Unlocking Laos: Adventures Await in Vang Vieng, Luang Prabang

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Often overlooked in this region of the world, Laos is one of the biggest tourist surprise packages and a dream destination for adventurous travelers.

Vang Vieng: The Evolution of a Backpacker’s Haven

It was a warm, humid afternoon in Vang Vieng, Laos, as I was sitting poolside unwinding from the day, I looked up and saw the hot air balloons slowly ascend into the clear blue skies, which then drifted across the sprawling mountain ranges, I started to wonder if I was living in a real-world postcard.

Once a notorious ‘tubing’ tourist spot of the past, the town itself has a laid-back and relaxed atmosphere, with lush green scenery, making it feel like you’re walking around on a different planet. The clean air and limited traffic provide a peaceful respite from the usual urban chaos found in other popular Asian destinations 

Vang Vieng’s history reflects a transformation from a quiet farming village into an unlikely backpacker hub located deep within the jungles of central Laos. Vang Vieng’s allure evolved with the advent of tubing on the Nam Song river. About a decade ago, the concept of riding tractor-tyre inner tubes down the river gained popularity, leading to rapid development along the riverbanks. Ramshackle bars quickly sprouted up, offering free shots of local whiskey and adventurous activities like rope swings and giant water slides. This transition turned the once-pristine stretch of the Nam Song into a bustling hub dubbed the “Water Fun Park.” 

Tham Chang caves. Photo supplied.

Another highlight for visitors to Vang Vieng are the Tham Chang caves, which are easily accessible and walking distance from town. A unique spot offering a refreshing respite from the heat and a stunning display of stalagmites and stalactites. The walking path through a nearby mini nature park adds to the allure, culminating in a breathtaking viewpoint overlooking the town and Nam Song River.

Food enthusiasts won’t be disappointed either, with the A.M.D restaurant standing out as a must-visit. This family-run establishment serves up delicious chicken schnitzel sandwiches alongside a variety of fresh extras. If you prefer to mix up your eating options, there is the Viman German Thai restaurant which has a very outgoing and peculiar chef who serves up German inspired meals. Then to wrap it all up, head over to one of the bars that overlooks the sprawling mountains. 

However, the town’s newfound fame came with a dark side. Despite the economic benefits tourism brought, it also brought challenges, including cultural clashes, environmental degradation, and social issues among locals, as the town tries to catch up with its rapid transformation. 

Luang Prabang: A Walk Through History, Spirituality, and Nature 

Not too far away lies Luang Prabang, which is only an hour and a half train ride north of Vang Vieng on the newly built high speed rail network. 

Situated on a peninsula formed by the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers, Luang Prabang is considered to be the jewel of Laos and was once a major Buddhist center and capital of the Lan Xang kingdom from the 14th to 16th centuries. Despite facing wars and economic decline, it remained the most popular town in Laos for both its history and, more recently, tourism. Laos became a French protectorate in 1893, leading to Luang Prabang being recognised as the country’s royal seat again. Today, its historic core, including ancient temples and French-built structures, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The town is also often praised for its community-led conservation efforts, work in ecotourism, and commitment to sustainability and inclusive travel. Last year, Luang Prabang received 12 travel awards under the ASEAN Tourism Standards Scheme.

Sunset view from Luang Prabang’s Phousi Mountain. Photo supplied.

But the UNESCO town is not only about history and spirituality. The province offers plenty of natural landscapes that draw visitors from far and wide. Surrounding the town are verdant mountains, flower gardens, rice fields, and waterfalls, including the well-known Kuang Si Falls and Tad Keo, which are only a 40-minute ride away.

The walking circuit around the Kuang Si waterfalls is an easy way to explore the jungle. You’ll hear the soothing sound of water as you climb. After taking it all in, you can swim nearby and relax in the sun.

Back in town, as the day comes to a close, the Luang Prabang sunsets are phenomenal. Head up to Phousi Hill for stunning views of the city and the Mekong River. Once the sun has set and you make your way down the hill, you will be guided by the bright lights into town. Every evening, the main street comes alive with food stalls and market vendors selling a variety of items. It is a popular spot where all tourists and locals come together and comfortably enjoy themselves as the street is closed off to motorcycles and cars.

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Anthony Bolzonello is a travel journalist from Australia