Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Khong Lor & 4,000 Islands
Getting around Southeast Asia is incredibly easy. The whole region is built on tourism and there are several companies selling bus tickets to various villages. If you are traveling throughout SE Asia you really don’t need to have a bunch of routes or transportation figured out beforehand. You can literally arrive in the town and negotiate your price and destination with one of the many “travel agencies”.
We knew we wanted to travel south through Laos, into Cambodia, and over to Vietnam. Our route and transport were organized when we arrived in each town. We booked our ticket to Vang Vieng through our guesthouse because it ended up being the cheapest option. We said “goodbye” to our spider-killing hero and began our journey to Vang Vieng. Russell wanted to visit this village because of the tubing/floating bar aspect he had heard of.
When we arrived in the town we felt a sense of abandonment and the distant echo of the lively past it once had. Once upon a time, Vang Vieng was the epicenter of backpackers coming to float down the Nam Song River – stopping at the many floating bars along the way, and hopping on the zip lines that run across the river. Unfortunately, a lot of these drunken individuals would throw caution to the wind when doing so and many died during their visit. The zip lines were not safe, the river too deep, and the backpackers too out of their mind. This made for a deadly combination. Now the town is considerably less populated as the government has regulated how many bars and tubing companies are able to operate. The zip lines have been shut down permanently and Vang Vieng is turning a new leaf. They are now capitalizing on the spectacular scenery and outdoor activities to be done… sober.
We did go for a float down the river and saw the old zip line platforms and boarded up bars. But despite the eerie neglect, we took in the peaceful aspect of the river and the beautiful mountain range and greenery enveloping the town.
We only stayed one night and had arranged a mini bus the next morning to Vientiane – the capital of Laos. When our shuttle came to pick us up it was already carrying another passenger. We hopped on, and greeted our travel companion… ah! It was crazy Luke! We hadn’t recognized him with his sunglasses on. He looked like he had been in a fight or dragged behind a truck for a few miles. He didn’t recognize us, drugs are bad kids, and proceeded to tell us that he got in a fight (you don’t say?!?!) He said he stabbed the other guy (what?) and was now on his way to Vientiane to find his girlfriend because she ran away from him. Good luck buddy. Thankfully, when we arrived at the bus depot we were placed on a different mini bus – we said a little prayer for Luke’s fellow passengers. 15 minutes was more than enough in his shining presence, we didn’t want to know what 3 hours would be like.
Vientiane has a completely different feeling from the rest of Laos. This is the “big city” of the country. It was a huge change from the beautiful countryside to the concrete and multistoried buildings. We enjoyed walking around and taking in the sights of the temples and various cafés. Russell rented a bicycle and cycled around to see what the city had to offer. Everyday at dusk there is an outdoor dance/aerobics class on the riverside – of course we stopped to bust a move.
From Vientiene we journeyed to Kong Lor Valley on a local bus for 6 hours. Our goal was to visit the Kong Lor Cave (Tham Kong Lo) – a 7.5 kilometre cavern. It is a limestone cave in Phu Hin Bun National Park. The Nam Hinboun River flows through the cave – which is home to the world’s biggest spider. Needless to say, Meghan did not accompany Russell on this excursion.
To access the cave, there is a small opening with boats awaiting your arrival. They don’t charge per person for the ride – they charge for the boat. Russell managed to ask a fellow traveler if he wanted to split the cost and go together. The boat can only fit up to 3 people plus the navigator. The price for 2 people was around 120,000 kip.
With just a headlamp and a life jacket, a local guide will take you through the rocky formation with a small canoe liked boat called a sampan. It takes some time for your eyes to adjust to the complete darkness, which gives the ride a thrilling rush. At times the water levels can get quite low – you have to get out of the boat so it doesn’t rub against the bottom and get stuck. Without the headlamp you would not be able to see anything at all. It’s quite amazing to witness the guide navigate through the narrow water channel into the cave. The highest point of the cave is around 300ft.
On the trip you make two stops, once at the rock formations to see the stalagmites, stalactites and columns. These are nicely lit up and they have an easy walking path to follow. The second stop is on the other side of the mountain or at the end of the cave at a small village called Ban Natan. Russell walked through this small village where they are mainly exporting tobacco and living in very rustic wooden huts.
We asked our guesthouse how we could travel to our next destination; 4,000 Islands. They helped us with the transport from Kong Lor to Pakse in the back of a pick up truck/tuk tuk hybrid. It was an uncomfortable 2 hour ride but we finally arrived in Pakse; where the driver basically drove away while we were still unloading our bags – not the nicest guy we encountered in Laos… Fortunately he let us off in what looked like the main square.
We found a bus company close by and booked our transport to Don Khone. This bus dropped us off up the street but kept driving the locals right to the pier. We found this happens a lot in Southeast Asia. We had to walk 10 minutes along the dirt road, with our bags, in 40-degree weather when we saw our same bus drive down the road and stop right at the pier to let the others off. The only guess we have is that the village wants the tourists to walk through in order to have a chance at selling the many items in each shop along the road. Pretty annoying though.
When we arrived at the pier, drenched in sweat, we piled in a boat that took us through the islands. There was no pier to get off the boat, so when we arrived we had to jump into the muddy water and carry our bags above our heads up the sloping hill. All in all this was a 24-hour journey and we were a tad grumpy. We hadn’t booked our accommodation in advance so we trudged along the dirt road looking for a bungalow. Luckily we found one pretty quick, on the river, with a hammock- bonus!
The plan was to walk to the Li Phi waterfall before heading to bed and off to Cambodia in the morning. But, a massive thunderstorm began a few hours after we arrived. Instead, we took cover in a river front restaurant and watched the local kids play in the rain. Probably one of the coolest things to witness – we’ve never seen happier kids playing in the rain.
We dodged the rain puddles on the way back to our bungalow and prepared for our morning adventure to Siem Reap, Cambodia.