Vang Vieng, Laos – Getting Its Groove Back

Luggage

Part of the allure of travel is losing yourself, both literally and figuratively.

Who of us hasn’t relished the challenge of driving on the wrong side of the street or getting hopelessly lost in a market with mental directions like, “Turn left at the spice shop with an old lady wearing a blue shawl”, or getting sent on a wild goose chase by Google Maps where it actually took four times as long to walk somewhere?

Vang Vieng - Wooden Bridge

Equally charming is losing some inhibitions when you travel. After all, you’re in a strange place, around strange people, put in strange situations. I’m assuming whatever it is that happens in Vegas (and staying in Vegas) isn’t referring to scrapbooking or competitive yodeling. Some people might lean towards more self-destructive behavior when they’re liberated from the confines of their cubicle. Others simply stop shaving or showering or whatever annoying routine they have to deal with in “real” life. There’s a reason characters like Mr. Ripley, Stella and Liz Gilbert and movies like “The Beach” resonate with people. We inevitably use our holidays to shed baggage that we’ve spent 50 weeks lugging around.

My travel confession is that I always make one splurge purchase in every new country I visit. It has to be something evocative of the trip, something that will provoke a visceral reaction in me long after I get back and the photos have been passed around and the tan has faded and I start forgetting the names of those places I vowed I’d never forget.

And then it happens.

I’ll look down at the rug that I walk on a hundred times a week without noticing and suddenly remember that time I bargained for two hours with an old Nepalese rug dealer over a cup of apple tea. Or the pencil cup that I reach in 10 times a day but something makes me stop and pick it up to smell the fading scent of the Balinese cinnamon embedded in the design. Sometimes I’ll absentmindedly finger the small malachite box that holds my paper clips and rubber bands that I got in a Parisian flea market almost 20 years ago.

China Bust

These tangible holiday reminders don’t necessarily have to be expensive. There was that small shop in Beijing with an old man making clay busts of people as they waited. “What a unique momento,” I thought to myself. Now, it hardly matters that the bust only vaguely looks like me, and only then from a very specific angle, or that guests ask me why I have a bust of Chairman Mao on my bookshelf. After all, it’s not for them. It’s for me. When I’m by myself watching TV or listening to music and happen to glance at it, memories of Peking duck and hutongs and walking along The Wall come flooding back to me.

Sometimes it may be a financially irresponsible buy. Like that time I saw a beautiful hand-hammered silver and gold ring in a tiny workshop in Athens that looked like it was dug up from the sands of the Coliseum. I scoffed at the 300 Euro price tag. Conditioned from years of living in Asia to break jewelry down to only the value of its parts, this mostly-silver ring was worth USD 100 at best.

It nagged me for the rest of the trip.

Obsessed, possessed, I searched for something similar in every subsequent country I went to on that trip, working through markets at a feverish pace in Florence, Rome and Paris, buying inferior impostors and immediately hating them, ruing my lost opportunity to buy an overpriced but now irrationally needed hunk of metal.*

Yes, we’re all about excess, romance, idiocy and serendipity when we travel. That’s why I was intrigued to visit Vang Vieng, Laos for the first time.

Vang Vieng - Nature

A nothing, blip of a town three hours north of Vientiane on the way to Luang Prabang, Vientiane had over the years developed a hedonistic reputation for being Party Central of Southeast Asia. A long, lazy river + inner tubes + drinks served in buckets (Lao-Lao, Laotian rice whiskey is 45% alcohol) was a winning formula for massive crowds of young revelers wanting to let loose, outnumbering the townspeople 15 to 1. It was also the cause of 20 deaths per year, reaching a peak of 27 in 2011, with countless more injuries (reportedly 5-10 hospital cases a day) from zip lines, death slides or simply jumping headfirst onto rocks. In September 2012, the government stepped in and closed down the ramshackle bars along the tubing route and relegated water activities to daylight hours only.

By the time we arrived, things were very sedate. Local businesses were shifting their attention to promoting more nature-based activities, like hiking, caving and kayaking on the gorgeous and lazy Nam Song River past limestone mountains. Even restaurants in town had the music turned way down, to almost tepid levels. Wanting a bit of refreshment, we hired a tuk-tuk and crossed the wooden bridge towards the Blue Lagoon. I had an “Icarus” moment on seeing how electric, almost glowing, blue the swimming spot really was, thanks to a strange combination of minerals in the water. The nearby Organic Farm also came highly recommended for my next visit.

Vang Vieng - Blue Lagoon

What does the future hold for Vang Vieng? Lao forums are filled with antsy backpackers asking when things will go back to “normal”. But maybe they never will. While that’s bad news for local businesses in the short term, most seem to be relieved that the party’s finally over.

Vang Vieng - Riverside Boutique - Pool

While in Vang Vieng, I was a guest at the gorgeous Riverside Boutique Resort. Newly opened in July 2012 with only 34 rooms built around possibly the most scenic swimming pool I’ve ever seen overlooking the Nam Song River and directly in front of the Phou Si mountains, Riverside apparently knew something that no one else knew, setting itself up as the only luxury hotel in town while the majority of rooms were squarely in the backpacker / guesthouse realm.

