Sometimes the internet can ruin our travels before we set foot there. We roll up to the bus station after a jerky overnight ride and we know exactly what we’re going to see. We’ve looked up the best restaurants on Trip Advisor, we’ve read lists of all the top local activities and scoped out where to snap the best photographs via google images. I’ve done it, you’ve done it, the internet’s an addictive place, I get it. And yet, occasionally a destination can change so quickly and so vastly in such a short amount of time that all the info the internet now holds on it is void.
Vang Vieng, Laos, was a notorious party destination for a long time. One whose reputation preceded it, so that even six months after the party had been shut down, people were still showing up, asking where everyone was. Prior to 2012, Vang Vieng was Party Central to the extreme, and without sounding square, the idea of gaggles of drunk 18-year-olds on the streets made me want hole up in my hostel with a book and an internet connection. A city wide party, with drugs, crowds, and drunks lead to predictable accidents – overdoses, drinking to excess and cliff jumping into shallow waters. It had gotten to the point that the Lao police could no longer turn a blind eye (or be bribed) and so almost all the bars along the cooling Nam Song River were shut down.
(from a hostel pamphlet - excuse the quality)
When I arrived in 2013 I found a quiet town, one where I could chill with friends, eat a traditional Lao BBQ, swim in a turquoise blue waterhole, explore caves, rent bicycles, or hire a tire tube so I could languidly float down the river all afternoon. The news that Vang Vieng is now a place to relax had not yet circulated out to the other backpackers.
While the tranquillity of this little Laotian town suited me perfectly, I couldn’t deny the emptiness of the place. After all the tourists had left, the streets were full of outdated establishments playing the same hideous loop of ‘Friends’ to vacant restaurants. With the party goers gone to the next party, and the quieter travellers skipping the town altogether, it was just myself and a handful of others to enjoy the small town’s delights.
This is why you should never skip a destination based on hearsay, I’ve come close to doing exactly this a few times. If anything, my favourite countries have been so because they were pleasant surprises; there were no expectations to be dashed and no preconceived notions to be lived up to. Take everything you read online (including this blog) with a pinch of salt and go see for yourself.
From the looks of more recent articles, the town is picking itself back up, and catering to a more mature, family orientated tourist. Pleasing, because the town was vastly misused as a party location when the region is spectacularly set against limestone karst hills (I really wish I were more into photography at the time), and since is conveniently situated between the spiritual Luang Prabang and the elegant capital Vientianne, has the potential to become one of the shining pearls of Southeast Asia.
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