Vagabond in various ways in Vang Vieng
Published: July 29th 2020
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Don’t blame the buffalo if your fence is not good… ~ Lao Proverb
Today we were exploring the caves and villages on the outskirts of Vang Vieng.
Having arrived in the late afternoon the previous day, we had not explored much of this tourist-centric town on the eastern bank of the Nam Song (Song River). However, we had the whole day ahead of us, and we were intent on getting out of town and into the caves on the western side of the river.
We woke late and had a late breakfast – it was the first time we’d taken it easy in Laos. The buffet breakfast at Phetchaleun Hotel was fairly basic, but there was an incredibly fresh baguette on offer, and it mixed perfectly with the freshly made omelette, so I had a very simple but very tasty breakfast (which I enjoyed with tea and pineapple juice).
We’d decided to walk across the toll bridge on the Song River and make our way on foot to the closest caves, so we headed off at 9am towards the towering karsts on the western horizon. We paid our toll to cross the Nam Song Bridge, but after walking a very short distance we soon realised the caves were
a lot further from Vang Vieng than we’d initially thought. So we made an executive decision to hire a dune buggy for a couple of hours. These machines were straight out of a Mad Max movie, so we knew they’d get us to the caves a lot quicker than walking.
We stopped at the first hire place we came to, and within minutes we were buckled in and contributing to some serious noise pollution – these things were loud. And to our amazement, there was no checking of licenses, no driving lessons, no safety checks…
It was a difficult transition. I’d never driven a dune buggy, and I’d never driven on the right hand side of the road. And suddenly here I was, on a dusty and bumpy rural Laotian road in a dune buggy – I was in bogan heaven. We missed the first cave turnoff, so we doubled back and turned into a rough dirt road which soon turned into a very rough dirt road, then a barely discernible dirt track, then a dry river bed…
At the point where we’d started to question whether we were lost, we stumbled upon a dodgy wooden sign
hanging from a single nail on a post that said ‘Cave’ with an arrow pointing towards the bottom of a towering karst. We walked along a narrow dirt trail to an opening in the foliage that looked like a cave entrance, but there was no signage and no signs of life, so we weren’t sure if it was a cave or not. There was only one thing to do – go inside and look! We donned our head torches (which we’d packed for this specific purpose) and clambered inside. At first I thought it was a simple overhang, but after clambering up a small rise we suddenly found ourselves in a large dark chamber – we had found Khan Kham Cave.
Our head torches weren’t terribly bright, but we could make out the vague outline of a sculpted Buddha in front of us. In the excitement of finding this cave temple, we’d neglected to check our surrounds, until Ren accidently found a huge stalactite hanging over a crevasse that disappeared into the darkness below – only metres from where we were standing. We couldn’t calculate the depth of the crevasse, but it seemed to be a sheer drop –
possibly 10 metres or more. It was an abrupt reality check. We needed to be a little more careful in these dark, damp, claustrophobic and cavernous caves.
We tried to capture a few photos of the Buddha, but it was far more difficult than we thought. We had to train both our head torches onto the sculptured icon, which meant operating our cameras in absolute darkness. The photos we captured were okay, but a little too grainy for our liking.
We retraced our steps to the cave entrance, strapped ourselves into the dune buggy and headed off in search of more caves. We travelled back along the river bed, dirt track and dirt road, then continued on the main road until we came to another dirt track leading to a cave. We bumped our way over the dusty track until we arrived at a small ticket hut manned by a friendly old Laotian man. He pointed to where we should park the dune buggy, then told us the cave – Nam Borkeo Phaboua – had an entry fee of $10,000 kip (approximately AU$1.60). We must have been lucky at the first cave – we hadn’t seen anyone collecting
entry fees, and we hadn’t seen any other tourists in or around the area. Maybe it wasn’t a popular cave?
There were no other tourists at this cave either. It was a five minute walk from the ticket hut to the cave entrance, and while the old guy offered to guide us through the cave, we politely refused and said we’d make our own way. He told us there was a swimming hole near the cave, and he seemed intent that we get in the water. He was such a genuinely friendly old guy.
