Vang Vieng is not what it once was.
Which is just as well, or I never would have gone there.
5 years ago or so, Vang Vieng was where everyone went to get trashed and throw themselves in the river in a tyre inner tube. Bars lined the length of the river, and competed for custom by setting up rickety water slides and fraying swings, and giving out a lot of free beer.
In the dry season, when the weather is hot and the river is low, this is a very bad combination. There were frequent serious injuries, a not insignificant number of deaths, and the Lao government clamped down.
These days, there are just four bars on the 'tubing' route along the river, and tour agencies have sprung up offering trekking and kayaking, climbing, and hot air balloon flights instead.
It makes for a rather odd place.
While everyone knows things have changed, the town is full of people desperately wishing it hadn't. It feels a bit like walking through a mass hallucination, being hosted by the minds of a thousand 22yr-olds who wish they'd made it here just a little sooner.
The bars in town play Friends and How I Met Your Mother on a loop, all day long, to people lounging around on cushions and drinking banana shakes by the gallon. I admit that I was quite often one of those people.
Of the four days I was in Vang Vieng, I spent two of them watching Friends, drinking banana shakes and eating mango sticky rice, which is basically rice pudding. Of the other two days, one was a rather surreal piece of caving-by-inner-tube: hundreds of bikini and board-short clad tourists pulling themselves along a rope through a cave in a shallow (dry season) river while sitting in an inner tube. It's not an experience I expect to repeat, but it was oddly enjoyable.
Afterwards was some kayaking on a very shallow river (notice the theme here), and then some messing about in a cave.
The other day, I climbed.
I was a bit nervous of going for a whole day, as I've mainly found limestone quite tricky to climb, but this was great. I don't know why the rock had weathered so differently to the ones I've climbed before, but this was grippy, with good footholds and lots of handholds, whether you like pockets, laybacks or big secure edges. I had a really good day, and while I didn't try any leading, being able to make it up 6as on limestone made me feel a lot better about the world. Especially after not having climbed much for three months!
I've spent one more day in Vang Vieng than I intended, mainly through indecision. Whether to head east to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars (an area scattered with stone jars, probably Mesolithic, which no-one knows the origin or purpose of); or to go straight to Luang Prabang.
Eventually, hesitation made the decision for me. It would be a day's travel each way for the Plain of Jars, and I'm running out of time in Laos.
Given the reputation of Luang Prabang as one of the highlights of Laos and it's status as a world heritage city, I've opted to have more time there before heading north.
At least the bus is at 9am rather than stupid o'clock.
Hangover-land has it's benefits!