Paddling Past Bars and Crawling Through Caves

Trip Start Feb 19, 2010
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Trip End Jan 31, 2012


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Where I stayed
Riverside Backpackers Guesthouse

Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Khouèng Viangchan,
Thursday, December 1, 2011

Day 1 - Transit, Town
Arrived in Vientiane at around 7am and didnt have a bus until 9:30am to Vang Vieng. Ended up walking down to the river with the belgium couple I met on the bus and then onto a coffee shop. Sat here having a coffee, sorting photos and blogging. 

Eventually got our tuktuk out to the bus station over 30min later than the bus was suppose to depart. Of course (as on the way to Don Ket) the bus was still waiting since we had tickets for it. Four or so hours later arrived at Vang Vieng bus station and had a tuk tuk into town.

No idea where to stay so headed towards the river to look for a place. Crossed a bridge and found a new building with nice rooms and beds for 60,000. Only problem which I found out later was that it was the party island and lots of bars around going til late into teh night. Thankfully building had thick walls and if the fan was running it seemed to chop the noise up enough to partly block out its most annoying aspects.

Decided to wander around town (more village) for a while and definately found it to be a tourist place. Lots of shops, restuarants and guesthouses. Most strange though was the places facination with friends and family guy. Lots of restuarants where you sit on the floor and have a TV in front of you playing one of these shows though no idea why the place seems to have chosen these as the things to watch.

Wandered the streets a bit looking at my tour options and picking up a map of the area. Ended up deciding on the one day kayak trip down the river with an initial side trip to a water cave in which some tubing was done. Also manage to find one place (only one) that was selling tickets for buses heading directly to Luang NamTha. Given it was at least a 16-18hr trip I wanted to try and make it in one hit rather than having to overnight it in Luang Prabang (no night bus).

Made my way across the river to the island via a different brige and then to the river on the otherside. Seems that this was the main river and could see a woman and kids fishing something out of teh river with their hands a putting it into a basket though no idea what it was. Also had some nice views of the nearby mountains and of a few people tubing down the river.

Headed off the island and across another bridge that took me to the other river shore. here walked through some cheap and nice looking bungalos and then on through some rice fields. Definately more countryside like here once out of the main village. Found a sign indicating a couple of caves so decided to head out in that direction and see if I could get there before they closed.

Found that the cave was located on a hilll that stuck out of the fields. Had a long steep climb to the top over jagged, sharp and point rocks. As expected thongs werent the best footware for wandering over such terrain. Along the way up also came across the cave but since I hadnt planned to explore any caves I had failed to bring my torch.

At the top had a nice 360 degree view of the surrounding fields village and mountains. Once out into the countryside defiantely a lot more country like than in the center of Vang Vieng. From my vantage point at the top of teh mountain could see that the village was a lot smaller than I had expected though it was full of a lot of 4-6 story building. Lots of new tourist hotels up all over the place. Read somewhere later that in 2006 there was something liek 50 guesthouses and in 2010 it was something like 100. Definately a lot of construction which got me thinking about what the place must have looked liek before the tourism boom hit the town.

Sun was starting to set so headed down and made my way across the field back to the village. Nice sunset along the way.

Found a restuarant (one of many, many) and had a nice dinner before wandering around town once more and calling it a night. Found that there were a lot of locals selling stuff (especially sandwiches) at streetside stalls and charging high prices. Also lots of drunks wandering around and making noise after a day of drinking and tubing.

Ended up calling it a fairly early night since the last one had been spent sleeping on a bus and was feeling tired. Surprisingly wasnt to annoyed by the noise this night and crashed out cold fairly quickly.


Day 2 - Elephant Cave, Tham Nam Water Cave and Kayaking the River back to Town
Had organised a kayaking trip that had a bit less kayaking than expected but was fun anyways.  Found I had a pickup truck with seats running down the sides and a roof (tuk tuk) take us out of town to our first stop, which was some caves 20km or so out of town. At the tour ran into the german couple I had met in Pakse who were just doing the half day cave tour.

At the caves we first visited the elephant cave which had a stalagmite that looked like an elephant with tusks as well as a buddhe statue. Seems that the cave was also made into a temple not that long ago when a village popped up in the nearby area. Here I learned an interesting fact from the guide. That is what the jiggling of sticks in the can is all about.

Seems that there are a number of sticks in the can all with their own number. A person shakes this (as I have seen) until a stick falls out or the monk selects one. This number is then used to select a script which tells a fortune about good or bad luck with this fortune being related to a persons Karma either in their past, present or future life.

