After our visit to Luang Prabang we took a bus south to Vang Vieng, which is on the route to Vientiane, Laos’ capital. On the map, the distance between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng is not that large (180 km), but because the north of Laos is quite inaccessible due to the mountains, the bus ride took almost seven hours. We were happy when we finally arrived in Vang Vieng, which is located in between some impressive limestone mountains with many caves and impressive cliffs, most of it overgrown with dense vegetation.
Tourist Activities in Vang Vieng
Of course tourism has also arrived in Vang Vieng, which reflects in the village being full of tour agencies, bars, and restaurants. There are dozens of tour agencies selling the exact same activities. The actual number of possible activities can be counted on one hand however: Kayaking down the river, entering some caves either on foot or by sitting on an inflated tube on the water, enjoying the area in either a hot air balloon or a motorized hang glider, some longer trekking or taking a swim in a natural pool.
I have never been a fan of tours as you’re mixed with all kinds of people. Especially for things like kayaking or trekking, it can be very frustrating if there are people in your group who have never done such an activity before. Also, I don’t like being squeezed through the whole program in a given schedule. That’s why we decided to rent a motorbike for two days and go exploring the area at our own pace.
One word about the flying activities: hot air ballooning and hang-gliding sounds very tempting, however I told myself to never take part in such activities in a third world country as the equipment that is used is most likely not corresponding even closely to our safety standards. I have also observed that when paragliding in Colombia. I saw lots of equipment used by locals that most likely was sold from Europe once it has reached its end of life (for Europe standards). While a broken motorbike or kayak usually does not have serious consequences, broken flight equipment is fatal.
The Nature around Vang Vieng
While Vang Vieng is nothing worth seeing at all, the mountains, rivers, and dry rice fields around Vang Vieng are really wonderful. If it had not been so hot and dry during our stay, I would have loved to go trekking there, but with temperatures up to 35°C, we tried to keep physical activities outside to a minimum. Thanks to our motorbike, we could still see a lot of the region, even if it meant riding through dusty dirt roads for a full day. Especially the sunsets were magic during this time of the year.
Exploring Undeveloped Caves around Vang Vieng
I am a big fan of caves, and especially caves that have not been equipped with lights and walking paths. And these are exactly the kind of caves you can find around Vang Vieng. Also, the caves are very diverse, some of them are partially filled with water, others are 3 km long tunnels into the mountain, and others again consist of enormous halls where a human being looks very small inside the cave.
Undeveloped caves fascinate me because you actually can explore the cave yourself. You need to set reference points and have good navigation skills to find your way in and out of the caves, because not all caves are just bidirectional tunnels, but rather branched. Combined with the limited light that a head lamp provides, it is easy to lose orientation, and inside the mountain, there is no GPS or any other electronic aid that can point the way out. And of course you have to make sure that the batteries of your headlamp last long enough. But this is exactly what I love and stresses Ilinca out about it. The atmosphere gets even more special once you turn off your lamps and just listen to the sounds of bats, water drops, and sometimes underground rivers. Inside the caves it is so dark that even after a few minutes without light, your eyes still cannot see anything at all.
The Water Cave
Only one of the visited caves is set up for mass tourism. It is Tham Nam, the water cave. An underground river goes several hundred meters into the mountain. Along the cave, ropes were installed, and tourists can sit into tubes and pull themselves through the water deep inside the cave. Usually this cave is explored as part of a tour, however, I simply grabbed a tube that was floating around and went into the cave between the tour groups all by myself. Ilinca was guarding my possessions outside. Like this, I did not have to listen to the screams and basically had most of the cave to myself. I turned off the lamp for a few minutes and pulled myself inside the cave, only listening to the water flowing and imagining how I would get out of the cave if my head lamp stopped to work. It is hard to describe this in words, but it is a unique feeling. When the ropes stopped after a few hundred meters, the cave still continued, but as I was in there completely alone, I decided not to go in any further.
Swimming in Blue Lagoons
The main attraction around Vang Vieng were the numerous blue lagoons, which are basically natural pools that are filled with water coming from the mountains. In order to please the mostly Chinese tourists, wooden towers or trees were used as a spring board, and whenever someone had the courage to jump into the water from 5m height, everybody applauded. Most of these blue lagoons were completely overcrowded and were no temptation at all for us. I rather go for a swim again in Lake Zurich when I am back home.
One thing surprised us though at these blue lagoons: At least half of the Chinese tourists chose to go inside the pool wearing a life jacket. It is hard to imagine for a developed country like China that so many people either cannot swim or don’t feel comfortable in the water without a life jacket.
Moving on to Vientiane
Two full days in Vang Vieng are enough if you don’t go on some multi-day trekking adventures, so we decided to move on to Vientiane. It is only a 4h bus ride, so I guess we should arrived there more relaxed than when we arrived in Vang Vieng.