Chasing the elusive swimming holes of Vang Vieng

29th June 2014

1 hut-vangvieng

Let’s talk about holes. Before I get to it though, let me just be yet one more advocate of the fact that Vang Vieng is so much more than the drunken tubing reputation that precedes it. Yes, most bars were shut down in 2012, and it can at times feel a bit like a ghost town (as I am writing this at least, but we’re in the low season, so I don’t know how blooming the city truly is in peak season), but I can report that Vang Vieng’s tubing scene is, for better or for worse, alive and well. We were unfortunate to witness the extent to which some members of the Caucasian race have no respect for either themselves, or other cultures, as we drove our boat past two people having sex “in the tubing” – in the open, along the Nam Song, right next to a young Lao girl wading in the river. I’m depressed. I would very much like to unsee what I saw, and also apologize to the Lao people in the name of all white people. And from what I gathered, watching tuktukfuls of tipsy bare-chested jocks and bikini-clad dudettes returning into town at around dinner time, “tubing” must be very loosely interpreted here. Because tubing, they are not.

Fortunately it was otherwise easy for us to bypass the “in the tubing” shenanigans and to find ourselves in an oasis of peace, nature and farm animals. A short walk across a rickety bamboo bridge over the Nam Song river and we found ourselves at The Other Side (where Richard was itching to return for an encore, having stayed there back in 2005), a row of rustic bungalows set amidst a lush garden affording amazing views over the dark karsts, where we saw in turn: puppies frolic and chase roosters, friendly goats, ponies and cows graze lazily and hot air balloons take off and land in neighbouring fields. Add to that a very comfy hammock for the flopping, not very many neighbors, the craziest night time lightning storms we have ever witnessed, double rainbows all the way across the sky yeahhhhhh, morning mist over the mountains, fireflies, a very tired-sounding gecko and two baby goats climbing up every bungalow balcony and jumping back down in spastic backflips, and you have a recipe for a longggg longgggggg stay (seriously though, imaging doing your morning yoga on your balcony and hearing some little hoofs clip-clopping up your steps, looking up and finding two sets of inquisitive eyes staring back at you. I die). And we did just that – we stayed for 8 days, usually doing a little bit of sight seeing in the morning, then taking the rest of the day to bum around the bungalow doing yoga, topping up our tan, reading, chasing the animals to smother them with love and embraces (just a little. Ok a lot). The usual.

otherside

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3 horses

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High on my list was to swim in the clear blue cave springs of Vang Vieng. This lady here is mad for a swimming hole. The Blue Lagoon was evidently our top priority, but I also wanted to explore those less known spots I had seen in blog posts around the web – I had dreams of caving through little known tunnels and emerging into untouched cerulean swimming holes, me, the intrepid exploring mermaid. Of course we had read all those warnings that a lot of swimming hole impostors had sprung up along the way to the blue lagoon, but, but! The blog posts! I’d seen them! We had to take the chance! Get to them holes before everyone else did! What followed was a series of fruitless and frustrating outings that resulted in us just returning to the Blue Lagoon in a flustered sweat for lack of finding any other hole. Fortunately, the Blue Lagoon is a fine place for a dip, and swimming among the taciturn swarm of carps is a strangely soothing experience.

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But please humor me here while I ventilate about the few shit holes of Vang Vieng we happened upon.

EXHIBIT A

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Our first encounter was on the way to the Blue Lagoon. Yep, they fooled us. I suppose we were not paying much attention, because you can clearly see that the sign on the left says that Poukham Cave (which is where the Blue Lagoon is located) is not for another 2km. Still though, we had no clue where we were heading and we thought that was it. A very bumpy 1km ride on our motorbike took us to the “ticket booth” where we paid our 10,000 kip fare each ($1.25) and we were on our way, after the 2 gents reassured us that this was indeed the blue lagoon. Well, it was not. It was a murky puddle, is what it was. We backtracked straight away to get our refund and continue to the actual Blue lagoon, but obviously the 2 men had gone into hiding somewhere in the woods and we never found them. Well played. I was too upset to take a photo of the craphole, but I guess $2.50 for our first ever scam in four months of travelling through a South East Asia is a relatively ok track record, no?

EXHIBIT B

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Here’s exhibit B. Sounds good? We certainly thought so. Again, we paid our 10,000 kip fare to the two teenage boys and were on our way, this time with an imposed guide (that we bargained down from 20,000 to 10,000 kip each because we had our own headlamp). We walked a little way upriver and up towards the opening of the cave when it became suddenly extremely narrow. Our guide announced that we had to leave our bags behind because otherwise we wouldn’t fit inside the tunnel and that we were a 10 minute crawl in the pitch black cave away to the swimming hole. That was not very clearly advertised now, was it? Being a little claustrophobic, I decided that this was off limit for me, so we backtracked, defeated. This is when a puddle of mud decided to swallow Richard’s flip flops.

