"Mate I'm so fucked, lets take our pants off and float down the river!"
This was one of those sentences, now burned into my memory, from my time travelling though Vang Vien.
VangVieng is a backpacker based town. Bars, restaurants, internet cafes and guesthouses line the streets. Activities like tubing and kayaking draw in crowds of travellers.
Backpackers flock from all over the globe to get themselves into one of Vang Viens famous tubes. You could once float past over 30 bars, rope swing, zip line and dive into the Nam Song river. Trance music blaring, many bars dishing out shroom shakes, weed and everything else under the sun. The area was know for its mental parties and crazy lifestyle. The thrill for pushing boundaries was welcome here.
This is no longer the case. In 2011, 27 people died in the Nam Song river, forcing governments crackdowns in 2012. They tore down most bars after so many deaths. Now you will find only two or three bars open per day.
Most deaths were due to shallow water levels in the dry season and tourists diving directly into rocks.
The change has shown a different side of Vang Vien. With people putting the bottles down, they have more time for an early start and adventure. Blue lagoons, mountain hikes and endless caves are just a few of the many outdoor attractions worth seeing.
Vang Vien is obviously best known for its famous tubing industry, so I had to give it a crack.
Rumour has it, a local farmer accidentally invented tubing in 1999. He bought a few rubber tubes for his farm volunteers, to relax and ride along the river, sparking the idea to tubing.
As we set out on our tubes, a thought ran through my mind, how many people have died doing this?
As you float down stream, locals will throw out ropes in an attempt to reel you into their bars. Catching the rope and being pulled into my first bar quickly eradicated any concern. Only drinks and sunshine were my food for thought. Something about the culture of tubing just made me want to drink.
My crew was assembled, everyone had their waterproof bags, suntan lotion and swimwear on. I thought, we would just be hanging around the first bar for 30-40 minutes, this was not the case.
There was only one other bar open, literally a two minute tube ride down the river. You were forced to spend almost five hours in one bar, drinking and playing endless drinking games.
Everyone sat around getting wasted, buckets were being sunk all around. Games of flip cup were going off and the sense of how drunk people were getting hit me.
In the past, people were getting more messed up than what I was seeing, then attempting a flying fox into shallow water. No wonder people died.
Yes, people like to get drunk, but if you throw a zip line in front of a drunk man, what do you think he will do?
Off we went to the second bar, floating down river, when my tube started heading off course...
It was time to catch the line into the next bar but there were too many people to catch. More then half of us missed the stop. This was the last bar open and we were not ready to finish. In a vain attempt we hopped out of our tubes to cross the river.
THIS IS A BAD IDEA!
I hopped out of my tube, the water barely past my knees, put my feet out to stop but soon found it impossible. The current was deceptively strong, raging against my legs. The stones underfoot were so slippery, all I could do was bash the soles of my feet on the rocks. It did nothing to slow me. Had I lost my tube at this stage, who knows where I would have ended up.
Wait until the current slows down to a standstill, then you can easily jump out and head to the bank back up stream.
More and more drinks soon followed, music blaring, people dancing soaking up the last rays of sun.
We soon set off for the end of the river, try to beat the sunset, because it is a 30 minute ride to the end, last thing you want is to be cold and riding a tube for 30 minutes.
As the sun began to set, the wind began to pick up and the freezing cold began to settle in. My good mate was somehow hot and hilariously drunk, trying to convince people to take their clothes off in the tubes.
Needless to say, he was the only one naked, floating down river.
Tubing is worth the experience but with so few bars now, the novelty felt a little worn.
I can imagine how crazy this place must have been at full capacity.
Have fun, just don't get out of this world drunk and you will have a great time.
Blue lagoon 3
On one particular morning I had enough of the cheap booze and made a few friends that desired an adventure.
We rented a few motorbikes and set out lagoon chasing. I had heard rumours that blue lagoon 1-2 are completely overcrowded by tourists and nearly impossible to swim in. Stay away from those spots, unless you enjoy crazy crowds of Chinese and Korean tourists.
My Scoopy (motorbike) for the day was probably the worst bike I had on my entire trip. Scratches displaying how many times this thing had tasted tarmac. It's suspension was shot and it felt as though it would fall apart in seconds. Guess it had to do.
Cruising out of town and into the wilderness the landscapes began to transform into khast mountainside. We set off to find blue lagoon 3, hearing it was the least visited. Be prepared for one bumpy ride down a 10km road of gravel and large stones. With a passenger on the back, it was a struggle, though managable.
Arriving at blue lagoon 3, the first thing to catch my eyes was the vibrant turquoise coloured water, tempting for a quick dip. I was eager to see what was around the lagoon before I cooled off.
If you take the dirt path on the road to the toilet you will end up at a small cave entrance. The past will lead up into a steep trek into the mountains, don't go that way! Take the small seedy entrance into the dark cave. Be sure to take a torch or you wont get far.
I descended down towards the entrance and suddenly all light turned into darkness. The 40cm entrance will have you on hands and knees as you enter.
I’m not sure how it happened but we had amassed a crew of around seven of us, people from all over the world, all meeting at the entrance of the cave. Looking at one another thinking, are we really about to go into this place? I had no idea who most people were, but with adventure on all our minds we bonded quickly.
Venturing further inside, the weather instantly changed, dropping drastically as we pulled out our torches. Deeper and deeper we adventured, the inside of the cave leading in all different directions, opening up to a huge room almost 30 meters by 30 meters full of stalactites columns. I took my torch and led away from the group, as everyone searched for another direction out.
Exploring a cave on your own, in complete darkness, with nothing but your phone light is exhilarating. My mind loved to play tricks on me, as I had no idea what was down this path.
