Caving in Vang Vieng

19 02 2015

The Midwest is frozen. With highs in the single digits around here this week, another massive snowfall is slated to fall this weekend. February may be waning, but winter is still going full force.

It’s this time of year that I relish in warm memories to keep me sane.

Winter is also the time of year when I get caught up on all of my indoor hobbies, like sewing or collaging photos in my collection of photo albums. Recently, I was donning my double-sided tape and glitter pens, as I finally placed my photos from Laos. It was 2012 when we were there on our true, month-long ‘Honey-Moon,’ and I made enough memories to last me a lifetime.

546778_411245945624702_1231613780_nVang Vieng

Halfway between the bustling capital city of Vientienne, and the French-influenced Luang Prabang, sits a small town of Vang Vieng. Nestled between steep mountains, this village has one way in and one way out, along a winding, 2-lane road that they like to call ‘paved.’ We arrived on a 10-person minibus (a van whose driver clearly wanted to make it round trip and home in time for dinner). We stopped at a small guest house with an open courtyard ringed with individual buildings for the rooms. Our new German friends, who we met in Thailand, ended up staying at the same place as us, so we dropped off our packs and walked to town together for dinner as the sun was already setting behind the mountain.

The town center is actually pretty developed, with a jarring contrast of bars and restaurants each blaring bad dance music and selling cheap plastic souvenirs targeted at 20-something college students from Australia and Europe. Even when we found a place to eat that was geared towards a more mature crowd, we could still hear the music thumping from the place next door, whose storefront was completely open to the street. As we ate, we read more in our guidebooks and travel apps about this place.

Apparently, when the borders opened to Laos, this sleepy village became a prime destination because of it’s amazing mountains and the lazy river that flows through. Things quickly escalated, as young people flocked here to get drunk on an inner-tube or go rock climbing. Alcohol abuse and drug use were quickly running rampant, and several tourist deaths were starting to become normal. The government quickly shifted gears, to try to market it differently- no longer as a party town for rich foreigners. The excessive drug and alcohol use has tapered off, but the remaining business owners seem to be confused about who they are selling to, now that more nature lovers are coming here.

vientienne siem reap 457The next morning, we slept in- a treat for me, since I usually wake up with the sun no matter what time zone I’m in. The steep height of the neighboring cliffs kept our room in a pool of shadows until late morning, and we were enjoying the leisurely pace of things here. Our new travel companions, Timo and Inez, came here to climb, so they set about their day renting ropes and gear. We knew about some caves nearby, and were looking forward to the free bike rental that came with our room. We ate breakfast outside (also included in our $18/night room), under the shady canopy of the main common space, where Laos soap operas played on a television mounted to the wall behind the bar. While we ate, our host had her husband pull out a couple of bikes for us to use. They were single speed cruisers… with baskets. Ohhhh, yeah. I asked about bike locks and they smiled, “You no need here.”

Searching for Darkness

It’s pretty difficult to get lost in Vang Vieng, with the mountains framing your horizon, and just a few dirt roads peeling off from the main road. I had written down directions to the first cave, but we had to rely on the infrequently posted, hand painted (and often peeling) signs to show us our turnoff. Bethany and I proceeded to pedal down the main road, where trucks and cars swooped into the oncoming lane to give us plenty of room. I thought it would be scary to bike on this main road, but, unlike in the U.S., biking is the most common form of transportation here, so those with automobiles were incredibly respectful and cautious of people on bikes. We set off, the warm sunshine shining on our backs. I tried to take pictures with my phone as I cycled, and we had to stop a couple times due to livestock in the road. It felt like we had been biking a while- longer than I expected- when we finally looked back and saw a sign that said “Vang Vieng 20 km.” That’s when Bethany looked at me and said, “I told you I thought we missed our turn.”

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We turned our bicycles around and started peddling back toward town. From the opposite direction, we saw a sign for a different cave, and decided to try that out. We pedaled down a dirt road for a mile or two, and came to a parking lot with a few tour buses haphazardly parked. We rushed ahead of the group and crossed a small bamboo bridge. We followed the wooden signs until we saw the cave. It held a large, 17 foot long reclining Buddha, and there was a large island in the middle where people could choose a fortune reading. We removed our shoes, I wrapped my exposed shoulders in a sarong, and we entered. We watched as Laotian people pulled one, read it aloud, and gleamed with joy. We wanted to understand, but we barely spoke enough Laos to get by. Thankfully, as we were lingering and about to leave, someone who spoke English asked us if we wanted them to read ours to us. I grabbed the cup, shook out my fortune, and handed it to the kind stranger. We struggled in broken, woven languages, and smiled at the fortune, though not really sure what we had just been told.

