Day 39 | Caving, hiking and kayaking in scenic Vang Vieng

Day 39 | Caving, hiking and kayaking in scenic Vang Vieng

We had an action-packed day in Northern Laos’ outdoor activity capital of Vang Vieng. We took a tour package with Green Discovery tours which paired us with a German couple for a full day of caving, tubing into a cave, hiking through a rural Hmong village and kayaking.

We met our tour guides and the other couple in our group at the Green Discovery office at 8 AM. Our tour package is called 1-Day Discover Vang Vieng. We hopped into the songthaew loaded with four kayaks above the roof.

We were dropped off upstream from the Nam Song River, a popular point for people to begin their kayak tours or for walking towards four popular caves.

Typical VV view

Shawn and Andrew, the two guys we met two days ago in Luang Prabang on our Pak Ou Caves tour, came over and said hi to us. They were gearing up for kayaking on a different tour than us. But first both our groups (and many others) were going to see the Tham Xang (Elephant Cave). On Laos’ well-worn tourist trail, it’s very easy to bump into the same people again and again.

We walked across a hanging bridge and then a straight path into Elephant Cave. It’s named so because a rather small rock near the entrance is shaped like an elephant. See the resemblance?

Elephant cave elephant

The inside of the cave has a large seated Buddha, the entrance has this reclining Buddha. The tour guide paused here to tell us the story of Siddhartha Buddha’s life and the significance of Buddhism in Laos.

Reclining Buddha in a cave

We then walked for about twenty minutes to another set of caves Tham Hoi (Snail Cave) and Tham Loup (not sure what the translation is). Both caves are dark and deep, we brought our new headlamps still in their packages and finally got to use them. We also used the provided headlamps as handheld flashlights, since why not.

Entering the first cave

The second cave, Snail Cave, has a more gradual entrance with not as much stair and ladder climbing. However, it is a very long cave system that is easy to get lost in. Our tour guide told us a horror story of a tourist who left his group insisting that he is a cave expert and deciding to explore deeper himself. Well that didn’t end well from him, I think it took a couple weeks for local authorities to even find his body and recover it. No thank you, we’ll stick with our tour guide!

Entering the second cave

Making it out safely on our own two legs.

Next we walked a bit more and found our shaded spot for lunch. Dozens of tour groups meet up in the same village-of-sorts filled with picnic tables under hut roofs. Before our lunch though, we got into our swimsuits, grabbed our tubes and went straight to the Water Cave.

Maurice was pushing me around as if we were playing bumper cars. We pulled hard on the guiding ropes inside the cave. Our tour guide led us deeper into the cave than most other groups. There were some sections where there was no rope, so we had to spin around and backstroke our tubes towards the light of his headlamp. This was really fun as the guide was singing a spooky song in Laotian, made spookier by the echo and pitch black of the cave.

We finally made it out, this time swarms of other tubers were coming into the cave. We noticed in Vang Vieng that there’s a disproportionately huge number of South Korean tourists. Most of the travel agencies and restaurants in Vang Vieng have signs and menus in Korean. We asked a guide about this and he explained this is because there was a reality TV show that featured some Korean superstars vacationing in Vang Vieng. And the popularity of the town exploded.

We ate lunch at our tour group’s picnic tables. They prepared fried rice wrapped in banana leaves, skewers of meat and veggies (there was a small mix-up as three of us four said we were vegetarian and they thought it was one of four).

After lunch we hiked on mostly flat rural paths for almost an hour. Passing by many dry rice paddies.

Rice paddies in VV

We stopped at a small Hmong minority village. Immediately, four curious tots swarmed us waving incessantly and giggling. They were too adorable. One little girl even tried climbing up the German woman’s leg.

We passed by a schoolhouse nestled under the dramatic hills.

Schoolhouse in VV

Three little free range pigs.

3 little pigs

Our tour guide told us about the Hmong tribes and their customs for marriage and families as we walked through the village and through its farms.

Rural village

The kids were too much. They had just been let out of school and were chilling with their friends.

And playing in the river. What I liked about this visit to the Hmong village is that it felt authentic. Nobody tried to sell us stuff or pose for photos. They were just going about their day and wearing their everyday clothes, no traditional costumes here.

We then hopped onto the songthaew which took us to the kayak launching point of the Nam Song River. We posed with some free range cows.

Momo and the cows

The kayaking was peaceful, not many other kayakers were on the river at this time. I think our Green Discovery tour guides made an effort to switch up our itinerary to contrast with the most popular tour groups who all do kayaking in the morning.