My body was hunched over, hurdling obstacles and imagining all kind of things popping out from the shadows. I reached the point of no return, realising everyone had crowded up behind me. Suddenly, I could go no further. A sheer drop was staring up at me and if I went in, it looked as though I could never climb back out.
We chose another direction and before I knew it, we had arrived at an underground lagoon. Silent, and untouched. I wondered what was in that still water but no one was game enough to swim in the darkness.
We decided to turn back, luckily I had left a few markers around for our return or we could have been stuck down there a while. We were all asking one another if this was the way back on the way out.
Daylight kissed our faces once more and the short walk over to the lagoon was exactly what I needed after that cave adventure.
Tham Nam, Underwater Cave
My favourite place in Vang Vieng was the area just north of the city, surrounding the underwater cave.
It was a particularly beautiful day outside. A few clouds hung about, the perfect tonic from the sweet sunshine. My dear friend Angie and I set out on the road, passing through small villages and rolling green forestation before we pulled into the site entrance. As per usual you need to pay to cross bridges and gain access into everything, typical Laos.
Crossing over to the far side of the bridge, will send you into the field, of no idea where you are.
One minute you are following signage leading to a cave, the next there is five different ways to go and no signs leading to any direction. Just keep an eye out and see if anyone is on another path. It will usually lead to one of the three awesome places to see.
I arrived at the entrance of the underwater cave, looked left, saw tubes. Looked right, saw head lamps. I looked ahead and saw a tour group heading in. I figured that you could do it alone, I mean, if they are leaving all the gear around, surly it means go for it yourself?
I grabbed the torch, threw my tube in the water and bid farewell to Angie before I set off into the darkness. Floating on the surface and entering the cave. I found the rope that led the entire way through the cave. It will lead you on a guided tour around inside.
I grasped onto the rope and pulled myself through the entrance, the darkness began to submerge me. My headlamp was so dim that I couldn’t see anything ( maybe there was a reason it was just laying around). I could hear the tour group inside, screaming in the distance and wondered what I had gotten myself into.
I kept grasping the rope, pulling myself further in. By this time, my head lamp was all but a single dot in the abyss. I could hear the group making their way out from the entrance.
Now I was inside, in the darkness, alone and floating further into the point of no return. I couldn’t see the end, I was just pulling on this rope hoping it would take me back, all the meantime, sitting in a tube, floating around in the water. I thought for a second, if I come off here I’m screwed.
After what seemed like an eternity, I could see a faint glimmer of sunlight in the distance, I had returned to the entrance. The adrenaline began to leave my body and my heart rate slowed. I pulled myself out, caught the sun on my face and was thankful to see the light of day once more.
Head around the corner from the underwater cave and check out the other two caves close by. The cool springs in the same vicinity were probably the best part of the entire area. Not one other soul was there, as we hopped into kayaks and swam around the cool springs for the afternoon.
The name is literally, "cool springs".
Go check out the water cave and remember to go here.
On another day, a crew of us headed up to one of the local viewpoints to catch the sunset.
After two hours of challenging climbing we made it to the top, soaking in the endless mountain ranges.
As the sun set over the mountains, we quickly found ourselves descending down through the jungle. Within five minutes we had our phone lights out, well two of four, the other two were already flat.
We had a two hour dissention to make, phone power running dangerously low, when off in the distance......BOOM!!!!!
The sound of what I could only imagine was the thundering bang of one of Laos many unexploded bombs, went off in the distance.
We all turned to look at one another, the expression of, (what the fuck!) was plastered on every ones faces. We didn’t think twice and just started making our way down the mountain as quickly as possible.
Walking through the jungle at night can be extremely disorientating. We had no sense of where we were. We knew we were on a path, but the halfway point never came. As the rain began to trickle down, we started to pick up our pace, we had to make it out of here. The conversation stopped and nothing but the raging sound of footsteps could be heard.
We paused for a moment, turned off our torches and could see nothing but darkness. The canopy above us had completely covered the sky, without our torches we couldn't see our hands in front of our faces.
Wild cats, snakes and spiders lurked in this jungle, luckily we only came across the latter two.
Lights back on, we pushed for the finish, spotting a baby snake and plenty of spiders before our prayers were answered. The canopy began to thin and the end of the path lay ahead of us.
The locals had stayed and waited for our return, finally happy to go home now.
We sped off, cold and exhausted to our hostel, what an experience.
Vang Vieng is one of those places in the world where you can spend all of your time getting drunk for next to nothing and partying all the time if you please. Most hostels have free drinks, most bars also have free drinks and when they are not free they are dirt cheap.
On the other hand, Vang Vien has some of the most untouched nature I witnessed on my trip. You can spend days upon days venturing around and seeing something other then the bottom of a bottle. You wont regret witnessing any of the above attractions.
Try for some balance, you can venture in the day and have a drink at night. This really is a special place in Laos.
Take a torch, EVERYWHERE! You never know when you will need one. For some reason in Laos, you need one everyday. To attempt these caves and jungle hikes you will always need one.
The underwater cave is free, if you are brave. Everything will be lying out, just take what you need, I think its fine.
Take a jacket when you do some night riding after a late jungle trek, its freezing cold riding in the darkness.
To save a few dollars, drink in the free hours at your hostel, then head to Viva for more free drinks from 10-11.
Eat the street sandwiches, they are insanely good. Laos has some very average food unfortunately, but the Vang Vien Street sandwiches, Chicken, Bacon and Cheese is to die for.
If you need your iPhone fixed after Tubing, there is a guy that fixes iPone 6 screens for $50 USD, he was making an absolute killing from all the people getting their phones wet.
Take some hiking shoes, you will need them for all the trekking.
Have fun, adventure, party, just come out the other end alive.