Vang Vieng

Vang Vieng was first settled around 1353 as a staging post between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Originally named Mouang Song after the body of the deceased King Phra Nha Phao of Phai Naam was seen floating down the river, the town was renamed Vang Vieng during French colonial rule in the 1890s. Significant expansion of the town and its infrastructure occurred during the 1964-73 Vietnam War when the US constructed an air force base and runway that was used by Air America. The airstrip was then called “Lima site 6”. In more recent times, the town has grown substantially due to the influx of backpackers attracted by the opportunities for adventure tourism in a limestone karst landscape.

Vang Vieng has become a backpacker-oriented town, with the main street featuring guest houses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes, tour agencies, and Western tourists Attractions of the town include inner tubing and kayaking on the Nam Song River, which, until the third quarter of 2012, was lined with bars selling Beer Lao and Lao-Lao, and equipped with rope swings, zip lines, swimming and diving into blue lagoon, and large decks for socializing.

Vang Vieng locals have organised themselves into a cooperative business association to sell tubing as an activity, in a system in which 1,555 participating households are divided into 10 village units, with each village unit taking its turn on a ten-day rotation to rent inner-tubes to the tourists. Thanongsi Sorangkoun, owner of an organic farm in Vang Vieng, says that tubing inadvertently began in 1999 when he bought a few rubber tubes for his farm volunteers to relax on along the river. During the wet season, the river can be a series of rapids.

Other activities include trekking and rock climbing in the limestone mountains. There are also numerous caves, such as Tham Phu Kham half an hour north of Vang Vieng by tuk-tuk or the Tham Non and Tham Jang caves closer to Vang Vieng.

A market five kilometres north of town sells Lao textiles, household items, and foodstuffs. The town is on the main north-south highway, Route 13 from Luang Prabang to the capital, Vientiane. It is about eight hours by bus to Luang Prabang and four hours to Vientiane (152 km).

Just a short walk from town are many ethnic Lao, Kmou, and Hmong villages, while Vang Vieng Organic Farm is around 4 km north of the town in the village of Phoudindaeng. There are opportunities for community involvement such as teaching, while it’s also possible to stay in a house made of mud bricks at the organic farm. Another new organisation since December 2012 providing community activities is FruitFriends.

Wat Done Hor is the oldest of the five temples in Vang Vieng, built in 1903.

Due to the influx of backpackers, Vang Vieng locals have seen drastic changes in their community. In recent years, Vang Vieng has become a stop on the Southeast Asia backpacker circuit and the main street has many guest houses, bars, restaurants, internet cafes and tour agencies.

There are concerns that the town is in danger of losing its charm as it becomes full of tourists, mushroom shakes, and episodes of Friends, a US sitcom shown in many bars. The New Zealand Herald wrote, “If teenagers ruled the world, it might resemble Vang Vieng”. Safety measures for the tubing have been described as “non existent”. Tubing combined with heavy drinking has resulted in tourist drownings. It was reported that 22 tourists died on the river in 2011.

The Lao government is planning to put more controls on the urban sprawl of Vang Vieng, while the Laos National Tourism Administration has “awareness programs” that ask tourists to “respect and strictly follow the rules, regulations, tradition and cultures of the Lao people”, while also educating local people to maintain the Lao identity, way of life, tradition, and culture and not imitate tourist behaviour. Vang Vieng is known to have a problem with drugs, which are easily accessible to both tourists and local children.

Locals have said that tubing and tourism are destroying the town’s culture and encouraging crime among children, while loud music destroys the area’s tranquility. A report on the future of tourism in Vang Vieng found that many budget tubers were “oblivious to, or uncaring about, the types of social, economic and environmental impact they are associated with.” A master plan for Vang Vieng notes that local grievances include pollution, inappropriate behaviour of tourists and environmental damage.

Brett Dakin, the author of Another Quiet American, a chronicle of two years in Laos working for the tourist authority, said, “Each time a young Australian woman strolls down the street in a bikini, a bearded American smokes a joint on a guesthouse terrace, or a group of Koreans tumbles drunkenly out of a restaurant, it saps a little more of the essence of a town like Vang Vieng.”

Laos

The tourism sector has grown rapidly, from 80,000 international visitors in 1990, to 1.876 million in 2010.[98] Tourism is expected to contribute US$679.1 million to the gross national product in 2010, rising to US$1.5857 billion by 2020. In 2010, one in every 10.9 jobs was in the tourism sector. Export earnings from international visitors and tourism goods are expected to generate 15.5 percent of total exports or US$270.3 million in 2010, growing in nominal terms to US$484.2 million (12.5 percent of the total) in 2020.[99]

The official tourism slogan is “Simply Beautiful”. The main attractions for tourists include Buddhist culture and colonial architecture in Luang Prabang; gastronomy and ancient temples in the capital of Vientiane; backpacking in Muang Ngoi Neua and Vang Vieng; ancient and modern culture and history in the Plain of Jars region (main article: Phonsavan); Laos Civil War history in Sam Neua; trekking and visiting hill tribes in a number of areas including Phongsaly and Luang Namtha; spotting tigers and other wildlife in Nam Et-Phou Louey; caves and waterfalls near Thakhek; relaxation, the Irrawaddy dolphin and Khone Phapheng Falls at Si Phan Don or, as they are known in English, the Four Thousand Islands; Wat Phu, an ancient Khmer temple complex; and the Bolaven Plateau for waterfalls and coffee. The European Council on Trade and Tourism awarded the country the “World Best Tourist Destination” designation for 2013 for this combination of architecture and history.[100]

Luang Prabang and Wat Phu are both UNESCO World Heritage sites, with the Plain of Jars expected to join them once more work to clear UXO has been completed. Major festivals include Lao New Year celebrated around 13–15 April and involves a water festival similar but more subdued than that of Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries.

