Laos Life: Vang Vieng, One More Time

One final weekend road trip with the boys to beautiful Vang Vieng before we pack up and say goodbye to Laos.

It’s quickly approaching the end of August and how many times have we gotten away from Vientiane this year?

Twice.

That’s a weekend at Lao Lake House in March and a week in Hanoi in April…in eight months.

With the boys at the ages they are at, we’ve enjoyed staying put most weekends in 2019.

Lori and I figured we’ve done enough traveling with a baby/toddler in 2016, 2017, and 2018 to tide most parents over for a couple of lifetimes.

We’ve also long passed the point where we’ve seen everything we want to see here in Laos (some places many, many times over), and it’s been difficult to justify the cost of traveling outside of Laos for only a short time with two little ones.

Plus, we’ve known for a few months now that our time in Vientiane is coming to an end, and have prioritized spending time with friends here in town.

When August rolled around, however, we realized there was one place we wanted to visit one more time. And time was of the essence given that Lori’s contract with her current employer was quickly coming to an end (and our access to a car on weekends).

Vang Vieng was an easy choice for this final foray in Laos (for now). It didn’t involve a flight, offered a chance to relax (even with two little ones…hopefully), and we knew it would be enjoyable even in the throws of the rainy season.

Plus…Riley had never been!

Never mind Noe had been five times already. But even for Noe it had been 19 months since his last visit!

Yep, it was time to return to Vang Vieng for the weekend.

This was also our first big road trip in Laos with both boys, so we were hoping for a relatively smooth four hour drive.

Fortunately, once we got out of the city, both boys fell fast asleep, and stayed that way for most of the journey.

 

In addition to a quiet car, Lori and I enjoyed the pleasant driving weather for rainy season, taking in the bright colors of the rice paddies, and making our way through familiar villages along Route 10 and Route 13.

A bit had changed since our last drive this direction nearly two years ago. It was evident that both of the major China-funded infrastructure projects were moving full speed ahead.

There was more evidence than ever of the China-Laos-Thailand high-speed railway and Vientiane-VangVieng expressway.

No doubt, the next time we do this trip, whether by car or train, it will be a very different experience than what we’ve known.

 

But there are a few things along the route that never seem to change…

 

This was the first time approaching Vang Vieng in the rainy season, and the clouds seemed to make the peaks behind town look even more majestic than we remembered.

Making our way under the future expressway and into town.

With two little ones in tow, we opted for a slightly different Vang Vieng experience this time around.

On the surface, Silver Naga Hotel is a bit posher than we’re used to in Vang Vieng. Yet, at only US$45 per night it was hard to justify staying anywhere else in town for the short weekend with the two boys.

Silver Naga’s got spacious bedrooms, is comfortable and well appointed with breakfast included, and many of the rooms have stunning views of the mountains and Song River.

 

Riley quickly found the buttons on the safe, of course. Fortunately, we stopped him before he got a chance to stow his Wubanub for safe-keeping (he’s a little paranoid about Noe taking his stuff these days…and rightly so).

Silver Naga also has a sizable pool which we definitely didn’t get to utilize as much as we’d like given the rainy season weather and naptimes. But it was there!

We left Vientiane around noon and got into Vang Vieng around 5pm. After a quick settle-in, we headed out to get a stroll in before the boys’ bedtime (and requisite afternoon/evening storm).

Everything seemed new to Noe (he was too young to remember anything from his previous five visits), and really seemed to take to the town more than we thought he would.

But what’s not love for a three-year-old? You’ve got boats, a river, hot air balloons, caves, and lots of people watching.

This was our first time visiting in rainy season and consequently our first time visiting without the seasonal bamboo bridge in the center of town.

We were pretty taken aback when we arrived at the spot where we’ve always crossed the river to see nothing but water. Very high water at that.

So high, in fact, that we had to step over a bit of the river and a boat to access one of our favorite sundowner spots, Phubarn.

 

…which was also quite inundated with water. This is the way to the restrooms.

Mind you, Laos was in the throws of its worst drought in over a decade just weeks ago.

