Vang Vieng is a small town approximately 4 hours north of the Laos capital Vientiane. Once famous among backpackers as a party town, over the years, the party scene has diminished and been replaced by a tourist industry more focused on outdoor activities. The scenery around Vang Vieng is stunning and so it is little wonder that people come from all over the world to hike, rock climb, kayak and mountain bike around and over the limestone karsts which jut out of the countryside like the teeth of some great beast.
We’d seen some of the area surrounding Vang Vieng from the bus as we arrived but we wanted to see more, a lot more. The town itself has no shortage of tour operators offering to rent out bicycles, motorbikes and ATVs. However, there was only one thing that could provide the occular satisfaction we so desparately craved. Hot. Air. Balloons.
There’s a couple of companies that operate hot air balloons in the area. If you spend a little time checking out the reviews of these companies, you’ll see why we chose Above Laos.
Years ago we were lucky enough to fly in a hot air balloon in France. It was a brilliant experience. The air is still as you sail gently, allowing the breeze to take you where it chooses. Being at the mercy of the wind, no two flights are the same.
There are a couple of options to choose from, a sunrise, or a sunset flight. We opted for sunrise. having seen the mountains in morning mist while camping in Thailand, we couldn’t wait to see what Laos had to offer.
We were up at 5:30 am and waited at the front of our hotel. Above Laos is a French-Laos endevour and, thankfully it runs on French time rather than Laotian. This is no criticism of Laos but, if you’ve ever caught a local bus there, you’ll know that “on time” is a very fluid concept.
The bus arrived promptly and took us out to the “Pilots’ Cafe”, a small cafe with a field behind it where the balloons can take off. On arrival at the cafe we met with the pilots, received coffee (thankfully not the 3-in-1 we’d been getting used too) and a safety briefing. Rachel is afraid of heights and, we must admit, spent some of our last hot air balloon flight sitting on the floor, peering at the basket rather than out of it. The safety briefing (done in English), was professional and to the point. This put us at ease and allowed us to enjoy the coffee, watch the ground crew inspect and inflate the balloons and play with Luna, a lovely friendly dog belonging to one of the pilots. If you’ve not had the chance to hear the burners of a hot air balloon roaring into life, it really is quite an experience.
The 2 balloons now inflated we, and the other passengers followed our respective pilots and climbed into the baskets, ready to fly.
It was exciting. From our basket we watched the first balloon take off, then we followed. In the early morning haze the air was cool and clean. Mist poured through the plateaus between karsts like softly foaming waves.
Climbing slowly untill we became level with the mountains, the placidity of the flight was occaisionally punctuated by bursts of burner and slowly we climbed higher. Beyond the mountains the sky started to glow brighter and shadows were cast across the landscape.
The group in our basket watched quietly or spoke in hushed tones as we tried to take in the scene. It is no overstatement to say that this flight was a pure spectacle. Mild breezes turned the basket, allowing us to absorb our surroundings. Then, the sun started to crest over the mountains.
From our vantage point we floated above rice fields and forest. I took over 400 photographs and, this was after I put some effort into making myself stop to just enjoy the flight. The sun grew hotter and brighter, casting a pinkish hue onto the karsts.
We flew for over an hour and would not hesitate to do it again. It was absolutely the highlight of our time in Laos.
Peacefully our decent began. Our pilot, a former monk, gentley adjusted our altitude, catching wind currents that took us surfing over the forest until a suitable landing spot came into view. The ground crew appeared on the road below, as if from nowhere, and entered the field. A line was cast down to them and used to help guide our decent. The crew set to quick work deflating and packing the balloon and we meandered our way into the waiting minibus which took us back to the Pilots’ Cafe where a breakfast of fruit, some cake and sparkling wine was served. There’s nothing quite like morning booze and this was the perfect end to the morning.
We hung out for a while, chatting with the pilots and our fellow passengers, topping ourselves up with coffee after the early start and, obviously, playing with Luna.
Vang Vieng is easy to get to from Luang Prabang and Vientiane and well worth a visit even if, like us, you don’t want to drink and drift down river in a tractor tube. If you’re in Laos, we’d highly recommend you take a detour through Vang Vieng and visit Above Laos.