We set off across tinder dry rice fields, crossed a rickety old bamboo bridge and suddenly found ourselves at the base of an enormous karst. The cave entrance was a lot easier to find than the first cave. For a start, there was a much bigger sign with a much bigger arrow, and the cave entrance itself was much larger. We clambered up some steep earthen steps (which were quite slippery) and suddenly found ourselves in pitch darkness. Luckily we had donned our head torches in preparation, so we switched them on and followed a very narrow passageway into the deep cave system. Quartzite
glistened on the cave walls in the light from our head torches, and it wasn’t long before we emerged into a large chamber. This is not something we do often, but we both realised – almost simultaneously – how much we love caving.
Unfortunately, we’d only hired the dune buggy for two hours, and we only had fifteen minutes remaining. We retraced our steps out of the cave, scurried across the rice fields to the ticket booth, jumped into the dune buggy and sped off back to the hire place. On the way back we were bemoaning the fact that we hadn’t booked the dune buggy for longer, so we negotiated an extra hour with the friendly hire guy – Mr Kham – and headed back out on the rough village roads.
We decided against exploring any more caves, opting instead to witness village life on the western side of the Nam Song. We sped around the dirt roads, and despite being noisy bogan tourists, we tried to observe and absorb as much local village life as we could. We stopped for a cold drink at a small roadside store in Phon Ngern, then reluctantly headed back to
Kham Tours (the hire place). Our extra hour had expired. 😞
We’d spent three hours exploring the caves and villages on the outskirts of Vang Vieng, and we were exhilarated. We retraced our steps across Nam Song Bridge and headed back to Phetchaleun Hotel. We knew we were filthy, but we didn’t quite realise the extent of our squalor. Speeding trucks, buses, buggies and motor cycles had covered us in dust, and the dark dank caves hadn’t helped. It took ages to clean the dirt from our cameras and day packs, and we both needed a complete change of clothes. What a perfect start to the day. 😊
Having cleaned ourselves up, we headed to nearby Oasis Restaurant for lunch (the same place we’d dined the night before). I refreshed with a Beerlao, while Ren opted for a Mojito. We both ordered from the Lao Speciality menu – khao piak sen (chicken noodle soup) for me, and a papaya salad for Ren. Both were fantastic. In fact, my noodle soup was possibly the best dish I’d had in Laos to-date. The broth was so clean and flavoursome, and the glass noodles were incredibly tasty. I poured a small
plate of freshly chopped chillies and chilli oil into the soup, but I could only manage a single tiny slice of the chilli itself – it added so much to the soup, but it was blow-your-head-off hot!
It was mid-afternoon, so we realised we wouldn’t need an evening meal. Instead, we made our way to Luang Prabang Bakery in the main street to pick up some butter biscuits and a dark chocolate, almond and coconut cookie. Strangely, the cookie was served hot (after being heated in a microwave for a few minutes). While it was quite tasty, it became very dry as it cooled.
The late afternoon sun was searing, so we retreated to Phetchaleun Hotel, picking up some Beerlao for me on the way. We settled in our room and worked on our travel notes, sipping hot Ovaltine and munching butter biscuits to re-energise our tired but happy bodies. We were leaving for Vientiane the following day, and it was to be an early start, so I eventually retired at 10pm.
We slept very well on that first night in Vang Vieng and woke to a lovely vista of distant limestone karsts
circling the town.
Breakfast at Phetchaleun Hotel looked like a rather normal affair until I realised they offered a range of ‘made to order’ dishes. Andrew loved the fresh baguettes with freshly made omelette, while I tried my first khao piak sen (Lao chicken noodle soup). It was a little bit like a Vietnamese pho but the broth was somewhat less intense. It was very tasty, but I think I’d enjoy it more as a lunch or dinner dish. We were going to have a day full of physical activity, so I further protein- and carb-loaded with fried noodles, stir-fried vegetables and a fried egg. The pineapple juice was a very welcome change from the usual fluoro-orange drink we’ve been offered at breakfast so far!