vientienne siem reap 329We took a few photos of the cavern and the sculptures, then turned to leave. There was another cave, a real cave, down another path, so we followed those signs. We grabbed our bikes and walked for a while, then got back on and road over the bumpy, winding dirt path. We enjoyed the quiet, meandering through a sparsely treed area, with the massive rock looming before us, guiding the way. Eventually, we got close to the base of the rock, and then saw a small shade structure with a few teenagers hanging out, blaring loud music from a boombox. They explained to us that we must pay the equivalent of $0.50, which was what we had read ahead of time. Then they loaned us a cheap headlamp, and pointed us to the entrance of the cave. Bethany tried to say she would pay them double to turn off the music so we could enter this sacred place in peace, and eventually they did turn it off for us. We looked at the headlamps they gave us and tried them on. Thankfully, we had our own, much brighter headlamps with us.

We walked up to the face of the cliff, the opening was obvious, but there was no actual sign. We ducked slightly to walk into the opening, and were faced with nothing but darkness. We saw glimmers of gold reflecting back at us, and turned on our lights. Before us was a large seated Buddha, barely illuminated by the sliver of daylight shining in. We admired the statue, which was again quite large. Then we turned our heads to the left and saw only endless blackness. “I guess the cave continues,” I stated. We walked on, exploring stalagmites and stalactites. We stepped through narrow passages, and heard the sound of distant water rushing. We paused, unsure of whether it was safe to continue.

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The sound of water quickly grew louder as we pressed on into the darkness. It was odd, to get so far into a cave, and to be utterly alone. I’ve been on cave tours before, in Kentucky or Indiana, but never once had I been simply pointed towards a cave without a guide. I verbalized the natural fear that crept into my head, “you know, if something happened to us in here, nobody would ever know where to look for us.” We recognized the risk, and decided to just go a little further. We’d been exploring for about 45 minutes, and  we had no idea how far this cave actually went.

We stumbled upon the source of the water sound. A small stream crossed the floor of the cave, then sharply turned and disappeared into a hole in the wall to our right. I tried to shine my light inside the hole to see where it went, but all I could tell was that the echoes implied a very steep fall downward. At that point, we realized that we had NO idea how far up, or down, this cave had already taken us. After about an hour, we decided to head back.

Emerging from that mountain was surreal. We left the dank, dark, isolation and were plunged back into the lush, forested meadow.The teenagers had turned their music back on, we handed back the lights we didn’t use, and counted our blessings that nothing unexpected had occurred in there.

There were 4 more caves on our hand drawn map.

The sun was still up, as it was only just after noon, so we mounted our bikes, and off we went. We decided to intentionally get lost. There was a split in the path, and we had no idea where it might lead us, but with the mountain on our right, we felt safe in our adventure. We bicycled through a tiny cluster of houses made from thatch and bamboo, along an irrigation canal, past farm fields growing rice. We saw cows and chickens roaming freely, and waved back at the small children who seemed so excited to see us rolling past their homes.

We had no clue where we were headed, and, frankly, we didn’t care. It was so freeing to feel unrestrained by roads, or signs, or rules. We just were pedaling in the sun, and smiling. Eventually, we did see another hand-painted sign for a cave, so we followed it back to another remote area. We paid our admission fee to the elderly woman standing near the entrance, and she smiled profusely at us, possibly the only visitors she’s had all day. We didn’t see another white skinned person the whole time we were back there, away from the main road. It felt like this place was here just for us to see and appreciate the hidden treasures that the denizens of Vang Vieng were keeping.

We saw two more caves that afternoon. Each was equally desolate. They required climbing down on progressively questionable handmade ladders, branches strung together with twine. Some were slippery with damp condensation from the cave below. Never once did we see another soul. The caves were remarkable, each with different formations. Some were chilly; some felt warm and humid. We became comfortable navigating the dimly lit darkness by ourselves, holding hands, and only able to tell when the other was smiling by the sound of our lips squeaking against our teeth.

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We paused in every cave, to take a few minutes to sit still in the absolute darkness. I could hear my breath echo as I strained to listen to the silence. It was utterly beautiful. Nothing can describe what it feels like to be there, surrounded by thousands of pounds of solid rock, not a sound to be heard except the infrequent drip of a stalactite, and the heartbeat of my love.
vientienne siem reap 427When we bicycled home that afternoon, the valley was already in the shadow of those magnificent formations. My heart felt so full, I was grinning like a schoolgirl in love. And… I was.

Despite the misfortunate beginnings of tourism in this area, it is a nature lover’s paradise. Quiet, stunning, peaceful, and I’d go back in a heartbeat for a full month of exploring.

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