We set out to Vang Vieng the next morning. The drive led us through many different villages and flat scenery until we reached the mountains shortly before our final destination. There we made a short stop to take a look at two old Buddhas carved into the stone. It was also our first contact with the abundant green nature of Northern Laos. Bamboo, grasses, trees and more covered the mountain sides. Unfortunately for us the entire area around Vang Vieng was covered in fog, so that we could only make out the mountains as dark shadows against the sky. Nevertheless we could imagine how breathtaking the view would have been on a clear day. It was still spectacular with the fog.
Vang Vieng is not only famous for its steep cliffs and luscious green mountains, but als o for a huge number of caves, some of which we visited. We had a nice assortment of different caves: Some flowstone caves, some Buddhist caves, some caves with concrete paths and lighting, some caves without any lighting, some caves accessible by foot, some only by swimming. In front of most of the caves we would be expected by a local renting out (non optional) headlights. It’s hard to say which cavern I liked most. They were all very interesting in their own way.
The first cave we visited, Tham Jang, was probably the most accessible, if you look past the 150 steep steps leading to the entry. There was a concrete path guiding through the cave and light bulbs gave you a glimpse at the stalactites and stalagmites. The path ended in a large cavern, where the guide told us they had ran out of funding and that once they got more money they would expand the path further into the caves.
The next cave, Tham Loup, was also a flowstone cave, but not lit in any way. A local farmer was waiting for us at the entrance and gave everyone headlights before we set out to explore the caves on our own. It was beautiful. The stalactites and stalagmites may not have been the largest one has ever seen, but the fact that you can explore by yourself (and by this I mean not only, that there is no artificial lighting or path, but also that there is nobody but you in the caves) makes it very special. The cave was used during the war as a hideout for the local people. They have left their names and the dates when they hid there on a large wall. In fact many of the caves were used as a hideout during the war. There was a second cave, Tham Hoi, right next to this cave, which we also briefly inspected. However our guide had told us that the cave had a total length of 4km, but that there was nothing special to see and that we would need to cross a river at one point. Therefore we only walked up to the broken bridge before turning back.
Tham Nam, the water cave was more of a happening than a cave. It can only be entered swimming, but since the water is quite cold and not everybody can swim, a very efficient business has been built up around the cave. They are renting you a tube and a headlight before allowing you to tow yourself into the cave with a rope. Where the water gets shallower again, another person awaits you to walk you through a big cavern before returning in a circle back to where you left your tub. There you board your tube again and can tow yourself out of the cavern into the sunlight. It was a lot of fun to do even though there is really nothing to see in the cave.
Our final cave was Tham Xang, the elephant cave. So named because of an elephant carving on the walls of the cave. It houses a large Buddha and several contemporary religious art pieces. From there we set out to visit a Hmong village. Though I’m not entirely sure how happy the Hmong were seeing us poke through their village, they all greeted us nicely and, in general, smiled and waved. Our guide showed us what was growing on the fields, though most of it we could’ve recognized from home: Pumpkins, cucumbers, beans, tomatoes, salad and more. What came as a bit of a surprise to us was that these things are grown “between season”, meaning between the two rice crops they collect each year…. We’re usually happy if we can get the cucumbers to ripen before the cold sets in again.