A small riverside town in Central Laos, this place will make you feel at home if you love outdoor activities such as mountain biking, trekking, kayaking, caving, swimming and rock climbing.
Vang Vieng and Me
Formerly known as the party place of Laos, the energy has changed a lot since the sad accidents in 2011. As of 2015, the tubing and party scene in Vang Vieng is absolutely nothing like it used to be. Now there are only 5 beach bars and the tubing is happening during daytime only. It is not a place where families with small kids would come, but a lot of young explorers, backpackers, flashpackers, adventurers as well as holidaymakers do.
The town is rather expensive (compared to Laotian standards) as it counts on the incoming tourists bringing a lot of money with them. However, accommodation varies from fancy hotels to low-budget back-packing places, so anyone can find what suits them.
I made my way to Vang Vieng (via Vientiane) from South and North America… yes, flying across half of the globe to come back to my beloved South East Asia… I don’t know how it always happens that I end up here… from Thailand to Australia and from there to Cambodia… from Cambodia to Middle East, South and North America and from there to Laos… every traveller who is a planner would tell me it’s crazy… but there is always something that brings me from one or other end of the world here, to this particular tiny spot of a continent… karma I guess… I have no idea what it is but I’m leaving it to the water and the flow…
I have been teaching yoga here for a month now and found it pretty easy to connect with the place, the Nam Song river where I go swimming almost every day (you need to walk higher up the stream to get pristine clear and deep enough water, but it is worth the short walk from the town, about 1.5 km), the Tham Chang cave which became my place of meditation and water healing (see below) and the stunning mountains and cliffs where I go hiking every now and then.
In fact, this whole place so much reminds me of my childhood and the town where I grew up, with a different, wilder river with bigger stones, and mountains of different shapes, in the mild, not tropical climate, yet, there are similarities and I often think of HOME here, whatever that words represents to me.
You can easily get around the area on a rented bicycle, scooter or in a buggy (often used by the Chinese tourists). The bike rentals start at 25,000 Kip per day and scooters at 50,000 per day. The buggies are really pricy, starting at about 100 USD per day.
If you are keen on Buddhism and temples, there are three in the town: Wat Kang, Wat Si Sou Mang (my favourite) and Wat That. Make sure to wear proper clothes when you go there to meditate, pray or simply visit. Your knees and shoulders should be covered. If you leave a donation in one of the designated boxes, the monks and the helpers around the temples will be grateful. I go there quite frequently as I like to observe the life of the monks, their routines, rituals, the way they bless their food before eating and listen to their chants.
I always feel welcome when I walk in, even though I still get the surprised looks… true, there are not many Westerners going to the temples here…
The Blue Lagoons
Vang Vieng is famous for its idyllic aquamarine-coloured blue lagoons which were sadly turned into swimming pools by being fenced around by concrete. The three most famous once, located just a few kilometres outside of town (8 km to lagoon 1) are very touristy. They can get loud with the people drinking their beers, playing music on their phones, and shouting a tone another (sorry, cheering one another up) on the zip lines and springboards.
Nobody actually knows for sure how many lagoons there truly are in the area but often you would reach a cave and find a lagoon nearby, or you would go to a waterfall and there would be a lagoon in the area too. That is always cool and pleasant to find these unexpected ones on your explorations.
My favourite out of the touristic ones is definitely Blue Lagoon 3, as there is also a nice viewpoint and a cave that remains hidden to many as there is just a tiny ladder leading down into it and it looks more like a rabbit hole than anything else. There is no light anywhere either, so once you manage to slip in, you find yourself in complete darkness. But when you get your torch out (in my case a phone), an amazing world of cave chambers opens up to you!
Of the many “known and touristy” caves in the area, my top is Tham Chang (also Tham Xang), but not the cave itself, known for the natural carving of an elephant head in one part of it (and thus called Elephant Cave), but for the small lagoon that opens up at the footpath below the cave (to which there is a staircase leading up) and is actually coming out of the cave! It is basically underground water streaming out of the cave, creating a lovely lagoon and then continuing on its way to confluent with the river. Amazing!
In Laotian culture, caves are considered sacred places and are often made into temples. In this one, there are two ceremonial altar locations that are worth your offering and meditation. One is near the lagoon, inside the cave, where you find two Buddha statues, one is up in the main cave complex. Don’t miss out on them.
Most tribal civilizations, starting with the Aboriginals, concluding with the South American tribes and Central American tribes, have believed in the sacred power of underground waters and their healing properties. I’ve been exploring underground waters and connecting with them in Australia, in Mexico, and now in Laos where I gained a deep spiritual adventure thanks to this particular cave. You can swim in the water flow through many chambers in the cave. There are sacred trees around and the water itself has got such strong healing potential that it not only changed my physical vibrations for a few hours and enabled me to take a demanding hike with my knee and foot injured (as I fell off the scooter earlier that day) but also opened up deep mental capacities in me I had been unaware of…
There is also a marvellous view over the town and the surrounding landscape from one side of the cave.
As I am writing this, I am almost worrying that the beautiful place will become overcrowded with people and might lose its magic, but I do believe that those of you who follow my blog are conscious people who – if they come to the place – will treat it with respect and dignity.
Waterfalls and Hikes
Of the many waterfalls in the area, I would probably recommend Kaeng Nyui which is about 30 mins drive away from the town. The waterfall is only a trickle during the dry season, but you still find a lovely lagoon and a smaller plentiful waterfall in the area, near the temple in the visitors´ area.
As for the many hikes: Pha Ngern! For sure! But come ready! Forget about half an hour all the way to the top as they say at the entrance. This is a demanding hike that normally takes a good hour at least – if you are a trained hiker – up, and about an hour again down. My friends and I, however, were fighting for time as it was after sunset when we got up and none of us had a torch or enough food or a sufficient amount of water with us. We came unprepared, in our flip-flops, and me also with injuries on my knee and foot as on the same day I had fallen off while driving a scooter (on a rocky downhill). I was in terrible pain, exhausted and sweated through when I made it to the top, as we were basically running up.
For me thus, the hike became a real journey! Due to my injuries, I was always slightly behind my friends, feeling alone in the darkening forest, sometimes just shouting out the names of my friends to make sure they were still somewhere around.
There are things in life we simply need to go through on our own… like the pain you feel with every single move in your injured knee and a foot as you are struggling not to give up since you might never come back to this place… or maybe the feeling of not being good enough… or maybe the feeling of loneliness (Which is not based on having or not having people around you, right?)… or maybe the feeling of being left behind… those are things no one can go through with us… you do go through them alone, though there might be more people going through the same thing at the same time… well, whatever there is, go through it… don’t look back. Stop if you need to. Look around. Breathe. Pray… and continue… if the Universe brought you to it, they will bring you through it… you are bound to reach the peak at some point… and find your peace and connection there… like I did on top of that mountain!