Laos: kayaking down the Mekong at Vang Vieng

The journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is coined as one of the most scenic journeys in SE Asia as you pass through mountains down into the Mekong valley and it didn’t disappoint.  I was lucky to get the front seat of the minivan and was treated to glorious views as we made the 6 hour journey.   In addition it was fairly exciting as our driver was a real Schumacher as he seemed to accelerate into the corners as we wound our way up and down the mountainsides.  He spent the time hunched over the wheel so he could get better control and go faster!

A view up the steep valley side:

First views of the Mekong:

Vang Vieng is a small town which is famous amongst young backpackers for one thing: tubing down the Mekong whilst getting drunk.  The whole town is a tourist whirlpool that seemed only to have guesthouses, restaurants,  bars and a few shops selling Beer Lao vests.  It was rather a shame because the spot is genuinely really attractive with tree-covered-steep-sided mountains jutting up and towering over the lazy brown Mekong, and it just seemed all the Lao character had been squeezed out of the place because of one of SE Asia’s main drawcards for the gap year backpacker.

Arriving in the late afternoon I had missed my chance for a trip down the river so just had a look around the town and decided that a good alternative to tubing/getting drunk would be a one-day tour.  So I bunked down early ready for my 9am start.

The next morning I was picked up and taken to a site about 17km north of the town where after crossing a bamboo bridge and some rice fields we got in some tubes and pulled ourselves into an impressive water-filled cave.  After the hour it took to get to the end and back I was pretty cold as the water didn’t have the benefit of solar heating and was rather chilly; so it was a relief to get back into the sun.

The bamboo bridge to a small rice farming community that also benefits from tourists visiting local caves:

The Water Cave:

Inside on the tubes in the chilly water:

Last glimpse of natural light:

After lunch we checked out the elephant cave which is so-called because a section of the limestone has formed in the shape of an elephant.  There’s also some cool Buddhas in there.

Spot the resemblance:

Looking out from elephant cave:


Next it was time to get in the kayaks, and I was partnered with a bio-medical professor called Paolo from Sardinia who had been at a conference in Hanoi before taking a short holiday in Laos.  As it was the middle of dry season the river was low and a real chocolatey brown colour but we still had some good rapids to go down and just before we got to the main tubing area, in the most turbulent, fast-flowing part we somehow managed to capsize!

Paolo and I:

A long bamboo bridge over the river used by locals, and in the foreground one of our guides prepares the kayak:

Once we arrived at the tubing area we cruised past all the riverside bars blasting out European dance music and stopped at the quieter last bar where we played with catapults and saw this cool talking bird.

The tubing area is a collection of maybe a dozen bars within about 300m of each other and tubers sit in rubber rings between stopping at as many as they want (some don’t bother with the rings).  They also have rope swings, slides and zip lines but when I passed through most were closed because of the low river level or because the police had shut them down due to the high injury rate.  Here is one such bar:

The talking bird:

After an hour or so at the bar we kayaked the final 4km before arriving in Vang Vieng.

After seeing the tubing area and hearing a few stories I decided that I wouldn’t really be missing much if I didn’t partake having already done the kayaking,  so controversially I decided against doing it and the next day made my way to Thailand instead.


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