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Once upon a time, visitors came to Vang Vieng to explore the beauty and the peaceful setting of rural Laos through a variety of adventure activities. And while it is still possible to kayak, mountain bike, rock climb, and more; those pursuits have been overshadowed by the all-day river raves happening on the Nam Song.

I was glad that even though I was traveling with a party-loving group of backpackers, my friends were happy to take a day off from the river and explore the outskirts of Vang Vieng. We hopped in a sawngthaew and requested a trip to a cave and to somewhere we could swim.

After a beautiful drive through rural communities that felt millions of miles away from the debauchery of the tubing scene, we arrived at Tham Phu Kham. This cave is considered sacred to the Lao people and has been made popular by the so-named Blue Lagoon at its base. Though small, the swimming hole was deep and filled with amusements like swings, ropes and diving platforms.

Laos was quickly becoming the country in which I jumped off things:

While there were a fair number of foreign tourists around, there were also a mix of local families picnicking and enjoying the day.

Of course, the lagoon would feel a lot more exotic and naturally beautiful if the car park weren’t located steps away. Sigh.

After we had sufficiently conquered every branch on the great tree by leaping off of it, we decided to take on the cave itself. At the base of the 200 meter climb there was a sign about renting flashlights (10,000 kip or about $1usd) and hiring a guide for a whopping 50,000 kip or $6usd. “Hey guys, should we…” I trailed off, pointing to the sign and remembering some sort of warning in Lonely Planet regarding Laos and caves.

“No worries, I came here last year!” George assured us, and so we all followed him blindly up the hill and into the darkness.

I actually made an audible gasp as we entered the cave. It was gargantuan and streams of light pierced through natural skylights to show off the various stalagmites and stalactites.

At the center of the main cave was a small reclining Buddha and a few offerings. We plunged past it further into the cave, moving slowly with our weak flashlights and inadequate footwear.

We didn’t go far before we were in near total darkness. The path was not clear and we often found ourselves helping one another over high ledges, sliding down muddy runs or having to call out to find each other when the group started to split into smaller ones. We were laughing and joking the whole way, so it wasn’t until my stomach started to really rumble that I realized how long we had been in there. “George, this does go in a circle… right?”

“Um… Yes,” he said, with notably little confidence. Our laughter turned to nervous giggles as we tried to decide whether to forge ahead or turn around. I was in the vocal minority who wanted to keep going. At the time it seemed like a good idea. Currently, I have no idea what I was thinking.

I didn’t take but a few more steps before I lost my footing completely and went sliding down into a dark muddy passage; completely out of control. I grabbed frantically for something to stop my descent but all I found was loose dirt. Finally I came to a plateau and stared up at my friends above me. I had no idea how I was going to get up. I’m going to die here, miles into a cave system in rural Laos. Someday they’ll find my skeleton and my camera memory card, I thought as one of the guys came sliding down in an attempt to rescue me.

I slung my camera across my back and put my dirty flip flip straps in my mouth so that I would have both hands free, and started working against gravity. Jake had two hands on my butt in an attempt to give me a boost while I pawed desperately at the walls, looking for something to grasp onto. At one point I started slipping backwards, and my heart sank. With tensed muscles and a body drenched in sweat, I finally fount footing. When I got close enough to the top, someone grabbed my wrists and gave me a final yank. I was saved.

Sitting at the top, covered in mud and nervous sweat, I snapped the above photo. I didn’t want to forget the place I almost met my end.

The drama wasn’t over just yet, as it took two more cases of getting lost before we finally found the path back to the entrance. Along the way we make jokes about who would die first if this was a horror movie (the dumb blonde: me), how many near-death travel experiences we had between us (countless), and who we would eat first if we never got out (George).

Let me tell you, I have never tasted fresh air sweeter than that first gulp I got as we exited the cave. I know I’ve made this whole brush-with-death thing sound pretty glamorous, but trust me: If you go to Tham Phu Kham, hire a guide!

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19 Comments...
  • Grandma Burr
    July 21 2012

    Try to use common sense a bit more often. Just because its there does not mean you have to inspect it. Gram E

    • Meihoukai
      July 21 2012

      Ha, thanks Grandma. I actually don’t regret going into the cave…. just not hiring a guide!

      • Jaime
        July 24 2012

        Awww I love that your grandmother commented.

        Oh man I can’t wait to visit Laos and SEA in general.
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        • Meihoukai
          July 24 2012

          Both my grandmas are pretty active commenters! I come from a technologically blessed family 🙂

  • Sarah Somewhere
    July 21 2012

    We went in that cave too (with torches, but no guide) and it was enormous!!!! We got a bit lost too, it seriously goes forever!! There was one point where I wondered if we’d ever make it out, but nothing like your scary experience. Glad you survived to tell the tale!

    • Meihoukai
      July 21 2012

      I’m glad we both made it out alive! Ha. I do wish we had gone with a guide, considering the price, but at least I have a good story!

  • Oh my! The blue lagoon part of your day sounds wonderful, but I would have been freaking out in that cave… I think you just answered our recent packing question about whether we should keep our headlamps in our daypacks! 😉 And if we make it to that cave in Laos, we will absolutely be hiring a guide!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 21 2012

      Headlamps or flashlights are definitely a must when backpacking! I rolled my eyes at my mother when she insisted I pack one on my first big trip but it was a lifesaver and I don’t go anywhere without one these days.

  • Camels & Chocolate
    July 24 2012

    What a fun experience. That lagoons looks heavenly! I’m all about some splashing and tubing and spelunking–anything that involves water really.
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 24 2012

      Me too! If it involved a bathing suit I’m probably in.

  • Tube Dude
    July 25 2012

    Beautiful photos! I love the second one down of the guys looking out the back of the sawngthaew.

    Good to get away from tubing for a day or two isn’t it?! 😉
    Tube Dude recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 26 2012

      Thanks! And yes, I was glad I got to see both sides of Vang Vieng 🙂

  • Wow, looks like a pretty epic day, that little temple in the cave looks so cool.
    Liz | Two Weeks to Travel recently posted..

  • Emily in Chile
    July 29 2012

    I was thinking that the cave looked beautiful, and then suddenly there you were, sliding down a slope in the dark! Sounds scary, so I’m glad you made it out ok, but everything else does still sound beautiful.
    Emily in Chile recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      July 30 2012

      It was! I would definitely recommend anyone and everyone to go… with the caveat that I would say to hire a guide 🙂

  • Siobhan
    January 13 2013

    I wanted to hire a guide when I visited but it turned out that the guide, on that day at least, was just a little 6-8 year old kid with absolutely no English so we didn’t bother. I mean, I guess if we got lost it would’ve have been nice to have someone who could lead the way out but seemed a bit pointless otherwise so we decided to just go it alone and be extra careful!

    • Meihoukai
      January 15 2013

      Hahaha okay in that case yes, I think it would be fair to forgo a guide! Although that 6 year old might know the cave like the back of their hand 🙂

  • bubble
    October 31 2017

    Nature makes me so fresh. Laos has a nice environment. I went to southern Laos two years ago. I ever have a plan to go to Vang Vieng too but my family doesn’t take me to Vang Vieng. They took me to Tad Gneuang Waterfall in the city of Paksong in Laos.Tad Gneuang Waterfall is not generally crowded with tourists and visitors. There are many staircases to go down to the waterfall. For the first time that I saw a big beautiful waterfall, I don’t feel tired anymore. This waterfall is one of my favorite places

    • Meihoukai
      November 2 2017

      Lovely! I’d quite like to go back to Laos someday, especially to Luang Prabang. I found it one of the prettiest cities in Asia!