Also referred to as Viang Vieng, Van Vieng or by similar variants, Vang Vieng is not a spot of any great historical significance. It earns its spot on the tourist map by virtue of its location as a convenient stopover
going between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, its scenic beauty, and the proximity of many active vacation options. If you are looking for culture or museums, you might want to give Vang Vieng a miss. However, there are a number of nearby 16th- and 17th-century monasteries and a some of limestone caves that might entertain the intrepid visitor for a day or so.
Van Vieng has also been the site of various incidents of unrest in the past few years, so it is worth checking the current political situation before planning a stopover. Drugs are illegal and users could find they have been set up.
Vang Vieng is very walkable – the town is just a strip along the MekongRiver. You can rent bikes at most guesthouses for a few dollars a day. Motorbikes can be rented at the café near the telephone office.
This sleepy town actually has a number of nearby sites worth a few days of your time if your schedule allows. Unfortunately, one of Van Vieng’s major attractions, in certain circles, is the ready availability of illegal drugs at the many bars, discos, and guest houses along the main road through town. Backpackers come here in droves to sample the wares, and many of them get far more than they bargained for.
The main activities for most visitors involve either getting on the river or going caving. You can rent a bicycle and ride/wade across the river, then cycle to a number of caves and local villages. You can also go tubing, canoeing, or rafting if it is not the rainy season.
Getting away. The only way out is by bus, truck, or private (tour company) van. Go to the Morning Market to arrange transportation. It takes three-four hours to get to Vientiane and seven-eight hours to Luang Prabang. If you go by private (tour company) transport, these times will be significantly less. The bus to Vientiane leaves five or six times a day, starting at about . The bus to Luang Prabang leaves by .
This is the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle. As a result, the area has a history that is less than savory, but the setting is beautiful and the tribal cultures fascinating.
People come to this part of Laos for one of two reasons – to arrange a trek through the hill tribe villages and/or to see the Plain of Jars. The main town is Xiengkhuang.
Bokeo is the smallest of Laos’ provinces, but it is the best starting place to explore the local tribal areas and cultures. Home to a large number of ethnically and culturally diverse minority tribes, it’s directly across from Chiang Rai province in Thailand, and also borders Burma. This tri-border area is the fabled “Golden Triangle,” home to one of the largest opium poppy-growing and heroin-producing operations in the world.
It is also a major source of precious stones such as sapphires (“Bokeo” means Land of Sapphires), and a lesser source of gold and other gemstones. In the markets in various towns in Bokeo you can buy Laotian sapphires, Burmese rubies, and other precious and semi-precious stones and jewelry, but you need to know what to look for.
Beware the flawless, low-priced stone – it’s probably colored glass, a look-alike stone, or a stone created in a laboratory. That being said, if the price seems fair (and you assume it is not the real thing!), the gold setting is stamped with the 18-karat gold mark, and you like the piece, buy it. Ask around and you might find a local who is going panning for gold in the Mekong or its tributary rivers, digging for precious and semi-precious stones, or undertaking other interesting activities. You might get to go along. Beware of the rough and tumble attitude toward life – this is not the safest area in Indochina.
Your hotel or guest house staff can almost certainly help you arrange a trek into the tribal areas. There are travel agents in most towns, regardless of how small, and they are very experienced at packaging customized trips.
Xiengkhuang (Xieng Khoung)
The area was once home to many important temples but these were casualties of the American bombing. The French had a significant presence here and remnants of Colonial architecture can still be seen in a few places.
Most people come on an organized day trip from Luang Prabang. If you come on your own you will likely arrive by morning bus from Luang Prabang.
Xiengkhuang is the town closest to the fascinating plateau called the “Plain of Jars.” There are hundreds of stone jars, many of them several times the size of a person.
These jars are in an area that was used as a dumping ground by flight crews returning from bombing runs in North Vietnam – they jettisoned unused bombs here. In some cases the US crews deliberately bombed the area. Amazingly, the vast majority of the jars survived unscathed.
Plain of Jars
The Vietnam War (called the American War of Aggression by the Vietnamese and the Second Indochina War by others in Southeast Asia), wasn’t the first time the area was savagely attacked; Chinese soldiers looted the area in the 19th century but were unable to seriously damage the jars. Over the centuries, many other invaders have tried to move or destroy the jars, but none have succeeded so far.
There is an ongoing debate about the jars – who made them, how they were moved and placed, when they were made, and what they were used for. It is generally agreed the jars are man-made, but the rest of the questions remain unanswered. Many experts believe they were actually funerary urns, probably for royalty, but they pre-date recorded history, so little is actually known about them. Anything of value left with the Chinese looters well over 100 years ago. Nonetheless, the jars are well worth seeing. Since travel around Laos is slow and difficult, you may want to plan a day excursion through your hotel or a travel agent in Xiengkhuang.
Day-Trips from Xiengkhuang. The Meuang Kham district is the site of the Baw Nam Hai Nyai hot springs. There is a very basic, low-key resort/spa here. It’s a great place to relax and unwind after a day traipsing around the Plain of Jars. You should be able to arrange transport to the Plain of Jars, on to the hot springs, and back to Xiengkhuang through your hotel or a travel agent in Xiengkhuang. While you’re coordinating that trip, check into adding on a side-trip to the Tham Pui cave. This is the cave where villagers sheltered from the American bombs. It has become a pilgrimage site for many local Laotians.
Savannakhet is strategically located on an ancient trade route connecting Vietnam and Thailand. As a result it has long been visited by traders and merchants. It was only natural for the French to set up a major business and governmental center here.
Being in the far south of a semi-tropical country, Savannakhet has the additional advantage of being more temperate and fertile than the rest of Laos. It was from this town that the French controlled the Lao opium trade, so it has a large number of Colonial French buildings in the former French Quarter, along with a large, European-style Catholic cathedral (St. Theresa’s).
The only way in or out is by uncomfortable bus, private van, or by plane. There are three-times-weekly flights to Vientiane and four-times-weekly flights to Pakse. Buses leave from the government terminal on the northern edge of the town. Plan to take a tuk-tuk to the terminal. There are five or six buses a day to Vientiane, taking about eight hours. The first bus leaves at around and the last about . There are two buses each day to Pakse and these take six-seven hours, and leave at and . There is also a private bus service – similar prices and better equipment. The departures are early in the morning. Ask your guesthouse staff for help arranging the private bus.
You can also get buses to Thailand and Vietnam. There is a daily bus to Lao Bao in Vietnam from the government station () and private buses at and 11 am. The trip is over rough roads and will take close to 10 hours. The trip to Thailand takes the same amount of time. There are also boats to Thailand.
I highly recommend flying out of town. Lao Airlines has a local office in Savannakhet. The boat and bus information I just gave is the best available at the time of writing, but schedules are unpredictable, equipment is poor, and roads can be impassable.
What to see & do : Wandering through the remnants of another era makes for a fascinating morning. Then, for contrast, you can spend the afternoon visiting the stupa of That Ing Hang temple – a 16-km/10-mile trip from Savannakhet. This stupa is one of the most important and revered Buddhist monuments in all of Laos.
If you happen to be there for the annual festival in February, it will be crowded but worth the visit.
There is a Thai consulate in the Nanhai Hotel. The Vietnamese consulate is on Sisavangvong Rd. You need the usual photos, about $50, and the ability to wait for three days for a visa.
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