Despite its reputation, there is more to Vang Vieng than just a party – the beautiful karst landscape with cliffs dotted with caves, and the tranquil Nam Song, provide much to explore in the surrounding area. In fact, when you get out and about early (and by early I’m talking 8am-ish, not the crack of dawn), you are unlikely to find yourself in a crowd. The main drag is a ghost town in the morning, as the revellers are, I am assuming, tucked away sleeping off their hangovers. The river is similarly slow-moving in the AM.
That said, prepare yourself for a roaring procession of South Korean package tourists in 4×4 buggies heading out of town, revving off to the Blue Lagoon for the morning. It seems Vang Vieng has become a hot destination with the Gangnam set, and they come in droves.
The morning for us was the best time to get active. With temperatures hovering around 40C, it was difficult to sustain much activity in the daytime, so we started as early as we could and punctuated our physical exertion with regular dips in the river, ponds, streams, or neighbouring hotel pools – whichever was closest.
The cows seemed to be the only ones out and about by day at the riverside bars. These ones were having a good old lick of a nice salty barbecue.
So, what did we get up to with the kids in Vang Vieng? We visited caves. Until I wrote this, I didn’t quite realise how many caves we’d visited!
1. Tham Jang
Tham means cave in Lao, and Tham Jang is one of the easiest caves to get to from town. We hired bikes for the morning. We rode south out of town and through ‘Vang Vieng Resort’, which has an abandoned American summer camp feel to it. You need to pay to cross the grounds, then to enter the cave. There are some steep steps to climb, but a good view back towards town (through the haze).
Inside this cave is well-lit. We had it to ourselves.
And the best thing about the cave – it was cool inside!
2. Tham Pu Kham
Another cave, this time 6km west of town. We took a tuk tuk here rather than riding the dodgy rental bikes with no gears in the heat.
The most spectacular aspect of this cave is the Blue Lagoon at the bottom.
OK, this is a massive tourist stop, full of package tourists and backpackers in bikinis, but it was hot, so we hung out here for hours. The water is beautifully cool and full of fish. Our Korean friends provided much entertainment as they jumped from the tree above, brave non-swimmers clad in their high-vis life jackets. The pool is deep and we were much refreshed!
Tham Sang Triangle
The next few caves we visited with a guide on a one-day caving, hiking and kayaking trip, which was a fantastic way to see them. We used Green Discovery Tours, a big outfit in Laos, and our guide, Chan, was expert in the area. For most of the day, we had each place we visited all to ourselves.
3. Tham Sang (Elephant Cave)
6km north of town, across a footbridge over the Nam Song, Tham Sang, or Elephant Cave, is named for the somewhat elephant-shaped stalactite in the small cavern.
There’s also a (perfectly formed) Buddha’s footprint, a golden reclining Buddha (which Phoebe liked quite a bit) and a bell made out of an American bomb.
From 1964 to 1973, during the Vietnam War, in an attempt to cut the Viet Cong’s supply through the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos. This is the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. Laos still holds the title of the most bombed country per capita in global history.
Ban Tham Sang
Ban means village in Lao, and after a visit to the Tham Sang, a walk through Ban Tham Sang gives a little insight into village and rural life, with houses and gardens (this one’s raised so the chickens don’t get at it), rice paddies (waiting for the wet season for planting), country laneways, and teak plantations.
4. Tham Hoi (Snail Cave)
A short walk from Ban Tham Sang, Tham Hoi, or Snail Cave, is named after snail-shaped formations near the entrance. It’s a dark, undeveloped cave, which winds 3km into the mountain behind, and was used by locals as a shelter during American bombing raids. A large Buddha protects the entrance.
We also found this pair loitering about. Explorers, ready!
This inhabitant was BIG.
The cave is a long, thin tunnel. We walked for around 500m. We had the option to go further, but it gets wetter and more slippery as the cave gets deeper, and one dark tunnel is pretty much alike another. Phoebs and Blake loved it.
You can visit this cave alone, but I wouldn’t want to. Get a guide if you’re going – it’s much more interesting when someone tells you what you’re looking at.
5. Tham Loup
Just a couple of minutes up the hill from Tham Hoi is Tham Loup. After descending a wooden ladder, we emerged into an impressive cavern.
Through a squeezy passage is another large cave. People lived in here, too, during the Vietnam War, to avoid the bombing.
We enjoyed the visit, but weren’t so sure we’d like to live here.
Tham Nam (River Cave)
Just when we were almost caved out, we hit the track again, headed for our final cave: Tham Nam, for cave tubing.
As always, the cool water was inviting.
The river flows out of the cave, which extends for about 500m under the cliff. This had been the activity most looked forward to by Phoebe and Blake, but being in the dark water of the cave was a little scary. Being brave, they managed to pull themselves along on the ropes fixed through the cave with a little help from us – in and out again – what an adventure!
Just as we got out of the cave, a bus load of tourists arrived, jumped into tubes and headed in. We were lucky with our timing! Be aware if you go that this is another touristy spot, which gets crowded at times.
All in all, we enjoyed the limestone caves around Vang Vieng, and we’re glad we took the time to explore!
My next post is about kayaking the Nam Song out of Vang Vieng. And if you missed it, read all about our journey to Vang Vieng on the VIP bus.