Vang Vieng - Land of Caves and Don't Forget to Have a Sandwich

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August 21st 2013
Published: August 23rd 2013
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The backpacker community has invaded Laos, and their headquarters is Vang Vieng: their sheer numbers by far surpassed what we’d seen in Don Det, as did their audacity in showing skin despite Laotian signs requesting that they respect cultural norms by being modestly dressed. Many Laotians unfortunately feel that their presence - which brings with it copious use of drink and other substances, and sitting around in a daze watching sitcom reruns - is having a negative impact on their culture. I’m sure it is so, but it is possible to circumvent much of their (usually innocuous) shenanigans and discover things in Vang Vieng that appeal to you, especially in the adventure tourism industry. Klaudia and I definitely enjoyed several “bests” during our stay.

First, we had the best hotel room for a very reasonable price during our entire Asian trip. In pristine condition, with immaculate floors and walls, it was furnished with pine furniture that still had a scent to it and was equipped with a long and wide balcony that overlooked the Nam Song River, the flow of which is generally tranquil, sprinkled with some rapids. On the other side of the river, we had tremendous views of limestone karst formations, lush with vegetation.

Second, across the street from our hotel, we ate the absolute best sandwiches. There are women selling sandwiches everywhere in town, but we had direct access – that is, I could roll out of bed and stroll across the narrow little street at almost any time of day – to three women who would lightheartedly vie for passersby’s patronage, each one serving equally excellent sandwiches. It was so hard for me to choose between them, I had one sandwich at alternating stands each day while we were there, except for our first day, when I had three (I couldn’t let one of them down, could I?). Served on a French baguette, they could be filled and topped with any number of things, from egg, to bacon, to chicken, to tuna, to just tomato and cucumber if you’re feeling boring. My personal favorite became the fried bacon, ham, egg and cheese with vegetables, and watching the women make it was just as enjoyable as eating it. The magic began when the roll was cut open and placed on a pan to toast, while slices of onion were sautéed on a separate pan. Next, a beaten egg was dropped on the onions, then, next to that, but not mixed with it, the bacon and ham. Once the bacon and ham were crisp, the cheese was placed on the frying egg for a few seconds to melt, at which point all of it was layered on the now goldenly toasted baguette and topped with a heaping helping of cucumber and tomato. By the third sandwich, the women knew to then apply a moderate dose of mayonnaise and a spicy chili sauce. I’m writing this after a pretty large breakfast, and consequently not feeling hungry, but I’m craving those sandwiches and could easily put away two.

After a breakfast of one of these Vang Vieng specialties, we set out for early sightseeing on a motorbike to several caves on the outskirts of town. The first was Tham Xang, or Elephant Cave, named so because of several stalactites that somewhat form the shape of an elephant. It is also considered an important Buddhist temple. As we made it to our destination, we paid what we and a Brit who shared the boat with us all thought was a hefty price to have a longtail boat take us across the river; we were required to pay another entry fee once reaching Tham Xang, which was a disappointment: small and unmemorable, the cave was more like a larger-sized, but unimpressive hole in the rock, while the temple was really nothing more than a Buddha statue. As the three of us were leaving the cave sighing and shaking our heads, an unsolicited tour guide latched himself to us and led us to Tham Nam, or Water Cave. The cave is explored by ensconcing oneself in an inner tube in the chilly river water and pulling it along a rope that extends far into the cave. The tube and headlamps are provided for a fee, but this time it was worth it. Into the dark cave we pulled ourselves behind “our guide”, who, after we’d reached the end of the rope, showed us a narrow passageway through which we crawled on our bellies to another cave. Once upright again, we walked the cave a while in waist-high water; it was fun to intermittently turn off our headlamps and experience the blackness. Crawling back to our inner tubes, we floated out of the cave and then headed on a 1-kilometer path through tall grass and rice fields to Tham Loup and Tham Hoi, or Deep Cave and Snail Cave, respectively. After walking with us part of the way, I surmise our guide grew weary of us and pointed us in the already-apparent direction, just about putting out his palm with the other hand. I gave him a few kip too many, probably feeding him for a week, but I can’t really call it a “scam” or a “con” because I’m aware of the assumed tip as soon the unsolicited guide says something to which I show any interest.

