That Dam (pronounced Tat Dam) is an old weather-beaten stupa located near the centre of Vientiane. There are many rumours surrounding this rather forlorn looking object. Some suggest that it was once adorned completely in gold that was stolen by the Siamese during the ransacking of Vientiane in 1828. Others suggest that it houses a seven-headed naga (dragon serpent) that protects the city, but must have been asleep in 1828 😉
There is not much information available about this ancient relic. According to the sign in the photo the department of electricity maintains the grounds around the stupa but, as you can see, unchecked vegetation sprouts from cracks all over the monument itself. No one comes here to pray and the only visitors appear to be tourists who stumble upon it either by accident or good fortune.
And so it stands relatively unloved, in the middle of a quiet little roundabout near the old American Embassy, waiting patiently to unleash the naga should Vientiane once again require its assistance.
The mountainous landscape surrounding Vang Vieng is not only home to some wondrous rock formations, but also some spectacular caves as well. Trekking to the caves is easier with a guide, which you can organise in town very cheaply. The first cave we visited was called Tham Xang – the Elephant Cave. It is approximately fifteen kilometres out of town and lies on the opposite side of the Nam Song river that you cross by traversing a rickety bridge, bouncing under the weight of the new visitors.
After a brief climb past the Buddhist temple you arrive at the cave, famous for the stalactite rock formation that resemble, ever so slightly, a baby elephant.
The next two caves we visited took us across the countryside past rice paddies and deep into the mountains. One cave was called Tham Hoi, or the Snail Cave and the other was Tham None – the Sleeping Cave where approximately 2000 villagers took refuge during the war. Some of the limestone formations within these caves appear to be hollow and will make some interesting, slightly musical, tones if tapped.
Our final caving experience was at Tham Nam – the Water Cave. This is a flooded cave system where you can wade or float in side giant inner tubes as you pull yourself along a guide rope. The water is very cool and refreshing and the experience of turning all the lights off when you are almost a kilometre inside a mountain, has a certain Bilbo meets Gollum kind of feel 🙂
After a BBQ lunch with the obligatory sticky rice, we hiked a couple of kilometres through the countryside, passing through several Hmong villages as we went.
Hmong village in the shadow of the karst
Our awaiting oversized tuk tuk then sped off down the dusty, pot holed track before depositing us on the side of the river so we kayak back down.
On the way back to Vang Vieng the boys decided that we would go tubing the next day. Much of the danger that used to be associated with tubing has been removed, yet the party on the river still sees plenty of action from the buckets of Lao Lao Whiskey through to the triple shot vodka slushies that are easier to drink than a cold beer on a hot day. Thankfully there are plenty of distractions from the constant boozing (bikinis aside) with volleyball, basketball and soccer played at many of the riverside bars. The tubing party is nowhere near over and really is a lot of fun, just take care of yourselves because copious amounts of alcohol and a muddy flowing river do not mix well.
Vang Vieng (Lao: ວັງວຽງ) was first settled around 1353 as a staging post between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Originally named Mouang Song after the body of the deceased King Phra Nha Phao of Phai Naam was seen floating down the river, the town was renamed Vang Vieng during French colonial rule in the 1890s.
View from the Thavonsouk Hotel
Built along the Nam Song river, the town boasts cheap accommodation for backpackers, reasonable rates for hotels, and breathtaking views. We stayed at the Thavonsouk Hotel and Resort for three nights. There were five of us altogether so we took two garden rooms (which included a modest breakfast) and spent around US$400 – backpacking is a young man’s game 😉
One of the most striking aspects of Vang Vieng is the hillside landscape that watches over the town from the other side of the Nam Song.
There are also what seems to be endless miles of rice paddies either disappearing off into the distance or ending abruptly at the foot of a mountain.
Vang Vieng is approximately four hours drive from Vientiane and getting there is relatively simple. An air-conditioned bus departs twice daily (usually) from outside the National Stadium in Vientiane and costs around 40,000 kip per person, but you can drive yourself if you choose to brave the pot holes and twisting roadways.
Daytime activities include caving, kayaking, hot air ballooning, biking (push bike and quad bike), hiking, boat riding and tubing. All activities can be done for a reasonable price.
From the 1950’s to the 1970’s Vang Vieng was used by the Americans as a base for alleged cargo and passenger airline Air America. The reality is that Lima Site 6, now an old disused airstrip, was covertly owned by the CIA and used to support sorties into Vietnam during the war. Now Vang Vieng lies directly within the imaginary ‘Banana Pancake Trail‘ that includes some of South East Asia’s amazing culture and party hot spots from Khao San Road in Bangkok and the full moon party at Koh Phangan through to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng in Laos, as well as destinations in Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. 
Go home tourists
As a tourist ‘party town’ Vang Vieng developed a nasty reputation for excessive alcohol consumption, illicit drugs and, unfortunately, many deaths. In 2011 Vang Vieng’s hospital recorded 27 tourist deaths due to drowning or diving head first into rocks, although it was suspected that the number was way higher because many fatalities were taken directly to Vientiane. In 2012, after a couple of Australians died within a month, the Laos government cracked down on the activities along the river, shutting many of the ramshackle bars and forcing drugs off the street.  Although safety is still not a strong concern, tubing is now relatively well controlled and still a lot of fun.
At night the river quietens down and the pubs, clubs and restaurants open up. Gary’s Irish Bar become one of my boys favourite places to hang out.
All in all, Vang Vieng offers something for all ages. There is a quiet charm that exudes from the morning town when the late night revelers are still asleep. From long lazy breakfasts, to early morning hiking, there is something for everyone who hasn’t been up until 4:00am. And if late night escapades are your thing then you will not be disappointed, just remember – what happens in Vang Vieng, stays in Vang Vieng 😉
Look out for more photos from our trip in the next few days.
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