The Lao National Tourism Administration, related government agencies and the private sector are working together to realize the vision put forth in the country’s National Ecotourism Strategy and Action Plan. This includes decreasing the environmental and cultural impact of tourism; increasing awareness in the importance of ethnic groups and biological diversity; providing a source of income to conserve, sustain and manage the Lao protected area network and cultural heritage sites; and emphasizing the need for tourism zoning and management plans for sites that will be developed as ecotourism destinations.[101]

Laos is known for silk and local handicraft products, which are on display in Luang Prabang’s night market, among other places. Another specialty is mulberry tea.

Thailand

Open Your Eyes and Mind in the Land of Smiles, Thailand

Thailand is a country of ancient temples and modern urbanization, a rainbow of traditions and cultures mostly affected by Buddhism. The scenic beauty can be ecstatic with its world famous beaches and rocky mountains.  The unique architecture of its ancient temples and Buddhist monasteries and the traditional busy street markets make it seem like a totally different world. A world where traditions and religion are still more important than materialistic goods or products.

With its seven century long history, Thailand has been able to absorb a complete blend of cultural influence. It has one of the largest Buddhist populations in the world. However, there are other minorities too like the Phra Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana Mahathera, Muslims and Christians. Religion has a central place in the society, which is proved by the fact that the Thai temples, apart from being worship places, also serve as hostelries, community centres, hospitals and even schools. Also every Thai male becomes a monk for 3 months in his lifetime to serve the almighty.

Mountainous landscape of Northern Thailand
Mountainous landscape of Northern Thailand

Thailand is famous for its classical architecture, but also has a number of modern buildings in cities like Bangkok, which is the economic hub of the country. However, the classical Thai architecture can be appreciated in the temples and royal buildings including the Grand Palace, the Wat Benchamabophit and Wat Suthat.

Thai people, being so religious minded, are God fearing and friendly, so people can fit in easily in the society. One of the most distinctive traditions of the Thais is the Wai, which is much like the Indian Namaste i.e. joining hands to greet people and also as a mark of respect. The Wai can be an important tool for tourists as a gesture of friendly behavior towards the natives. Also revealing clothes and rude behavior in public is frowned upon in the country, especially in the rural areas and should be avoided at all costs. Putting your feet above someone’s head is considered as a sign of great disrespect. So travelers should refrain from stepping on the Thai coin as the king’s head is engraved on it.
The Thai cuisine is famous for the usage of herbs and spices, which blend all tastes of spicy, sour, sweet and salty. The sea plants and animals are an integral part of their food. Thailand is renowned for its spices and it also exports them in large quantities.

Architecture in the Srivijayan style Surat Thani Thailand
Architecture in the Srivijayan style Surat Thani Thailand

Geographically, Thailand is divided in 4 broad regions: the central and east coast, the north, north east and the south. The central area is the most fertile region of Thailand with paddy fields, orchards and greenery all around. The eastern side consists of some of the finest Asian beaches where residents enjoy relaxing weekends and tourists experience the delightful tropical beach life. The Pattaya beach is a major tourist attraction and the area is full of luxurious resorts and hotels.

The north region is where the birth of civilization took place. It’s an ideal place to witness the rich Thai culture and heritage. Most of the ancient archaeological and cultural sites have been beautifully preserved, which gives you an insight of the history of their early civilization. The mountain ranges along the northern border can be breath taking and have sparkling waterfalls and fast flowing rivers which make this area a hub for adventure sports.

Rice fields Chiang Mai Thailand
Rice fields Chiang Mai Thailand

The southern part of Thailand extends to form a peninsula with a long coastline full of sandy beaches on both sides and central region of mountains and forests. The coast along the Andaman Sea, with its calm sea and wide bays, has the most marvellous limestone formations and cliffs. The offshore islands like the island of Phuket are Thailand’s most famous tourist attractions. With its fascinating rock formations, they also provide great potential for sailing and water diving in the crystal water.

The central part of the peninsula is becoming a new hot spot of the eco-tourists. The elephant ride safaris of the forests and animal reserves truly bring you close to nature.
The people of Thailand celebrate a lot of festivals with unbelievable zeal and enthusiasm. Most of the festivals are related directly to their religion and have a deep history behind them. The locals and tourists gather in large number to witness the famous buffalo races held in October.

In a nutshell, you can taste the hustle bustle of modern city life, the calmness of sea and colours of ancient traditions and religion all in one place. Thailand will truly spice up your life. Whether you choose to stay for a week, a month or even a year, there is no shortage of things to do, places to go and smiles to see. Make friends with locals and you will be shown some wonderful sights that are off the beaten path. Connect with the culture, enjoy the local atmosphere and break away from the packaged tours and cookie cutter resorts if you really want to enjoy all that Thailand has to offer.

Thai seafood curry, an example of Thai cuisine
Thai seafood curry, an example of Thai cuisine

Some of the best parts of Thailand are the ones that are not talked about in the Lonely Planet or on forums. Find your own experiences and enjoy the hidden gems that are abundant in the country. Thailand truly is a country where you can find whatever you are looking for whenever you need it. Head out and enjoy the nightlife until the wee hours of the morning, enjoy the beaches and soak in the sun or hope onto a moped and tour the mountains. The choice is yours and the opportunities to create the truly unique getaway of your dreams are abundant.

The Land of Smiles really is a place where memories are made and travel dreams happen. You can prepare, read and research all you want, but Thailand is a place that you will not truly understand until you experience it for yourself. No one vacation to this country is the same. Come back time and time again and every experience will be different and awe inspiring.