We reached the caves after a half-hour-or-so hike, visiting Tham Loup first, which is reached along a short path of bamboo ladders and bridges. We immediately noticed the enormous stalactites at the cave’s mouth; as we treaded deeper into the cave, we turned our headlamps on and walked through the darkness, the sound of water drops echoing through the cave as they hit deep puddles, which I knew were deep since I’d stepped in a few of them. We walked under large spider webs supporting spiders the size of my thumb, the separate segments of their bodies reflecting brightly the light of our headlamps.

Not far along the path was Tham Hoi. There is a large Buddha statue at the entrance, beyond which the cave supposedly extends in the limestone for more than three kilometers, ending at an underground pool. We walked along the watery floor for some time but never made it the entire three kilometers to the pool as the water became deeper and more difficult to tread. Plus, in the complete darkness, I was beginning to slip on the rocks and fell over a couple times, just barely managing to keep our camera above water, as I did not have the foresight to bring along something waterproof. In any case, I’m not sure we were on the correct path to the pool as the cave possesses several separate caverns.

All muddy at this point, we exited Tham Hoi and walked the countryside path back to the river, encountering very polite cows that moved off the path (we would have had to walk through the wet rice fields otherwise) when they noticed us. Once across the river again, we got on our motorbike and had a long drive to Tham Jang (Freezing Cave).

Used as a bunker defense against marauding Chinese during the 19th century, Tham Jang is, as evidenced by the number of tourists visiting it, the most famous cave in Vang Vieng. It is also the most touristic as it’s the only one that has had lighting installed throughout its caverns. The entrance is reached along a series of steps that rise about 600 feet and that are lined with jungle vegetation; the top of the stairs move beyond the vegetation and reveal fantastic views of Vang Vieng and the Nam Song River. We walked through the cave’s lighted caverns along pavements and stairs (I can say that I unequivocally prefer the exploration that dark, unlighted caves afford). At the bottom of the stairs, before the entrance kiosk, is a pretty blue lagoon that one can walk over using charming bridges; it is also possible to swim in its turquoise waters.

We ended our cave adventure for the day with my favorite cave at Tham Phu Kham, seven kilometers from Vang Vieng along a rocky dirt road and just beyond the redundantly-named Blue Lagoon blue lagoon. The cave is reached through somewhat dense jungle brush. The initial cavern, at the entrance, is fairly large and deep and we almost missed a path leading to the left to another cavern. Luckily, we noticed a couple climbing out of that cavern.

Just before the second cavern is a large reclining Buddha statue with a red and gold canopy above it. It would be surrounded by darkness, as would the path, if not for a large hole in the cavern wall that shines sunlight upon the whole area. That favorable light, however, was extinguished once we reached the second cavern; with only our headlamps, we carefully navigated the darkness along a trail that made a large loop around an underground pool. It was a pleasant exploration. Once outside the cave, we had a breather and watched visitors dive into the Blue Lagoon from tree branches and swings.

The next day we rented a kayak and floated down the Nam Song River. The Karst formations beautifully rose above the river as we glided past dense jungle. We navigated very, very small rapids before finally reaching the section of the river designated for “tubing”, which denotes the activity of flowing down the river in an inner tube and implies stopping at various bars that blast European techno music along the way. The bars, upon seeing the tubers, throw ropes out into the river for tubers to catch as a means to pull themselves to the shore of the river where the bar is located. There are several types of these bars to visit; thus, needless to say, many tourists arrive back to town rather inebriated. Furthermore, it probably comes as no surprise that many tourists participating in this activity drown or hurt themselves jumping into the river from the bars’ platforms: rivers and alcohol and/or drugs just don’t seem to mix, I guess. From what I understand, tubing is not nearly the revelry it once was: a few years ago, the son of a Laotian minister went out into the river in an inner tube with a tourist female companion and drowned after he flipped in a rapid. Tourists and their silly behavior is one thing, but when the son of a given country’s politician perishes from the same stupidity, heads are going to roll. And they did as practically every bar along the river was closed during an investigation. Since that time, the matter has calmed some and the bars are popping up once again.

We were happy when we finally passed all the tubers in our kayaks and had a peaceful remainder of the day after our kayaking excursion. I drank some Beerlao, the national beer, while having a sandwich and watching “Friends”…

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