From the cave the half day trip went to visit a couple of nearby caves and we went to the water cave where we had to wait a while for an earlier group to make their way through. Given that in the end we all went back together and all did the water cave I cant see why the one doing the kayaking could also have visited teh other caves. If I had thought of it earlier this is definately what I would have asked for.

Floated through the water cave which was pretty large in most places. Our time in the cave mostly involved use sitting on tubes and pulling ourselves through the cave via a rope attached to the wall. Guess that in the end went a few 100m into the cave before it started to close up and disappear. All of this was heading up against the current which was mild so when we had to go without the rop for a while the paddling wasnt to bad.

After the cave the other group showed up to also do the water cave as we had lunch, which ended up being rice and a couple of really nice kebab sticks with veg and chicken. Ended up chtting here with the US couple whom I found worked in Denali during the summer months.

After lunch back through the village to the tuk tuk where we were driven back to where we had dropped off the kayaks earlier in the day. Should be noted at this point that I had expected to paddle from here and for that matter to have done some paddling before the cave. As I said not as much paddling as I expected but enough to get some exercise.

Had a nice paddle for 4-6km to start off before we reached the start of the riverside areas used for drinking by people tubing. Maybe half a dozen pubs/clubs here all serving alcohol, having people dancing and music blaring out. Lots of drunk and probably stoned people here.

Had a stop here for an hour or more to soak up the atmosphere at one of the quiter pubs. Ended up having a couple of drinks and jumping off a platform that I recon was 6-7m but that the others though was 10m. When I jumped off it I am sure that it was not as high as the diving platform at the pool i have jumped off at home. Also found a trapezes swim that was fun to swim off off.

After the booze stop we had our final stretch of paddling 8-10Km to get back to the village. Along the way had a few nice views of the mountains from the river. Also found a few tubers heading down the river on their way back home. Was surprised though by the lack of pubs on this part of the river. Found maybe another 3 and I guess in my mind I sort of expected a pub every 500m or so rather than a big coglomigration of them at the start of the run. Guessing the idea is to get pissed at the started then float down river pissed with the occasional top up if required along the way.

Also along the way had a couple of small rapids to paddle through. While these werent much they were certainly more interesting then the paddle at 4000 islands. At one point it got rough enough for the US couple to roll their kayak even though I hadnt thought the rapid was that rough. Guessing they got caught on a rock (which I didnt) and that this through their balance. Was also think it a pity I hadnt gotten here a month earlier (as planned) when the river would have still been full of the monsoon rains.

Made it back into town a little before sunset and besides wandering the town for a bit and getting something to eat had another quite night in a restuarant on the laptop.


Day 3 - Cycling and Caving (Khan, Pha Ngeun & Poukham) Around the Countryside
Decided to get a bike today and use the map I had to explore a few caves though I didnt get as far on the bike as planned. Seems I spent more time crawling under ground than I expected. Besides that had breakfast at 9:30am and didnt really get going til 10am which was a bit of a late start.

Managed to find a shop with a mountain bike which was a good thing. Given the hills and rocky road conditions having more than one gear was a bonus. Definately better to let the bike gears help do some of the work rather than only having a single gear and struggling up the hills. In some cases (small uphill) gears made it such that it didnt even feel like going up hill.

Crossed the toll bridge and once again saw people in the water pulling things out of the river and putting them in a bag. Nice blue sky and nice river and mountain views. Also the dirt road I had to follow wasnt to bad for the most part.

Decided to visit the third cave I passed a sign for. The sign here pointed to a side trail which soon turned into a dry stream bed. After a bit of cycling I finally reached the cave and began to explore. Thankfully with a fairly decent torch. Inside the cave found a buddha statue as well as some white arrows. Decided to follow these since I assumed they would lead me somewhere, though not sure where.

While following the arrows kept an eye out for side paths so I wouldnt get lost heading back. Only saw arrows in one direction so this got me thinking there might be another exit from the cave, which there was. Had a few tight fits and eventually arrived at a crossroads. Two paths lead a little further unerground and the path with the arrow pointing towards it lead to a small hole.

Not sure what I would have done if a nother group hadnt already been in the cave and crawling through the hole. Was fairly far underground and think I would have been nervous crawling through such a small hole for as long as I did if the guide hadnt said that it lead out. for 30-50m I found myself in a hole where I had to crawl on my hands and knees (or elbows and feet). At one point even had to push my pack way out in front of me in order t squeeze through a hole. Lots of mud but also lots of fun.

Was nice to see the light at the end of teh tunnels so to speak. While crawling underground is fun, its always running in the back of my mind about not seeing some side passage and making a wrong turn somewhere underground. Would not be a good thing but certainly not a good enough reason not to got for a wander.

