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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Three little free range 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.
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.
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.
Here is one more photo of the dramatic karsts in case you haven’t gotten your fill of scenic photos.
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.
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.
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.
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.