Midway through the river the music was pumping at one of the few tubing bars still in business. This is probably only a tiny slice of what Vang Vieng’s tubing scene was like before the government crackdown.

My arms were getting more tired from kayaking since we were vigorously tubing yesterday, Maurice and I played tag while tubing, plus at the Water Cave we pulled the rope and flailed our arms around a lot speeding through it in total darkness. To make things worse, this time Maurice was purposely paddling us into every large rock and every bamboo bridge he could find. I’d yell at him to go left and he would of course go right until we crashed into the bridge as everyone nearby laughed. No one was hurt but I absorbed most of the shock being in the front.

Mimi kayaking toward a bamboo bridge

Here is one more photo of the dramatic karsts in case you haven’t gotten your fill of scenic photos.

Dramatic karst

We finished the tour at the point of the river that meets Vang Vieng town. We walked to our hotel to shower and change. Then we strolled back to the riverfront to enjoy the sunset.

Sunset on the river

We ended the night again at the same Laotian family run restaurant we went to last night. The food was great and the father, mother and preteen daughter who served us were all very nice. The father had particularly excellent English (a neutral American accent), which made us think he either lived in the USA at some point or practiced a lot with American TV and movies.

Our fave family restaurant in VV

Back to our hotel we observed our resident cats. Two adult Siamese cats and a litter of five “regular” shorthair cats. Uh-ohh who was the father here? This little kitten was closely guarding the cat food stash.

Kitten guarding her kibble

In the opposite corner, we saw another kitten aggressively attacking a flattened gecko. The poor gecko was already dead, probably at the hands of this precocious kitten.

That was the end of our long day, despite its negative image, we so far really liked Vang Vieng and were excited for tomorrow morning, our last before heading to the Laos capital Vientiane.

Day 38 | Lazy tubing on the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng

Day 38 | Lazy tubing on the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng

Today was a very lazy day, a stark contrast with our three active days in Luang Prabang. We pretty much only went tubing on the Nam Song River and went for dinner in the evening. Easiest yolomimo blog post to write ever!

We woke up late this morning, probably a bit tired from our minivan ride yesterday. We just made it on time to the complimentary breakfast at our hotel shortly before 10am. Very basic breakfast food there: tea / coffee, orange juice, some fresh fruits and a choice of eggs or pancakes.

After that we walked around town for a little bit, mostly on the main street. We stopped by Green Discovery Laos first to book an excursion day for tomorrow, we chose the Discover Vang Vieng tour which offers a good mix of activities.

We arrived at a place that was renting tubes for 50,000 Kips per person including a transfer to the location where the tubing starts, several kilometers north. We took two tubes and waited for more people to join as the songthaew needed at least four people. It was not long until two other girls showed up, both of them francophone (one from France and the other from Quebec). They had just met the previous night at their hostel and like us, both of them were traveling through Southeast Asia for an extended period of time (one of them for a full year!). About ten minutes later, we were on the river ready to start our slow tubing journey down the Nam Song River.

Ready to tube on Nam Song River

We took our waterproof camera with us so we could take pictures and videos of our descent. That explains the water droplets on some of the material below.

Soon after the start, we passed by a first bar playing loud music, actually very loud considering it was still the morning. The two girls we were with stopped there to have a drink but we kept going. There was really nobody in the bar and we were not planning to stop at every bar on the way. The folks working at the bar were throwing empty plastic bottles tied to a rope to pull tubers to the shore.

The river is surrounded by beautiful mountains that we enjoyed for the next few hours. We were actually surprised to not see more people tubing since it’s one of the must do activities in Vang Vieng. Perhaps it was because most people prefer to go in the late afternoon. In any case, after passing the first bar that was playing loud music, we resumed our journey in a very peaceful quiet.

Chilling on the Nam Song River

Silence was broken once more when an army of South Korean kayakers passed by. We had already noticed many South Korean tourists in Luang Prabang, but Vang Vieng appeared to be an even bigger hotspot for them. It turned out there was a popular South Korean reality TV show shot in Vang Vieng a few years back which had the effect to instantly make this town the go to spot for travel in Southeast Asia. This group of enthusiastic kayakers went much faster than us and some of them voluntarily splashed us, knowing that we could not retaliate in time.

We kept going for some time until we reached Mr Laoh Lao, the second and also self-proclaimed best bar on the river. Since it was starting to get hot we decided to stop by this time.

Approaching Mr Laoh Lao bar

I was ahead of Mimi and so able to take a video of her stopping. Like at the previous bar, staff members were pulling tubers using plastic bottles tied up to a rope that they threw in the water. Notice that Mimi managed to find a nice wood stick in the meantime which was useful to better control direction and speed. I got one for myself as well.