Once out of the cave decided to follow the stream bed further up into the mountain. Eventually reached a spot where the bike couldnt go anymore so jumped off and continued up on foot. Had a couple of steep parts climbing up boulders and it wasnt long before I saw my first snake. Coming down in the other direction I saw some locals which I found strange at first. Found out later though that it seems that some people have cleared some land up here to grow corn, beans and other food stuff.

Eventully reach some really steep waterfall climbs and while i made my way up the first couple decided to turn around at this point. Wasnt sure how close to the cliff faces the river bed would get me before a dead end or whether ther view would be blocked by trees so since ther were other places to visit turned around.

Back to the road, through a small village and then right at the next cave sign. This sign talked about a lagoon and I have the impression they were trying to pass themselves off as the blue lagoon in the guide book. According to the map though I was nowhere near far enough out for that.

Wandered into this cave which unlike the previous one had more stalagtites and stalagmites. Also an insect that looked something like a cricket so I guess it was a cave cricket. also found that as I went a little deeper into the cave that it seemed to be the result of two 45 degree rock layers shifting apart. Unfortunately this cave wasnt to deep so not much to explore.

Back to the bike and a little bit further down the trail to get closer to the mountain cliffs before turning round, paaing through another small village and arriving at the blue lagoon (Poukham Cave). This cave had a nice rich blue colored swimming hole a couple of hundred meters before the cave with a few tourists swimming in it and jump off the tarzan swing.

I headed past this to the cave which had a steep climb up to it. Found it interesting  to see people who had been swimming decide to walk up here in bare feet. At the top of the climb was a big cave open cave. Must have been a few hundred meter in diameter with stalagtites, stalagmites and lots of boulders. also one small buddhist shrine near the entrance.

Once again took my torch and went for a wander deeper into the cave. Along the way found some great big holes in the ground (and occasional danger sign) so definately not some place you want to be without a torch. Sort of got me thinking that carrying a spare torch wouldnt necessarily be a bad idea. While I think my camera LCD could give me some light in a pinch not sure I would want to rely on it to find that side passage I need to find in order to crawl out.

Wandered around checking out the cave for a bit bfore heading towards the back of the cave where I found the ceiling and floor got closer together. Here I saw a path to the left which I took. Soon found that it wasnt actually a side cave but rather a path around a group of columns that had filled up this part of the cave. Should be noted that the only reason I realised this was because when I turned my torch off I could see the faint light of the exit in the distance.

Headed back towards the entrance but this time along the other side of the cave. Found here that I had a lot more climbing up and down rocks to reach the exit. Also found a lot more sink holes on this side (no signs) to watch out for. 

As I got closer to the exit could start to see the light stream into the cave and light it up. Seems that with the positioning of the sun lighting the cave, this is defiantely the best time of day for a visit. 

Once outside considered going for a swim but it was getting late and I still wanted to try and get a bit further down the trail so back onto the bike. Guess I went another 3-5Km until I reached the next village before turning around (bike had to be back by 6pm and I didnt want to be late). Along the way had some nice views of the nearby mountains here. Especially with the light of the slowly setting sun on them.

While I had originally planned to cover more ground on the bike I had no choice but to turn around due to the time. Seems I hadnt budgeted enough time for crawling underground.

Headed back towards town and saw an interesting campfire along the way. Seems that like people, cows like campfires. Must be the case since I saw a large group of cows standing around by a camp fire. Am guessing that a farmer built the fire but cant see why they would do it for the cows (not that cold and certainly wouldnt last the night) so can only guess the cows decided to wander over to a random fire for warmth.

Made it back to town before sunset and returned the bike before heading out to a restuarant for dinner. Pretty much called it a night after that.


Day 4 - Walking and Caving (Bees Cliff, Chang & Trio + Rio) Once Again
Original plan had been to tube down the river today but in the end decided I had already seen what was available on the river and rather then spend the day drinking with a bit of swimming and floating I woould crawl through a few more caves given I had enjoyed it the day before.

Today decided to do the caves closer to the village and so didnt bother with a bike. Not sure if this was a good idea in the end since it would have saved some time in transit even though a number of the caves would have required me to walk to them anyway. In the end had enough time to visit 3 areas for a total of about 6 caves.

Had breakfast a bit earlier today and so was on the road by 9am. Using the map was able to find a second bridge that allowed me to avoid the toll bridge.

Passed through the small village on the other side and started up the roads to the Bees Caves. Along the way saw yet another tractor drawn wagon with the long handle bars. Am guessing that the long handlebars are there since the tractors are used to pull something to plough the rice paddies when they are not being used to pull wagons.

