I don’t think anyone would disagree with me saying frankly that the town of Vang Vieng is a stain on the universe. And yet here it is flowing constantly with two specific streams of clients, offering a strange counterpoint into which I definitely don’t fit. It cannot be the town that draws us; it’s dirty, run down and with hardly a thread of heritage about it. And usually you have endured a bus journey through the mountains, on an unfinished road, compressed into a minivan wondering when they will stop for a toilet break.
Even though I’ve read stuff, I get here and feel so embarrassed to be a white western person. It is full of back packers ( yes I knew that it would be ) behaving badly. And it is full of Koreans in large collectives, blocking up the footpath, taking selfies, and crowding round the entrances of all the restaurants. The tuk tuk drops me off at the Vang Vieng Rock Backpackers Hostel and I think – hell what have I done?
Imagine a teenager’s house party ( while parents are away) gone wrong, spilling on to the street and all the indignity that goes with that. Imagine it on all the houses along the street. A dirty street also. And you have my first impression of Vang Vieng.
I was not the happiest of bunnies, but I had done my research and knew that Vang Vieng’s treasures lie hidden outside of the town. In the aftermath of a hostel borne virus, an overcast day, and a steady walk round quiet places is just what’s needed. Saysong Island, I think, was once the hub of all the drunken, dangerous ‘tubing’ incidents that marred the reputation of the town, but is now an overgrown, slightly surreal natural place where you can walk down to the riverside and watch local people harvesting shellfish. But be quick, because after 10.30am, very large cohorts of Koreans will come speeding down the river knocking everyone out of the way with their selfie sticks, disturbing the loveliness. But on land, nature is unphased, rambling, hovering and clambering.
A short cycle ride across the river and I had forgotten the awful night at the backpackers, and my sore throat. The towering Karst formations, like giant pork pies, the salmon coloured dirt tracks, the wandering cattle and people getting on with their lives – just lovely. I had a full day riding round the area on a mountain bike, the grass of which were so stiff that they gave me RSI in my thumbs.
On this side of the river, there is much to like and I ended up parking the bike and climbing the monumental Phangern. This is a tricky climb – don’t be deceived by the information thereabouts – the top is tough with proper scrambling, definitely do not attempt with flip flops, and the second half is longer than the first. You will not find many people on there, sensibly so. The sharp virgin limestone kept tempting me for a bouldering move or two. Views from the top are breathtaking, and whilst they don’t rival Wulingyuan or the likes, you have complete peace when you are up there. No noisy crowds or selfie takers.
The following day I had a morning’s climbing – a bit dodgy. The instructor told me he’d only been climbing for a year, and I was being belayed by a 16 year old with no English – a first for me. The lower offs were of variable quality and I definitely preferred the ones that had actual bolts at the top rather than a rope round a flake. But seriously the climbing looks good and I wish I’d reserved some more time for it. But maybe I’ll visit again.
In the evenings it is the turn of the western youngsters to show their maturity by returning from the tubing expeditions and throwing up or being loud and ridiculous around the hostels and bars – but you can find quiet places if you don’t mind a walk and have a little cash. There’s even a night market of sorts, nothing on the Luang Prabang scale – you can walk it in ten minutes and it’s quite a way out of the centre. You know, you only have to eat and sleep there, and the local people are exceptionally forbearing.
I’ll overlook Vang Vieng’s ‘other’ side because it’s a small discomfort, when its treasures are so great!