Butterflies, Lagoons and Magic in Vang Vieng, Laos

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Located roughly halfway between the city of Luang Prabang in the north and Lao capital Vientiane to the south, Vang Vieng is a town so small it doesn’t appear on most maps. In spite of its local population hovering below 25,000, Vang Vieng has become a tourist hotspot, thanks to its setting among the serene mountains and rice fields of central Laos and the eponymous river than runs through it. Whether you come to tube the river, explore the surrounding countryside by bike or simply to relax amid its surrounding nothingness, Vang Vieng is a positively magical place to stop for a few days.


Vang Vieng’s main road is so sleep you’d barely know a town was there at all.

I would venture to say that the majority of tourists come to Vang Vieng via Luang Prabang, the largest city in the northern part of Laos, although I did meet a few who came from the national capital of Vientiane, located about five hours to the south. No matter where you start your journey, you’ll come to Vang Vieng in a van or minibus.

Rather than going through a tour company — and paying its premium price — I suggest you walk or take a taxi or tuk-tuk from your lodging in your origin city to its main bus terminal and ask for a spot on the next van to Vang Vieng. My friends Amber, Kale and I made the mistake of booking our tickets to Vang Vieng through an agency near our hotel in Luang Prabang. Although we were promised an immediate, on-time departure, we were made to wait for other travelers to join our van, many of whom walked in to the station and paid a lower fare than we had.

Vang Vieng’s surroundings are abjectly rural.

As is the case wherever you go in Laos, prices are always relatively low, but it’s important to make sure you’re getting a fair one in order to prevent losing a sizable chunk of change in the long run. Whether you begin your journey in Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng, don’t agree pay more than 80,000 kip for a one-way ride to Vang Vieng, keeping in mind the approximate exchange rate of 8,000 LAK per 1 USD.

There is only one arrival point in Vang Vieng, the town’s “new” bus station located less than a mile north of its center. When you disembark, turn left out of the station and walk until you come across the town center, which is relatively conspicuous, if only for the abject nothingness that surrounds it on all sides. Take a tuk-tuk or taxi only if you have a lot of luggage — drivers will attempt to charge you between 5,000 and 10,000 kip per person, an expensive rate for traveling such a short distance in a country like Laos.


If “tourist town” had an entry in any dictionary, a picture of Vang Vieng’s main street would surely originate next to it. The town is quite literally optimized for tourists, with literally dozens of hotels, guest houses and other accommodations available within the few square miles it occupies.

Traditional food is available all over Vang Vieng.

Amber, Kale and I stayed our first few nights in a nondescript but cute-looking place right along the river, but regretted it almost immediately, waking up the next morning literally blanketed in mosquito bites. The next night we moved to Pan’s Place, a social, popular guest house with Wi-Fi, a cafe and convenient services like bike rental and tour arrangements.

Food — and mostly good food at that — is even easier to come by in Vang Vieng. Laos’ french colonial heritage looms large over Vang Vieng, with delicious baguette sandwiches ans crepes, both savory and sweet, dominating the food cart scene. In addition to tasting amazing and being filling, these delights are extremely cheap, usually under 10,000 kip each.

“Traditional” drink, too.

As is the case in Luang Prabang, stalls offering blended fruit shakes (with or without cream) line all of the town’s roads, allowing you to choose a combination of dozens of fruits — including my personal favorite, Laos’ hot-pink variety of dragon fruit — and have it transformed into a frozen delight before your eyes. Like the rest of the food you get from carts and kiosks, these fruit shakes are cheap, running about 5,000 kip each.

If you’re feeling fancier, stop in at any of the actual restaurants that populate Vang Vieng, whether for local Lao or not-as-local Thai cuisine, or foreign food that ranges from American hamburgers and french fries to Middle Eastern falafel and hummus.


Vang Vieng is set amid what I consider to be among the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever laid eyes upon, so it came as no surprise to me that the vast majority of things to do there revolved around nature. Perhaps the most popular is tubing the river of the same name, and activity which usually involves copious amounts of drinking.

Don’t expect to find yourself alone on the road to Poukham Cave.

Three notes of caution: (1) Don’t lose your tube, as doing so prevents you from receiving your 50,000 kip deposit back (2) Don’t drink too much – literally dozens of inebriated tourists drown while tubing every year and (3) If someone warns you about pink eye, heed it — I met more than a few unwitting Westerners who feel victim to the nasty and apparently waterborne infection.

If you survive tubing — and you more than likely will, contrary to my warnings — the next step is to explore the countryside that surrounds Vang Vieng on all sides. The best means of doing this is by renting a bike, which you can do at almost any hostel or guest house. Don’t expect a nice or even comfortable bike, but don’t feel shy to ask for a different one if yours doesn’t ride at all.

My personal favorite of the natural wonders adjacent to Vang Vieng was the Poukham Cave located about 10 km to the west. Colloquially known as the “Blue Lagoon” in spite of noticeable absence of Brooke Shields, the crystal-clear, turquoise-tinted water backs up to a cave that was far too slippery and dark for me to explore much. Thankfully, a huge tree hang overs the deepest part of the lagoon, which is deep enough that you can jump or dive off its highest branch without the worry of dying.

Live, from the Blue Lagoon.

Ever seen my crazy “buttery landing on a dog and opening its wings exactly at the moment the dog opens its eyes and looks up” photo? That was taken here (read the story here)! To say this lagoon is magical is a pretty serious understatement.

The ride to the Lagoon, which requires you to cross over the river and head due West until you reach the end of the road, passes through rice paddies and provides you incredible views of mountains, animals of both the wild and farming variety and a number of other blue-looking, lagoon-looking bodies of water you shouldn’t mistake as being the one you’re looking for. You’ll know you’ve reached your destination when someone asks you for 15,000 kip in order to cross a bridge.


Don’t buy drugs in Vang Vieng, especially not from strangers.

Although drinking is perfectly legal in Laos, drugs are highly illegal — and if you’re found with large enough quantities on your person, you could technically face execution. Not surprisingly, drugs (namely, marijuana and magic mushrooms) still run rampant in Vang Vieng. Some bars even sell them, in fact, albeit majorly on the DL.

If you do want to do drugs while you’re there — and believe me, I did — I suggest you congregate with others who’ve purchased them and partake in drugs as they’re passed around, whether in the form of a joint or one of the food items that can be made in mushrooms. This doesn’t have to be a mooch-y affair — after the drugs were gone, I passed the random British tourists I smoked with a few thousand kip — but it rather prevents you from being caught with anything in your possession.

Cowardly? Maybe. But I don’t think I’d feel like much of a rebel if I were facing execution.


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