The drive from Vientiane to Vang Vieng, on the much-improved Route 13, follows the valley of the Nam Ngum and then climbs steeply onto the plateau where Vang Vieng is located, 160 km north of Vientiane. The surrounding area is inhabited by the Hmong and Yao hill peoples and is particularly picturesque: craggy karst limestone scenery, riddled with caves, crystal-clear pools and waterfalls. In the early morning the views are reminiscent of a Chinese Sung Dynasty painting. The town itself is nestled in a valley on the bank of the Nam Song River, amid a misty jungle. It enjoys cooler weather and offers breathtaking views of the imposing mountains of Pha Tang and Phatto Nokham. The town’s laid-back feel has made it a popular haunt for the backpacker crowd, while the surrounding landscape has helped to establish Vang Vieng as Laos’ premier outdoor activity destination, especially for rock climbing, caving and kayaking. Its popularity in many ways has also become its downfall: neon lights, pancake stands, ‘happy’ this and ‘happy’ that, and pirated Friendsvideos now pollute this former oasis. Nevertheless, the town and surrounding area is still full of wonderful things to do and see. Laos is a very safe country for tourists but a disproportionate number of accidents and crimes seem to happen in Vang Vieng. Theft is routinely reported, ranging from robberies by packs of kids targeting tubers on the river to the opportunist theft of items from guests’ rooms. Most guesthouses won’t take responsibility for valuables left in rooms, so it is usually advisable to hand in valuables to the management. Otherwise, you will need to padlock your bag. Another major problem is the sale of illegal drugs. Police often go on sting operations and impose fines of up to US$600 for possession. Legal issues aside, many travellers have become seriously ill from indulging in the ‘happy’ supplements supplied by restaurants. Nearly all buses now arrive at the new bus station 2 km north of town on the road to Luang Prabang – a tuk-tuk from here to town shouldn’t cost more than a few thousand kip. Tour operators will still likely drop you off in town. Caves Vang Vieng is best known for its limestone caves, sheltered in the mountains flanking the town. Pretty much every guesthouse and tour operator offers tours to the caves (the best of these is Green Discovery) and, although some caves can be accessed independently, it is advisable to take a guide to a few as they are dark and difficult to navigate. Often children from surrounding villages will take tourists through the caves for a small fee. Don’t forget to bring a torch, or even better a head-lamp, which can be picked up cheaply at the market both in Vang Vieng and Vientiane. Of Vang Vieng’s myriad caves, Tham Changis the most renowned of all. Tham Chang penetrates right under a mountain and is fed by a natural spring perfect for an early morning dip. From the spring it is possible to swim into the cave for quite a distance (bring a waterproof torch, if possible). The cave is said to have been used as a refuge during the 19th century from Chinese Haw bandits and this explains its name: changmeaning ‘loyal’ or ‘steadfast’. Entrance is via Vang Vieng resort south of town. For your entry fee you get into the caves and the lighting system will be turned on. Although the cave is not the most magnificent, it serves as a superb lookout point. Another popular cavern is Tham Poukham. The cave is often referred to as the cave of the Golden Crab and is highly auspicious. It’s believed that if you catch a golden crab you will have a lifetime of fortune Tham None, is known locally as the ‘Sleeping Cave’ because 2000 villagers took refuge there during the war. The large cave is dotted with stalagmites and stalactites, including the ‘magic stone of Vang Vieng’, which reflects light. Lots of bats reside in the grotto. Tham Xang, also known as the ‘Elephant Cave’, is named after the stalagmites and stalactites that have created an elephant formation (you may need to squint to see it). The cave also contains some Buddha images, including the Footprint of Buddha. Although the cave itself is relatively non-descript the bell used by monks is made of a former bomb. From this cave there is a signposted path that leads to Tham Nam(water cave), a long spindly cave that is believed to stretch for at least 7 km. It takes about two hours to explore the cavern and at the entrance there is a crystal-clear pool. This is one of Vang Vieng’s most interesting caves and in the wet season needs to be explored with an inner tube or by wading, while pulling yourself along a rope. It’s not an easy task and should not be attempted alone. At times the cavern is an extremely tight fit and commando-type crawling is required; a hard helmet with lamp attached is necessary. However, this is an incredible caving experience. To get to these two caves follow Route 13 north and turn left at Km 14, follow this dirt road for 1 km until you reach the river. Boats charge 10,000 kip to cross the river to see Tham Xang; from there you can walk to Tham Nam.