We spent a big chunk of the day riding our bikes to the Blue Lagoon and hanging out there, visiting the nearby Tham Phu Kham Cave and playing in the water. Then it was time to go to our next stop in Laos: Vientiane, the capital city.
We woke up around 8 AM today, early enough to pack, check out and finish breakfast before 9 AM when we picked up the mountain bikes we rented for the day. The Blue Lagoon area is accessible by bike or tuk tuk but since we read the bike ride is not hard and very scenic we wanted to give it a try.
Five minutes after leaving the hotel, we crossed the Nam Song River on a bridge that allows pedestrians, bicycles, motorbikes and even cars and trucks. Crossing the bridge is not free and that may explain why we saw a truck drive directly across the river below us. While it’s true that the water level was not high, it was still a funny thing to observe. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to take the camera out.
Nature surrounding us was indeed beautiful, with many karst rock formations. This is a shot of the road to Blue Lagoon about 15 minutes into our ride.
It was not too hot yet and the road was pretty much flat, making our ride much more pleasant than our previous bike expedition south of Luang Prabang. Our bikes were also significantly better: mountain bikes with multiple speeds. We stopped in a couple of places to take pictures.
We got to the Blue Lagoon in just half an hour. Entrance was 10,000 Kips per person. We locked our bikes and starting exploring the area. The Blue Lagoon itself is quite small but looks really beautiful and fully deserve its name: the water has a very nice blue / turquoise color. There were tourists here of course but it was not overcrowded and definitely better than I expected. Some people were zip lining while others were just playing in the water. The middle part of the lagoon is deep enough to allow people to jump into the water from a nearby tree with bamboo railings leading to two different branches, the higher one being about five meters above the water surface.
We decided to go to the cave first and come back to the lagoon when the temperature will rise more later in the day. To get to the cave’s entrance, we had to climb up for about 200 meters. The hike was difficult, with handrails made of bamboo for the steepest sections. But getting to the top was very rewarding. Immediately as we arrived in front of the entrance we could feel a cool breeze coming out of the cave. As we looked inside, we were quickly impressed but how tall and deep this cave was in comparison to the ones we visited yesterday with our guides.
We put our headlamps on and started exploring. This cave really is a maze, with many chambers and galleries and since we were without a guide this time we had to make sure we would remember how to get back.
The very first chamber we saw was well lit thanks to a large hole in the ceiling that allowed the light to come in. It had a small tent with a yellow roof.
We took one last picture of Mimi in front of the entrance before going in deeper.
As we arrived to the tent with the yellow roof, we realized it was the place where locals come to light incense sticks and pay homage to the reclining Buddha. However there was no Buddha to be seen there. We saw broken statues including the reclining Buddha a few meters down. It’s unclear who or what caused that however I’d put my money on an act of vandalism perpetrated by disrespectful tourists.
This was the large hole in the ceiling that let light in, after that we did not see any natural light coming in anymore.
There were many crevices on the path, some of them deep enough for us to not see the bottom. Add to that a path made of many slippery rocks and you can understand why it’s strongly recommended to not go deep inside the cave alone.
Of course I wanted to keep going, at least until we don’t see natural light anymore. Mimi was a bit scared and made slower progress.
A few minutes later we were finally in the complete pitch dark. The path took us under an enormous boulder that was laid on top of other very large rocks in a way that was a little bit scary. We did not stay underneath for too long!
We kept going deeper for a little longer until we reached a chamber with several tunnels coming out of it. There was nobody around us anymore and that’s when we agreed it was time to stop and go back the way we came. We were too afraid to get lost without a guide. Going back was surprisingly easy as we had followed red arrows painted on the rocks. There was only one part that I would say was difficult and a bit dangerous (because slippery) and Mimi actually fell once in that area.
But she eventually made it safely to the other side, hooray! In the background, sun light shines on her through the large opening. On the left side is the yellow roof tent that formerly housed the Buddha statue.
