Why go to Laos? your friends may ask. Why, to do a little spelunking, of course.
Laos is not usually the first destination a traveler thinks of. It’s not Disneyland. It’s not Paris. There are no beaches (the country is landlocked), and the capital city boasts a population equal to that of Fort Worth, Texas. (Sure, Fort Worth is nice, but you wouldn’t shell out thousands of dollars and endure a 28-hour flight to see it.) What Laos does have is relatively unspoiled wilderness and natural beauty. Part of that beauty, depending on your understanding of such things, can be found in the caves and karst topography of Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng is located about 90 miles north of Vientiane on the Nam Song River, making it a convenient stopover on the way to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang. The town has made its way onto the so-called banana pancake trail — a loosely-defined set of travel destinations favored by backpackers in Southeast Asia, the Malay Archipelago, and Southern China. This makes travel easy: There are frequent buses from Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Phonsavan, and plenty of English-speaking hoteliers and travel agents. But, this dubious distinction has also brought a certain decadence to the once quiet, rural area. Drug and alcohol use combined with kayaking and tubing on the Nam Song resulted in dozens of deaths each year. As a result, the government has cracked down and closed the riverside bars. The focus seems to have returned to adventure tourism — kayaking, tubing, rock climbing, and caving — although you can still find a late-night party and a shot of Lao-Lao whiskey if you so desire.
Caving in Vang Vieng ranges from the family-friendly (once you climb the stairs) Tam Chang — outfitted with pedestrian walkways, guardrails, lights, and even a veranda or two — to enter-at-your-own-risk caverns where you walk through a local’s rice field and pay the farmer an entrance fee. Many caves are within biking distance from Vang Vieng, and a few are walkable (Tam Chang is one of them). Here’s what you need to know:
- Many underwater caves are best reached with a kayak. Organized tours can be arranged in Vang Vieng.
- To do-it-yourself, rent a bike, grab a map, and go. Biking it will give you a chance to take in the scenery and catch a glimpse of agricultural life. You’ll likely have to share the road with cattle and chickens.
- Good maps, however, are in short supply. Most are hand-drawn. Check out Hobo Maps and a pdf download from Riverside Boutique Resort to get the lay of the land.
- You’ll need to pay entrance fees, and tolls to go over bridges. Bring small bills, especially if you’re visiting some of the less-official farmer-run sites. They may not have change.
- Bring a headlamp and back-up batteries, as many caves require crawling more so than walking. Also pack a swimsuit (a modest one is best to comply with local standards) and towel. There are numerous swimming holes.
- Some caves may be flooded during the rainy season. As always, use caution and common sense.