Vang Vieng is situated in an idyllic location. Fringed by soaring limestone cliffs and perched on the banks of the Nam Song river, buffalo wander freely through the lush fields and rice paddies, the silence only occasionally broken by the mellow sounding of a gong from the local Wat. Now well and truly established on the backpacker trail and situated approximately halfway between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the main street of this small town has unfortunately been transformed into a minature version of Bangkok's Khao San Road - An unfortunate side effect of the increased tourism of recent years. If the florescent lights weren't bad enough, at least five restaurants, each adjacent to the next, compete for customers by showing DVD's of the TV show "Friends" continuously on their TV's. The only thing funnier than the amazing volume at which the TV's are played is the sight of so many western tourists sitting motionless in silence, transfixed and enthralled by the seemingly trance-inducing qualities of Monica, Joey et al. The tourism is no doubt valuable to this small town and the effects to date seem limited to this one street. Luckily, for those of us not interested in coming half-way around the world to watch television, the beautiful countryside remains pristine.
The day after we arrived, Andrea and I hired a tuk-tuk to take us to see some caves approximately 13km north of Vang Vieng. Dropped off by the river, we crossed a rickety bamboo bridge, paying a toll to the gatekeeper on the way over. The subsequent walk through rice paddies and banana trees was stunning, with beautiful scenery on every side. However, as it was approaching mid-day, we were grateful for the cool air and shade provided by Tham Hoi, the first cave we reached. Although the cave reportedly winds under the towering cliffs for 3km, the dark albeit cool passage was no match for the views outside and after photographing the giant Buddha protecting the cave entrance and making an offering of one Frangiapani flower, we moved on to Tham Loup and finally Tham Nam. This final cave is flooded and so you navigate your way inside using a headlamp and pulling yourself along a fixed line while floating on the inflated tractor innertube provided! Once again, dark cave walls failed to match the views outside and so we returned to the sunlight and made our way through the fields back to the waiting tuk-tuk.
After a quick lunch our afternoon was filled by Vang Vieng's most popular activity, "Tubing". As the name suggests, this involves floating down the Nam Song river on the now familiar inflated tractor innertube. Great fun, although the pace of the water was pedestrian at best, very slack at worst, and it took over 3 hours to return the 3km back downstream and into town. Luckily we had ample refreshment along the way, courtesy of the numerous riverside "bars" dotted along the river banks. Most of these consisted of a man with an icebox and a hand-written sign although some had music playing or had even rigged up a rope-swing to lure the customers off of the water. The shouts of "BeerLao" were frequent and at times welcome as we stopped to quench our thirst or to take a bottle "to go" after they threw out a bamboo hook to pull the innertube towards the shore!
We returned to town after the sun had dropped below the cliffs and reflected on what had been a memorable day. However, given the entire "scene" - including the sale of opium and other mind altering substances - we tried to avoid going into town after dark and instead we filled our evenings sitting on our porch at the Riverside Bungalows enjoying the views and the stunning sunsets... Our only reminder that we were not out in the untouched wilderness came during a very sound sleep when we would be awoken by high levels of bass as many of the riverside bars blasted music until all hours of the evening in spite of having no patrons! Our last night was particularly special as we could hear the rats "frolicking" above our heads in the roof of our bungalow! However, given the walls were bamboo - we could have had much worse!! The next stop is Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Another 3hr minibus ride to look forward to!