Here she is, posing next to some graffiti.
As we came out of the cave, we had to adjust to the natural sun light which was particularly strong since it was noon then. We came back down to the lagoon area and went to cool down in the water. The water was quite cold but manageable given the hot air. We didn’t really swim much. We both jumped from the low branch of the big tree, but it took us a while to accept to jump from the high one. Eventually we both did and it was a thrill. Here is a video of Mimi jumping after hesitating quite a lot.
Next we had lunch, there was a single restaurant there serving Thai / Lao food. The food was okay and on the pricey side but we had no alternative. After eating we stayed a little longer just watching people taking turn jumping. One 40-something Chinese guy stood on the low branch too scared to jump, finally one of his friends had to push him off after several minutes of hesitation. As his friend pushed him off the tree, everyone applauded (by then people had noticed that the guy was super scared). We also thought about checking out the water slide but it did not seem very impressive or fun and nobody was using it.
Here too there was large groups of South Korean tourists, mostly retirees. There was one relatively large group of them wearing t-shirts supporting South Korea’s claim over Dokdo Islands. They were shooting group videos saying “Dokdo Islands belong to South Korea” and tried to include as many white people as possible. I seriously doubt any of the westerners knew anything about Dokdo Islands. On the other hand I was pretty familiar with the territorial dispute, having dealt with it several times in the context of my work for Google Maps! This other video is a good summary of the general atmosphere at the Blue Lagoon.
By 3 PM it was time to head back. We rode our bikes back to the hotel, it was still a pleasant ride though noticeably hotter than in the morning of course.
After returning the bikes, we went to get fruit shakes. This quickly became “get food and also fruit shakes”. We did not keep an eye on time and by 3:40 PM we realized it was too tight for us (especially Mimi, who is notoriously the slowest eater in the world) to eat the food and be back to our hotel by 3:50 PM for the minivan pickup. Mimi canceled her crepe order but my tuna sandwich was already being prepared by the staff. I grabbed it to go and we carried our shakes as the guy from our hotel came looking for us at the nearby restaurant.
The minivan that picked us up seemed very pleasant and was not at full capacity. We picked up some more folks at hostels in town before hitting route 13. However about half an hour later, we changed to a much crappier and smaller minivan. Luggages were attached to the roof, secured by a net. My seat in the minivan did not even have a headrest and what I thought was going to be a nice drive south quickly turned out to be miserable. The ride was very long and extremely bumpy. The roads in that region of Laos are much worse than between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng which I found somewhat surprising since we were going towards the capital. After four hours, we finally got to a bus station in the capital city. It was not at all in the center of town but rather next to the airport. Songthaew drivers were already waiting for us at the bus station. We all shared a single vehicle for 20,000 kip per person.
We got dropped at the city center, but finding our hotel was very difficult, no one recognized the name New Rose Boutique Hotel. We had no Internet access or the exact street address of our hotel and Mimi accidentally cleared her cached data for Google Maps. We asked a few locals but they did not know our hotel. Eventually we managed to find our way there using the blue dot from our GPS signal to orient ourselves to the marker that Mimi had starred on her Google Maps. We checked in the New Rose Boutique Hotel and took a video of our room before unpacking.
We went to look for a restaurant and walked around our hotel. We immediately liked Vientiane, it seems to be a nice city for both locals and tourists. There were many nice restaurants in the area. We picked the Mix Restaurant & Bar for its live music and impressive menu with all kinds of cuisine. Ordering food there was challenging as none of the waiters had good English, much to our surprise. In fact, we thought the English skills there were much worse than in Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng. The prices on the menu were at least twice the prices in Vang Vieng but we figured it was reasonable given the location and live music. The food itself was really good so we quickly forgot about the other negative points of the place.
We finished dinner around 11 PM and went to bed a bit before midnight, exhausted. Tomorrow we’ll have a long day exploring the capital city of Laos.