Swain’s Adventures, New Routes In Laos

We dropped into the river valley that contains Vang Vieng, and the large, limestone karst formations and cliffs were readily visible.

Our first climbing in Southeast Asia was in the town of Vang Vieng, Laos.


My wife Donette and I rode in a cramped minivan to Vang Vieng from the country’s capitol,Vientiane. The drive was beautiful, and the driver aggressive. The standard Southeast Asian driving procedures – speeding through small villages, narrowly missing pedestrians and small animals, passing on blind curves and nearly running motorcycles off the road – was standard fare. About 2/3 of the way there, we got a flat tire. When we continued north, the drive was initially in a valley, then passed through hilly farmland, and finally over heavily vegetated tiny mountains. We dropped into the river valley that contains Vang Vieng, and the large, limestone karst formations and cliffs were readily visible.

We checked into our hotel and then went in search of the Laotian climbing school owner, Adam, that I had been emailing. We easily found him and had a good visit. He agreed to take us to a local cliff the following morning. This cliff, Pha Daeng Mountain, was under a huge overhang, so the cliff stayed dry during the rainy season.

After seeing Adam, we had dinner at a busy place in the main part of town. As we were sipping Beer Lao, people-watching, we noticed an older Anglo guy talking with patrons, and occasionally serving food. We supposed he was the owner; an ex-patriot with a Lao wife. He eventually strolled by our table and I told him that we had concocted his personal narrative and were curious if it were true. That led to an hour of storytelling about Chapter 1 of his life (boyhood to late 20’s).

(Donette picks up the story here…)

I’m sipping tea during today’s rain on the banks of a misty river with the karst formations and neon green rice paddies coming into and out of focus. Todd is having a Southeast Asian adventure with the battery charger for our bolt drill, which ceased working yesterday, and we’re just two bolts shy of completing a new route.

I mentally review take-down and subduing techniques, in case Todd is unable to handle an “unproductive” day with no drill battery. So far, he has had a village electrician look at and replace the fuse to the charger, only to find it was the wrong sized fuse – thus, sealing the charger’s fate. Then, he went to the Chinese market and bought three 12 volt motorcycle batteries to wire together to run the drill. This is the set-up we have at home with our old drill, but there we needed only two 12 volt batteries. Here, he needed three batteries to provide 36 volts for the new drill with the dead battery charger. Now he’s online, looking up how to link three batteries. Our local climbing shop owner is assisting while smoking a cigarette, wearing a large green grapefruit skin on his head to condition his hair.

We climbed all day at the cliff yesterday. Being the rainy season, the entire time we climbed, it rained, but thankfully the overhang kept us totally dry.

Our trip back to town was crazy fun: we swam through slick mud, grabbing vines and slipping down a steep descent, trudging through a papaya grove, past cattle, then along farm roads bordered by aforementioned shocking green rice paddies…all the while in pouring warm rain, knowing that cold Beer Lao was at the end.


As Donette sketched out, our whole day was spent trying to get our drill charger functioning again so that we could continue putting up new routes. Ultimately we employed the “#1” electrician in town, who after much soldering and testing, swapped out bad parts and got the charger running.

Between the “three best electricians in town” making repair attempts on our drill charger, buying three motorcycle batteries, and buying assorted parts from the merchants who had the Vang Vieng tool market cornered, unsuccessfully trying to rig battery power, the day cost about $50.


Considering where we were and what we are doing, this was cheap – but insanely, crazy, nutty expensive by Lao standards.

That evening, we returned to our favorite Vang Vieng restaurant and listened to “Chapter 2 of the American’s waiter’s life”. He’s a retired sales executive from Boulder, Colorado who frequently travels to Southeast Asia to partake in its female pleasures.

Enough said.

The next two days we did more new routes on the same cliff.

All of the routes were at the far left were established, and this new section of cliff was very overgrown.

The routine each day was pretty much the same as Donette described: after strong Lao coffee and fresh baguettes, we left town via a suspension bridge over a fast-moving, muddy river, walked along a beautiful farm road through neon green rice paddies, slopped through a papaya grove and muddy jungle trail to a base of the hillside; and climbed up a steep hill through muddy, wet, slippery boulders to the base of the cliff.