Upon making it to the sign out to the cave headed out through the rice fields which at the moment had no rice growing in them. seems that harvest time must of been not to long ago since the stalks of the harvested rice could still be seen in the fields. Lots of nice views of the mountains here as I made mt way to the mountains with the cliffs.

First set of 4 caves I came to was Bees Cave. Not sure if I found all four, but definatley found three, since I only found two with named signs and one with a cave sign. First cave I got to was just a large crack in the stone. No real walk inderground here and no sign saying cave. From a distance I waould have to say that it looked like a cave was up the mountainside above this crake but there was no way to climb up and take a look.

Went right next which lead me to a cave with a sign and here I found a very narrow cave. In a couple of place I found that turn sideways my chest was almost to big to sqeeze through. Most interesting thing about this cave was that it ended in a pool of water. From above could see that the water was filling a larger opening in the cave and might have been tempted to jump in and have a quick look under the ledge if I had realised my torch was waterproof and I had a mask. Definatley needed some scuba gear to head any further though.

Back out and headed back in the other direction to a cave with a named sign saying it was cave two. Found this to be another narrow cave to squeeze through with a small loop inside of it so that you entered and exit through different points. Not as much fund (or anywhere near as deep) as the cave circuit I had done the day before.
 
After getting out of this cave I kept following the trail, which started to get rougher and fainter, to the final named and numbered (one) cave.  In here wandered around the main cave area which was quite open but also ended up finding a side passage and crawled through this for 50m or so on hands and knees before having to turn around and head back.

While in this cave I also discovered some signs of life. First I also unexpectedly found a frog jumping around on the cave floor. Am guessing its a cave frog since I think it would be to dark for a normal frog to wander round in here. Also found some big spiders on the walls which is something I hadnt been seeing in any of the other caves I had visited. Guess I really need to watch where I am putting my hands.

Out of the last cave and looking for a trail to take me round the mountain and to some caves on the other side. Map said one existed but I ended up having no luck finding it. In the end had to walk back and cross the toll bridge though in the direction I was going no one ever checked you had a return ticket paid for.

Walked through the village again and was far enough out of the center to see a different kind of Vang Vieng village. Can image that the rest of the village use to look a lot more like this area before it got hit by the tourist boom.

Eventually entered a resort area and paid to cross another bridge to enter the cave area. Here I saw a path up the hill but given the cave cost 15,000 (rest were 10,000) I decided to give the cave a miss at first. Followed to trail past the lagoon and through a small woodland looking for the cave on the map and while I found a smal alcove with a buddha statue in it I am not really sure this was the cave I was looking for. Had walked over a fence and run into a house at this point so turned around since I wasnt sure if I had walked onto someones land.

Headed back and decided on taking a swim in the lagoon. Hid my bag under the platform here and after realising my torch was water proof swam into the cave by the lagoon which seems to be another water cave. Had to swim against a bit of a current to get into the cave (making it easier to know way out) and swam maybe a couple of 100m into the cave. In here I found a number of tree roots had dropped sown into the water. While above the water it was a thick root, in the water it was more like a mane of hair.

Found it to be quite big and could have gone further inside but was nervous about swimming through an underground cave. While having your torch run out in a cave would be bad it would be even worse in a cave where you had to tread water. Definately want some sort of floatation devide and a backup torch to explore this cave. Was fun though to go even as far as I did before swiming back to the entrance unsing the current as a guide.

After the swim ended up deciding to go up the hill to the cave. Had a great view from the top of the valley below. This cave was unlike all the other caves I have visited which probably explains the price. Found this cave to be more your typical tourist cave with its concrete paths and internal lighting. Found it to be nice enough though with lots of stalagtites, stalagmites and columns inside which is I am guessing the reason its all lite up. Also found that one path lead back out to the mountain side where I had some more great views of the valley below.


From here found a path that looked like the one I had been looking to take me round the mountain but found that it looked like it crossed through private land. Since it was getting later in teh day decided against taking it just in case it ended in a dead end. Decided instead to go back to the toll bridge since the free bridge to far a walk from here.

After the bridge the next set of caves were in the general direction of teh village so I knew I could get back to the village directly from them. ended uo crawling through a couple more caves with one of them full of graffiti. Seems that the thing for most people to do here is use the mud from the floor to write in the walls of this big open cave. At one point found a narrow passge that lead deeper underground but found that it was way to small for me given the stalagtite growing down one side of it.

Once out of these last two caves found that it was drizzling a bit and so headed back to the village through the rice fields to grab some dinner. Again wandered through town and grabbed a bus ticket for the next day before heading back to the hotel where I chatted with a couple of girls I met a couple of doors down from my me and calling it a night.

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