Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Vang Vieng

Our tuk-tuk guesthouse to bus station transfer in Luang Prabang

The bus journey from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was through some of the most stunningly beautiful landscapes we have seen anywhere. It is a fabulously sublime mountain landscape of towering, jagged limestone spires, massive mountains, endlessly deep valleys, all covered with lush tropical jungle and the most surreal skyline of a jumble of spires and craggy tops in high, remote mountains. The road is relatively well maintained with potholes and rough surfaces not that common, but it is a fairly narrow road twisting tightly as it hugs the sides of mountains with steep drop offs, making passing other trucks and busses a slow affair. Other than the road, overhead power cables alongside the road and the occasional village it looked relatively untouched, inaccessible as it is.

Journey break on a high mountain col. That big bus was ours
What is this? It looks like bear paw wine!
Why this journey isn't noted as a major scenic drive I don't know. Its true that quite a few people on the bus were throwing up, not because of bad driving, quite the contrary, our driver was very good, it was just the twisting road as it weaved its improbable course through the terrain, up and over high cols and all the way back down again, but we were OK. If we'd have known how good it was going to be we may have hired a private vehicle so we could stop at will for photos, as it was we had to take photos through the window of a moving vehicle and, of course they never come out well.

Scenery captured through the bus window on the move
More journey photos
We had 6 hours on the VIP bus, which was a 56 seater coach with air con, reclining seats with plenty of legroom, a world away from the cramped conditions of the minibus, and not that much more expensive (150000 kip each - £12.50), oh and the luggage didn't have to go on the roof either - bonus!

Off on our bike trip to the Blue Lagoon
Olga and Jackie
We arrived in Vang Vieng at 4:30pm, having booked the Jammee Guesthouse for £11 per night, full of trepidation over the towns reputation of being a 20 something drug taking, beer swilling, noisy party town, but we were pleasantly surprised. Two years ago they undertook a big clean up operation and it seems to have worked, there's now a full age range represented here and its really very pleasant. We booked our guesthouse because it is in the quieter end of town, easily within walking distance and looking out on the continuing fabulously towering limestone landscape. We’re rapidly coming to the conclusion that Laos is one of the most beautiful countries in SE Asia.

Views on the way
The quad bike/go cart convoys
The guesthouse has an outdoor chill area with comfy cushions on a raised deck with low tables overlooking the now familiar landscape, so we're sitting here on a hot afternoon doing just that!
After arriving and chilling out back we wandered into town, found a really nice local restaurant serving Lao food and had a spicy and full flavour Lao red curry, wow!

Hand weavers in road side shops
Jackie finds a kitten at the volunteering place
Wandering along the road we bumped into Olga a lady of Ukranian relatives but born in northern Britain. She's about our age and on a 4 month trip on her own, with one month to go, and she seemed in need of company. As it happens she is staying at our guesthouse, so joined us for breakfast on the terrace next morning. We had met her briefly the previous day in Luang Prabang at breakfast as she hurried to catch her mini bus to VV, so we had something in common and, since then we have done most things together.

Jackie, Brian and Olga
The Blue Lagoon
At breakfast we got chatting to the retired Aussie guy who lives here and helps out at the guesthouse in return for free board and lodgings. This is his home now he tells us and who can blame him! It’s easy to understand why this is a very popular area, limestone mountains, as well as being very scenic, often have huge caves within, there’s a wide, lazy river running through and it has become an outdoor pursuits location, of high adrenalin and relaxed laid back adventure: tubing, where you lie in an inflated inner tube and glide down river, the 20 somethings stopping at every bar on the way!

The sun bathing area

Poukham Cave
“So what do we do today?” we asked our Aussie host as he collected the breakfast things, and we ended up with a big list of low cost things that sounded great and too much for the two nights we had booked here so, after changing rooms (the first one had a definite damp smell to it, even though Jackie couldn’t smell it due to the tail end of her cold), we then booked an extra night.

So, with Olga we set off into town to hire proper mountain bikes (20000kip - £1.66 each for the day until 7:00pm) and to tackle a 7km dirt track to the Blue Lagoon and Poukham Cave. We were in no rush so peddled along stopping frequently to take photos and stopping to look at the small houses weaving and selling beautiful cotton and silk scarves, all set in amongst this stunning scenery (some of those mountains looked so climbable on that beautifully sculptured limestone, what a pity we haven’t got our gear or a guide book – if there even is one, they look very inaccessible). A slight distraction were the quad bikes come go carts that sped past us in convoy on occasions, kicking up huge amounts of dust, interspersed with tuk-tuks taking full loads of people, presumably to where we were going, but in between it was quite pleasant and great fun. A brief stop at the cafĂ©, which was also a volunteering place had Olga in excitement. Victoria Wood (not that Victoria Wood) has been there for 4 months and sees herself there for years. It costs about £7 per day for a mattress on the floor of a dorm, three meals a day and volunteering work which includes organic farming, teaching English and doing various jobs around the very large compound in this isolated and scenic place. Very chilled out!

