Ahhh another long post! (many thanks to Beth and Will for allowing me to use their photos- the cover photo is also theirs)
So after being pleasantly surprised by Phonsavan we took the windy pass back over the mountains (with our bags strapped to the roof…. again), the wet and windy road was made more entertaining by a Lao lady who kept chatting to us in Lao for the first 30 mins only in hindsight when we picked up her friends further down the road did we realise what she had said to us and the bus driver who was leaning out the window shouting and joking at literally everyone we passed- and he kept stopping to do his shopping (three stops just to get his veg)- and also the Lao lady was on the hunt for some pineapples which she eventually got.
We were also given some sweetcorn that were being passed around the bus.
Other than we hadn’t a clue what everyone was saying, other than the odd “Falang” (foreigner) reference when we were mentioned there was a great vibe on the bus.
Like in Phonsavan it rained all the way to Vang Vieng and the road was pretty bad again with potholes and the odd cow or goat. Eventually after 6 hours, and passing more stunning scenery- Laos is quite the beauty- we arrived at Vang Vieng bus station. Conveniently located 3 km north of Vang Vieng, just out of walking distance so we had to get a tuk tuk- this is one of the things that annoy us about Laos – bus stations moved to make sure you have to get additional transport.
Vang Vieng has been likened to the inland version “Full Moon Party” island of Ko Phagnan, with a dangerous cocktail of excessive drinking, drugs, river tubing (which is sitting in a tractor tyre inner tube floating on the river) and ziplines and plunges into the river. Every year there were more and more backpackers dying there from drowning or getting into difficulty on the river, it got so bad that in 2011 after over 25 backpackers died, the government came in and shocked at what they saw; closed down everything without a licence-which as it turned out was almost all the bars. Since then they have been slowly moving the town more upmarket with some really nice quality accommodation and resorts as well as more family orientated pursuits. When we were there, there was a mix of young backpackers, 30-40 yr old couples with or without kids and Korean and Thai couples. The tubing was still going on though, and Gav was quite excited by the prospect of a leisurely float down the river, I was less enthused but I figured I’d see what it was like and decide when there.
So as usual job one in Laos was to find accommodation- again we landed with a vague idea of where to go but no booking. We had planned to stay at a cheap place across the river from the main part of town and across a bridge. Unfortunately you had to pay each time you crossed it- arrggh Laos! Why!?!- so that was plan A out the window as it would cost more than just staying in town. So we headed to a local cafe/guesthouse (Vieng Thara) to grab a coffee and leech off their wifi in the hopes that Trip Advisor might give us some indication of a cheap but good place to stay. It wasn’t particularly helpful and, as I am like a snail with regards to drinking coffee, Gav left me to absorb my coffee by osmosis and headed off to try find somewhere he liked the look of. After about 30 mins he reappeared. There were a few but they all seemed expensive. The place we were in, wasn’t the best but seemed to have good reviews. Rooms were cheap at 80,000 according to Trip Advisor, so we asked the somewhat surely manager if he had any available- yes he did; for how much?- 70,000 kip ($8.50/£5.50), even better. So Gav went down to see the rooms as the last time I picked one he complained! Anyway he came back up and said they were not great but ok, I decided not to look and trust his judgement so we got a room. I should have looked! It was damp, very damp, with grotty sheets, a mosquito net full of holes and a weird smell in the bathroom-clearly this guesthouse had seen better days. The bed was also a bit damp but as we later discovered the whole town in wet season is damp (and rained a lot while we were there) unless you have air-con. Anyway I moaned a bit, but it was only for two nights, it was cheap and there were no cockroaches. So we emptied the water bin (a common sight in many places- Lao like to wash this way and also it can be used if the water gets switched off), which also rinsed the drains and thankfully got rid of whatever was casing the smell. We put a mosquito coil burning and all the fans on, including the extractor fans to stop the army of mosquitos coming in, removed the almost useless net from around the bed and settled in.
Once we sorted our stuff out, we headed into town to find out where the tubing office was and the end point to see what the story was. While wandering about through a resort of stilted cabins hunting for the mysterious end point, we turned a corner only to be greeted by someone exclaiming “Gav!”. Turns out we had run into Beth (and later her other half, Will) who had been in Uni with Gav, they hadn’t seen each other in three years. They had literally landed in Vang Vieng from Vientiane minutes before we met them. How crazy is that? Running into someone who lives 30 miles from you on the other side of the world in a random small town?!?
So we had many beers, dinner and ended up in a backpacker bar called “Warm Up Bar”…..
After a few drinks we were thinking of calling it a day and this rather excited Australian girl popped up between Gav and Beth, and started chatting away. It turned out she worked for the bar- we had guessed that much, half the people there “worked” for the bar- and in exchange for her hard work she was given a bed and two meals a day of fish heads and sticky rice and as much whiskey as she could drink. She planned on working there for two months, luckily there was free mojitos everyday otherwise she’ll defiantly get scurvy.
