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My expectations for the Blue Lagoon in Laos might have been a little high, considering I was thinking of the attraction in Iceland with the same name. There are actually three lagoons in Vang Vieng, Laos which are (sometimes…kinda…not really) blue, but the similarities end there.
A Short History of Vang Vieng
I’d never heard of Vang Vieng before two years ago. My first introduction was on the slow boat down the Mekong River. A group of backpackers told me about the famous town in Laos where you can get on an inner tube, grab a bucket of alcohol (possibly with some drugs mixed in) and float down the river…to the next bar where you’d get your bucket refilled.
As you probably know, I’m quite opposed to drugs. I’ve never done a drug in my life (except for a bit of alcohol and caffeine) and I’ve never had a puff of anything. So the idea of a place where everyone went to get stoned or high or baked or whatever you call it didn’t really appeal to me.
Except that it was actually far worse…and now it’s better.
Vang Vieng only really went onto the map about half a century ago when the US plopped down the Lima Site 6 airstrip right in the center of town. The so-called Secret War of Laos lasted for nine years, during which the US dropped four billion pounds of bombs on the country (which you can learn about at the UXO Museum).
Apparently, it wasn’t until around 1996 when a local landowner known as Mr. T allowed his hired help to float down the river in tractor tires after a hard day’s work. The trend quickly caught on with Westerners flocking in to park take in their favorite rice in this communistic village.
The idea was that you could rent an inner tube on the river, get a bucket of alcohol (and perhaps some drugs mixed in) and float down the river, to the next bar, where you could get a refill for your bucket. This would continue all afternoon. But not everyone was so lucky. Some people would overdose from the heavy drugs and fall off the inner tube to drown in the river. The death toll was high, with people dying nearly every day.
Finally, just before an international conference held in Laos in 2012, the government pulled the plug on the hedonistic revelries. Most of the places where you could get drugs closed down, although buckets of vodka are still a fad.
While the vice of the town might have been mitigated, the tourism in Vang Vieng continues to flourish. Similar to places like Krabi in Thailand, it seems that every second building is a tour operator…although they all sell basically the same tours (with the same tour guide). All told, there are about twenty main activities. I only did two of them, both for lack of time and a tight budget.
Visiting the Blue Lagoon in Laos
Of all the attractions in Vang Vieng, I chose to visit the Blue Lagoon. Specifically, Blue Lagoon One, as there are actually three! My guesthouse directed me to a cheap scooter rental down the street. I paid 70,000 Laotian kip for a 24-hour rental, which is about $8. Chiang Mai is cheaper for scooter rentals, but not by much.
Vang Vieng is on the Nam Song River. There are two bridges spanning the river. One is a rickety metal toll bridge. The toll is 4,000 kip ($0.50) for a round trip as a pedestrian. A bicycle costs 6,000 kip, a scooter is 8,000 and a dune buggy is 15,000. About half a mile up from the river, there’s an alternative, free way to cross. It’s a bamboo walking bridge! This bridge is unusable during the rainy season when the water level is higher; I was there in April. Although it’s a walking bridge, you can actually take your scooter across! Then ride down the river bank on the other side and connect up with the road that has the toll bridge.
The Blue Lagoon is about 20 minutes from the town center. Other than by scooter, you can also rent a dune buggy (for considerably more money) or jump on one of the dozens of tours.
At the lagoon, there’s a large parking lot that’s free to use. The scooter parking has a covered area and a couple of attendants who will give you a token to use to get your bike back. I left a few things in the seat of my scooter (which is unusual for me) and found everything there when I got back.
I arrived at the Blue Lagoon about half an hour before noon. The entrance fee was 10,000 kip ($1.25). The temperature was getting up around 100°F, but for some reason I figured it would be better to explore the cave before getting into the water.
Phu Kham Cave
I’ve been to a lot of caves in Thailand. And I know there are hundreds (or thousands) more throughout the region. The largest cave in the world is down in Vietnam. That cave, Hang Son Doong, is over 3 miles long and has its own river, jungle and climate! Part of the Blue Lagoon in Laos is the Phu Kham Cave, located not far up the mountain. The entrance fee to the lagoon includes the cave. There are flashlights you can rent at the entrance, but I figured the flashlight on my phone would be sufficient.
It’s a bit of a climb up to the entrance of the cave. It’s not far, but it’s really steep and you only have a rickety bamboo railing to help you up. I think it took me about 10 minutes of climbing with sweat pouring off of me to reach the top, and I climb fast.
As with most caves in SE Asia, the opening to Phu Kham Cave is really small. Not so small that you have to crawl in, but I still wonder how people find these places. After all, new caves are being discovered all the time.
