The ninety days were up, I had to leave Thailand or run the risk of being arrested and deported. So, plans were made to escape to the nearest refuge, Laos. Seeing how I had to go I might as well organise a caving trip.
Fortunately my regularly caving buddy in Thailand, Terry, lives in the Lao capital Vientiane. This made the organisation very easy from my point of view as Terry sorted everything out. With remarkably little fuss or confusion I soon found myself on the other side of Mae Khong River enjoying a bottle of Beer Lao.
After a day's shopping in Vientiane to keep the Boss happy we set off in the hired Ford Explorer ($65 a day; unfortunately they 'upgraded' us to the 2WD auto petrol version from the requested 4WD diesel manual) along the main road to the north, Highway 13. My only comment about this drive is that I will never, ever complain about the state of the highways in Thailand again. Twice I was reduced to screaming "big hole!!" as Terry took avoiding action away from oncoming traffic at the risk of taking us on a potholing trip into a monsterous roadside chasm.
Somehow we arrived in one piece, 153 km and 3.5 hrs later (at an average speed of 58 km/hr – that's 36 mph, on the equivalent of the M1), in the backpacker's hang out of Vang Vieng. After dropping the ladies off at the riverside resort we set off for some caving. A toll allowed us to cross the Vietnam War vintage, single track suspension bridge over the Nam Song river to get at the base of the impressive limestone massif.
Ban Patang at the northern end of the Vang Vieng karst (Photo: Terry Bolger)
As the area is popular with the backpacker types most of the caves are touted as adventure tour destinations so they are quite well signposted, even if the English on the advertisements is a bit odd. We headed for Tham Phou Kham (48Q 225818 2094852 WGS84) with the only concern on the way being whether a wooden bridge was wide enough for the car. Having paid the 10,000 kip entry fee (13,750 kip = one English pound) we were soon heading off up the path to the entrance 40m above in the cliff. After recovering from the extertions of the walk in it was time to go caving.
Not surprisingly it was quite similar to a Thai cave, complete with a small reclining Buddha in the entrance. The size and amount of breakdown boulders in the first couple of hundred metres was a bit different, but after passing under a very high shaft entrance the boulders ended, the going got easier and there were a fair number of columns and stalagmites. The cave ended at a 4m drop down into a choked pit. According to the 'Vang Vieng Inventaire des Cavités' Tham Phou Kham is 1.1 km long so it seems we missed a number of the side passages.
Back at the car park there is a very convenient restaurant selling cold beer, so we partook of one to fortify ourselves for the next stage. We continued westward up the Na Som valley passing a resurgence complete with sign saying Tham Po Na (48Q 224305 2094683 WGS84). The dry entrance leads into a passage along the strike of the steeply dipping limestone. Left soon reaches the stream which can be seen haeding off to the west in a 5m wide by 2m high passage while right goes to a dry entrance. This cave has a length of about 570m, but we didn't want to get wet so didn't explore the stream. Tham Po Na is called Tham Na Som in the 'Inventaire'.
Back in the car we continued up the valley until we reached a ford which we doubted the 2WD car could cross so it was back down the valley. Near the village of Ban Na Som (or Ban Naxom depending on which transliteration you care to use) signs indicated the presence of a Gold and Silver Flower Cave. Despite walking for 30 minutes across rice paddies and through secondary growth we failed to find a cave. Doing some homework on getting back to Thailand we found that this cave had been recorded in the report of the 2006 French expedition and given the name Tham Dock Gurn Dock Kham.
The evening was spent watching the circus in Vang Vieng 'town centre'; the ladies admiring the handsome, shirtless, tattooed western males with the gentlemen being amused by pretty, young, tattooed western females in bikinis (at night?) – not something we get to see everyday in Nakhon Bannork, Thailand.
Day two of this hardcore expedition saw a reconnaisance cruise up the Nam Song valley to Ban Patang. At a road junction there were two advertising hordings for trips to Tham Nong Pom Hom and an arrow indicating the cave was 5 km along the recently widened, but not graded, road. We ended up at the ford in Ban Nam Yen were interrogating the natives obtained the intelligence that the cave was a 30 minute walk from the village on the other side of the ford. We didn't have a copy of the Inventaire with us, but perusing it later we found that the cave is 900m stream cave with many entrances (it is called Tham Phohom in the Inventaire).
The Tham Nong Pom Hom karst from Ban Nam Yen (Photo: Terry Bolger)
Reversing our route we went back down the Na Song valley towards Vang Vieng and turned off to the village of Ban Nampa. A footbridge (5,000 kip toll) gives access to the other side of the river where a limestone tower contains Tham Xang (48Q 229581 2107097 WGS84) which is a short shrine cave in the temple grounds. Leaving the girls at the restaurant Terry and I wandered over to Tham Hoi (48Q 228803 2107167 WGS84). This cave is on the itinerary for many caving and kayaking trips and there was a man collecting 10,000 kip at the entrance. This proved to be a fine, sporting trip. After a couple of hundred metres of dry passage you reach the first of the gours. At this time of year the gours are full and wading in water up to chest deep is required. Apart from a single 100m section of muddy passage it is easy going to the junction with the main stream passage. There was route finding confusion in only one place (keep left). Terry had last been this far into the cave in 1996 when he was on an Australian trip that had been scooped by a British expedition a month before. Tham Hoi is 3km long and there are vague hints on the internet that recent French expeditions have linked it with the resurgence cave, Tham Nam Xang.
At the start of the gours in Tham Hoi (Photo: Terry Bolger)
We finished off with a quick look at the Tham Nam Xang resurgence (48Q 229019 2106742 WGS84). The tour companies have installed ropes along the canal passage so their punters can sit in an inner tube and pull themselves through the cave. We decline to part with the 10,000 kip to enjoy this trip.
After a late lunch it was back to Vientiane. The drive back didn't seem as bad as most of the vicious potholes seem to be on the other side of the road. After an evening meal we visited a Lao 'nakrong', or singing girls, club. These places, along with karaoke bars, are a particular interest of mine and one day I hope to write a guidebook to the best and worst in Thailand. The set up in Laos is slightly different to Thailand and when the mor lam started the graceful ramwong dancing was a pleasant change to the sweaty, drunken mosh pit of a Thai mor lam sing concert. I was begining to think the Lao nakrong parlours weren't as seedy as the ones on the other side of the river, then on the way out I managed to blunder into a room full of ladies waiting for something.
All that remainded now was to get back across the bridge to where my car was parked. This was potentially the most problematic part of the whole trip as while I had been caving someone else had been shopping. There was now considerably more luggage than when we arrived and I knew who was going to have lug it on and off the bus and through the checkpoints. It was an expensive option (1800 baht), but we found a driver who was willing to take us from Vientiane, through the border, over the bridge and park up next to my car. Advantage was taken of this arrangement at the duty free shops to buy Beer Lao Dark, Lao 'Scotch' (4 bottles for 100 baht!) and red wine. Now that I know how thorough the Thai Customs are next time we may have to hire a bigger vehicle. The border crossing went without a hitch and I was let back into Thailand for another 90 days.
A bit of research has been done in preparation for the next trip which will be in 3 months time. For the Vang Vieng area the best source of information is probably http://laos.eegc.org/.
Many thanks to Terry and Noi for looking after us and sorting everything for an enjoyable few days.