As is our usual pattern when we actually get around doing JBRs (actually, Sabrina writes them, it’s more when Lise gets around to posting them), we’re including our travel tales, and at the end of each day will list some of the prices we paid in the hope that it will help others plan their budget. Rather than duplicating prices, we’ll only list each price the first time we pay it!
For currency abbreviations we’ve used THB = Thai Baht, US$ = US dollars, A$ = Aussie dollars, K = Lao Kip.
Day One - 11 September 2012
We were picked up by minivan at the Auberge Sala Inpeng in Vientiane to head for Vang Vieng. We had asked the hotel to reserve VIP bus tickets (one of the services the hotel offers) for us, at a cost of K60,000 per person. We had thought we were being transported by shuttle bus to the bus station to catch the VIP bus it turns out that wasn’t the case (to our surprise and that of our fellow travellers).
The van we were picked up in held 9 people (plus driver and front seat passenger) and, while quite comfortable, believing it was just a shuttle service, I had left my e-reader in the bags that were right at the back and under other peoples luggage. Oh well, plenty of scenery to enjoy. Luckily for me Lisa was feeling a bit seedy (no not from Beer Lao but with motion sickness from twists and turns in the road) so she lent me her e-reader while she and a young Vietnamese girl chatted.
As said, the road had lots of twists and turns but it was the paving which intrigued me. The first part of the trip was great with a nice smooth road. Then we came to a part where the road was paved for 200 metres then unpaved and rough for 200 metres, then paved for 200 metres and so on!! You would just settle to the smooth bit then there was the bumps. It was like “they” only have enough paving for half the distance so spread it out….I would have paved just one side!!
At 1.30pm we arrived at Soutchai travel in Vang Vieng and not a tuk tuk to be seen. Good for us was that we had heeded advice on various forums which said if you wanted to enjoy the peace and quiet, stay a little out of the main area which we did so it was only a five minute walk to our hotel - The Elephant Crossing.
The Elephant Crossing (and I add here that I did not see one!) is right on the Nam Song (Song river). We had requested a high up room with a balcony and that was what we got! The view was totally breathtaking. Across the river limestone mountains going back forever with lush greenery in the foreground and everchanging as the sun moved over.
Vang Vieng had a reputation as a cheap town with drugs and alcohol by the bucket everywhere along the river for river tubing and zip lining and jumping into the river and partying and drugs and alcohol and re-runs of “Friends” on TV in the bars. Reading this we had initially thought we would give the town a miss… Then we looked at pictures of the area and knew we must stop there…. and heeded the advice to stay a bit out of town.
To everyone who also thought it a place to avoid, go there…
The rickety river bars are gone. The drunken, rowdy, irresponsible river tubing has been stopped. An excerpt from http://www.theage.com.au 22nd August 2012 “In their efforts to promote the tourist spot, 100km north of Vientiane, as a safe, ecotourism destination, authorities closed seven bars on the river "after finding they were serving tourists alcoholic drinks laced with opium and hallucinogenic mushrooms," the Vientiane Times reported”. The town is quiet and peaceful, and no doubt suffering the loss of income from past activities. River tubing is still available but now it is minus copious amounts of alcohol and any associated silliness.
Off we went to explore. School children were heading home on their bikes and all holding colourful umbrellas to shade themselves! Looked so good! The town is small with two major streets. Although we were staying “a bit out of town” in was only a five minute walk into the centre. Lots of cafes/restaurants, bars, guesthouses and places to get a massage. At one place we bought waterproof bags to put our cameras in. Made from rubber, it is a tube which you roll down from the top and clip around. It has a shoulder strap attached and at $5AUD a bargain.
Sunset from the balcony of our room was fantastic and after savouring that we went back out to a restaurant for tea. We did a lap of the main strip in town, and found there to be not many people about at all, finally settling on dinner at KhanKham Restaurant.
“VIP Bus” Vientiane to Vang Vieng = K60,000ea
Supermarket Vang Vieng
Can Coke Zero = K6000
Can Coke Light = K6000
500ml Can Beer Lao = K12,000
5L Wet Bag = K40,000
Pineapple Shake = K5000
640ml Beer Lao = K10,000
Gin & Lemon Juice, Sugar Syrup & Soda = K20,000
Lab Chicken = K20,000
Morning Glory = K17,000
Chicken with Pineapple & Coconut Milk = K23,000
Day Two - 12 September 2012
Day 2 began with yet another breathtaking view from our balcony with clouds slowly rising up through the karsts. Very sleepy looking. Breakfast, included in our room price, was served buffet style at the restaurant right on the river. What a brilliant way to start the day.
We had organised, before we left home, to do a tour through V.L.T Natural Tours (good reviews on TA) and at 9 o’clock we were picked up and driven to the V.L.T office, literally just 2 minutes away from our hotel.