Inside the cave, it’s not much of a challenge to move around. There’s a trail that wraps around a massive column in the center down to a lower cavern where there’s a small shrine built up. There are very few caves I’ve found in Asia that don’t have a temple or shrine in them…or several. The Batu Caves in Malaysia have a couple large temples, and Mueang On Cave in Thailand has a massive reclining Buddha among several other shrines.
To the left of the statue is a deep pit with a danger sign next to it. To the right is a deeper chasm in the rocks. I made my way slowly into the darkness, taking care not to slip on the wet rocks and using my phone to light my way. There is a fairly simple trail into the cave with only a few points where I had to maneuver between boulders. There are also several more deep holes along the path with red x’s on rocks next to them. I suppose you could fall into them if you’re not watching where you’re going, but otherwise the path is quite safe.
I climbed through the dark, using my phone as a flashlight, for a good half an hour. The air was thick. It was one of the deepest and darkest caves I’d ever been in. It felt like I could feel the whole weight of the mountain above me, even though the cave was quite large. In places, the roof was probably a good 50 feet above my head. I’ve been in deeper and tighter caves, but this one was different. I loved it!
Finally, I came to a wall covered in handprints. Apparently this was the terminus of the cave. Around this cavern were several dozen massive stalactites, stalagmites and pillars. Turning off my light for a moment, I got to experience completely, absolute blackness and quiet. It was wonderful…and it scared the crap out of my hiking partner.
Walking along the wall, I found another cavern leading deeper into the hill. The path was a lot smoother. Before long, I saw an opening back out into the jungle. I climbed down a slope of boulders…and found the shrine in the cavern where I had started. I still can’t figure out where I got turned around, or if the cave was really just shaped like a big doughnut!
I went back out into the heat (it had been a bit cooler in the cave) and down to the lagoon. By this time it was 1 p.m. and I was starving. After getting a few videos of some other tourists jumping into the lagoon, I went off in search of a good place to eat lunch.
Lunch at Cafe Parisien
There are a couple different local restaurants around the lagoon serving staple Laotian food – fried rice, sandwiches and bowls of noodles, but Vang Vieng is known for its foreign establishments. I went to Cafe Parisien outside the entrance by the parking lot. They were a bit more expensive but had the Western food I was craving. I’d heard that Laos served really good pizzas so I ordered the meat feast – pepperoni, ham, two types of sausage, mushrooms and black olives. The pizza base was actually better than it is in Thailand, and it was big enough to really fill me up. Probably not the smartest thing to do before going swimming.
Swimming in the Blue Lagoon
I showed my receipt to get back into the lagoon. Choosing a spot a little ways away from the crowd, I didn’t hesitate to shuck off my shirt and sandals and dove right in. The water was deliciously cold. It surprised me. I love swimming in cold water, but I honestly expected it to be quite warm. For one thing, I had the silly impression that the water was from a hot spring. Furthermore, the water doesn’t move that fast and I’m surprised that the sun didn’t warm it up more. But I certainly couldn’t complain.
Just like the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, there isn’t a lot to do other than relax and enjoy the water. A few swings are hanging from the trees in the water (yeah, they’re more seats than swings). The main attraction is a tree that’s grown out over the water. On two of the massive branches, platforms you can jump from have been built. They’re not really that high – perhaps five and fifteen feet – but it’s still fun. There’s also a rope you can use to swing out into the water, but you have to avoid the tree jumpers.
Somewhere up in the trees, there’s also a zipline you can ride. I don’t know what the price was and since I’ve been on some pretty epic ziplines around the world, I chose to skip this one and spent my time in the water instead.
To be honest, the lagoon is quite small and there isn’t a lot to do. I liked the cave and getting to swim, but I kinda wish there had been more activities. Then again, it was well worth the $1.25 entry fee. I realize now that the Blue Lagoon in Laos is just one of many stops the tours take their passengers to, and I’m guessing they only spend an hour or so there (which isn’t even enough time to fully explore the cave).
If you’re trying to decide which tour to take in Vang Vieng, I’d recommend one that includes the Blue Lagoon. If you’re planning to go there on your own, bring a book to read on the grass perhaps, or just plan to spend a couple hours there and then move on.
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Planning to visit Laos? Here are my other stories on what to do there, and some of my personal adventures.
- Journal Entry: Putting Up With the Scams in Asia
- A Guide to Spending Three Days in Luang Prabang, Laos
- The Ultimate Guide to the Slow Boat in Laos
- A Full Itinerary for a Day at the Kuang Si Waterfalls
Here’s some extra reading to save hundreds on your next vacation or stage of your journey.