Laos town known for drunkenness and tourist demises cleans up its act

The town of Vang Vieng in Laos was once synonymous with backpacker excess, but now offers escapade activities that stimulate the most of its stunning location

I want us to preserve the mountains of Vang Vieng, the river and the culture for the future, Thanongsi Solangkoun told me as I sipped mulberry wine at his organic eatery on the Nam Song river in Laos.

Thanongsi, affectionately known as Mr T, makes some three tonnes of mulberries every year, 80 litres of goats milk a week, plus avocados, papayas and mangoes at his organic Lao Farm( dorm beds from 3, private rooms and mud shanties from 13 ), 2 miles north of Vang Vieng town. He also operates a restaurant, a guesthouse, a cooking school, a volunteer program, and a local educational project on the farm.

But when he set up the project in 1996, after quitting his government forestry task, he unwittingly launched a trend that would earn Vang Vieng a higgledy-piggledy township on the pea-green river with a background of rising limestone mountains a reputation as one of the worlds most unlikely, and dangerous, party towns.

After a days work on the farm, Mr Ts volunteers would relax in the Nam Song river employing the tractor-tyre inner tubes he provided. Over the years, the pastime of tubing down the river was transformed into a drunken float, with backpackers devouring buckets of cheap alcohol from the dozens of bars that set up on the river banks, messing about on bamboo swingings, and sliding down slides into the river.

Footbridge
Footbridge over the Nam Song river at Vang Vieng. Photo: Nick Rains/ Getty Images

Afterwards, young woman would walk through township in barely-there bikinis, and worse-for-wear humen would pull moonies before passing out in eateries that served drug-laced happy shakes and pizzas, while watching Friends on loop. All of this was a total affront to the mores of modesty in this cultured, landlocked, south-east Asian socialist nation. As the popularity of tubing grew, so did the number of people succumbing as a result of their waterborne tomfoolery, and Vang Vieng became a byword for backpacker excess.

Just before a session of south-east Asian heads of state in Laos in 2012, foreign ambassadors told the Laotian authorities that the rising number of deaths was unacceptable, and the governmental forces ultimately closed down most of the riverside rave bars.

Today, there are a couple of Friends restaurants, and vodka is still had participated in buckets, but there are fewer bars along the river bank. The death-trap swingings have been pulled down and tubers now tend to wear more clothing; the mania has gone.

Green
New activities around Vang Vieng include climbing the waterfalls rappelling, zipwiring and abseiling through stunning scenery

In this calmer era, Vang Vieng is trying to rebrand itself by promoting the more wholesome, natural highs offered by local hotels, eateries and volunteer projects, and capitalising on the thing that depicted visitors to Vang Vieng in the first place: its supremely gorgeous setting.

The town itself, high in the northern mountains, 150 km north of the capital Vientiane, is an ugly splat of yellow Beer Lao advertising signs divided by a disused airstrip. Lima Site 6 was a runway used by the US to run its secret war in Laos. Between 1964 and 1973, the US( in alliance with the royal Lao government) operated a clandestine bombing campaign in the region in attempt to stop the advancing communists in northern Vietnam and Laos, earning Laos the moniker of the most-bombed country on earth.

But the surrounding countryside is spectacular. The Nam Song( Envelope river) streams past sheer, lushly carpeted limestone mountains, their needle-sharp peaks pricking the sky. At sundown, the long karstic silhouettes take on an ethereal, mystic air, fading from a vibrant palette of greens to a dreamy watercolour grey.

Tourists
Tourists watching the sun set over the river Photograph: Jose Fuste Raga/ Getty Images

Keen to explore Vang Viengs pristine sceneries, we crossed the river and climbed the steep steps to the mouth of Tham Phu Kham, a cave where, legend pertains, golden crabs live in the craggy darkness. A sweaty descent down a way took us to the Blue Lagoon, a natural pond of baby-blue water which is something we splashed about before heading for a papaya salad at the waterside eatery of the SAE, their home communities project set up by Sengkeo Frichitthavong, a Vang Vieng native.

