with a couple dozen tables situated in the shallow water. If you're really hungry, it's an awesome spot to eat family-style spicy river fish and rice accompanied by the ever-present Beer Lao. Be sure to cover yourself with a t-shirt or scarf while you're with the locals out of respect and modesty.
By the time 4pm hit, the sun was making its way behind the limestone cliffs and it got a little chilly. At this point, you can grab an inexpensive songthew back to town or go all the way to the bamboo bridge signaling you've reached town. After about six hours I was ready to let the cab driver tow me out and take me back so I could grab some much-needed food. The food scene here can be hit-and-miss and you can get stuck with some expensive and not very good dishes at the tourist traps. A general rule of thumb is the cheapest food is usually the best, although it's possible to find a solid wood-fire pizza at Pizza Luka and some delicious curries and laap around town. One thing I disappointed discovered is how awful Laos coffee tastes. It's somehow weak, bitter, and terrible to drink even loaded up with milk and sugar. Makes me nostalgic for Vietnamese coffee!
It's easy to get caught up in the laid-back intoxication emanating from Vang Vieng and you'll want to extend your stay to include just one more brunch or tube ride each time you meet someone new. I might have been tempted into another day on the river had all the friends I met done the same, but everyone is pretty much on the same travel route. In a strange way, the entire country of Laos is like a small town for travelers because you'll end up seeing the same people hundreds of kilometers away and it's nice to count on happening along a friend or two in a foreign city.