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Biking, caving and swimming in Vang Vieng

And wishing we had more time to spend here as well!

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You know you’ve been in Asia too long when you throw all caution to the wind, rent a motorcycle, get on it (no helmets) with your six-year-old, and drive around all day on rocky roads.

Not me, that is—I have no idea how to drive a motorcycle—but Mark. Ciaran has been begging and pleading with us for a motorbike ride ever since he first encountered swarms of them in Bali, where he also got his first brief taste of riding one. Vang Vieng is exactly the kind of place that would make you cave in to such demands. It’s quite a small town—spectacularly scenic, surrounded by mountains—with very little traffic, and in any case our plan was to get off the pavement and bike down a dirt road for 10 kilometres to Phou Kam cave, a massive, awe-inspiring cave so large you need a guide to show you around for fear of becoming lost inside one of its many rooms. As in Luang Prabang and elsewhere in Asia, we couldn’t find a bike Ciaran’s size and Mark was going to have to pedal him around anyway. It struck us that maybe this was Ciaran’s lucky day, and the two of them could go by motorbike while the rest of us cycled.

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Our original plan had been to spend the day tubing, the activity Vang Vieng is most widely known for. The Nam Song River, along which the town is centered, is surprisingly clean. Travellers rent tractor-tire inner tubes and spend half a day drifting lazily down the river, being pulled in with bamboo poles from time to time by locals selling cold BeerLao. It sounded fabulous to me, so our plan was to see the cave in the morning, return for lunch, and go tubing in the afternoon.

But as it turned out, getting to the cave was quite the undertaking, and turned into an all-day event. Our bikes—not mountain bikes or even hybrids, but the usual heavy, gearless, brakeless Laos specials—handled the rocky, gravely uphill road with some difficulty. Charlotte was managing beautifully and I was okay, but Chloe was grumbling and complaining most of the way, stopping frequently to walk her bike through particularly rocky sections, banging her ankles into her bike after swerving unexpectedly, cutting herself on the bike a few times. The ride that we figured would take half an hour had taken an hour already and we weren’t even halfway there.

It was near the halfway point, actually, when Charlotte noticed that she had lost the key to her bicycle lock somewhere. It was the kind of lock that is attached directly to the bike’s rear wheel so that when the lock is engaged, the wheel doesn’t turn. Poking around to search for the key, she somehow managed to lock the bike—and we had no way to unlock it. Mark and Ciaran took off on their motorbike to look for the key at places where we’d stopped along the way, but returned after some time to say they’d had no luck. Fortunately for us, although we were out in the middle of what looked like nowhere, on a dirt road bounded by rice paddies, farms and the occasional bamboo shack, we happened to be standing right in front of a painted wooden sign advertising bicycle and motorbike repairs. The shop owner was not able to unlock the lock, but after a few tries he did manage to simply remove the entire apparatus from the wheel. That would later cost Charlotte $5, but the good news was that we could continue our trip.

Reaching the cave more than two hours after we’d left Vang Vieng, the first thing we noticed was a wide, deep stream at the foot of it known as The Blue Lagoon. A ladder had been built from the ground to a tree branch hanging high over the lagoon, perfect for jumping—and there were rope swings, tubes to rent, a food shack, and little bamboo shelters with mats for relaxing. Just spectacular.

Promising the kids we’d spend time at the lagoon after seeing the cave, we hired a guide, rented some headlamps and began the steep ascent to its entrance. It wasn’t more than a 15-minute climb, but the last third was steep enough to require the use of a bamboo handrails on both sides of the trail—you sort of had to haul your body along. Although Charlotte managed this beautifully, Mark was a bundle of nerves about it, worried she would slip and hurt herself seriously. The owner of our hotel had recommended wearing flip-flops to visit the cave due to the pools of water inside. But flip-flops were certainly not the ideal footwear for the climb, nor for clambering over the slippery rocks inside the cave. Of course, all five of us had worn our flip-flops on this advice, so the hike seemed like an accident waiting to happen—if not a broken neck then at least a turned ankle. Mark harangued his mother about being careful all the way to the top and deep into the cave until we reached a golden reclining Buddha statue on a type of altar.

There, Charlotte decided to call a halt to the cave exploring and said she would sit down and wait for us. We continued with our guide on what turned into at least a half-hour of wandering around inside the massive cave. At times the ceilings looked to be as high as 80 feet above us. We saw bats hanging, giant spiders, little red crabs. At one point when we were deep inside the cave, the guide asked us all to turn our headlamps off. We found ourselves in pitch blackness, completely disoriented. The kids found this all marvellously spooky and started to pretend they were characters in a Scooby-Doo episode. I wasted no time pointing out that maybe this was the perfect Halloween activity and would suffice to replace the trick-or-treating that we would not be doing. I wasn’t sure this suggestion was going to meet with anyone’s approval, so I was amazed when the kids agreed.

Climbing and skidding back down the trail outside the cave, we thanked our guide and moved on to the blue lagoon, where we spent a fabulous hour or two swinging on ropes, jumping from the tree and floating around in the inner tube.

The bike ride back late in the afternoon was easier, since it was somewhat downhill. The only mishap occurred when Charlotte coasted to a stop to see where the rest of us were, but couldn’t put both feet on the ground, so toppled sideways into a barbed-wire fence. It took some time to get her unhooked, but she was otherwise unhurt and handled the whole thing with her usual sense of humour. Everyone agreed that we’d had a much better adventure with our cave-and-lagoon day than we would have had just tubing down the Nam Song, so I suppose it was a serendipitous choice.

We would have loved to spend more time in this spectacularly scenic, slow-moving place, but we have hotels and flights booked elsewhere so it’s time to move on. We’ll be on a bus to the capital, Vientiane, later this afternoon, and after a few days there will be heading down to an island in southern Thailand.

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Posted by The Rymans 20:53 Archived in Laos Tagged family_travel

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Comments

I am certainly enjoying your full and detailed account of your trip, I feel like I am along with you!
Please, keep it up!
Mark from Santa Barbara, CA

by Mark

Wow!

by Tricia

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