Vang Vieng, Laos, January 2014.

I recently had a disagreement with a stranger on facebook. This isn’t something I make a habit of, I’m definitely not one of those girls who airs her problems or fall outs on social media…in fact, I don’t really have fall outs. Anyway, I follow a group that anonymously shares backpackers confessions. When I first started following a year or so ago, the confessions were funny and I could relate to a lot of them – stories about toilets with no flushes, showering in plain sight of a road, bad smells on sleeper buses etc. etc. But recently the stories have only been documenting the very, very seedy side of travelling. The sort of backpackers I refer to as the ‘Ibiza bunch’ – don’t get me wrong, I am not lumping everyone who has been to Ibiza or enjoys a good party into this category…but it’s those people that go to an amazing new country and are blind to the wonders around them, too distracted by drink, sex and drugs. So anyway, this confession was about someone urinating in their friends mouth whilst in Vang Vieng, Laos. Unable to contain myself, I commented my disgust and disappointment that in such a beautiful and culturally rich place, this was the sort of behaviour being carried out daily by backpackers.

In fairness, Vang Vieng does cater for this behaviour…to an extent. When you enter a cafe or restaurant you can choose from the food menu, or the drug menu. Not in every establishment mind, but a good few. The ones that do this generally have TVs along one wall, with lounge chairs facing them, playing repeats of Friends episodes ALL DAY. It’s quite surreal really. There is also an activity called tubing which involves floating down the river in a rubber ring (tube) and filling your bucket with beer at each bar you pass. It has become less popular in recent years after several deadly accidents, but it has by no means become extinct. Despite all this, there is a sign up in the town asking visitors to be respectful and keep their bodies covered, keep the noise down, respect the locals and their property etc… I’m sure you can imagine that these rules are rarely stuck to.

Anyway, moving on. The point of this post is to show people that Vang Vieng has a lot more to offer than what meets the eye, or what is written in the Lonely Planet guide (I lost a lot of respect for those guys on the day I discovered them advertising it as a good spot for drugs.)

We were only there for a few days and we opted to spend our time biking to the many caves in the karst hills surrounding the town.

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After riding through the, sadly dry, rice paddies, we found our first cave guide. He was just hanging around.

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He led us through this magical tunnel of trees to our first cave.

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It was pitch black in the caves so we all had head torches on. It was a bit scary going in the first time with a complete stranger who spoke no English, but after the first few caves, it just became the norm.

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Anyone who knows me, knows that I have a bit of a moth phobia, so it was hard not to panic when Jake spotted this beast above my head.

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This is a rubbish photo because it was too dark to see what I was doing. We used our torches to ‘paint in’ light onto this eerie lake in the middle of the pitch black cave. Our guide mimicked swimming and pointed at the lake encouragingly. Jake took a very firm ‘hell no’ stance, but I had a little wade in. It was freezing cold and perfectly still. When my head torched brushed over the water big fish darted in all directions.

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Jake was a complete pro on his bike, but I got a little nervous going over these rickety bridges, especially when the gaps between the boards were as big as my tires.

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In the afternoon, after 3 or so hours of cycling and exploring, we were a good mile down an empty river bed that promised to have a cave at the end of it, when I decided it was time to have a paddy. The river bed was so bumpy that my teeth were rattling and my arms were shaking from the exertion of keeping the handle bars straight. I jumped off my bike and let it crash to the ground, then I kicked it and yelled with frustration. Jake immediately burst out laughing which obviously made everything worse. I was on the brink of exploding with anger when Jake was saved by a rustle in the trees. Suddenly two boys appeared out of the dense undergrowth and without a second glance at us, walked straight past, nattering in Lao to one another. This wouldn’t have been so strange if we hadn’t been on a dried up river bed in the middle of a forest and hadn’t seen another person for the last few miles. As we stared after them we realised that one of them had a large knife hanging from his belt and a dead rodent of some sort dangling from his hand. At least my fit of frustration was forgotten!

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We finally made it to the cave, only to find the guide fast asleep in his hammock. We couldn’t take our cameras into this cave because it was too tight so I don’t have any photos, but I do have a good story! We clambered through the cave for about 15 minutes before our guide announced ‘Now, 5 minutes crawl.’ and proceeded to lie down on his stomach and slither into a dark hole. After exchanging some slightly concerned glances with one another we got down on our stomachs and followed. It was going fine until I spotted a cave spider the size of my fist clinging to the tunnel directly above my head. There was no going back so I scrambled forward as fast as possible and a few minutes later we emerged back into the light. We were covered in an orange/brown clay but I didn’t care…the spider was far behind.

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So, there you have it! You can have an adventure in Laos without getting drunk or high. If you stay in a cafe and watch Friends, you’re probably much less likely to see a cave spider, but where’s the fun in that?!

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