Hot air ballooning over Vang Vieng

118 days travelling and my wife somehow managed to convince me to get into a hot air balloon.

17th January 2019 (Vang Vieng, Laos)

Having enjoyed our introduction to Laos in the laid back capital of Vientiane, we were excited to explore the next stop on our trip – Vang Vieng. Situated about 150km north of the capital, Vang Vieng has a somewhat dubious past. The town was popular with young backpackers looking to party on the cheap, with the infamous tubing sessions down the river fuelled by drugs and cheap Lao Lao whisky resulting in several tourists deaths over the years. The government stepped in in 2012 after a particularly bad year and closed down the bars that lined the river banks and banned tubing completely.

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Over the past few years, Vang Vieng has been in the process of reinventing itself by capitalising on the gorgeous scenery that surrounds it. While tubing has been slowly reintroduced, we’d heard it’s a far more sedate experience these days, attracting a fraction of the tourists it used to with only a couple bars open along the river. With all this in mind, we weren’t too sure what to expect as we boarded our morning bus to the former party town.

The bus ride itself was bumpy and slow. Roads are poorly maintained throughout Laos and with no train network in the country, taking the roads are one of the few options for getting around. We were on a large coach seating around 35 people which was comfortable enough, although it did end up taking around 2 hours longer than advertised. When in Laos, eh?

The free bamboo bridge to get into town
The free bamboo bridge to get into town

When we finally arrived in Vang Vieng around 3.30pm, we made our way from the bus station on the outskirts of the town to our Airbnb across the river. We were surprised to see how dead the town was, there was barely anyone wandering around the streets and a lot of the restaurants looked closed. It looked like something out of a Western movie and I half expected some tumble weed to roll past down the dirt roads. We were starting to get a bit worried, had Vang Vieng not recovered from the demise of the tubing and party scene?

We continued our way across the river until we reached the restaurant that our Airbnb hosts ran, where they were waiting to greet us. It was owned by a lovely French man and his Laotian wife, who warmly welcomed us to Vang Vieng before their two children led us to our accommodation 10 minutes away. We had chosen to stay slightly out of the main town in one of the local villages. We figured this would be a quieter option and a more authentic experience (little did we know at this stage what was to come).

Our accommodation was a cute little guest house with views of the stunning jagged mountains surrounding Vang Vieng. Anyone who has visited Vang Vieng will surely testify to the beauty of this place and we agreed it is probably the most striking place we have visited on our travels so far (that weren’t obstructed by clouds – we’re looking at you, Nepal). I think we could learn to accept the rather soulless town centre.

The view down the river in Vang Vieng
The view down the river in Vang Vieng

After freshening up and relaxing for half an hour or so, we decided to head out for an early dinner at Earth Cafe on the other side of the river. The walk took us around 30 minutes and we were pleased to see that the other tourists had emerged and the town was pretty busy. We made it to the cafe just in time to see the sun setting behind the mountains from their beer garden. After we had ordered some food (it turned out their gluten free options were pretty limited) I decided to challenge my wife to a quick game of snooker. As I was setting up the balls for the game, I noticed my wife’s face frozen in terror with her eyes fixed just above the top right hand corner of the table.

Sitting in a gigantic web, semi shrouded in darkness was the most enormous spider we had ever seen – even larger than the monster we saw in Goa or the toilet spiders in Nepal. For the entire game, my wife refused to take her eyes off it, lest it leap from its web and decide to make itself at home in her hair instead (her words, not mine). She refused to take any shots from that corner of the table, which worked to my advantage. No surprises then that I ended up winning by a significant margin as she took awkwardly placed and rushed shots to avoid the spider, barely even looking at where she was aiming the ball in her hurry to retreat to what she called the ‘safe side’ of the table.

18th January 2019 (Vang Vieng, Laos)

Today we woke up early to visit the Tham Jang caves, about a 2 km walk from our accommodation. We had heard it was best to visit the caves first thing in the morning, before too many tourists were there. The mornings were nice and cool in Vang Vieng (almost chilly), so it was a comfortable walk to the cave taking in our surroundings. We reached the cave by crossing a bright orange bamboo bridge and climbing a couple of hundred steps to reach the entrance – nothing like a bit of exercise to wake you up in the morning. We had got slightly lost on our way to the caves (thanks a lot Maps.Me) but we were relieved to see there was only one person ahead of us by the time we reached the cave entrance.

