From Phongsali we had three long days of bus trips (via Udomxai and Luang Prabang) to reach our next destination Vang Vieng. The town is in a scenic riverside location with picturesque karst limestone cliffs. It was once a party destination for travellers, however following a number of fatalities the Lao government stepped in and closed down the majority of the more unsavoury aspects of the town. Today the atmosphere is more relaxed and we stayed on the outskirts of the town for a few days. Whilst we were there we visited a few caves with interesting formations and Buddha statues. After that we went tubing in a cave (essentially getting into a giant rubber ring, strapping on a head torch and pulling yourself through a cave on a rope!). We also did a kayaking trip along the river through some relatively tame rapids and some stunning scenery.
From Vang Vieng we travelled South to Laos’ capital Vientiane. We had a short stay there to do some sightseeing around the city’s monuments and temples. We climbed the Patuxai Monument, which is Vientiane’s own version of the Arc de Triomphe and then walked a few kilometres in sweltering 45 degree heat to visit the golden stupa of the Pha That Luang Buddhist Monument.
The next day, we took a 7 hour bus ride to the sleepy village of Ban Kong Lor, to visit the enchanting Kong Lor Cave. The cave was incredible. Its vast cavern was over 90m high in places and a massive 7.5km in length, with a river running all the way through. We explored the cave in a long-tail boat, travelling all the way through the dark abyss and back again. About 2km into the cave, there was an illuminated section, which we explored on foot, to see the impressive collection of stalagmite and stalactite formations.
The rest of the cave was pitch black and you could only see by the light of the three head torches on our boat. The darkness played tricks on your eyes and at times it was hard to distinguish between rocks and their reflections. It felt like a setting from Lord of the Rings and that we were floating through a scene from a mysterious Tolkien-esque underworld. As it was the dry season, the boat ran aground a few times and we had to get out into knee high water to help pull our boat through the rapids. It is definitely a trip we will never forget.
From Kong Lor we returned to Vientiane where we visited the excellent COPE visitor centre. COPE helps people who have been injured by unexploded ordnance (UXO) by providing rehabilitation and prosthetic limbs. Per capita, Laos is the most heavily bombed nation in the world, due to the bombs dropped by the USA during the ‘Secret War.’ The US conducted 580,000 bombing missions on Laos, whilst claiming that they hadn’t dropped a single bomb! The ongoing issues caused by UXO have been catastrophic for Laos. 40 years on, people are still being killed or becoming amputees as bombs continue to explode. 1/3 of all land in Laos is thought to be contaminated with UXO and at the current rate of clearance it would take over 2000 years to make the country safe again! Another huge problem is that as over 75% of people in Laos live on less than $2 USD a day, many risk their lives to make money by collecting scrap metal, which includes collecting UXO.
From Vientiane we took an overnight train across the border back into Thailand…