A small and beautiful town surrounded by mountains and rivers, Vangvieng is a place of delight and wonder for visitors from around the world.
The city is about 150 km north of Vientiane, situated between the capital city and the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. The main attractions are the clean and clear water of the Nam Xong river, karst outcroppings, caves and mountain scenery. The town has more than 30 natural caves, and most places of interest are accessible to visitors all year round.
Laos is steeped in Buddhist traditions, has a colourful culture and is famed for the year-round tropical weather that makes it a lush paradise. The people who live here hold many traditional festivals so that local customs live on.
In the meantime the tourists from around the world who visit Vangvieng congregate around the river, with venues in the town becoming meeting points where people make friends as they enjoy fun and games.
Recently, tourism operators have built facilities to serve the visitor’s need for excitement as fully as possible along the river. These include zip-lines, rope swings, slides, and mud pits for games of rattan ball and volleyball.
For a three-kilometre stretch on the river before the launch point of inner tubes and kayaks, people can be seen happily drinking and dancing, enjoying the music, riverside merriment and sport.
Impromptu games involve an unlimited number of players, both male and female. Whether a player is good or not is of no importance. People are perfectly content to engage in friendly competition, while relishing the freedom and comfort of swim-wear and mud. Of course there are no rules either; the objective is to hit the ball over the net and enjoy the refreshing surroundings and the company of friends new and old.
This sort of unabashed volleyball revelry played out in the mud may not be an unusual site in some countries, but in Laos it is certainly a rarity.
Vangvieng is the first and only place to feature mud pit volleyball in Laos! In fact, the only other instance of mud-based excitement in the country is seen during the rocket festival. There, if a rocket explodes on the launching pad instead of taking to the sky, the rocket engineer and his team will be thrown into a mud pit by the other rocketeers. But this only happens once a year, while Vangvieng players can serve, volley and wallow in the pit every day.
Making the “mud court” is not complicated and involves simply taking mud from farms in the area and pouring it into the pit. The only extra effort goes into making sure the mud doesn’t contain any large rocks or other hard objects, which might injure the players. Smartly, the court is equipped with nylon nets to keep the ball from going too far out of play.
When players grow tired and mud-caked from all the volleying, they will most likely be seen heartily throwing one another into the river. Viola! It’s a fast, easy and fun method of cleaning up after the game.
Still, revellers shouldn’t forget that safety is extremely important in this type of setting. To prevent tourists from drowning after they have jumped or swung into the river, some locals are specially designated to be on the lookout for those in need of a helping hand. They throw out small inner tubes tied to a rope and pull them back to land. This can be quite useful, especially for those who are not the strongest of swimmers.
Moreover, merrymakers cannot disregard the environmental integrity of the area.
To protect the river, district authorities have created regulations banning tourist operators from allowing visitors to bring any glass bottles to the riverside, nor in kayaks or inner tubes.
Though several kinds of beverages are available at bars along the river, especially at places where overhead jumps are set up, tourists are not allowed to take any bottles away with them. Servers pour drinks into small plastic buckets and require them to stay put.
Splashing and sporting around are good for some, but what makes Vangvieng an interesting destination is its dynamism. There seems to be something for everyone here. Visitors who don’t want to play in the mud or jump into the river can simply enjoy taking photographs and taking pleasure in the beauty of their surroundings. There are caves to explore, organic farms to visit, and local culture and traditions to get lost in.
Lao visitors, especially from Vientiane, like to shop at the market for fresh organic vegetables and fruits in the early morning. Here, one can see the real life of Vangvieng residents, who come from different villages and ethnic groups and sell and buy goods in the market. Not only are many of the goods for sale here interesting and unusual, they are also cheaper than in Vientiane markets.
To tempt tourists to linger longer in Vangvieng, investors have developed numerous amenities for visitors to enjoy. In the town centre, hundreds of restaurants pepper the roads, many of them decorated with coloured lights and bright flowers, while others feature popular TV series that run non-stop.
At the visitor’s fingertips are overseas television channels, Internet cafes, currency exchange units and transaction services that allow connection with the rest of the world. Travel agencies, as well as trekking, tubing and kayaking operations, are not at all difficult to find in the town centre.
Travellers can relax, drink and savour their favourite foods in the many eateries. The town is not lacking in international fare. Some cooks are even willing to prepare made-to-order meals for visitors, to sate their Western-style cravings.
Yet, those seeking a more cultural experience will not be disappointed— Lao cuisine and libations are readily available. Among the most popular beverages for tourists are Beerlao, fruit shakes, organic wine and tea made from mulberry leaves.
Vangvieng has more than 100 guesthouses, hotels, resorts and bungalows to accommodate tourists who visit the town. If you find your way to this dynamic and charming place, remember to go easy on the lao-lao, respect the natural beauty, and leave only your troubles to float down the river.
By Feature writer in Vanvieng/ Vientiane Times/ Asia News Network
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