Once we were fully inside the caves, it was completely deserted – just what we’d hoped for. The caves are paved all the way through and well lit, so it’s very easy to find your way around. It was a shame that part of the cave was off limits, most likely due to safety concerns. After 10 minutes or so of having the cave to ourselves, the tour groups started to arrive – we’d just got there in the nick of time. We were glad we’d managed to enjoy it alone as it’s incredibly serene and peaceful, which changes rather dramatically once the cave has another 100 people inside it.

The orange bridge to Tham Jang Cave
The orange bridge to Tham Jang Cave

Having explored the cave fully (it wasn’t particularly big), we decided to head back down to the entrance to try and find the hidden blue lagoon. We had read about a small pool near the base of the cave where you could swim in the clear blue waters. After a bit of nosing around, we managed to find a small unassuming pool with a makeshift ladder going down into the water. I think the blogs we had read must have been written when it was the wet season in Laos, as the water level in the pool when we saw it was very low and not exactly the most enticing with all the jagged rocks. We sat by the edge of the pool for a few minutes (the water was still very clear even if there wasn’t much of it) but decided against swimming in it. After a quick breakfast back at our hosts restaurant, we headed back to our accommodation to shower and rest before heading out for lunch.

We decided to head into town to Garys Irish Pub for lunch (my wife had spotted mash on their online menu and insisted we pay them a visit). There’s always an Irish Bar no matter where you are in the world. Our accommodation was about a 25 minute walk from all the main restaurants on the other side of the river and involved two bridge crossings to get there (unless we took the free bridge further up). We weren’t disappointed with the food once we were there, with my wife enjoying her first pie and mash in 4 months and the standard (not so Irish) fried rice for me. I must admit the mash was probably the best we’ve had so far on the trip.

Inside Tham Chang cave
Inside Tham Chang cave

My wife had also somehow convinced me to try a yoga class while we were in Vang Vieng. She had hunted down a relatively relaxing Yin/Restorative yoga class in one of the hotels and managed to eventually talk me into going along with her (it’ll basically be like a long nap, she reassured me). Another key factor that convinced me to go was the fact that the hotel allowed you use of their pool when you booked a yoga class with them. That was me sold. Our afternoon was therefore spent relaxing by the (very cold) pool of the boutique Silver Naga hotel, which had stunning views across the river to the mountains behind. I had almost forgotten that we had to do a yoga class at 5pm as we relaxed in the hammocks with a gentle breeze swinging us back and forth.

The yoga class itself was actually quite enjoyable. There wasn’t as much napping as I had been promised but it was pretty relaxing, apart from trying not to let out any farts near the end of the session. My wife said it was far less strenuous than other yoga classes she had been to before. Considering it was a 90 minute class, it went very quickly and we even met two Norwegian girls who were doing a very similar travel route to us. It was great to swap stories and tips for different places.

That evening we had dinner at the restaurant our airbnb hosts owned. Although it wasn’t the best food we had in Vang Vieng, it was incredibly good value and very convenient. I also discovered that they used rice flour to make their crepes due to growing demand from their French customers, so this became a daily indulgence for me while we were there along with their Lao Lao whiskey cocktail. It was dirt cheap and incredibly strong (straight whiskey in a glass was almost the same price as a can of coke – incredible).

The view from Silver Naga hotel
The view from Silver Naga hotel

Our hosts also warned us that a party would be taking place in the village that night, as a belated funeral celebration of someone who had passed away many years before. Lots of families here do not have enough money for a proper commemoration when the person passes away, so tend to have large parties many years later once they have saved up the money. Typical that we booked accommodation in the village to get away from the noise, but there happened to be a party in the village right across from where we’re staying instead. With our earplugs at the ready, we prepared for a restless night.

19 January 2019 (Vang Vieng, Laos)

My wife had agreed with our Airbnb hosts the night before that she would attend a temple offering with them first thing in the morning. Not too sure what she’d signed herself up for, she managed to drag herself out of bed in time for 7am. The party the night before had continued until 4am, although luckily it was a fairly sedate affair consisting mostly of slow drumming and occasional chanting. I stayed in bed as my wife got herself ready for the temple visit, including traditional clothes loaned to her by our host and preparing a basket of offerings including soft drinks, flowers, sticky rice and a small amount of money. As I stayed in bed for this part of the day, I’ll let my wife describe the ceremony.