 

 

 

Our former favorite Reggae bar in town, Jaydee’s, has since moved to new (and much less atmospheric and Rasta) digs down the street. Here in their old location it appears a tour company has set up shop. Seems so wrong.

Speaking of more unfortunate developments, ATVs have taken over Vang Vieng!

In past visits, we only encountered a handful of small ATVs out in the countryside ridden by large groups of young Koreans.

Now, they’ve not only multiplied, but they’ve gotten bigger! It’s almost impossible to walk anywhere in Vang Vieng town now without seeing one (or ten) for rent or rumbling down the road.

With half a dozen new block hotels shooting skywards and the emergence of trend[ier] shops, it’s clear that the government and investors are targeting a more affluent subsection of the tourist population (i.e. Koreans and affluent Laotians) than years past (i.e. budget backpackers from Western countries).

True, Vang Vieng is succeeding in leaving behind its infamous reputation as a hedonistic hellhole where gap year students go to die and quickly emerging as one of the outdoor adventure capitals of East Asia.

Still, reminders of the old days dot the main drag in the form of Friends and Family Guy episodes playing on repeat, “happy” menus, and of course, Happy Balloons.

The ebb and flow of change we’ve seen in Vang Vieng over the past decade reflect changes we’ve seen across the country (and region, for that matter).

It’s a clear reminder that history and development are non-linear processes driven by shifts in politics, economics, social attitudes, and climate, all which are constantly in flux these days.

When we first came through the area in late 2012, a major government crackdown brought an end to a decade-long party that had literally gotten out of control.

For the next four years, authorities banned bars from operating along the river, the partygoers and free-flowing drugs disappeared, and the local economy stagnated.

The Vang Vieng we discovered in 2016 was quiet, run-down, half-functioning, and supremely relaxing.

Suddenly, construction exploded in 2017 and 2018 and Asian tourists from across the region descended on the area en masse.

That’s without help from the high-speed rail and expressway under construction and with no direct flights to the city.

Laos is a sizable country with many amazing corners worth exploring. Yet, authorities and investors continue to concentrate on developing (and funneling visitors to) a small handful of destinations.

This is a prime example of unsustainable policies encouraging over-tourism and environmental degradation in a country that remains 90% undeveloped, and it boggles my mind that in 2019 Laos chooses to continue down this path.

 

After breakfast on Saturday, the weather was holding steady, so we took a nice long walk around town. At one point, we came across a bar we hadn’t visited in years.

Above, Riley in August 2019 at 10 months. Below, Noe in December 2016 at 5 months.

“The Island,” Vang Vieng, December 2016.

Below, Noe at 3 years old in 2019.

“Island Bar,” Vang Vieng, August 2019.

 

In 2016, the property was a shady collection of dilapidated bungalows and shacks from another time. We had a couple of beers on an unkempt grassy knoll fronting the river:

Island Bar 2016.

The Island Bar today (2019):

Island Bar 2019.

Just a bit different.

Later that evening, we returned for drinks, and to catch what we could of a sunset.

Returning to our Saturday morning walk…

We stopped into an old favorite for some water, some rest, and to take in the view.

Like most things in Laos these days, we’ve been here before…

Noe & Lori, 2016.

 

Nap time.

We were a bit concerned how the boys would do with us all staying together in one room.

When we first checked into Silver Naga, our room had a king size bed and a single bed. Unfortunately, we had to move rooms due to construction noise, and our second room only had one large bed.

That meant it would be the first time Noe shared a bed with both mommy and daddy at the same time. As in, first time ever.

We’ve been hoping that at some point he’d be keen on doing this, since it would make traveling a lot easier, but we also knew Noe likes his “space” (and we like the fact that he’s never once asked to climb into bed with us at night).

I’m happy to report that that part of our visit actually worked out fine, which means more lodging options moving forward. Yay, right?

Well, [almost] yay…

Riley, on the other hand was struggling with a bit of a cold (like he did in Hanoi and Lao Lake House, lucky us!), making nighttime and nap time rough. As in, a living nightmare.

When Riley gets sick, he makes sure everyone is well aware.

So, we wandered through our days in Vang Vieng as zombies and gap year students in old Vang Vieng do — in a strung-out daze not unlike coming off a 14-hour flight, but happy to be in this beautiful place, nonetheless.