The bar looked very basic. Much like the previous one, it did not have that many customers.

Front of Mr Laoh Lao bar on the Nam Song River

We ordered one big bottle of Beerlao, the only brand of Laotian beer. The bar had little huts with hammocks and was playing American music non-stop. We stayed there for about an hour at which point our bottle was empty and we were completely dry.

My beerlao and I

Mimi relaxing in a hammock, beerlao in hand

We went back on our tubes with our sticks and in to the water again. The current was very weak so the sticks were helpful to move a little bit faster as we kept going for a very long time and the sun was very strong. At some point we got together to take our very first tube selfie.

Tube selfie in style

As we split up, Mimi kept the waterproof camera to take more beautiful pictures of the surrounding nature, sometimes including her dark pink painted toe nails for the world to admire.

Mimi's adorable feet

She did take some unadulterated pictures as well, here are the ones I selected. The next two hours were really more of the same, us very slowly making our way down.

On the Nam Song River

On the Nam Song River

On the Nam Song River

On the Nam Song River

On the Nam Song River

We had been tubing for over three hours by that point and I was getting seriously bored.

Boredom kicks in on the Nam Song River

So when I saw some rapids at last, it was hard to temper my excitement! It does not seem impressive on video but the current really made a difference.

We arrived at the end a little later and just walked back to the shop we had rented our tubes from. After returning them we got ourselves some fruit shakes at a nearby restaurant. We were tired, tired of being lazy. It was time to go back to our hotel to take a nap!

We woke up later in the evening, hungry. We went to a nearby Laotian restaurant for dinner and called it a night. Mimi worked on yolomimo for a few hours at home while I was already deep asleep.

Day 37 | Exploring Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang

Day 37 | Exploring Pak Ou Caves near Luang Prabang

On our last day in Luang Prabang, we took a boat tour to Pak Ou Caves, had lunch across the bamboo bridge and then took a four hour minivan ride to backpackers paradise Vang Vieng.

We woke up around 6:30 AM to pack, a consistent routine occurring either every other day or every three days. We rushed our last breakfast at the Namkhan Riverside Hotel to make it to the travel agency office on time by 8 AM for the 8:30 AM boat departure to Pak Ou Caves.

We arrived at the Lao Outdoor travel agency a few minutes late. The agents looked surprised to see us. Perhaps they never registered our reservation, because there was no shuttle waiting for us. One agent ended up walking us to the pier.

The pier was tiny and we sat down in a few rows of chairs with other tourists as the agent arranged numbered tickets for us. Around 8:30 AM, each driver called out a series of six numbers to his boat. Got in the boat with two girls from Germany and two guys Andrew from USA and Shawn from Malaysia who we talked to during the boat ride. The guys made a joke that our boat was economy class since it only featured wooden chairs, the one docked directly next to us was business class with its padded seats and the one docked further was first class since they were outfitted with padded seats that had headrests.

Boats at the Luang Prabang pier

Our young driver was the slowest among the others. Perhaps because his boat was in the poorest shape.

Boat driver to Pak Ou caves

The ride was about two hours long in total. The scenery was beautiful though the engine is deafening and the seats were not comfortable. We passed by other larger boats.

On the way to Pak Ou

On the way, we made a 15 minute stop by a small “whiskey village” on the Mekong River. We were immediately offered shots of Laotian whisky, aptly named Lao-Lao. This was neither the first nor last time friendly Laotians offered us Lao-Lao.

Lao lao whiskey

Some of the whiskeys on sale had more sting than others.

Liquor with a sting

In the village we visited the local wat, where a young novice called out to me “What’s your name?” His name was Dan or Tan and our conversation ended there because he reached his limits of English. He was a little shy after that.

We also kicked around an inflatable soccer ball with this feisty boy.

Little Lao boy playing soccer with our group

And encountered a village elder weaving in the traditional way.

Traditional weaving

Back in the boat we proceeded to our destination. On the way we saw a herd of water buffalo in their element, naturally.

Water buffalo in their prime element

And we whizzed by another larger boat proudly displaying the Laotian flag.

Boat through hills of LP

Then we finally reached the Pak Ou Caves. The boat driver told us we had 35 minutes to check it out and come back. I scoffed “35 minutes?” He immediately relented “OK 45 minutes is OK. No 1 hour!” Easiest negotiation I made in Southeast Asia and I wasn’t even aware I was negotiating.

