Vang Vieng, Laos has one of the most spectacular settings in South East Asia. The town hugs the banks of the Nam Song, a river which cuts through the limestone landscape to form the iconic karsts. It’s the perfect place to go for adrenaline activities — most famously, tubing down the river. But the tubing culture has a dark side, as many travelers have gotten seriously injured or killed due to the proliferation of drugs and abuse of alcohol. So if you want to experience the river without the party culture, a Vang Vieng kayaking tour is a better bet.
Kayaking in Vang Vieng means you don’t miss out on any of the spectacular scenery. But your group is likely to be a bit more…mature? As an added bonus, you get to go tubing in a river that cuts through one of the caves outside of town.
It’s a fantastic day trip that will make you feel like you’re in an Indiana Jones movie. Ready to learn more? Read on for all the details!
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The transformation of Vang Vieng and what to expect today
You can’t deny that Vang Vieng has a special vibe that justifiably draws in travelers. Sadly, the town has a dark history that it is only now beginning to recover from.
Vang Vieng: The party capital of Southeast Asia
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, Vang Vieng was one of the most infamous corners of Southeast Asia. It all started with the Organic Mulberry Farm outside of town, which recruited Western volunteers to help harvest crops. During the heat of the day, they gave the volunteers tractor tires to float around on the river to cool down. Gradually, “tubing,” as it is now called, caught on.
So as backpackers flocked to Vang Vieng to tube down the river, a few traveler cafes cropped up. Bars followed. For some reason, locals figured out that falung (Western) backpackers just love the TV show Friends, so all the restaurants and bars began broadcasting it 24/7.
What could have been a great hippie hangout slowly morphed into something more extreme. Restaurants started selling “happy” pizza and opium tea. This quickly escalated to methamphetamine, magic mushrooms and heroin.
Now, drugs being widely available is dangerous enough as it is. But imagine the toxic combination of rampant drug use, excessive drinking, and tubing down the river. What’s worse, the bars along the river set up extremely dangerous rope swings in places where the river was nowhere near deep enough — and then let drunk/stoned/high tourists use them.
Not shockingly, this led to alarmingly high numbers of tourist deaths and serious injuries. In a single year, 27 backpackers died and as many as 10 people showed up at the local hospital every single day with tubing- and drug-related illnesses and injuries. (It’s really worth reading that linked Guardian article in full. It’s horrifying.)
I visited Vang Vieng right around when that article was written, and I can attest that it was one of the most disgusting places I’d ever seen. 19-year-old backpackers were strewn about in cafes playing endless loops of Friends, unable to stand because they were so wasted or injured. Unlike everywhere else in Laos — arguably Southeast Asia’s friendliest country — the locals seemed completely burned out from bad tourist behavior. And when I checked into my guesthouse, the owner gave me a full binder with all the details of where and how to buy opium and magic mushrooms. (For the record, I was so revolted by the scene that I didn’t even buy a single Beer Lao in the three days I was there.) It was clear that this situation was unsustainable — something had to change.
The crackdown and transformation
So why am I recommending that you do a Vang Vieng kayaking tour today? Because luckily, in 2012, the Lao government stepped in to dramatically clean up the town.
Authorities shut down all of the riverside venues for a short period — and permanently shuttered the rope swings and ziplines. They ramped up enforcement of drug laws. They started checking business licenses to ensure that only people who had legally applied were operating restaurants.
Eventually, some of the riverside bars reopened and the tubing course came back to life. But today it’s significantly less over-the-top than it once was. Traveler injuries and deaths have dramatically declined. If you try to buy opium or heroin today, you’re more likely to be involved in a police sting than to actually get your hands on any drugs.
The party scene still exists on the fringes — if you really want to get high, you can still find someone to sell you a “Happy Shake” — but for the most part the town has transformed into more of an adrenaline-sport capital. The guesthouses aim to attract older and more mid-range travelers, and amenities have sprung up to accommodate them. You can actually get some peace and quiet away from the 24/7 party barges.
Vang Vieng is finally living up to its full potential as one of the most scenic and exciting destinations in Laos. While I would have certainly recommended avoiding it back in 2012, today it’s an unmissable stop on your itinerary.
Why you should take a Vang Vieng kayaking and caving tour
Vang Vieng has three remarkable natural features. First, it has the river itself. Second, it’s surrounded by dense jungle on all sides. Finally, further up the river, you’ll find the typical limestone karsts that are so prevalent in Laos but totally unique in the rest of the world.
The best way to experience all three is with a combination kayaking/caving tour. You’ll spend the morning caving — or, really, tubing through the river in a cave. You’ll get to swim a bit and have a picnic lunch, and perhaps visit a rural temple. Then, the afternoon involves kayaking all the way back to central Vang Vieng, through a couple Class II whitewater rapids.