Vang Vieng - Riverside Boutique Hotel

Rooms are decorated using fabrics inspired by eight ethnic groups, and the buffet breakfast with panoramic views is stunning. Riverview doubles start at USD 102.

* Unbelievably, more than a month later, I saw that very same ring in a Neiman Marcus in Hawaii, of all places. How they carried jewelry from a tiny Greek designer is anyone’s guess, but I took that to mean that I was meant to have it. Yes, I paid an exorbitant amount for it, but it remains one of my favorite pieces, calling to mind a sad day in Athens that eventually came full circle.

Your turn to confess. What do you do when you travel that you don’t do at home?

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17 thoughts on “Vang Vieng, Laos – Getting Its Groove Back

  1. [email protected]

    Sooo glad you eventually (albeit at no doubt of an even higher gouge than the original 300 Euros) snagged that ring. I too, have learned not to pass up a trinket along the trail that seriously catches my fancy – no matter the expense, the budget be damned!

    Case in point: I dragged “home” a no small felt rug from Mongolia – hand made (even the felt!) by the very lass who’s ger I slept in – the sister-in-law of the Eagle Hunter’s wife. Furthermore, it’s NEON pink and ORANGE of all colors. Not exactly the most understated decor statement. What was I thinking?

    I say dragged “home” ‘cuz as one who dumped all her worldly possessions to move to a rice paddy in Vietnam, clearly a 3′ x 5’ felt rugs in neon juicy-fruit colors isn’t the most prudent “souvenir”.

    Still… I can’t help but smile, every time my toes step upon it here in my bitty apartment in Dalat.

    P.S. I think the “Mao” statue is to-die-for. And I disagree that it doesn’t resemble you. Just perhaps a bit younger, more elfin-ish you. 😉
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    1. James Post author

      I want to see this magic carpet! It sounds awesome.

      And ever since I saw the Lord of the Rings, I’ve always wanted to be an elf!

      Reply
  2. Jackie

    Wow, now I’m more determined than ever to go to Laos. Your picture of the Blue Lagoon looked photoshopped, the colour is so vivid. Thank you for opening our eyes to a place we had not yet heard about, Vang Vieng. It reminds me of the colour of Moraine Lake near Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada.

    And what I do when travelling, that I don’t do at home: shed my “budget conscious, always must save money” inhibitions, and spend, spend , spend.

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      “Spend, spend, spend” – a girl after my own heart!

      Yeah, I was surprised at the color of the water as well. But when I saw something similar in Luang Prabang, I realized that it must not be that uncommon. (Just uncommon to me!) Photos I’ve seen of Moraine Lake look amazing as well. What an awesome planet we live on!

      Reply
  3. cosmoHallitan

    We also try to bring home one nice piece to remind us of our trip. We have a stone sailboat from Greece, a carved aspara head from Cambodia, gorgeous Japanese and Portuguese pottery and miniature terracotta warriors from Xi’an. I’ve also bought two pairs of Miao bound-foot shoes, a beer stein from the Czech Republic and a celadon elephant from Thailand. I love walking by our bookshelves!
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  4. Helen

    I too like to buy something special to remind me of the trip. Usually, I do not throw the budget out the window. However, on a trip to Mumbai I misunderstood the price of tapestry carpets, so said oh, sure, I’ll take both of them. When the bill was rung up, there was an extra “0” at the end! I bought them anyway and I walk on the most expensive rugs everyday! They are gorgeous! I have to mention that the salesman was extremely charming!
    I also think that the Beijing statue resembles you 😉

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Whoa. Those must have been some amazing carpets if you were willing to pay 10 times as much as you thought they cost! Or maybe you just have really deep pockets! (Or really like rugs!) I was recently in a Korean tupperware store and found this awesome container in the discount section. The sign said they were marked down to USD 6. I was going to buy one for everyone I knew, they were that nice. When I went to rang them up, they came up as $5 more. The clerk said the sign was wrong. I sadly put them all back.

      Reply
    1. James Post author

      Hi, JR. I think it’s now a great spot to spend some nature-based downtime. I could’ve lazed by that pool for at least a couple more days!

      Reply
  5. Sarah Somewhere

    Loved this post James! I can completely identify with the travel trinkets – they were the only things I kept when I got rid of my possessions to travel. A painting from Egypt, ceramic bowl from Morocco and an antique (maybe) quilt from Turkey, all very special things to me with precious stories. I’m glad VV is on the mend, such a beautiful place and I’m so glad to hear the tourism there is taking on a more ‘eco’ and people friendly feel. Did you try the goat’s cheese from the organic cafe? To die for! That pool is amazing…
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    1. James Post author

      Your collection sounds amazing. For me, it’s not the value of the item per se, but it’s the memories they bring back. And I’ll be remembering that pool for a long, long time!

      Reply
  6. Jura Cullen

    Love your blog! Completely agree about picking up things (even if a little expensive or ridiculously heavy – a raindrum we bought in Laos….) while traveling. Glad to see Vang Vieng is changing – people watching friends on repeat while moderately drugged up was pretty sad when one is surrounded by such stunning scenery!
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