We decided to stop off at Vang Vieng after talking to a few Scandanavian backpackers who highly recommended it, calling it the wild west. They were right. The town itself isn't anything special, but its location right under spectacular limestone cliffs makes it scenic. Plus, it is a perfect spot for outdoorsy kinds of things, like river tubing, hiking, biking, and spelunking.
Somtam has called this town a tourist trap, and it certainly does have more than its fair share of internet cafes, guesthouses and restaurants. We only did an overnight here, to break up the overland journey from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, and this was one of the few places on this trip where we wished we'd had more time to spend. We particularly enjoyed the atmosphere on Pizza St. at night, drinking Beer Lao and listening to music or watching world cup football while stretched out over triangle pillows.
One of the things we wished we'd known about in advance is the opportunity to teach English to local school kids at a school near the organic farm outside of town. There is info on how to do this at the Organic Cafe if anyone is interested in such things.
We wound up staying at the Malany Guesthouse. It cost $5 for a large, clean room with an attached hot water bath. No complaints. Perhaps one of the best things about Vang Vieng is the value for money. It would be easy to live well there, including a Beer Lao or two, for under $10 a day.
Getting to Vang Vieng was a spectacular bus trip from Luang Prabang, and possibly the highlight of our 2-month trip. I'd recommend this bus trip if you've got the time. Just don't expect to be comfortable for the ride.
From Vang Vieng we caught the 10 am bus to Vientiane, then checked in at the Malinamphlu Hotel, just north of the fountain in the center of the city. We paid $17 for a very nice, rather posh western-style room that had everything including breakfast. I'd recommend this for anyone willing to pay a little extra for a particularly great place to stay.
We stayed in Vientiane for two nights, which was just about the right amount of time to see the sights and explore the city a bit. We hired a scooter to get out to That Luang, Pratuxai, and then to just drive around a bit. Other highlights are Wat Phra Kaeo (the original one according to the Lao), and walking or riding northwest (towards the airport) along the river side and having a beer or a meal at any of the bamboo restaurants up that way. I think my favorite thing was Sunday evening up at Pratuxai Park, where many Lao families and young couples were out enjoying themselves.
To get to Nong Khai we took the regular 1st class bus service that departs from the Morning Market Bus Station. Check with your guest house for the schedule, but when we went, there were 4 buses a day. They stop at both sides of the Friendship Bridge so you can clear customs and immigration on both ends, then drop you at the bust station in Nong Khai. The cost was 55B (or 15.000K - a great way to spend some of your leftover kip). There is also a bus that goes all the way to Udorn Thani for 80B (or 22,000K). These buses fill up, so if you want a seat it is best to get there early.
In Nong Khai we stayed at the Mut Mee Guesthouse, which is sort of a legend on the Thailand backpacker circuit. The places gets nicer and nicer every time I go there, and is now a solid flashpacker option. I was a bit disappointed that some of the hammocks and chairs that used to be down by the river are no longer there, but the place still has such a relaxing vibe that we stayed an extra night just to hang out there.
Nong Khai has a growing expat community, with lots of older, retired westerners taking up residence and opening bars and restaurants. As a result, we had a few very fun and very late nights in Nong Khai.
One thing not to be missed there is the evening dinner riverboat trip that departs between 5 and 6 pm from the dock just below the Mut Mee Guesthouse. It isn't expensive, and it is a fun way to spend some time on the river.
To get back to Bangkok, we took the overnight sleeper train. This is still one of the least crowded overnight train routes. We didn't arrange our tickets until after we got back into Thailand, and even so had no trouble getting berths for the night we wanted. Still, I think if you know in advance on what day you'll be travelling, it is a good idea to sort out your tickets ahead of time.
Nong Khai could easily be a quick overnight just to get settled back into Thailand, or several nights, if you enjoy the atmosphere there. It's a great spot that unfortunately gets overlooked now that it is easy to head straight into Laos.
Perhaps I'm a little harsh on Vang Vieng -- it just strikes me as a bit of a shame that the town has developed how it has, as quickly as it has. When I first visited there (in 1994) there was just two places to stay and one and a half restaurants -- and the scenery was just as stunning...
#3 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,738
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Vang Vieng is a deceiving place.... When I first arrived, I thought what the hell? But you only have to look at the back drop and go by the river, to realise you're in a really stunning place. I have very good memories of this place, just sitting by the river writing postcards, reading, enjoying a delicious baguette and a few beer Laos. Wasn't keen on the restaurants showing friends 24/7 though!