Anyway, the conversation came round to tubing. We had all presumed that we could just grab our tube (and life jacket- though that’s not cool apparently… I’d rather not drown thanks, especially with the speed the river was at thanks to the heavy rain), have a nice cup of tea and a cake at the organic farm which we believed to be the starting point and have a nice lazy, wet bummed ride down the river. Our new friend told us that there was an organised thing- you all leave about 11.30-12 pm and arrive at the first bar for a drink then we would be brought down the river as a group to a series of other bars. Then she mentioned something weird about if you left early you’d have to pay for a tuk tuk back. What about the river? So with the tubing explained, we avoided going to the only nightclub in the town we had one last shot for the road (urrggh) and headed for bed.
The following morning, horribly hung over we met Beth and Will for a late morning breakfast, not really in the mood to have to make too many decisions we stopped in the first decent place we passed, it had a deck out the back and the view of the karst mountains was incredible as you walked in (less so when you sat at the end of the deck though). Clearly the view was the main selling point as the service was interesting, with a slightly confused, but amusing waiter. Poor Will never did get the tea that was supposed to come with his breakfast.
After breakfast and feeling more normal again we picked up a fresh dry bag (in case our Karrimor one let water in we double bagged), for our camera, cash, sun cream, etc. Grabbed our tubes (55,000 + 60,000 kip deposit) and life jackets and the four of us piled into a tuk tuk with 6 others and headed to the start of the tubing. All hope of a leisurely cup of tea and a bit of cake were quickly dashed however as we pulled into the back of a riverside bar with some guy greeting us with the following statement (or words to the effect).
“You can be boring and take your tube and admire the scenery, nature and all that shit or you can be cool and join us at the bar…do a shot for a bracelet…do it, do the shot”.
We did the shot and I still have the bracelet. Grabbed a beer and were transported back *ahem* over 10 years to our student days. Vicariously though, the hangover was still ticking on, we sat there wondering what really was so bad about just wanting to float down the river. In any case it was quite entertaining…
When the time came we moved on to bar number 2, all grabbing our tubes wading down the ramp into the water and plonking our asses into the middle of the tube. It was cold- a fact that was vocally noted by everyone! Then we were off, joyously floating down the river and just getting into it when we were pulled into the next bar. Literally 100 m down the river. Hmm. We also saw one tube floating, ownerless down the river, you lost your deposit if you lost your tube and you couldn’t have it with you when you went to the bars so we were always in the first wave of people leaving. So with a wet arse we climbed out, deposited our tubes and headed to bar number two. Rinse and repeat bar number one, but now add rain.
The tubes appeared by the helpers, we grabbed four, finished our drinks and went over to the next leaving point, a muddy track down to some shallow water right next to some trees. Shortly after pushing off into the water, Gav, Beth and I promptly got caught in them about 10 m out. Just as we were working out how we could possibly free ourselves one of the helper guys popped up besides us, pushed us out and held on to me and Beth’s tubes while we floated to bar number three. Another 200 m down the river,
This one was a bit more interesting, it had a water pit for volleyball or that game where two people straddle a log facing each other and then try push each other off, a sort of dance platform and the skeletal remains of the zipline over the river and a sort of suspension bridge.
We didn’t stay long here, we had one drink, relived being 16 (thanks to the choice of music) and then decided we’d actually like to some actual tubing so we decided to skip bar number four and have a leisurely float back to Vang Vieng. The guys from bar number four weren’t going to let us go easily, Beth and Will got pulled in but we steaming away, until the guy nearly took us out with his weighted water bottle lure, we grabbed on but also pulled him into the water in the process. We were caught in a strong current though and he wasn’t able to pull us in. So we were free! Closely followed by Beth and Will who had managed to escape. What followed was a very enjoyable hour or so floating down the river, having a laugh and getting splashed by the kayak groups just generally chilling in the lovely scenery- take that frat boy! I did lose my singlasses though- which I had been warned to watch. Oh well.
Getting out of the river proved more of a challenge- close to thee “end” point we heard a shout and attempted to move in that direction- we were in a strong current though and quickly went out of range. There were two Koreans nearby and they told us there was another spot further down, we all missed that and then ended up barely making the last possible point just down from the tube shop. The poor Korean guys almost missed it but we managed to grab them and pull them in.
That evening after a much needed shower and change we headed out to grab some Laos BBQ- it actually ended up being Korean but same thing anyway. Will and Beth loved it.
The next day we had made a plan to go see some Caves. Grabbing breakfast again at the same place, same crappy service but at least he got his tea- eventually. Even though again the server thought he was mad wanting “hot tea”.