A kayak is truly the best way to experience this part of the river. You’ll be in the same general area as the tubers, but since you’ll be with a guide, you’ll get to explore some small tributaries that the tubers don’t know about. Additionally, it’s more active than tubing — it’s actually a remarkably good workout for your shoulders and back. You’ll still get to stop at a bar, but it’s more like a “have a beer and chill by the river” experience than a “get wasted and hope you make it back” experience.
What’s more, if you’re a solo traveler, you’ll have a guaranteed group of like-minded people traveling with you. If you just go tubing on your own, you might mostly meet people looking for the party scene.
Morning: The Tubing Cave and the Elephant Cave
Your Vang Vieng kayaking tour begins around 9 am. You’ll leave town in a sorngthaew — the typical Lao transport of a pickup truck with wooden benches in the back. The drive to the caves is about 20 km on dirt roads, and takes about half an hour.
When you arrive at the first of the Vang Vieng caves — known as the Tubing Cave — you’ll change into your swimsuit, put your belongings in a dry bag, and receive a flashlight and an inner tube. Triple-check to make sure your tube is inflated and your flashlight has enough battery life. (If it’s dim, ask for a different one.)
Then, you’ll hop into the river and proceed behind your guide into the cave.
As soon as you get into the cave mouth, you’ll be completely surrounded by darkness. You’ll hear bats chirping above you but you won’t be able to see more than a few feet in front. A rope in the water guides your path.
After about one and a half kilometers, you’ll reach the end of the rope and your guide will tell you to paddle. The last 400 meters are in total darkness, without the rope. You may even get to turn off your flashlight and let your eyes adjust to the dark so you can see the spectacular rock formations inside.
When you come back out, you’ll have some time to paddle around in the river at the cave mouth. Then you’ll dry off and do a quick hike through beautiful rice paddies to reach the Elephant Cave. This cave is important to local legend, and contains the mystical Elephant Stone.
By the time you finish your hike, a barbecue lunch will be waiting for you. Then, it’s off to go kayaking!
Afternoon: Kayaking Vang Vieng
After a quick drive to the Nam Song river, you’ll team up with a kayaking buddy for the second part of the Vang Vieng kayaking tour. You’ll get a brief safety lesson on how to use the kayaks, how to paddle, etc. And you’ll get a life vest, which you must wear the entire time.
You’ll put the boats in the river and paddle around for a bit. The scenery all around is simply spectacular. Enormous limestone karsts rise above the rice paddies. You’ll float past little villages with women hanging out laundry and kids jumping into the water.
Eventually, you’ll reach some easy Class II rapids. Even if you’ve never kayaked in whitewater before, don’t worry — you don’t need any prior experience and there aren’t any hidden rocks. You just might end up crashing into a tree on the riverbank if you’re not a great steer-er!
After about 90 minutes, you’ll start to see the tubers join you on the river. You’ll continue alongside them for another 90 minutes, with even more beautiful scenery, and a quick stop at a river bar along the way.
In total, the kayaking part takes about 3 hours — your arms and back will be plenty sore by the end — and you’ll finish by 5 pm in central Vang Vieng.
How to book your Vang Vieng kayaking and caving tour
Kayaking is growing in popularity in Vang Vieng, so you’ll have no trouble finding a tour operator to take you. Simply visit a few of the tour shops the day before you want to go.
I went with VLT Tours and would highly recommend them. The guide was very competent and friendly, and my group only had four people in it. They also sent a safety kayaker just in case someone got nervous on the river. Green Discovery Vang Vieng is another very popular outfit.
Prices start at about $15 for a full-day tour. Some of the better operators charge more in the $20-$25 range.
If you just want to do the caving portion of this trip, you can do it independently without a guide. Rent a motorbike to reach the cave, or you can take an occasional sorngthaew. Follow the directions under “The Tham Sang Triangle” here.
How to get to Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is conveniently located halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. It makes a great stopover to break up a long bus trip. Unfortunately, many of the access roads are either still unpaved or under construction — so it can make for a brutal travel day.
From Luang Prabang to Vientiane, your best bet is one of the minibuses (110,000 kip). They leave between 9-10 am and 1-2 pm. These take about six hours and are far more comfortable than the bigger buses.
Minibuses also run hourly to Vientiane, or take the more occasional public or VIP buses. They cost 40-60,000 kip and take 3-4 hours. The minibuses are fastest, but also the most expensive.
Despite its less-than-appealing history, Vang Vieng today is one of the most exciting destinations in Laos. A Vang Vieng kayaking tour is a low-key way to get into the countryside and enjoy the scenery — no magic mushrooms required. Don’t miss it while backpacking around Southeast Asia!
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