Because of Riley’s sleeping difficulties, Noe’s nap was pushed back. By the time Noe got up, it was evident that a storm was approaching.

Still, Noe was intent on swimming, and we were dead set on making it to the pool at least once this weekend — monsoon, be damned.

So, we rushed down to the pool and managed to get in 30 solid minutes of pool time before the skies let loose. Such is life in the tropics in the rainy season.

 

The afternoon thunderstorm lasted just long enough to get showered and changed for a walk about town.

When the rain died down to a drizzle, we headed back out to see what we could see on what will likely be our final evening in Vang Vieng for a very long time.

 

We’d planned on having drinks and possibly eating at one of our favorite places in Laos: Earth Recycled. Unfortunately, they were closed for the season. So, we headed to Gary’s Irish Bar instead.

Having kids these ages right now is far from easy. But Lori and I are fully aware it could suck so much more. After all, we could be living in the U.S. with a toddler and a baby!

In Laos, young children can do no wrong. Your 11-month-old’s entire dinner ends up covering half the floor at a nice restaurant (and he even breaks his plate in the process)?

— Bor pen yang! (No worries!).

Your three-year-old throws an epic tantrum at a trendy coffee shop?

The staff rush in like your toddler’s a scared and abandoned puppy dog, bringing fruit, a toy, or even offering to take him for a while.

And kids in bars?

No worries!

In fact, bars and pubs are our favorite places to take our kids these days. They’re loud and raucous, there’s already food all over the ground, lots of people-watching to keep the kids entertained, and the level of acceptable behavior is on par with what our kids exhibit on a nightly basis.

It’s almost like bars were MADE for babies and toddlers.

And to think we actually BAN kids from these places in the U.S.!!!

On our final morning in Vang Vieng, we visited Chang (Jang) Cave just south of town over the river. There hasn’t been a single visit to Vang Vieng where we haven’t visited this cave.

Visiting requires crossing a brightly painted orange suspension bridge and climbing a few stairs.

Above, that’s Noe on our first visit to the cave in 2016.

And below, Noe in 2019, getting ready to ascend the stairs to the cave himself for the first time.

 

There were a couple of sections I carried him up and over, but for the most part he was happy to do the climb on his own steam.

And…here comes Riley. Morning nap time!

 

 

 

The view of Vang Vieng from a lookout point in the cave complex.

 

We also like this cave complex because of the series of metal bridges that cross jade-colored pools near the picnic area.

 

I’ve often wondered about the story of this “Resort Pub”. Undoubtedly, it catered to a different visitor demographic in a very different time.

And there’s Riley! Up from his nap and feeling better…on the last day of our visit, of course.

Speaking of catering to different demographics…here’s a new restaurant being built just outside of town.

Nearly every time we’ve visited Vang Vieng, we’ve grabbed lunch at Luang Prabang Bakery. This visit was no exception.

The pastries are pretty good, but it’s LP Bakery’s sandwiches that keep us coming back. Their salami sandwich is pretty amazing (and huge!).

One last walk around the block with Riley (while Lori and Noe finish up lunch) before hitting the road.

Back on the road to Vientiane, we spot more sections of the high-speed rail project.

And electric-green rice paddies, a hallmark feature of wet season in Laos.

I’d of course point out all of this to the boys…if they weren’t already passed out.

After three years and countless weekend road trips in Laos, our final Laos road trip for the foreseeable future draws to a close.

September will be devoted to closing out, winding down, and packing up in Vientiane, spending time with friends, and enjoying the drier, sunnier weather that September brings.

In October, we head to Malaysia for a three-week family vacation, followed by one final week back in Laos for a work seminar.

Then, a new chapter begins in Cambodia.

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JANICE M FULLERTON
JANICE M FULLERTON

Love the pictures of your two boys and especially the ones showing Noe in 2016 and now—he has grown so much!! And, David, Riley looks so very much like you!! Thanks for keeping us up wih your travels and your children!!

Gramps
Gramps

Love the photos and seeing the boys, especially at Noe’s early years. What good memory book this will be!