Our ineffectual group leader Naa hadn’t given us any maps of the town as promised, so we got a basic one from the hotel reception. When we asked her questions in order to plan our day, she couldn’t even tell us which direction we should walk in to get to the caves. Her excuse was that she hadn’t done this trip in 14 months… I’m fairly sure the streets or the caves hadn’t
moved in 14 months! I was seriously over her incompetence and her ability to make things up when she didn’t know an answer. 😞
Between the map in the Lonely Planet guide and the basic map from our hotel, we managed to get to the toll bridge over the Nam Song River. We crossed over and walked towards the karsts. However, within a few minutes of walking we realised that it would take us far too long to get to any of the caves by foot, so we doubled back to near the toll bridge and hired a dune buggy for two hours. Yes, I know the buggies are very loud and a bit bogan, but our options were limited at that stage. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it! 😄
We’d been in Laos for five days at this stage, but I still kept looking in the wrong direction before crossing the road, so I had a lot of sympathy for Andrew having to drive on the right-hand side of the road! But with a little concentration he got used to it pretty quickly. It was super exciting to drive towards a scene that looked like
an ancient oriental watercolour painting. 😊
We followed a turn off to the Khan Kham Cave, which led us to a 2km or so drive along a small bush path and a stony trail to the mouth of the cave. We parked our dune buggy under a tree and walked in, not knowing what to expect! We were blindly trusting a hand painted ‘Cave’ sign in the middle of nowhere. I have obviously watched far too many horror films for my own good!
Within minutes of clambering over rocks into the cave opening, we found ourselves in a gorgeous open antechamber with filtered light, a tumble of rocks, and vines and tree roots growing in it. It looked like it was straight out of an Indiana Jones film set.
We made our way through a smaller opening and walked further into the ever darkening cave. We turned our head torches on and continued into the unknown. We were quickly faced with a sort of circular chamber with impressive stalactites and a large Buddha statue. It was very peaceful and serene, but also a little bizarre.
As we explored further I walked over to look at a
gigantic stalactite, but got quite a shock when I realised the stalactite was hanging over a massive hole in the cave… I was only about two metres away from the edge! The hole plunged into darkness. When I inched closer and looked over the edge, my head torch couldn’t even reach the bottom. That would have been a very nasty fall! It was a timely reminder to proceed with a lot more caution.
We got a bit disorientated in the cave because every path from the somewhat circular chamber looked the same. The path we’d chosen kept getting narrower and narrower, and we knew we were going deeper underground as the air was getting colder. With no new or interesting aspects to the cave for a while, we decided to end our explorations and head back out to continue our dune buggy adventure.
On the way back to the main road, we met another dune buggy coming the other way and we had to reverse into a small overhang in the path to let them pass. It wasn’t until we did this that I realised the path zigzagged through a dried up river bed.
We drove along
the main road until we saw a turn off to another small cave called Nam Borkeo Phaboua. We drove for a short distance and came to a hut with a 10,000 kip sign and a lovely old man who offered to guide us and give us torches. But we opted to go alone, as we both had head torches with us. We were a short walk away from the cave, which began with crossing a very dodgy bamboo bridge. I had to navigate the bridge by walking sideways as my narrow feet kept sliding through the gaps between the bamboo stalks! We walked through fallow rice fields that were in between plantings, and then tentatively entered a lush gated garden. It was full of banana and pawpaw trees, and fields of ginger plants. We finally walked up to the base of a karst with a small rock pool at its base.
We walked into the cave across a small bamboo bridge that spanned a rock pool and almost immediately started ascending steep, muddy and slippery steps cut into the rock face. There was a dodgy bamboo handrail, but I think it was riskier to use it than not.
We’d been ascending for a few minutes when our head torches picked up quartzite glittering right through the cave. The stalactites and stalagmites were smaller in this cave, but they were bedazzled with minerals. It was quite beautiful. Andrew had to crouch for part of the climb, as the rock ceiling was quite low.
