Stepping outside of our hotel in Vang Vieng the morning after our arrival was when we noticed the true beauty of Laos. For the first time we got to see the magnificent landscape in the brilliant light of day, at that point it was easy to see why people clammer to Laos for the views. The breathtaking backdrop of rock formations, towering over jungle and rivers just beyond the small town, it really does give you a kick-start in the morning and the impetus to explore.Feeling the need for some exercise we opted for two mountain bikes, additionally, we had heard the dirt tracks off the river can be very challenging for the tiny wheels of a moped. Opposite our chosen bike rental shop was our first stop, an unhealthy treat to cure the after effect of a few beers. Gary’s Irish bar was advertising some monstrous looking Full Irish Breakfast dishes, so being suckers for western greasy food, we capitulated against our grumbling stomachs and I took advantage of the HP brown sauce on offer, while Mel scoffed down a healthy serving of Spaghetti Bolognese.With bellies full and with (stupidly) no map in hand, we set off from the breakfast joint and headed towards the largest mountains we could see, hoping it would take us to the riverfront so that we could get a glimpse of river tubing in action. About one hour later after a strenuous 7 or 8 kilometers on a rather nettlesome dusty road, we saw some minivan taxis whiz on past with a few tourists clutching their massive tubes, we knew we had to follow. I pedaled ahead and somehow caught up with the trailing taxi just as it took a left turn towards the river, I knew we were close and so waited for Melissa to catch up before we ventured further. As Melissa caught up we took the turning and about a minute later we arrived at one of the few open bars on the river front, where in the early afternoon the music was already blasting and shapes were being thrown all over the place. We had a pretty taxing day out planned and starting on the booze again so early wasn’t going to feature in the day’s itinerary, so after a few moments to soak in the atmosphere we cycled on down to the river bank where, awaiting us, was a precariously hoisted wooden bridge, which looked safe to get one of us over at a time. We pushed the bikes over one by one, gauging each slat of wood step by step, in the end it was fine and the bridge was sturdier than we gave it credit for.So there we were on the other side of the river, watching as a few people made their way to the water with a tube in hand and slowly drifted down to the sound of drum and bass… semi-idyllic, I guess. On the other side the grass was greener, but the bars were so much more depressing. As we slowly biked our way through the untrodden paths we stumbled over a few broken signs and passed through at least 3 abandoned bars. Table tennis tables, pool tables, basketball courts, benches, lounge beds, bars and toilets were all but covered in a blanket of leaves and were synonymous with the tourist crash that desolated many businesses within the area. Although these bars were such a contrast to the lively shacks over the river, each one’s isolated remains still furnished the back drop of Vang Vieng, with a tranquil yet eery allure. A little bit of wandering further down the river bank, led us to a sign for Lom Cave, one which of course we followed.As we got closer to the mountain sides we also discovered a wandering man, who at first I thought was a previous bar owner still living there, however, he was actually one of two guards watching over the entrance to the cave. We tried asking some questions about the area, but were met with the typical glazed over confusion, unsurprisingly even more so when we were trying out some of our clumsy Laotian. Instead, after a few minutes we conceded and paid the entrance fees (80p each), locked up our bikes and headed on up the make shift stairs. The stairs which got us up the first third seemed to disappear shortly after and gave way to slippy rocks and rotten wood, it felt like another symbolic glimpse of the desolateness created in Vang Vieng. When I later found out that this cave typically had 100-200 visitors per day circa 2008-2010, I was sure that this place had too become a victim of the rapid incline and then decline of tourism to the area.At the top of every climb, there is a reward, and with (Tam) Lom Cave, what you get in return, is the captivating composition of karst rocks and lush greenery from about 300ft up. You get the stunning breath of fresh air and the blast of wind that hits you as you enter the cave. You also get the faint whisper of drum and bass from down below which is amusingly unfitting for the moment. The lights were not switched on and the banisters leading the way into the cave were somewhat deteriorating, but the lack of attention in this place gave it the serenity you expect from a cave, a few feet up the side of a mountain. We ventured down slowly, aware of the potential pitfalls, and as it became almost pitch black we decided to turn around and make our way back up, stopping to shine a light and enjoy the interior. The walls of rock glimmered under the light like crystals, it was truly magnificent to have a place like this to ourselves for a while. Until we laid eyes on a bright blue spot in the darkness. Unaware what it could be we lit it up with the torch and there hiding in the dark was a spider as big as my two hands (or Melissa’s head as I thought). The blue shine was the sparkle of it’s eyes glaring at us and underneath its body, it was working on what looked like its dinner preparation…We climbed our way back to the cave entrance, discussing whether bears live in caves in Asia or not… we are still unsure. After taking one last look at the view over Vang Vieng, we made our way back down the rickety path and returned to our bikes.
Mel… Unsure whether to wave or hold her bike… 🙂
We followed the same path back and saw a few families eating lunch at their remote homes, whilst on the other side of the river the music continued. En-route to the hotel we past through the abandoned airstrip which we discovered is where we were dropped off in the dark on our first night and also that this is where tourist buses heading to Vientiane depart from. In search of lunch, we also stumbled upon the small tourist area, where the town seemed lively and was covered with Europeans, Americans, Canadians and Australians. We stopped in one of the many Friends bars where – yep you guessed it – they show repeats of Friends all day long. With our legs aching, we sat ourselves down on the comfy cushions, ordered a beer each, ate some lunch and indulged in some dated American comedy…my favourite type 🙂