Like the spine of a sleeping dragon, dramatic limestone mountains rise above the luscious paddy fields of central Laos.
In the middle of it all, you’ll find Vang Vieng.
“Vang Vieng lies in a perfect location, halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang,” Inthy Deuansavan, president of Vientiane-based travel agency Green Discovery, tells CNN Travel.
“If the authorities manage the activities, keep the river clean and limit the noise, the destination will have a bright future and enjoy the benefits of tourism for a long time to come.”
Vang Vieng revisited
Vang Vieng, reinvented
Sitting on the banks of the Song River, the rural town might seem serene now. But Vang Vieng has seen a tumultuous 15 years, evolving from an agricultural community to a hedonistic party capital when it was “discovered” by Western shoestring travelers in the late 1990s.
Excessive drinking, drugs, trash, concrete construction and fatal accidents were detrimental to the local community.
But in 2012, Vang Vieng’s narrative changed completely when the government shuttered most of the problematic bars and activities and repositioned the town as an eco-paradise.
Since then, a refreshed Vang Vieng has risen from the ashes of its erstwhile excesses.
The town has reinvented itself as the country’s hub of adventure travel, offering a lengthy menu of adrenaline-fueled experiences.
Pan-Asian travel companies such as Khiri Travel and Grasshopper Adventures have also discovered Vang Vieng and some of their tailor-made soft adventure and cycling tours regularly pass through town.
Stefan Scheerer, Khiri Travel’s GM for Laos, sees a lot of potential for the area around town.
“The scenery is amazing, with hundreds of caves, small villages and blue lagoons, many still to be discovered,” he says.
Rolling down the river
While Vang Vieng has closed the dangerous water slides on the riverbanks, one thing hasn’t changed: A relaxing river tubing ride remains the outdoor experience of choice.
Sitting in an old inner tube and drifting down the Song River into town, beer in hand, is a quintessential outdoor excursion on any Vang Vieng itinerary.
Travelers who want to enjoy the river in a more proactive way can rent one of the many available kayaks and rafts in the afternoons, paddling into spectacular sunsets amidst mist-shrouded hills.
Hit the road
On the western side of the Song River, a 15-mile (25 kilometer) loop of dusty roads leads travelers to ethnic minority villages, pastoral fields populated by water buffaloes, several caves, viewpoints and a series of so-called Blue Lagoons– turquoise waterholes.
These watering holes are numbered from one to five, and the further one travels, the more peace and quiet one can expect.
Visitors can hire a tuk tuk to make the short, 7-kilometer journey to the lagoons.
Those thirsting for aerial thrills can have a go at zip-lining. There are a number of tour companies in Vang Vieng offering tours.
In the dry season, from November to March/April, Vang Vieng offers some of the most dramatic rock-climbing and hiking opportunities in Southeast Asia.
The short but steep climb up one of the area’s highest peaks, Pha Hon Kham, offers incredible sunrise and sunset views.
Standing on the rickety 360-degree viewing platform, floating above valleys and rock formations is as dizzying an experience as the sweat-soaked ascent through dense forest, across rickety wooden steps and giant boulders.
Visitors searching for more untethered views of the spectacular landscape can climb aboard a hot air balloon for a ride over the beautiful countryside.
Caving is another popular outdoor activity.
The rock formations and many caves on the west side of the river are best reached by mountain bike, though many tourists now opt for ATV rides or motorcycles.
Some of the caves contain Buddhist artifacts, while others once served as the locals’ hideaways from traveling marauders.
Tham Pha Daeng even offers a swimming opportunity in its very own lagoon.
At sunset, hundreds of bats escape this cave and others into the night.
Spooky stories of travelers getting lost in dank darkness abound, so it’s essential to take a guide, water and a good torch.
Where to stay
Further emphasizing the spectacular scenery, agrotourism accommodations have emerged as an alternative to the usual guest houses.
An agrotourism pioneer, Lao Farm provides overnight stays for health- and food-conscious travelers.
Once an employee of the forestry department in Vientiane, owner Thanongsi Sorangkoun – known locally as Mr. Tee – returned to Vang Vieng, his birthplace, in 1996.
“In the late ’90s, travelers visited in search of MSG-free organic food and that made me think about opening the farm,” Thanongsi tells CNN Travel.
“Then I started getting foreign volunteers who stayed for free in exchange for work. I wanted to show local people that you can make money without destroying the environment by using organic farming methods. These days, we make great goat cheese and grow a lot of mulberry trees here.”
For those not quite ready to commit to the farming life, the Riverside Boutique hotel is another high-quality option.
Sitting on the banks of the Song River, the elegant French-owned resort offers a local touch with design elements from Laos’ many ethnic minorities.
There’s also a stunning pool, a charming spa, fantastic views of the surrounding peaks and a variety of high-quality local tours developed in partnership with Green Discovery.
Meanwhile, high-end Thai hotel chain Amari recently opened a property in the town. Amari Vang Vieng offers over 150 rooms – most with river views.
Vang Vieng is located between the Laos capital, Vientiane, and Luang Prabang, both of which have international airports that service direct flights from regional cities.
Taxis, vans and buses can be booked for the journey to Vang Vieng from either city. Drive time ranges from 3.5 to five hours.