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EXHIBIT C

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Enter our third mishap. While this unquestionably sounded just as good as the previous one, we had become a little wary with these advertisements by then and decided that whatever came of it, we would just be grateful for a nice walk through rice fields. After a few kilometers, we started wondering if we had perhaps taken a wrong turn, but we suddenly came to a sign similar to the previous one confirming that whichever little faintly perceptible grass trail we had taken was indeed the right way. But any form of luck we’d had until then following the right trail ran out and we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, wondering if perhaps we should just walk another five minutes in the off chance that we may actually be almost there. And then we got to this, having jumped over a fence and losing all trace of a trail altogether:

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What the hell are those? Fortunately there was no ticket booth here, just our bruised ego and two of the most poorly constructed bamboo bridges known to man leading to a crack in the rock so thin that one would have to turn side on to be able to get in. We actually met a German girl here who thought she had gone to the Blue Lagoon and repressed the urge to LOL in her face, remembering our blunder from the previous day. It’s clear we’d got lost there, so I will leave the hole we initially set off to explore the benefit of the doubt, but at that point we were a little worn out and Richard needed new flip flops, so we headed home to be comforted by the cows.

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Resigned that we were not to see any of Vang Vieng’s underbelly, we decided to hike Pha Poak the following morning to see it from above instead. A small hill offering a great viewpoint over the city, Pha Poak at least had some presence online and we knew we would actually get to do some concrete sightseeing for lack of being pioneer explorers. Well, what can I say? Tough luck. The gate that leads up to the hill was firmly nailed shut and there was no way around it. So we gave up. We aborted the unheard off sightseeing mission and elected for more ON the beaten track – so to speak – activities for the next day.

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What was left to visit was the Tham Chang cave, a place we had little interest in since becoming full-blown cave snobs after going to Phong Nha, but we still thought we would give it a chance. It’s a nice enough place – a pretty orange suspended bridge takes you across the river to a well lit cave that’s evenly paved all along the inside. We spent about 20 minutes walking around, happy to finally have something concrete to sink our teeth into, then swiftly made our way back down. While we were there, we thought we’d investigate the little spring that seemed to be running at the bottom of the cave. And there it was. Lo and behold. You would have guessed it – the most delightful and unexpected swimming hole, it’s vibrant turquoise water streaming from a small cave accessible by a short swim right below us. Little time was given for marvelling, and before we knew it, we were both happily wading in the fresh spring against the current and into the cave. Alone. Wow. Such swimming hole. Very mermaid.

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But that was just the icing on the cake, because despite all of our mishaps, I have somehow managed to fall in love with Vang Vieng. Yes, the tourism scene is weird and wrong on so many levels, but none of that will ever take away the intrinsic natural beauty of this corner of the world. And since we haven’t managed to clear everything off our list, we shall most definitely be back.

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5 thoughts on “Chasing the elusive swimming holes of Vang Vieng

  1. Pingback: I hate Koh Phangan | Mostly Amélie

  2. joe

    This was a lot better than most of the rubbish I have read about Vang Vieng. I came here in April 2000 and I was enchanted We arrived at Phu kham cave the “blue Lagoon”and there was no one there. It was delightful. I went there yesterday 11 October 2014 and it was horrendous. About 200 people . I didn’t even get in the water. I agree Tham Chang is an much overlooked little gem. It gets busy with domestic tourists at the week ends otherwise is tends to be quiet .
    I have been living here in Vang Vieng for 14 years and I have seen it go from cutting edge travel to druggie to party and now its definitely becoming mainstream tourist. Asian tourists Korean and Chinese mainly . I have my life my wife my kids my home here. It would be hard to leave but sometimes……other times I think it is incredibly beautiful. I think they should have made the karst area west of town a national park. That would have given the town a bit of class Instead there is a copper mine being opened in the mountains to the west Also we have those horrible buggy things .Turning a natural paradise into a sort of Disney world theme park.. I better not go on..
    I have the oldest guest on the west bank Maylyn we were a few years ahead of the “Otherside GH we have been copies a few times and beside Maylyn there is now Molina Malany and Maylay which causes some confusion. Maylyn Guest house has a page on Facebook if you would like to see my pictures. Good travels

    Reply
    1. Amélie Post author

      Hi Joe, thanks so much for dropping by!
      Yes, Vang Vieng is a beautiful slice of paradise for he who can prescind from the not-so-classy tourist act… It must have been a bit of a whirlwind those last few years with the increase of drunken teenage backpackers, the shutdown, followed by the takeover by the mainstream mass tourism. Hope there is a right middle where everyone can meet and enjoy Vang Vieng in respectful ways. Agreed that some of it should be made into a national park.
      I will definitely check out your GH when I return to Vang Vieng.
      Amélie 🙂

      Reply
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