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Viva Vang Vieng!

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2003

      Vang Vieng doesn'’t leap to mind, when one considers great travel destinations of the world. It doesn't even place. Most people who are not hardcore travelers have never even heard of it. But if you are looking for an interesting Asian destination, where you can actually hang out in one small town for a whole week and not be bored, Vang Vieng is it. Luckily for everyone, only the backpackers have discovered it so far. So what’'s so special about this sleepy little hamlet in the tiny country of Laos?

THE TOWN – Our first impressions of Vang Vieng were not positive. The town seemed totally overrun by backpacker tourist guesthouses, noisy bars, cheap restaurants, and souvenir stands. Luckily, we refused to stop until we made our way to the river. As we got closer to the water, we discovered more and more of the old town. At last, we found a quiet guesthouse where we could relax beside the river, and watch the locals making their way across a rickety footbridge to the other side. As the afternoon slowly turned to dusk, the hills around Vang Vieng turned to silhouettes in the oncoming sunset, while we dined contentedly on the Riverside Restaurant's deck.

CAVES. Vang Vieng is surrounded by karst, which are limestone cliffs. These cliffs are literally riddled with caves. There are so many caves that you can'’t possibly visit every single one of them in the local area. The hotel handed out a cave map to its guests. We walked to many of them, and we even rented a motorbike to get to distant ones. Here are some of the most memorable highlights of our cave exploration:

      Than Nawm- A gigantic cavern; so large that over 2,000 people took refuge inside, and lived there for several months, in the dark days of the bombing during the Vietnam war.

      The Elephant Cave - We drove our motorbike out to visit this one. It was very pleasant, taking side roads out through the rice paddies to a Hmong village. The Elephant Cave is named after a formation, right near the entrance, which resembles an elephant. But the striking thing about the elephant cave is its length. The cave system goes on for 32 kilometers (nineteen miles) before it comes out on the other side of the mountains. We walked for several kilometers before turning back. The floor of the cave was smooth, soft sand, and the walls were so smooth that they almost seemed unnatural. It looked exactly like a drainpipe, half full of silt, which is what it effectively was. I'’m sure the Elephant Cave becomes a rushing river in the heart of the rainy season.

      The Xylophone Cave- (my name) I can'’t remember the actual name of this cave, but I remember that it was over the footbridge and across the river. It was a challenging cave, with lots of tight spots and strange passageways winding over and under each other. This one required a guide, who demonstrated the cave'’s most unique feature. The guide tapped on a series of stalagtites with his hand, and played us a little tune. The gonging tones were very pleasant to listen to. At the end of the tour, there was a large room, with a couple of open “windows” to the outside. The floor dropped into a deep pool of very clean, clear water. Other cave visitors were already swimming, taking advantage of the cool cavern pool. We did not hesitate to join them.

      Poukam Cave - – A short but sweaty hike up the karst cliff brought us to the entrance of this cave. The main cavern was gigantic. In its center was a large bronze reclining Buddha image.

THE BLUE LAGOON was just below Poukam cave. Freshwater springs were pumping very clear, very fresh water right out of the ground, at the base of the cliff. The water had a delicate light blue color, from exposure to all the limestone. This natural spring formed a sensational swimming hole;– in fact, the best swimming hole I have ever been to. The water was so pure and so light that it was like swimming in air. It felt extraordinarily clean and fresh on the skin.

      The swimming hole was surrounded by large trees, which overhung its banks. Classic Huckleberry Finn style rope swings hung from their branches. Orchids hung from the trees, and flowers bloomed on the grassy banks of the little pond. Dragonflies and tropical butterflies thronged the air. Local kids splashed and jumped and laughed with delight.

KAYAKING AND TUBING – The biggest “activity” in Vang Vieng (if you can call it an activity) is floating down the river on various flotation devices. You hire a company to drive you several miles upstream. They dump you at the river'’s edge, with your inner tube or kayak. The river does all the work for you, floating you back to town. I suppose that, during and after the rainy season, this requires a bit of skill, or at least effort. But, when we were there, the river was so low we actually bottomed out a few times-– in a kayak! (The people in inner tubes must have literally “bottomed out.”) We drifted lazily along in the sunshine, enjoying the views of the karst cliffs and the brilliant green of the ricepaddies. A couple of water buffaloes from a neighboring farm were down at the river'’s edge, having a drink. They paid us no mind. They were used to the constant flotilla of Western tourists.

      We explored one waterlogged cave by the river’'s edge, gliding through the darkness in our kayak. Then we headed back out into the sunshine, for a trip down “"Beer River."” Around the bend, the first raft/bars appeared. Local guys spent their days on their cooler-filled rafts, selling cold beer or lao- lao (local rice liquor), to the tourists on the inner tubes. These floating temptations were irresistible. Most tourists were making a point of stopping at each and every one. These people were sunburned and thoroughly hammered, even though they weren'’t even halfway down the river yet! We stopped at one too many of these bars ourselves.

      The partying wasn'’t over yet. The guys from the kayak rental company had invited us to a local watering hole for dinner and drinks. We had a great time hanging out with our local friends, although we did consume a rather unwise amount of lao-lao that evening. The bus ride, when we left Vang Vieng the next day, was on a rugged and mountainous winding road with dozens of hairpin curves…, and Dave really suffered on that ride!

      Vang Vieng is a great little town, if you'’re ever in the neighborhood. Viva Vang Vieng!

      Thanks for reading!

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