In front of Pak Ou Caves

We paid the admission fee and first checked out the Lower Cave. Hundreds of old Buddha and other Buddhism-related statues stood in the cave’s multiple tiers. It was billed as an old statue cemetery, it was discovered by some French explorer / colonialist in the 1800s if I remember correctly. However, many of the statues were newer and looked as if they were added within the last year. The cave interior was underwhelming but it was cool inside which offered us a nice break from the heat.

Lower Pak Ou Cave

Outside the entrance to the Lower Cave, we took a separate route to the left and then up a long set of stairs to the entrance of the Upper Cave.

Opening of Upper Pak Ou Cave

The inside of the cave was super dark, we wished we brought our headlamps. Maurice used his cell phone as a flashlight. And tried to scare me with it too.

Maurice having flashlight fun

This cave also had Buddhist statues huddled together and tucked into corners. I preferred this one since it wasn’t as chaotic and the few clusters of statues it did have were more harmoniously arranged. The darkness also made it more mysterious.

Shrine inside Upper Pak Ou Cave

All six of us bumped into each other outside the Upper Cave. We really didn’t need the full 45 minutes to explore these two small caves. We took some pictures of the other banks of the Mekong and then got back on the boat.

Landscape at Pak Ou

This time the ride was faster since we were going with the current. We got back to town around 12:30 PM, as scheduled. We had enough time to have lunch before our van pickup to Vang Vieng at 2:30 PM. We walked from the pier towards the bamboo bridge. On the way we saw this adorable Pekingese.

Pekingese puppy

She didn’t like our attention and decided to leave. We were scared for her as she crossed the street to the other side. Good thing she was cautious and knew to look for cars and motorbikes.

We also took turns climbing into this vintage tuk tuk on the riverfront in order to take pictures. Beep beep, tuk tuk coming through.

Vintage tuk tuk

And we saw monks crossing the bamboo bridge, an iconic Luang Prabang sight.

Monks crossing bamboo bridge

As well as crossing in front of French colonial houses. Classic or cliche? You tell me.

Monks in classic LP street

We finally walked across the bamboo bridge and had lunch at Dyen Sabai Restaurant on the other side of the river. We had delicious watermelon and mint shakes that were white and green. We initially thought they messed up the drink order.

White watermelon shake

I had a coconut milk soup with tofu and mushrooms in a cool-looking terra cotta pot contraption.

Coconut milk soup

Crossed back over the bamboo bridge. Fun fact, the bridge is only available in dry season. During wet season, the river destroys the bridge and it has to be rebuilt again the next year. The only option to cross the river during wet season is to take a short ferry across.

Bamboo bridge

We walked back to the hotel to pick up our luggage. Staff welcomed us again with fresh fruit juices (this time our favorite: more watermelon juice). The staff is really friendly at this hotel. I’ll miss that curious little boy too. Though I’m not sure who he belongs to since the whole staff spoils him.

We waited for the minivan for a while. Nobody showed up at 2:30 PM. Eventually a tuk tuk driver came to pick us up to drive us to the bus station. He picked up three other tourists from England along the way.

Tuk tuk to the bus station

Got to the bus station and we loaded up into the minivan, which turns out to be much more comfortable than anticipated. The air conditioner worked well and only five passengers were inside for a total capacity of eleven. The road, the same one we biked around yesterday, was very hilly and became steeper as we approached the midpoint of the journey. The driver made a stop for us to take pictures.

Mountain view on road between LP and VV

It’s no wonder that Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng look close on the map, but takes 4-5 hours to drive between them. The van driver was very cautious and descended these hills very slowly.

View from high point between LP and VV

We got to Vang Vieng shortly before 8 PM. I didn’t take a screenshot of the map to the hotel, so I had to ask a couple people before we found our hotel towards the southern part of the main street. Here is our hotel discovery video entering our room at Vang Vieng’s Laos Haven Hotel.

After checking in, we went to find a place for dinner. We walked around town for 10-15 minutes before settling for a vegetarian restaurant called Veggie Tables. Even at 9 PM, the restaurant was busy. There were many Israelis as it is not only vegetarian but also kosher. The food was good, but not memorable.

We got back to the hotel to sleep. We walked past the infamous Sakura Bar with partygoers wearing the bar’s signature “Drink Triple. See Double. Act Single” tank tops. These shirts are ubiquitous across the entire Banana Pancake Trail as the bar gives them out free for every two vodka shots you buy. As Maurice and I are both hovering closely around 30 and our tastes are more Luang Prabang and less Vang Vieng, we passed for tonight. Tomorrow is another day.