Tubing & Chocolate Bars in Vang Vieng, Laos

How do I describe Vang Vieng, Laos? Well, it’s the one with the Friends bars. The one with the tubing. The one with the famous nightlife that got toned down a few years ago because backpackers kept accidentally dying. I’m going to be honest with you, reader, in case you’re a discerning tourist who neither drinks heavily nor enjoys Friends: you don’t absolutely need to visit Vang Vieng unless you really want to go tubing or have enough money to do an eco-tour type trip.

A brief bit of history: Vang Vieng had an infamous toxic party scene in the late 1990s and 2000s, because someone had the idea to rent old tyre tubes to backpackers who could spend a couple of hours floating on them down Nam Song, the Song River. Backpackers were well into the tubing, so a bunch of bars opened up along the riverbank for them to get sloshed and high while they took a break from bobbing along the fairly shallow but fairly speedy river. Unfortunately, it’s really easy to accidentally drown in fairly shallow but fairly speedy water, especially when you are wasted and especially when you have fallen from a shitty zipwire or dodgy rope swing. So in 2012, after pressure from a bunch of foreign ambassadors who were tired of dealing with the families of accidentally dead backpackers, Vang Vieng cleaned up its act. Most of the riverside bars are abandoned and there are signs in hostels saying ‘OI MATE IF YOU’RE CAUGHT WITH MARIJUANA THIS HOSTEL IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR 6 MILLION KIP FINE.’

6 million kip, by the way, is about $60. In Lao terms, 6 million kip is a shittonne of money. People still do all the drugs and booze, just quietly.

So, we went to Vang Vieng to go tubing. Well, I went tubing. Maxim got ill and didn’t, although he did have a pair of shoes stolen. I went tubing by myself and it was nice for the first 45 minutes, when I was being all zen and thinking cool thoughts – the landscape, like all of South East Asia, is breathtaking – but then I needed a wee and my waterproof bag was not as waterproof as advertised and dickbag tourists on kayaks kept splashing me then I almost got swept away by a feisty little current that showed its face about four metres from the part of the river where you’re supposed to get out. I watched one lady float on past, and I have always wondered what happened to her. Apparently the river empties into a reservoir, so at least she didn’t end up in the South China Sea.

So, if you’re not into the tubing, you’ll have to go for the eco tour stuff. I was too poor to, but according to The Guardian there are villas and farmhouse rooms to be rented, stunning treks to be undertaken lots of fancy food to eat.

It sounds like I’m bashing Vang Vieng: if you’re into tubing, it’s a must-visit! Unusually, I actually had a good time chilling out, writing to you guys and hanging out with people – there was this Aussie guy Travis who explained the intricacies of the Australian car industry, and a French guy, Pierre, who I will one day write into a book. I have a feeling Pierre is still in Vang Vieng right now, sleeping off moonshine and cursing at every other word.

The nicest thing about Laos for me was how quiet it is compared to Thailand or Vietnam: we saw the same two Canadian blokes in Luang Prabang, Phonsavan, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. An American guy from our hostel in Luang Prabang turned up in a cafe in Phonsavan. So did a Finnish guy. There is no fork option at the dinner table, only chopsticks and a little spoon, and the night is black as pitch.

The downside to the quiet was the provisions. I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned this, but Vietnam does not do cheese. There are Dairylea triangles and that is it. It does do American chocolate, though, and Kellogg’s. Thailand is full to the brim of 7-Elevens, which are full to the brim with overpriced Evian and Nature Valley bars. Cambodia had American chocolate, if I remember correctly. Laos’ food sticks in my mind for two reasons: one is the heavenly Indian food we had in Phonsavan and Vientiane. The other is that, although I remember seeing those Cadbury’s Dream bars for sale (remember them? In the Heroes boxes?), Lao chocolate is vile. I bought a locally-produced bar for the minivan from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, and it tasted like actual sawdust. I have never thrown away a chocolate bar before and hope never to again.

