Two kids laughed as they ran beside me as I cycled down a muddy dirt road. All around me were bright green rice fields with tall limestone karsts rising up above them, and white fluffy clouds drifting over in the sky.
I was in the countryside surrounding the popular backpacker town of Vang Vieng in Laos. That morning I had rented my bicycle from a lady with a small shop in town, who had suggested that I head across the river to explore some of the caves and swimming holes.
So far I had crossed the picturesque Nam Song River and cycled down the rough dirt road passing rice fields, streams and small villages. The scenery was truly breathtaking.
“Sabai dee” I said as I waved to my two new found local friends running beside me. Their smiling faces turned to huge grins.
The humidity and physical challenge of the bike ride had me covered in sweat, and it was time to cool off. I headed to a local swimming hole where I passed a small house with a cow watching on from beside it.
The kids watched in wonder as I took a quick dip in the cool refreshing water. Once I was cooled off, I got back on my bike, said goodbye to my new friends and continued on down the road.
With no other tourists in sight, it was just me and the locals sharing the road. Every now and then I would pass through small villages, where the locals watched me pass as they went about their daily chores.
Kids splashed around and fished in the fresh water streams while their mothers bathed and did their laundry. Farmers worked in their fields and tended to their animals.
I was now experiencing the real Laos.
After several kilometers I eventually made it to my destination, Poukham Cave. I paid my entrance fee, crossed the bridge over a stream and left my bike to explore the cave.
Poukham Cave is just that, a cave. There are no guides, rails or lights. You just have to make your own way around. I started by climbing up the steep path that rises up the mountain to the cave. At first it looked quite small through the tiny mouth, but once inside it opened up into a grand cavern. In the center of this cavern is a reclining Buddha statue.
With my headlamp on, I carefully navigated my way through the cave, trying to follow the red arrows that someone had roughly painted around the cave to show you the way. Several times I came to a dead end and had to find my way back. Like most caves, there is also a lot of water around, making a lot of the surfaces quite slippery.
From the first cavern, I entered into another cavern that actually dwarfed the first. The small dot of light from my headlamp did little to illuminate the grand space. All around me stalactites and stalagmites hung from the ceiling and rose from the ground around me. I was completely alone in the cave, and this was an eerie feeling.
With the lack of light I decided not to venture any further and made my way back through the caverns and down the mountain.
Once again I was covered in sweat, so I cooled off in “The Blue Lagoon” – the local swimming hole located at the bridge that leads to the cave.
The water was so clear that I could see huge schools of fish swimming around, and so cool and refreshing that I could have stayed floating around for hours.
I was soon joined by some locals and a couple of other tourists who had the same idea as me and had cycled out from Vang Vieng. We all smiled and floated around in silence as we watched the local kids swinging from a rope swing, having the time of their lives, and I gazed out through the trees surrounding the stream, across the green rice fields and towards the tall limestone karsts, and I felt privileged to be in such a beautiful place.