I was unsure what on Earth I was meant to do as we got ourselves ready to visit the temple. I had relied on my husband to communicate with our hosts in French, as their English was very broken, so my morning consisted of lots of smiling, nodding and watching my hosts very closely to try and copy what they were doing. Once we were all dressed appropriately with our baskets of offerings completed, we set off on foot to the small temple across the road. I was surprised to see it was actually the same place where the party had taken place the night before, so assumed it was all part of the same ritual. Once we got to the temple, we sat and waited while people got ready for the service. There were several monks sitting in the ceremony area with devotees around them, waiting for the service to start.

After about half an hour, the ceremony started with various prayers and chanting while we sat and watched, nodding and bowing at appropriate times. After this, blessings were placed on our offerings before we lined up in front of the bowls each of the monks had brought with them. We would then walk along the line, depositing our offerings into the bowls. From what I gathered, the food donated by the people who attended the ceremony would be the one meal the monks would get that day. We then had a small ceremony where we poured water into a glass which then had to be poured onto a plant surrounding the temple. After it had all finished, I was really happy to have been invited along to take part in something so special to the local people in the village and it was a really brilliant experience. It was nice to be involved with something that was so authentic and not another tourist trap.

The incredible view made up for the bumpy ride
The incredible view made up for the bumpy ride

Once my wife was back from the temple, we had a quick breakfast at our hosts restaurant before heading along the road to find a tuk tuk. We decided that we wanted to visit one of the famous blue lagoons found around Vang Vieng and had heard that blue lagoon 3 was the best one to visit. It was the furthest out of town, so was likely to be the least crowded. After 15 minutes or so we managed to find a man, who was an absolute comedian, who was willing to take us on the hour long trip to the lagoon and we headed off along the bumpy roads.

As the temple offering had taken slightly longer than we’d anticipated, we didn’t reach the lagoon until late morning. This meant we didn’t have the place entirely to ourselves, although it was still far quieter than I imagined the other lagoons would be. There were a few make shift zip lines and swings over the water, as well as a couple of bamboo rafts. Although the lagoon wasn’t massive, it was definitely blue with some pretty stunning surroundings (my camera and the harsh lighting don’t do it justice). My wife decided not to get in the lagoon, but I had a go on one of the precarious zip lines and relaxed on a bamboo raft – it was cold. After about an hour, we decided to head off and we noticed lots of people beginning to arrive – we must have just been ahead of most of the people coming out to spend the afternoon relaxing there.

The beautiful setting of Blue Lagoon 3
The beautiful setting of Blue Lagoon 3

On the way to the lagoon, my wife had spotted a sign for Nam Xay viewpoint that we wanted to hike to later that day. Rather than going back to town and then paying for another tuk tuk out to the viewpoint, it made sense to do the hike on our way back from the lagoon. Unfortunately, we hadn’t planned it this way so my wife was left to hike in sandals and a dress. The route up to the viewpoint was pretty sketchy, with mostly no steps and the occasional rock to scramble over. For the last few minutes of the climb we were going over jagged sharp rocks, crawling on all fours in order to get to the top safely.

Once we reached the viewpoint, we knew it had all been worth it. We were greeted with 360 panoramic views over the surrounding countryside which were simply breathtaking. A few strategically placed platforms allowed us to get those all important shots, before we started our (very slow) descent back to our tuk tuk. Nam Xay viewpoint is one of the less well known hikes in Vang Vieng, so we basically had the viewpoint to ourselves once we reached the top. It was definitely a highlight for us and we were so happy to finally have a view not obscured by clouds or rain.

The incredible Nam Xay viewpoint
The incredible Nam Xay viewpoint

By the time we got back into town in was gone 2pm and we were completely starving. My wife managed to talk me into returning to Gary’s Irish Pub for lunch, before we headed back to our guest house to relax for the rest of the afternoon. That was the plan anyway. As we walked back into the village, we quickly realised that the party had not ended this morning with the temple offering. It had now ramped up several gears and a lively karaoke party was taking place at full volume. Laughing at everyone bobbing away to the songs in unison, we made it back to our accommodation and closed the bedroom door.