Frichitthavong, who expended 12 years as the status of refugees in Canada, set up the project in 2008 when he was shocked at discovering what Vang Vieng had become. Today, along with other villagers, SAE has launched a soap-making project and a solar heater project, and is constructing bamboo and mud homes for long-term volunteers. The restaurant monies English lessons for some 250 Lao and Hmong students at the onsite school.

Also on the other side of the river is an example of the new Vang Vieng: Lao Valhalla( bungalows $30 B& B) sits in untamed jungle gardens in Ban Huay Yae, merely under a mile from township. Friendly owner Nouth opened her six bungalows in 2015. Im from the far north-east of Laos but I made a scheme and came here after the changes, she told me over an iced Lao coffee in her rustic restaurant.

About a kilometre away, Vieng Tara Villas( rooms from $45 ), with its cute, stilted bungalows perched amid a rippling green paddy field, opened on the riverbank south of township in 2014. It is reached by a winding wooden walkway and set against a canvas of beautiful mountain views.

Riverside
Riverside Boutique Resort Photograph: Francoise Vigie

In town, theres a trend towards western style menu. Another Lao returnee from Canada and his Australian wife opened Amigos, a eatery with a pretty garden, selling huge platters of Mexican fare and sangria with a dash of triple sec; and at new Italian Il Tavolo, I determined Mr Ts organic goats cheese on my delicious prosciutto crudo and walnut pizza.

Another positive initiative is the Vang Vieng Challenge. Green Discovery, Laos resulting adventure tour operator, opened the two-day mountain assault for adrenalin junkies in a bid to boost the towns eco-tourism credentials.

Our 5,000 -metre trek up a jungle mountain wall was accompanied by cicadas their frenzied cacophony fading the higher we climbed and dozens of butterflies flecked in amethyst, periwinkle, canary yellow and zebra stripes. We passed elephant grass, cardamom, hanging lianas and banana trees before continuing our ascending on a via ferrata, the bolts lodged into black boulders that bulged and racked up in jumbled stacks alongside the Nam Theam waterfall.

On arrival at the wooden shack where we were to expend the night, we bounded across to the ponds of the waterfall where spumes of snow-white water poured over the jet black stone and into the welcoming mountain-cold pond. Back at base, we snacked on wild mangoes with chilli sauce, strips of deep-fried buffalo skin and sun-dried pork while watching a hot-air balloon sail over the peaks as the sunlight set.

Doing
Doing the Vang Vieng Challenge with Green Discovery

The following morning we climbed the waterfall before rappelling 50 metres down the ebony bulges, sprayed by cascading water. The thrill continued as we ziplined and abseiled down through a bamboo and banyan forest and waterfall abyss virtually to the bottom of the valley.

Back in town, at the Riverside Boutique Resort( rooms from $176) I sank into the celadon green-tiled pool then headed for its riverside bar for a cocktail. As nightfall fell, children gathered to enjoy a dip in the river, and locals drove their vehicles into the shallows for a quick, free auto wash.

After two days of quite challenging activities, it was time to take it easy with a new-style( sober) tubing journey along the Nam Song river.( Its “ve called the” Envelope river after a folk tale about an orphan who used to fish all day every day in the river use bamboo traps. He layered the river with so many traps he made it look like it was fluttering with envelopes .)

We floated along in the early morning under the towering crags, listening to birds singing and the calls of distant monkey as bamboo and banana leaves drooped into the water. After two and a half hours of lolling, we stopped at the tubing end point sign. Stress of the Beatles singing Nothings gonna change my world wafted out of a bar on the bank. Except a lot sure did.

The journey was provided by Audley Travel( 01993 838 000, audleytravel.com ), which offers tailor-made vacations to Laos; a 16 -day itinerary with time in Vang Vieng, starts from 2,980 pp, including all flights, transfers and private guidebooks. Tours and activities in Vang Vieng, such as a half-day caving trek( from $19 pp depending on numbers) and the Vang Vieng Challenge( from $99 pp) can be booked with Green Discovery

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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