With its karst formations rising off the rice fields, Vang Vieng is set in a beautiful natural setting and has become the number one outdoor destination of Laos with hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing and caving opportunities.
“Are you okay?” My thin voice echoes in the darkness of the Pha Thao Cave that we have entered with our flashlights. Everything is pitch dark and I hear a slightly annoyed “no worries” echoing back. We have walked about one kilometre into the cave, admiring million-year-old stalactites and stalagmites in the yellow flaky beams of our headlights as we have slowly made our way to reach a hidden pool. The perfect reflections in the crystal clear still underground waters made us crawl into the most impossible angles to capture this natural wonder with our camera. When Claire discovered a hole through which one can crawl leading to another chamber, I realized I have had enough and decided to wait. I feel I am becoming slightly claustrophobic. I cannot wait to make my way out back into the sunlight. I feel that the oxygen level is significantly lower here in the humidity of the cave and although I try to remain calm, my breathing is becoming shallower and faster. I regularly mutter an “Are you OK?” that obviously means “Come back and let’s get out of here!” The following “no worries” being a “Come on, let me have fun and go a bit further!” With this clear understanding of each other point of view, I wait a little bit more as Claire turns back a bit earlier than she had wished and I start making my way out carefully.
A sigh of relief escapes my lungs when we make it back to the sunlight again after the 2 kilometre stroll through the first cave of today. We unlock our mountain-bikes that were safely attached to an old wooden fence next to which a few locals make a bit of money by asking for a small entrance fee. Back on the narrow dirt track we followed along a canal after leaving the main road out of Vang Vieng, we are pedalling among rice fields and karst formations. The single track leads us to the Snail Cave. Another deep cave with impressive million-year-old rock formations reveals itself to us.
We discover the even more hidden inlet of the Loub Cave and lower ourselves into the its mouth, scrambling down carefully to not touch any precious stones.
A bit further, a half-submerged cave offers us the opportunity to cool down and tube through a 500-metre deep cave, lighting up the shiny ceiling with the beams of our head torches and pulling ourselves thanks to a rope.
We could spend days exploring the many caves lying in the surroundings of Vang Vieng. To take in the natural setting, we mountain bike a 25-kilometre loop through small settlements where local families live in their wooden houses. Young kids on oversized bicycles leave the school yards, slowly biking on the dirt road in their black shorts and white shirts. Ox-carriages and an occasional engine-powered tractor pass us by from the opposite direction.
The Pha Ngeun viewpoint offers a comprehensive sight on the loop, after a strenuous but short hike. The landscapes are breath-taking. The dark karst formations cut the sky that turn orange at sunset. In the early morning light, the lush vegetation along the cliffs slowly takes its colours against a light blue sky through which a colourful hot air balloon rises.
Vang Vieng itself is still in the process of getting rid of its crazy party reputation when under influence kids floated along the river and drugs were as easy to buy as a cheap beer. Crossing the river on a shaky bamboo bridge at dusk, some excited tourists finish their tubing experience on the calm waters, a can of beer in their hand and a go-pro in the other. The river banks seem to get built fast, and several popular bars are set up half on land, half on the river. At night many people roam the streets to the beat of music from bars and clubs. Restaurants and food stalls are busy, and smells of fried chicken, fish, phos, pad thais and sweet rotis (the Laos version of pancakes) with Nutella and bananas tempt passers-by. The former Lima Sight 6 Air America’s landing strip has turned into a fun fair and night market. Many of the close-to-one-hundred aircrafts of the C.I.A.’s covert airline operated here transporting among others diplomats, spies, special forces during the Laos Secret War.
About halfway on the road between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, Vang Vieng seems to have redefined its scene. The C.I.A. spies are long gone. While the party scene is still ongoing, the outdoors attract more and more visitors curious to explore the stunning setting of Vang Vieng.
Claire & Marcella
- When exploring the caves, please be careful and respectful. The rock formations are not protected, and some of them are million-year old.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!