You live and learn, I guess.

Next up: Vientiane!

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Luang Prabang, Laos | Or, That Time I Dropped My Underwear in a Drain, Ate Too Much Street Food and Visited Another War Museum

Luang Prabang in northern Laos is one of the few places I saw in South East Asia that I would return to for a two week suitcase holiday. If you enjoyed yourself in Greece or Italy, you will like Luang Prabang. Awful incoming journey and unavoidable Asian plumbing aside, there’s something for everyone: nature, history, pretty sunsets, temples and waterfalls. Waterfalls!

The Kuang Si Waterfalls

Isobel, if you’re reading this: remember when we were messaging and I told you I’d just dropped my knickers in a drain? This is where that happened! So Kuang Si waterfalls are just outside Luang Prabang and they are absolutely stunningly beautiful.

Kuang Si Falls Luang Pranang Laos
The word you’re looking for is PARADISE

That water lends a new meaning to the term ‘icy blue’ though, it was bloody freezing. But beautiful! If it wasn’t for the freezing thing, I would have moved right in forever. The trees, the running water, the wooden huts in which visitors change and, if they are not paying attention, accidentally drop their undies in a drain. It was a running drain full of, hopefully, waterfall water.

Kuang Si Waterfalls Luang Pranang Laos
DEFINITELY CLEAN WATER. THAT’S MY STORY AND I’M STICKING TO IT.

There is a little bear sanctuary-slash-zoo near the waterfalls, which I am in two minds about. On the one hand, caged animals is an oxymoron. On the other hand, sun and moon bears are seriously endangered due to poaching (apparently some SE Asian cultures think bear bile is good for sexual virility. I can’t think of anything worse for sexual virility). The enclosure we saw definitely seemed kind of small, but the charity that runs the sanctuary recently posted that they have just bought more land and the bears did seem pretty chilled and happy.

Bear Sanctuary Luang Prabang Laos
That was the best photo I got. I call it ‘talk to the paw’

Laos town

There are, of course, at least three wats in Luang Prabang. I checked out a couple, although if I am being totally honest, after a while one wat looks a lot like another wat. Then again, I can’t tell Michel Barnier apart from David Davis.

Side entrance to Luang Prabang wat
Enter, seeker, and ask
Luang Prabang Wat staircase golden dragon decoration
Dragon statues always look faintly shocked to find themselves attached to banisters

Luang Prabang has a market with the usual street food, clothes, trinkets and jewellery but it also sells gorgeous indigo-dyed clothes and accessories. I’m not sure how big the local textiles industry is, exactly, but one blue scarf would have set me back £25 after haggling, which was my daily budget and about 20 times more expensive than the average cotton scarf, so I think that the industry is a) highly skilled and b) relatively unique to Luang Prabang. I really, really want to go back and buy an indigo scarf.

There is a really cool alleyway in the town with vendors selling the absolute best street food I have ever tasted from giant pans. I think it cost 50p to fill up a bowl with vegetables and eat til I was ready to hibernate. Full disclosure: I did get a run of the shits while I was there, although that could have been down to literally anything. Possibly the encounter with the drain.

street food in Luang Prabang, Laos
My love

UXO Museum

I already wrote about the Killing Fields of the Cambodian genocide and the Vietnamese War Museum and Cu Chi Tunnels, and Laos makes the third corner of a really shitty triangle. I will write more about Laos’ civil war and America’s ‘secret war’ when I post about Phonsavan, which is the next place we stopped in Laos. I blame my politics A Level, but of my favourite parts of Luang Prabang was its UXO museum. UXOs are ‘unexploded ordnance’, basically, bombs that were dropped but never went off. At least 2 million tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos by American forces between 1964 and 1973, but a third didn’t detonate (per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in history). Over 50,000 people have been killed or injured by ordnance since 1964 and the clean up operation is slow, expensive and dangerous. I don’t have a picture, but there’s a whiteboard outside the museum detailing the exact number of injuries and deaths caused by UXOs per year since 1964; 2016 was the first year no one died from one.