That’s when we realised exactly how thin our accommodation walls are. It felt like the karaoke was in the room with us, it was so loud. After an hour or so, it ended up forcing us back out of our room into town as we were getting a bit of a headache from the constant thumping and slightly off key singing. We managed to hide out at the hosts restaurant and were relived when the karaoke party finally stopped around 9pm. They sure know how to celebrate here and they love their ridiculously loud music.

20th January 2019 (Vang Vieng, Laos)

Our final day in Vang Vieng started bright and early, as we had decided to book ourselves a sunrise hot air balloon trip. Vang Vieng provides the cheapest hot air ballooning in the world (approx £140 for the two of us). We had been looking at doing hot air balloon rides elsewhere for about £200 each, so this was a complete bargain. Setting off at 5.30am, we were picked up by a tuk tuk driver and were joined by about 10 other people from various hotels around the town. We then drove around 10 minutes out of town to where the hot air balloons would take off from that morning. Another group were already waiting there and we could see there would be two balloons this morning.

The sun rise high above Vang Vieng
The sun rise high above Vang Vieng

One of the men quickly split us into two groups and we were instructed to go and stand by the first hot air balloon. They then began the process of inflating the balloons, blowing huge fans into the opening and then jets of fire as it started to inflate. We were glad to see that there were no patches sewn onto the balloon (it was rather cheap after all). They require so much space to be set up, as the balloon has to lie down on the ground next to the basket. It was quite incredible to see it inflate right next to us, we didn’t realise quite how enormous they would be.

Once the balloon was ready to go and with no safety instructions whatsoever (welcome to Asia), we were told to get into the balloon. Doing as we were told, we all scrambled inside and it wasn’t long before we were soaring up into the air. It was a remarkably calm experience and except for the occasional jet of fire to keep the balloon in the air, it was completely silent and still once we were up there. Considering how much I hate heights, I felt incredibly relaxed and unfazed. It was an amazing way to take in the surrounding countryside and to appreciate Vang Vieng in all its beauty. We even managed to see the sun rising over the tops of the mountains, casting rays of sunlight into the town below.

Overlooking Vang Vieng from our hot air balloon
Overlooking Vang Vieng from our hot air balloon

After around 30 minutes floating above the town, we started to make our descent. Another thing we hadn’t quite realised before we got in the balloon is that hot air balloons cannot be steered (seems obvious now). This proved a bit of a problem for our pilot that day, as he struggled to find somewhere he could land safely. This meant we spent a good 20 minutes floating very close above the town while the ground staff raced around in cars underneath us, trying to get ahead of us to help us land. At one point I thought we were going to land in the river, as our pilot swooped right down almost within touching distance of the water only to swoop back up again at the last second. It was definitely fun watching all these people running out of their hotels to watch us drift by so closely – often within metres. Eventually we managed to find a relatively empty field (apart from a few startled cows) and made it safely back to solid ground. That was after hitting a tree on our final descent. It was a truly incredible experience which we are so glad to have done while we were in Laos.

After the excitement of the hot air balloon ride that morning, we went for lunch at a popular Thai restaurant called Happy Mango. We were happy to be reunited with one of our favourites cuisines and it made a nice change from crepes, mashed potato and croque monsueirs (they became a staple for my wife in our hosts restaurant). The rest of the day was spent relaxing around our accommodation (finally now the party had stopped) and we made a visit to the night market that evening to have a quick look at the local wares – although I found it rather underwhelming. We also tried one of the local street foods called coconut cookies, which are made from taro, pumpkin and spring onions and have a slightly running consistency – a bit like a dumpling. My wife wasn’t too keen but I was just happy that there was some street food I could actually eat. They didn’t taste too bad either once you got used to it.

Our impromptu landing spot
Our impromptu landing spot

Our time in Vang Vieng had come to an end and we had again been pleasantly surprised by this little slice of paradise in the countryside of Laos. We really hope it continues to focus on the new wave of tourists that are coming in from Korea and China, who are more eager to do the outdoor activities which have been neglected around here for so long.

Until next time.

P.S. My wife keeps threatening to sign us up for more yoga sessions in Bali – I’m not quite convinced.

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