Anyway after breakfast we got some bikes and armed with a map from the hire place got promptly lost trying to find the petrol station. Then once we found that, proceeded not to be able to find the turn off for either the waterfall or the caves we wanted. Eventually after ending up almost in a farm, Maps.me came to the rescue and we located the Elephant Cave.
First down a rather bumpy road which was shortly followed by a muddy track next to an irrigation canal with local children running about and jumping into it at each village as we passed, combined with the usual chicken, duck and buffalo obstacles.
After the Elephant cave there was apparently another self-described “amazing” cave nearby and a short drive later we were at it, it was indeed amazing. Like the inside of a blue whale when you went in and then there was a river which we hiked up for about 1.5-2km, it was really cool. By the end point Gav had decided not to go further as he didn’t want to get drenched so it was only Will and I left to explore the last 50m or so. Would be great to do it in dry season.
That evening, our last night in Vang Vieng we headed out for dinner and there was a joking reference to going to Gary’s Irish Bar. As we finished up dinner, I was all set to say goodbye and toddle off to bed- it had been an enjoyable but tiring few days. However as we left the restaurant the boys had other plans and sure enough we ended up in Gary’s Irish Bar, a few shots and cocktails later we ended the night with a session of Christy Moore and then off to bed…..well no the boys spotted… a place serving noodles- which Beth and I said “you want noodles now??”. Will’s response “they also have beer”. Gav giggled and we had some beer there until they kicked us out at 2 am. By this point we had decided to stay one more day-only problem was we had booked the bus. Gav managed (I don’t know how) to get up at 6.30 am to ask the manager if we could move back the bus until the following morning and add on another night. It was no problem, hurrah! So we got one more day exploring caves!
The following day after another amusing breakfast- poor Will this time ordered a full English with scrambled eggs, only scrambled eggs arrived minus the other items, quite the *face-palm* moment- we collected our mopeds and set off for the Chang Cave- it’s located in a resort which annoyingly you have to pay to get into despite the place looking really run down.The bikes were parked up and after a short walk and a flight of steps (15,000 kip each lighter) we arrived at the most boring cave we have seen in ages. There was a slightly more interesting water cave next to it but it was full of tourists so you couldn’t get into the water to see it.
After this we decided to go to the famous Blue Lagoon, it was over the toll bridge in the town about 7 km away. 7 km is not that far but the road had become a quagmire, as we drove we met countless people drenched in mud, others telling us it gets worse and worse and is impassable and abandoned dune buggies on the side of the road . But we persevered- despite the horrible conditions passing promising cave after promising cave (indoor swimming pools in almost every one)…so much left to explore here but we kept going to the famous Lagoon.
When we eventually got there and paid the entry fee (30,000 kip/$3.70/£2.36 each), the Blue lagoon turned out to be a river, a dirty looking green river from a cave of sorts and it was full of tourists (turns our it does look nice in dry season). The area had a slide, rope swing and zipline. We grabbed a drink and some horribly out of date Kit Kats (so stale!) and contemplated what to do next.
There was a cave there, Tham Phu cave, we weren’t expecting much but we decided to investigate it anyway. A short but hard climb up the side of the mountain to the cave entrance where we were met with a large rather open cave with a shrine in the centre.
But wait! There was more, a slightly harder climb at the back of the cave and we were in a second larger vaulted cave. Unfortuantely we took no photos- they wouldn’t have come out anyway given that the place was lit by head torches. The cave was enormous! It was very muddy underfoot however and quite slippy and there were a rather stinky colony of bats near the entrance. Really cool though- reminded me of some sort of centre of the earth film in there, it was very otherworldly.
After far too long wandering around in there, we climbed back down, it was 5 pm. The park had closed, it had started to rain again slightly and it was getting dark. Beth and I nipped to the loo and when we came out Will was soaking wet- he had decided have a go on the rope swing to rinse off some of the mud. For Beth it was a long and wet ride back to Vang Vieng behind Will. For us it was quite a scary ride back, the road was a mud slide and only getting worse; we passed people digging drainage ditches and dumping the mud onto the road, helpful! On a few occasions we almost went over as the wheels got caught in a ridge and then all of a sudden we were on the ground when the wheels slipped. Luckily we were only going 15 km an hour so other than getting muddy we were ok. It was a very bumby road back, and when we eventually got into Vang Vieng, Will pulled up along side and told us we had a flat. It was like a pancake, not sure when it went but explains how rough the ride was back after we went over.
After walking it back to the shop luckily we only had an inner tube to pay for (25,000 kip/$3/£2). We were all wrecked so grabbed some food, said our goodbyes in the rain and headed back to the guesthouse. The following morning we left for Vientiane.
Vang Vieng was awesome- we will definitely be back- so many caves to explore!
A few days after we arrived in Vientiane we saw this in the local paper- looks like we left Vang Vieng just in time. The river was at dangerous levels and I’m guessing that was the end of tubing for a while there.