The bus arrived at 3pm in Vang Vieng (it was really nice to have a day bus and a journey that was "only" 4 hours). We were then offered a free tuk tuk into town, the trade off was they dropped you at a hotel that wanted you to stay there but we just picked our stuff up and left in the direction of our hotel.
We were staying at Kamphong hotel, it was ok. It had weirdly uneven stairs leading up to our room. The room itself was clean with a double bed, but as a "duvet" we had an orange blanket that wasn't big enough for the bed, or us. Also the drain for the sink in the bathroom literally wasn't connected to anything and just chucked it out on the floor. Leaking drains and taps are nothing unusual for SE Asia, this one was just additionally amusing as it made no attempt at all to work. But it had TV, wifi and best of all was a mere £5 per room per night. Bargain.
In the evening we booked our trip for the next day (it went up from the quote of 70k to 80k when we went to pay. So we left annoyed, but everywhere else quoted us 150k. So begrudgingly we had to go back and pay 80k kip).
We got a free cocktail at an Irish bar, then went for some good Asian food (I had some sort of a Cashew nut, chicken and vegetable concoction.)
We took a packed tuk tuk at 8am towards the caves. On arrival the groups split up. We only had 2 others in our group, plus our tour guide called Kum. Our tour was to take up to 4 different caves about 30 minutes outside of Vang Vieng.
Cave 1: Loup cave. There was a very large spider right at the entrance of the cave, which made you think twice about using the rocks in the cave to stabilise yourself. Once inside the cave you could noticeably feel the humidly rise, it wasn't sunny or warm outside but it was stuffy in the cave.
It was pitch black, we lit our way using powerful head torches as we walked a large loop round some of the openings looking at various stalactites and mites. The ground was uneven throughout and Kum had to point out holes that we could easy fall down and be lost in. There was some areas on our path that we had to duck and squeeze through, but mostly we could shine our (luckily, very good) head torches around the massive rooms. One thing that made this cave interesting (apart from its size) was that a lot of the formations made a sound - you could bongo drum on the rock and stalactites and in certain places you could stamp you foot and it'd make a bassy, hollow sound.
Cave 2: Snail Cave - Although the cave wasn't as large in height but it was very easy to get lost, Kum was telling us he once went 7km into the cave but had to turn back and there have been tourists who have got lost and died in the mazey cave. The cave floor was much more even than Loup and looked like a dried river bed (what it actually was a thousand years ago). We turned off our head torches half way through and were in complete darkness. This cave wasn't as cavernous as Loup but the easier walk made it easier to enjoy.
Cave 3: Water Cave - At certain times of the year this cave is flooded with water which the locals then use as a free way of transporting good from one side of the mountain to the other (taking 48 hours in total). When we where there the cave wasn't full but there was enough water to allow us to go tubing through the cave in the very cold water.
As it was still overcast and not particularly warm we were a little reluctant to strip off and even less enthusiastic about having to get into the freezing water. We could see people returning nearly all looked frozen with their teeth chattering an' all. After we all took the plunge we sat ourselves on the tubing ring, grabbed hold of a rope strung up above our heads and pulled ourselves into the cave.
We joined the queue of people relaxing pulling themselves through the cave. At one point we had to get out into the water as it was too shallow to tube through. We passed a patch of hot spring water on the way which felt great and no one wanted to really leave that spot. When we reached the end of the rope shining our into the pitch black tunnel until the light faded in the distance. We simply spun around and pulled ourselves back. Having 2 way traffic on 1 rope in the dark cave did cause some interesting standoffs - no one wanted to potentially get in the water
By the time we got out of the cave we joined the teeth chattered concophony, quickly drying off before heading up for a lunch of BBQ'd chicken skewers and rice.
Cave 4 - Elephant Cave. This was a tiny cave that you didn't even need a torch for. It was called the Elephant cave because there was a collection of stalactites that was worn into a shape resembling an elephant. The cave itself was mostly made into a shrine to Buddha. Interesting though we learnt a little about the bombing that went on in Laos, even though they weren't part of the Vietnam War, the US saw it fit to drop many, many bombs on Laos. So many in fact that if you dropped a bomb on Laos every 8 minutes it'd take 9 years to drop the same amount. Even the gong/bell monks use to call worshipers to prayer was in fact a defused (hopefully) unexploded bomb.
As there wasn't much to see in this cave so we didn't stay long. Afterwards we headed back to town were we dropped our stuff off in the hotel room and filled my dry bag with our valuables.
The afternoon was solely dedicated to the infamous act of Tubing. Tubing up till 3 months before had looked like a great deal of fun. Hundreds and hundreds of people went down the river that was lined with bars selling cheap buckets of booze. Everyone was hammered but a notable amount of people died (over 30 tourists in 2011, mostly Aussies). So the government closed all the bars and banned the sale of alcohol on the river. There was some speculation as to why the tubing had be shut down (Laos isn't exactly known for letting safety get in the way of a tourist dollar). The most plausible one I heard was that Laos was due to hold its very first international summit so needed to be seen to be cleaning up the tourist trade and issues with tubing.
Gutted we missed the atmosphere of tubing only months before (Vang Vieng had also gone from a 24/7 full moon party style place, to empty and relaxed practically overnight) as this was our reasons for going to Laos in the first place. But not one to let it stop us we went to the tubing shop in town and picked up one of the old tractor inner tubes for 55,000 kip each. We took a tuk tuk back towards the caves to find the starting point. Luckily the sun was now blazing and it was perfect for being on the water, unlike in the morning.
We jumped into our tubes and settled into the steady float back to the starting point. Steering was a bit of an issue for Alicia at the beginning but eventually I hooked my feet around her tube we could float together.
Bars closed? No problem. I brought my own. After the caves I stopped off at the shop and got enough cans of beer Laos to keep us entertained, much to the jealousy of the other smattering of tubers (this is peak season and there really wasn't that many other tubers)
We did meet a couple of fellow tubers that started the same time as us though, a middle aged Aussie brother and sister called Vincent and Edwina. It was a pleasant chat along the way and made the 3km drift a little more interesting.
We got stuck only once whilst being dragged the wrong way by the current which meant we actual had to stand up and move the tubes. The water was really shallow through with the water bearly covering my ankles in parts (easy to see how people died with the rope swings into the water). Other times our bums hit random rocks hidden in the shallow water. There were also parts along the river where the current picked up pace and turned the river into mini rapids, they were particularly fun.
After 2 hours of floating we finished tubing as the sun was going down and was getting a little nippy. We got our deposits back and went for a drink with Vincent and Edwina overlooking the river at sun set. I continued on Beer Lao and Alicia got the most ridiculous measures of rum and coke (they gave me the glass and I thought that was a half-assed rum and coke...then they gave me a separate can of coke, the glass was just full of rum!).
After getting sufficiently merry we all went for food in the same restaurant as the day before. I got the same food and Alicia went for a Lao speciality called "Lap" which when it arrived was just a plate of plain mince meat and coriander. Not too tasty.
A really fun day. Shame the tubing and Vang Vieng has certainly lost a lot of atmosphere due to the recent changes in law. It was a really pleasant, chilled out place which no inclination of the crazy 24/7 party that had gone on for years. Disappointed we missed it, but we had a good time nonetheless (and we still got drunk!)
Day 5: Getting up was hard. We were both cold in the night due to lack of blanket and now we were both hungover too with a 7 hour minibus journey to face. We checked out and headed to the ticket office (also a restaurant) to wait to be picked up at 7:50am. Predictably maybe, our 8am bus left at 9am.