Arrival at the Blue Lagoon was a bit of a shock, it was full! The Blue Lagoon was fairly small, but deep and very blue with many, mainly young people swimming, splashing and leaping off low and high branches of a large tree that overhung and swinging out on a rope swing to drop into the water. It was properly organised with people in attendance, so it didn’t feel rowdy, but a lot of fun! Over the bridge was a pick grassed flat area with mats with people sunbathing, surrounded by raised platforms with roofs for chilling out in, many open air cafes dotted around, all surrounded by forested huge mountains. The cave was up a couple of hundred steps, high in one of the mountains, which also gave access to the zip lines that seemed to crisscross through the trees, stopping at platforms on the way, with the odd rope abseil descent. In short a full on action place, lots of fun and relaxation and things to do. The notices said “do not smoke weed” and we found it non-threatening, lots of fun friendly people and a good mix of ages – a great place! We went up to the cave and had a good walk/crawl around with the one headtorch we now have between us (I lost mine!), Olga came up with us and entered the large opening but was clearly uncomfortable of going into the smaller, darker areas, so she went down and we met her at the bottom.

Olga and Jackie sunbathing
One of the scarf shops
We grabbed a mat on the grass and decided to have a swim in the lagoon, leaving Olga to look after our things and take some photos. No jumping off high branches for us, we have nothing to prove, unlike the 20 somethings! Thought about trying out an inner tube float, but instead opted for a sunbathe and a watch of all the happenings all around us. Quite high those people on the zip lines from down here, but there was a hell of a queue of mainly Chinese and it would probably be expensive, so we were happy with what we’d done and headed off back down the track. Olga had promised she would buy some scarves on the way back and the six or seven little shops all expected her to buy, so she did, spending a lot of money. They ranged between 40000 and 80000kip (£3.33 to £6.66) each depending on size and fabric, but it mounted up. Even Jackie bought one!

In the chill out bar waiting for sunset
The final rays of the day
Finally back into town and Olga took us to the chill out bars alongside the river to watch sunset. Fabulously laid back places and awesome views! Gin and Tonics, followed by beer and then dinner (yes, another Lao Red Curry!) and then hurried to drop the bikes off before 7:00pm, no lights, a bit tiddly and weaving through traffic in a laid back Lao way! No problem!

Just after a hot air balloon came gliding by
The walk out to the Tham Chang cave today

Today, laid back breakfast on the terrace and then a walk to Tham Chang cave, just down from our guesthouse and set high up in another limestone karst. Over the bridge, past the food sellers, boiled peanuts in shells (interesting, soft but quite nice) and coconut cakes (also interesting, quite nice but wouldn’t bother again), a little walk around the edge of the limestone towers to look at the ice blue and perfectly clear small rivers pouring out of caves and under little bridges (they should be made of bamboo Olga insisted) and then up the hundred or so steps to the cave. 
Crystal blue mountain waters
No-one else wanted to run up for fitness as I did halfway until the need for breathing overtook the need to keep running. This cave was fully lit with a concrete walkway, but was still absolutely fabulous, big and wide with small bits off that Jackie had to squeeze through (that’s Jackie!), bottomless holes and hugely picturesque with all its limestone stalactites, mites and flowstone. Very worthwhile.

Saw this moth in one of the caves, isn't it fabulous!
The steps up to the cave
Afternoon, chill on the terrace, write the blog, gaze at the scenery and get ready for another (only 3.5 hours apparently) bus ride in the morning to the capital city of Lao, Vientiane. Most write ups don’t give it a very good reputation, which is a bit of a shame, so we’ve booked 1 night, but may stay two depending on what we think, before heading south to central Laos. It’s getting warmer as we go, a bit warm here, but OK, now we need to be ready for the heat!

There must be some climbing up thee surely

In Tham Chang Cave

The chill out terrace at our guesthouse

There's a lot of hot air in there, and its not coming from me!

Another night and another sunset!

Pancakes on the way home from a street food stall

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what an amazing place VV is now! Such a change from 25 years ago when you just turned up, found a family who would take you in and took it from there. mountain bikes? quad bikes? hot air balloons?! and organised swimming pools, cave visits and "chill out terraces". Looks brilliant and I'm very jealous!