(Note that while in Vang Vieng we learned that you need to be careful when choosing your tour company. There are well reviewed, well rated companies whose names are being “copied” by other businesses (similar to the problems experienced by the well known Sinh Café in Viet Nam) in order to pick up business. For example there is a VLP tours in Vang Vieng (very close in name to V.L.T. Natural Tour) and Green View tours (similar to the well known Green Discovery). Unfortunately some people visit intending to travel with the well known companies, however end up with these copies and don’t always have the same experience, and in some cases may even believe they had used the “original” company, coming away wondering why companies such as V.L.T etc. would be listed in guides such as Lonely Planet, or have good reviews on TripAdvisor. It’s worthwhile to make sure you have the right company.)
Into the back of a Songthaew (a covered pickup truck, open sides with a bench seat on each side) and we were off. This is a brilliant way to travel, one of my favourites. Past greenest rice paddies to our drop off point where we and our guide, a young man called Ham, were left to do our “trek” (we would call it a walk or a hike). We were each given a 1.5L bottle of water to carry along, and then we were on our way!
We started across a long wooden bridge over a river and on to a Hmong village. Ham told us a bit about the cultures of these people. How lucky they are to live in such a beautiful area surrounded by rice paddies, limestone karsts….
We walked along a water embankment, past a sign pointing to Pha Thao Cave with a description saying it was “big and nice” and on to Tham Nam, the water cave which is 500m long with a tributary of the Nam Song flowing out of its low entrance. In the dry season you can wade into the cave, but when the water is higher you need to take a tube. Here we did our cave tubing. We had done this before out from Yogyakarta in Java where we floated through a cave and out the other side. This experience was quite different. The water was quite high and you pull yourself along a rope sometimes having to duck down to avoid hitting your head. The entrance itself was not a very big gap from water to roof so it was very dark inside though a head lamp is provided. The float in was spoiled a bit by another tour group who were extremely noisy - yelling and yahooing - and thought it hilarious to splash everyone they passed without consideration to people they did not know or people who wear glasses who then could not see through water splashed glasses (aka Lisa). Thankfully they were heading out as we were heading in so our float back out was superb with just the lapping of the water in the quiet darkness.
Once out we sat in a shelter with tables and a little store which sold cold drinks while Ham (and the guides for two other larger groups) went off to cook our lunch. Lunch comprised two delicious kebabs with chicken, onion, cucumber and tomato, fried rice, a warm baguette and bananas. More than enough and very tasty!
Back on the path and off to Tham Loup. Here we climbed up some steps then down nice muddy steps into the cave. Magnificent stalactites and mites, narrow passageways, lots of slippery sloppy mud. Ham sang as we walked along - pretty good too. My biggest problem was fogging glasses - though cool inside the cave it was sweaty too if that makes sense. We spent a long time exploring the cave and finally out to the day light.
Close by was the Hoi cave with a large statue of Buddha at the entrance. This cave was drier and not as pretty as the Loup cave and continues for many kilometres deep into the mountain. A river runs inside the cave and can be quite dangerous in the wet season. Ham told us about a tourist who decided to explore this cave without a guide - he went long way in to the cave, but never came out. We didn’t travel far or for long here which wasn’t a problem as it wasn’t as pretty as the Loup cave, and very very dark.
Outside for a bit of a sit down then we went on past another village and beautiful rice paddies to Tham Xang, the Elephant cave. At the entrance is a stone elephant carved by nature and, unlike a lot of these natural formations, this one didn’t need a good imagination to see the elephant! A small cave with a few Buddha images including a golden reclining Buddha.
On to a rest stop at the river’s edge where we had a cold drink while waiting for a little boat to take us across to the other side. Our little, skinny, flat bottomed boat sat very low in the water! On the other side we reconnected with the driver and it was back in the Songthaew and back to the hotel.
It was a great day and Ham was a really good fun guide.
The scenery around Vang Vieng is stunning - we can’t emphasise this enough. A leisurely watch of the sunset from our balcony then out to hit the town. While walking we got a phone call from Vone, the General Director of V.L.T Natural Tours, to see how our day went. As we were close to the office we called in to assure him we had a great day and chatted about other places to see around the town…. hmmm a return trip may be in order! Next stop was Khan Kham Restaurant, where we ate at the previous night, for dinner then back to pack up ready for our drive to Phonsavan the next day.
We had arranged our onwards transport through the Elephant Crossing Hotel on our day of arrival. As this journey was to be 6-7 hours through very windy roads we decided we would take a private car. Our transport from Vang Vieng to Phonsavan cost us US$130. We were able to choose our pick-up time (we started out at 9am), with the theory also being if we needed/wanted to stop anywhere along the way, we could do so.
V.L.T Natural Tours
2 Hilltribe, 4 Cave, Trekking, Cave Tubing Tour = US$15ea
At Tham Nam (Water Cave)
Can Coke Light = K10,000
(we also noted the price of 640ml Beer Lao to be K15,000)
Rest Stop overlooking river at end of Tour
Can Coke = K10,000
Nescafe Can = K5000
Supermarket Vang Vieng
Pack 4 cold & flu tablets = K10,000
90ml bottle cough syrup= K25,000
400ml Green Mate Orange Juice = K5000
Packet Lays Chips = K8000
Coconut Biscuits = K6000
10L Wet Bag = K45,000
Fried Red Curry Fish = K25,000
Chicken with Cashew Nuts = K20,000
Note: we loved Vang Vieng, and will definitely return in the future!!!