Laos – Vang Vieng

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When I was researching my trip to Laos, I almost decided to give Vang Vieng a miss, mainly due to its backpacker and hippie hangout reputation. These doubts however were overridden by the beautiful scenery and amazing caves that Vang Vieng is famous for.  Plus there are decent hotels right on the river well away from the party scene.

Visiting the caves was my priority, so after a short “bus recovery period”, I headed into town to book a suitable tours. I signed up for a full day of trekking, taking in the four main caves. Three others were booked up, so I looked forward to a nice day exploring the countryside and seeing the best of the caves that Vang Vieng is famous for.

Bright and early, I was up and at the meeting point at the required time. I was whisked away with one other chap who was booked on a cave and kayak tour. When it became clear the three others were not going to join me, I asked what was happening. “They are sick”.  With limited options available to me, I was reluctantly on a cave and kayak trip for the day.  When the operator tried to fob me off with two caves, I was not amused! I had paid 150,000 kip (£11 or $18) for my cave and trekking tour, and all the others had only pad 80,000 kip (£6 or $10) for the kayak tour. I stuck to my guns and the compromise was I had the tour guide for the morning, taking me to two caves, followed by two other caves and then a two-hour kayak back to Vang Vieng. Thankfully, it all worked out.

The entrance to Tham Lop cave is hard to spot and then there is a rather perilous climb down a rickety make-shift stair case made from bamboo and wood. You definitely need a guide….

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One inside, it was difficult to know where to turn first – I was surrounded by enormous and stunning stalactites, stalagmite and crystals-like formations. Nature truly creates some amazing things and these were gorgeous to look at, glistening as if glitter had been blown over them….

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The cave was not lit – so a torch is necessary both for safety and so you can see these amazing formations. I found photographing them challenging, as to have the torch showing you the subject, it interfered with the lighting of the subject. I took most of my pictures in complete darkness.  The cave extended for about 800 m before it became too difficult to navigate. On the way back, I discovered that Thai tourists had been here….

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The return route took us down some smaller passages, which was cool. Here is my guide, Seng…

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Tham Hoi , the second cave was a couple of hundred meters from Lop cave and is guarded by a Buddha as you enter.

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This cave is longer and more narrow and in total, extends about 2 km into the mountain, although after a kilometre it becomes impracticable to go further due to the ground surface becoming a bed of wet sloppy rocks.  The stalagmites and stalactites in this cave were less beautiful and intricate, but were just as impressive. This is the most famous one – called the mushroom…

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Once again, this cave had a few rickety structures to help make a safer passage in more challenging parts…

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We then headed to the third cave, called the water cave.  This was in fact an underground river which is accessible during the dry season as the water level reduces enabling access via tubes using a roped guideline.  You definitely get wet on this one!  Here is the entrance…

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After a nice lunch of sticky rice, BBQ chicken skewers and bananas, I rejoined the main group and we crossed a paddy field to the last cave – the Elephant Cave. It was immediately obvious why it was given this name – a stalactite that resembles the shape of an elephant…

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The entrance to this cave is also guarded by a Buddha, and has a rather unusual bell made from a bomb casing…

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I asked Seng about the origins of this, and he told me this was from the war in Vietnam.  When I questioned him, he said there was no war in Laos.  At this point I laughed…

We spent the afternoon gently kayaking back to Vang Vieng, with a one hour “beer stop”.  Time to relax and have a nap…

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After another 40 minutes in the kayak, we were back at Vang Vieng and my day with the backpackers drew to a close. Despite being mis-sold a trekking package, it was a very enjoyable day.

For eating out in Vang Vieng, there is no shortage of establishments – both international and local fare.  In the centre of Vang Vieng there are many eateries, from cheap hawker stalls to mid-price restaurants.  The closer to the water, the greater the choice.  All offer a variety of food and drink choices, with free WiFi as standard in most establishments.  My top recommendation is Le cafe de Paris – the food is outstanding and the views of the mountains are amazing if you get there before sunset.  It is a little out-of-the-way, about 400 m up a street behind the main hospital.  Afterwards, if you are still hungry, have a delicious crêpe from one of the many street hawkers – I went to the two sisters outside my hotel (opposite the main hospital).

The next day I only had a morning to explore, before catching a minivan at 1 pm.  Seng recommended I hire a tuk tuk and head for Poukham Cave and the Blue Hole swimming area, about an hour from Vang Vieng.  Finding a tuk tuk was easy and we settled on a return price for the morning – 120,000 kip (£9 or $15), including two bridge tolls.

The journey to the caves was both scenic and interesting.  Please note the entrance pillars to the bridges:

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This is rush hour on the road to Poukham cave:

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I was one of the first to arrive and immediately saw it was a stunning and appropriately named spot…

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The set up at the cave and swimming spot is very well organised, ensuring both tourists and villagers get the most out of the site.  There are small hawker stalls, a shop selling drinks, cabanas and a volleyball court.  Plenty to keep you there for a whole day!

The entrance to the cave is well-marked, gives clear instructions in English that the cave is not lit and that exploring the cave is un-guided, unless you pay extra for a group tour.  The individual entrance fee is 10,000 kip and head torches are available for hire at 10,000 kip each.

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At the entrance, I met up with a young back-packing couple, Alec and Jessica and I was so  glad of the company! What isn’t volunteered at the entrance to the cave itself is a couple of hundred metres up a narrow, steep path and the cave is VAST!  Light was a problem for photography, so here is a very small selection…

The cave entrance from outside and inside…

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As you enter, you immediately see a reclining Buddha in a huge space.  Behind it there is, a small passageway leads you to an even bigger cathedral-like space.  This was the view when I looked up.

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We explored little further inside, which was smaller crevices and tunnels – this cave is well worth a visit if you have the time! After 45 minutes or so, we retreated back down to the Blue Hole.  I would definitely not have attempted going into this cave on my own.  Most folks swim after this, which is exactly what Alec and Jessica did…

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On the way back to Vang Vieng, I made a further contribution to the local economy, stopping to look at a local weaver and buy a silk scarf.  I would have bought more had I not run out of kip!

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This trip can easily be done in a morning, but can also make a nice day out – there are also surrounding trails to explore.

Getting to Vang Vieng

By public bus or private mini-van.  Most tourists arrive from Vientiane to the south or Luang Prabang to the north.  Fares to and from Vientiane are 40,000 kip (public bus) and 50,000 (AC mini-van).  I preferred using the public bus – a bit longer, but more comfortable believe it or not.

Where to stay

Vang Vieng has literally hundreds of places to stay – choice of course is contingent on budget and preferred standard.  I stayed at the Ban Sabai Guesthouse – one of the last waterfront bastions of rustic charm.  Although essentially bamboo huts, the resort is to international standards of furnishing and cleanliness, and this was reflected in the price.  It is a little unkempt though, and is sandwiched between two charm-less concrete monstrosities that cater for the masses.  I rather get the impression the owners are simply waiting for a big offer from a big hotel chain, but I can’t fault it.  Very friendly staff and a great location…

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Overall, Vang Vieng is worth a visit for the scenery and caves.  I am however glad I didn’t spend more than a couple of days – the town is becoming over-developed, with more and more concrete hotels replacing the original rustic backpacker resorts. Plus all operators are geared up to their main market – backpackers or Asian package tourists.  It is a place in transition, but still has much to offer in terms of natural beauty.

3 thoughts on “Laos – Vang Vieng

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