First-time visitors to this hamlet on the Nam Song River can be forgiven for feeling a little lost. With shirtless young backpackers drinking beer and sun tanning, it looks more like an Ibizan beach town than a Laotian village. But, no, you didn’t take a wrong turn at the Thai border. This is Vang Vieng farm town turned full-moon party, smack in the middle of a communist state. Once a resting place for opium-addled sojourners on sweet, slow tours of the East, Vang Vieng is now a haven of a different sort. It has become a popular stopover for gap-year students on Southeast Asia’s well-trodden holiday trail and erstwhile young bankers spending some of that severance pay. Drug dens have given way to beach huts serving up candy-colored cocktails and blasting American pop. For about $10 a day the young and hedonistic can float down the river, booze in hand, then stop by the pub for pizza or pancakes. The town, a recent returnee says, “is like the land of the lotus eaters and you are Odysseus in an inner tube.”
Thankfully, Vang Vieng has much to offer grown-ups, too, and makes a charming stop if you’re traveling overland between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. To beat the backpacker crush, opt for midmarket guesthouses like Villa Nam Song, tel: 511 637, and the Elephant Crossing Hotel, 511 232, which offer relative luxury . For fresh local food, try Vang Vieng Organic Farm, 590 9132. Founded in 1996 by Thanongsi Solangkoun , it serves innovative Lao cuisine and also features a guesthouse and charity school. And, if you can pull yourself from your porch, rent a bicycle or go caving deep below the valley’s jagged karst mountains. Green Discovery, 264 528, sells tours. They’re a lot more strenuous than knocking back half a dozen vodka-jelly shots, but ultimately more rewarding.
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