We’ve heard the stories: Vang Vieng used to be awful. Due to the huge boom of the tubing business, it got swarmed by hundreds of backpackers looking for a place to party and quickly became a mess of rude, irresponsible tourists high as a kite on weed, shrooms, alcohol and the YOLO attitude. It wasn’t only harmful for the participants themselves (rumours are different, but most agree that there were multiple deaths each year, since being drunk out of your mind and jumping into a river in a strong sun really don’t go well together), but it also had a big negative impact on the locals (well, no wonder). You can still see the “Tourists go home!” graffiti on the building site in the middle of the city.
After a couple of years, the officials finally caught up with what was going on and shut down most of the riverside bars. According to the people, the party was dead – and the city as well. Some mentioned that it’s still worth visiting because of the stunning nature in the area.
So we decided to give it a go.
It was one of our best decisions so far – the place turned out to be picture-perfect, with a quiet, calm vibe and beautiful sights all around. Even though it did resemble more of a hangover now – some of the bars in the city still tried to save the party by playing ridiculously loud music and keeping the American college style of, well, nearly everything, including persuading people to join what was probably a very unimpressive beerpong game – it was still very pleasant to stroll around, especially by the river, where there were plenty of chilled bars made mostly for sipping a cold drink on a hammock and enjoying the view. But we didn’t come there to spend our entire stay wandering from bar to bar – we came there for the nature, and it quickly made its way to lure us to the beautiful waterfalls, caves and leech-ridden jungles.
On day 1, we had no plan yet. Chatting with our friend in a local cafe / bar / restaurant / pizza place (the name got lost, but it’s easy to spot as the only pizza place on the main draw), we met Chhavi, a guy who spent over 7 weeks in Vang Vieng and invited us on a bike trip to the nearby waterfall. It was early afternoon and we still had no clue what to do, so merely an hour later we found ourselves biking on one of the worst roads we were forced to drive on since we went to SE Asia… but it was well worth it. The Kaeng Yi waterfall is about 20 minutes drive from the center and makes for a great, pretty secluded spot, perfect for jumping in and enjoying the fresh, cold water. If you happen to drop by – don’t forget your swimsuit, but also don’t expect too much – the temperature is so low, that you won’t swim around for long. Afterwards, you can hike around or make your way to the second, smaller fall, a couple of meters to the right.
After a quick shower at home, we were ready to grab a beer in one of the places recommended by our new companion – and while the first one was an overly loud, quite shitty bar & restaurant, the second one was a bullseye. LaLaLand, a relaxed hippie bar was an ideal place to sit back and finally have a conversation without shouting your lungs out. And that wasn’t all – it also had an intriguing “private tours” wall, covered in pictures from different trips. We still hadn’t made a plan for the next day, so we asked about our options and quickly found ourselves booking a “secret waterfall tour”, hoping for some jungle trekking experience.
Next morning, the adventure kicked off. During our short wait in the bar and the bumpy ride to the countryside, we learnt that LaLa, the bar owner and our guide, spent most of his childhood in the jungle and knows it inside-out, sometimes still going there for long retreats, carrying along nothing but himself. This should have set some alarms off, as we still expected a pretty easy day of hiking, but so far, we’ve only seen the pleasantries – we took a tiny boat to get to the other side of the river, been welcomed by a swarm of a hundred butterflies, circling around like a cute, colourful tornado and got followed by a bunch of cows on our way to the hills. The hike, despite the high temperature and humidity, was quite easy, until we faced a wall of greenery.
And then LaLa took out his knife.
While following a freshly-cut path in the jungle still doesn’t sound that dangerous, here’s a quick reminder: we were in a country with millions of unexploded ordnance, randomly scattered around the countryside. We put all our faith in our guide and quickly followed the narrow path, till we saw the small, dark opening of the cave and musty, nearly rotten wooden ladder. The mystery of why we were handed a bunch of bamboo sticks at the very beginning of our trip was solved – operating his knife like a professional sculptor, LaLa quickly prepped them to serve as torches, set them on fire and handed to half of the group. Before we even realised that the bamboo has to be properly cut to actually function in this way, we were already climbing down, minding every step in a faint light. After a couple of meters down and a couple of meters forward in a low corridor, there was another obstacle: the river. Luckily shallow enough to go through without wetting the backpacks, it still required taking off the shoes and immersing in a pitch-dark, slippery pond. A couple of corridors and wet pants later, still in the almost complete darkness, we put our shoes back to start climbing the huge rocks that eventually led us to more falling apart ladders and, finally, the surface.
Shortly after coming up, one guy stopped and looked at his feet. Then, we all saw it – the leeches, making their way up our shoes, ankles and calves, trying to bite into our skin. LaLa wasn’t even surprised. He quickly threw a stick into a tree, causing it to shed some of the orange-like fruits and told us to put the juice all over our legs – as you could already expect, it worked like a charm.
We quickly moved forward, soon reaching a pretty wide mountain river, which we were supposed to climb – going through the water, jumping on the slippery stones in and around it and trying to find a pathway on the shore. This was when our luck ended – nearly halfway through to the main waterfall, Manu slipped (just like we all did by this time, about a hundred times or more) and landed on his foot straining the ankle and almost tearing off his toenail. As everyone was in the front and didn’t notice the accident, we sat on a big rock in the middle of the river, watching the blood drip down his foot and wondering how the rest of the trip will go – and if we can even go anywhere in this state. But soon, fueled by the adrenaline (and a bit of resignation), we still made our way up – limping and slow, but at least we got to the top waterfall.
As soon as LaLa spotted what happened to Manu’s foot, he decided to treat it his own way, and frankly, we had no reasons to oppose. The toe was dipped in a bamboo stick filled with nearly boiling hot water, the wounds sealed up with tobacco, water, and some things that we don’t want to know… and somehow, it all worked enough to get us back, after renewing our energy with a hearty BBQ made out of things we’d never eaten before (and some chicken). There were still a couple of stressful moments on the way home – like the one when all the torches went out in the middle of the cave, but after about 10 minutes of desperate efforts to bring it back, the fire magically appeared and lasted until we made it out.
Still, despite the difficulties, the whole trip has already made it to our favorite days on the road. The repercussions would follow us for many days afterwards, as walking around with a full backpack and a bad ankle is never a good idea, but it was definitely worth all the struggles. As for now, it’s still very hard to top – and we’re already considering coming back and trying ourselves on all the other tours from LaLa.