We climbed for a while with the air getting hotter, the space getting progressively tighter and the clay steps getting precariously slippery. After crawling through very narrow and unwieldly sections of the cave we were both covered in sweat and wet clay. We eventually decided we’d seen enough to satisfy our curiosity. I also felt quite weird after seeing that someone had left a pair of thongs (flip flops) and a scarf at the base of the really slippery steps… so either they were still in the cave or had never returned to retrieve their things! 😱
Back on the road, we decided to avoid all the larger caves. Massive billboards showed photos of these caves with tacky neon lights and swings over the internal lagoons etc. We passed a few that had masses of big busses, cars, motorbikes and dune buggies in large
carparks, and we knew we’d made the right decision to go to the smaller caves where we’d had the whole place to ourselves. It had been a luxury to move through at our own pace and enjoy the intense silence of the caves on our own.
By now we had nearly exceeded our two hour dune buggy hire, and we decided we needed more time. So we doubled back and extended the buggy for another hour and drove to visit the small Hmong villages in the area. It was a very dusty drive, but also absolutely gorgeous. There were fields on either side of us, with close-up gigantic karsts on one side and a distant wall of saw-toothed karsts bordering the other.
We loved our dune buggy despite its many idiosyncrasies. The gear stick didn’t always work in drive and Andrew had to manipulate it between second and drive to go up hills! The top speed was also embarrassingly slow… we were overtaken by an old lady on a scooter! 😊
As we drove we took in the everyday farming lives of the villages. We pulled into a corner shop to get some cold drinks and got
a firsthand experience of how the locals have to put up with these noisy, dust-raising vehicles carrying tourists to and from the many caves in the area. I wondered who was profiting from all the cave entrance fees, and why they hadn’t bothered to seal the roads through the villages!
We considered climbing one of the popular karst to get a good view of the area, but the number of buses in the parking space totally put us off the idea. And by now we were both hot, sweaty and over being covered in cave mud and dust from the roads. It was time to return to the hotel and shower.
After a long cold shower and much needed air-con cooling, we looked through the Lonely Planet guide for lunch suggestions. Very very surprisingly, none of the highly recommended eateries offered Lao food! I suppose this was a reflection of the kind of place Vang Vieng is, and the kind of tourists that come here.
So we returned to Oasis Restaurant on the street behind our hotel. Dinner there had been fabulous the night before, and so was our lunch. I had a tam mak hoong (spicy
papaya salad) which was fabulous, but on the upper range of my chilli coping ability… and that was only ‘medium spicy’! Andrew loved his khao piak sen with chicken – the broth was seriously tasty and the noodles and vegetables were extremely fresh. Andrew also loved his usual order of a large Beerlao, and I loved my Mojito. I usually never order a Mojito when I’m travelling as they are notoriously tricky to get right, but my cocktail the night before had been good, and it had boosted my confidence in the restaurant’s bar tending. 😊
We visited the much praised Luang Prabang Bakery after lunch and bought a gigantic almond, dark chocolate and coconut cookie to have with a cup of tea back at the hotel. We also bought a huge bag of shortbread biscuits for the minibus trip the next day. Extremely weirdly, the cookie was zapped in the microwave and got seriously hot and mushy. By the time we ate it back at the hotel, it had re-set into a hard, dry and solid mess! But it was still tasty.
I showered again and fell into a deep sleep for a few hours while Andrew
caught up on his travel notes. The heat and dust of the day had knocked me out, but by the time I woke up I had my second wind and managed to catch up on my travel notes and pack for the next day.
A few days prior we’d started reading the disturbing news reports about coronavirus in China and its propensity to be as highly contagious as SARS. We were a little worried by the high number of Chinese tourists who were visiting Vang Vieng for Chinese New Year. And as horrible as it sounds, we had made a decision to keep our distance from the Chinese tourist crowds as much as possible. The reports had got more concerning since then, and we wondered if it was going to impact our next week of travel. We weren’t alarmed, but we were certainly alert.
I wasn’t at all sad to be leaving the town of Vang Vieng. The only two saving graces of this place had been having vistas that knocked our socks off; and confirming beyond a doubt that we both love caving very much! 😊
Next we travel south to Vientiane, the Capital of Laos.
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