Bomb Shells UXO Museum Luang Prabang Laos
Kinda love that the only health and safety is a few tickets recommending viewers don’t touch

I scrolled through my WordPress gallery and I seem to have shared a ridiculous number of photos of bomb shells. Ten points to anyone who can tell me the names of every type of munition in this photo!

Sleeper Bus Hell and Luang Prabang, Laos

Nam Kane Boarder Crossing Vietnam/Laos

You guys. I can’t tell you about the beautiful country of Laos without first reliving the journey from Hanoi in Vietnam across the boarder to Luang Prabang in northern Laos. It’s one of those events that I look back on and, instead of coherent words, all that appears in my head is a large question mark, like a Homer Simpson thought bubble. Since I am going to Barcelona on Monday and have a serious case of itchy feet, I’ve decided to tell this is in second person to really make a connection with you all and so you get itchy feet too!


5pm. You hop on a minibus from your hostel to the bus station. ‘Hop’ really means ‘sit squashed for approximately forty minutes’. The regular bus is not promising. You’re in the rearmost part of the bus next to your younger brother, who is hungover. Usually sleeper bus bunks look like faux leather recliners with little frames attached, but the ones at the back are more like faux leather mattresses, and you squish in right next to a couple of other people, including your brother who you force to sit in the uncomfiest bit of the bed because that’s what you get for travelling with a hangover.

8pm. You have dinner in a small establishment that kept a large bird of prey on a leash. You do not take photos because you have the distinct feeling that the bird of prey is a warg.

10pm. You take diazepam for the first time in your life because you wish to sleep for the next 20 hours, which is approximately the duration of your journey. You try to read a book you picked up in Hanoi but the diazepam kicks in and you start to drift into a surprisingly restful sleep. You wonder briefly if you’ve misunderstood the rudimentary Google search you did before approaching a pharmacist and have misread the possible side effects of diazepam. You briefly contemplate what will happen to your brother if you die right here in the faux leather mattress bed.

7am. You’re awake, but you’re almost comfortable. You’re at the boarder between Vietnam and Laos. It’s cold and misty – you must be at a high altitude. Everything is grey. You creep off the bus wearing flip flops and a t-shirt, clutching your passport and valuables and… you’ve walked onto the set of an apocalypse film?

Nam Kane Boarder Crossing Vietnam/Laos

Aside from about four officials sitting in drafty rooms with mugs of coffee and lots of dark wood furniture, the town’s only inhabitants are dogs. You exchange glances with your equally bemused brother and join the queue for visas. You’re pretty sure it’s twenty dollars for a visa but you’re charged thirty because there is a ‘regional cost’. You go to the loo in what may once have been a military barracks and wonder if they’ll let you come back one day to shoot the apocalypse film.

The diazepam knocks you out for several more hours; when you wake up it’s 3pm. Maybe. you’re closer to ground level and the sun’s out. You stop for food and visit a toilet lit by a single burning candle that in retrospect looks like something one would light to summon the devil. Why is a restaurant toilet lit by a single burning candle when there is definitely electricity in the building? Why are you asking that when you’ve been in Asia for six weeks already? The British are the only people in the world for whom health and safety is a way of life. You notice a series of burnt-out missile shells lined up against walls of buildings and recall something about an American war. You return to your giant bus bed.

You doze off and wake up briefly… up another mountain? You don’t remember the guide book mentioning so many mountains? Maybe it’s all one mountain.

Roadside view en route to Luang Prabang in Laos

5pm. You’re in Luang Prabang. Your hostel has hot water, lockers that work and a mysterious bottle of Jack Daniels next to your bunk that will not move for the duration of your stay.

You don’t know it that, but that’s one of the nicer Laos-related journeys you will take.


Right I’m off to listen to the new Troye Sivan masterpiece and look up the weather in Barcelona!