Adam, the climbing shop owner in town, had asked us to develop the left side of the cliff. As I was clearing brush at the base of this section of crag on the first day, I saw a large snake skin in the undergrowth.

We later asked Adam about this. He said it was from a poisonous snake, and that if you took the eggs of this particular snake home with you to eat, the snake would follow the scent all the way to your home and bite you! Thankfully, we saw nothing in the herpetological realm beyond the snake skin.

On this portion of the wall we got three routes done fairly easily. All three were of excellent quality, stay dry in pouring rain and two were moderate enough for Adam’s clients (5.8 [the 3rd route was hard 5.10 or easy 5.11]). The final (4th) route (the furthest left and completed on our final day in Vang Vieng) required the employment of significant “jungleering” techniques.

From the highest point on our third route, I traversed left across the overhanging wall about 15 feet. This traverse was through dense vines that were hanging down the cliff and consequently, progress was slow. I had to hang from hooks or tied off vines and cut away the vegetation to make leftward progress. After considerable effort, I got another anchor in and we were able to get to work on the last climb, which turned out to be a nice, overhanging 5.9 with five bolts.

All throughout our three days at this cliff we were visited by a myriad of incredibly colored butterflies. Almost all spent time sitting on our shoes, packs and climbing gear. Additionally, we were serenaded by the bleating of cows and the “whoop, whoop” of a bird that Adam told us was a woodpecker (we never saw the bird).

On our final night in Vang Vieng, we went to dinner at a Lao BBQ place with Adam. Lao BBQ is a bit like Korean BBQ, but even more entertaining. The servers bring a pot filled with hot coals, which is placed in a hole in the middle of your table. A circular aluminum bowl (much like a Bundt cake pan with a closed center or a wok with a dome in the middle) is then placed over the coals. Each person is given a gallon-sized basket of greens, noodles, sprouts and an egg as well as a plate of thinly sliced meat. Soup is poured from a tea kettle into the “moat” at the base of the now sizzling dome and a handful of the material from the basket is put into the liquid in the moat. The meat is simultaneously cooked on the dome of the bowl. This whole process keeps one pretty busy. The output of effort is of course best tempered by copious quantities of Beer Lao.

Our mini-bus ride north from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was memorable. What we could see of the scenery past the other minivan passengers and through the steamed up windows was breath-taking. The area is very mountainous, heavily vegetated and has villages both in the valley bottoms and along the roadside on the edges of very steep mountain sides. The mountain villages are predominantly inhabited by Hmong, a mountain tribe in both Laos and northern Thailand that wear very cool traditional dress.

When we arrived in Luang Prabang, we canvassed the adventure travel agencies to find out more about climbing in the area. At one of the companies, Jewel Travel Laos, we spoke with the owner, Phai (pronounced like “Thai”). He was excited about the prospect of new routes, especially if we could establish some easy ones on a cliff that stayed dry. Unlike Vang Vieng, rock climbing in LP is currently only a dry season activity because they only have routes on less than vertical cliffs. Seeing the potential for year around guiding, Phai agreed to provide us with his climbing guide to take us to potential sites.

On August 1st, we met up with the guide, Yai, and went to a cool area about 20 minutes downstream from LP on the Mekong River. The trip was made by longtail boat, which is a vessel not much wider than a canoe but two or three times longer. It is typically powered by a car engine with an extended driveshaft that has a propeller on the end (hence the “longtail”). The docking procedure required chopping thru the dense riverbank vegetation with an oar so that we could land. We then dug steps with the oar in the steep, muddy slope directly above the bow of the boat to reach the base of the cliff.

The limestone cliff is maybe 200 yards wide, 100 feet tall and sits about 75 vertical feet above the Mekong. The cliff has several amazing caves, one of which is the size of a house and was used by the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao during the wars.

In short order, we found a good, overhanging wall with route potential. By the end of the day we had established three climbs on this section. One route is a slabby 5.4 that climbs up and right 40 feet to an anchor.

Directly below this anchor is a steep 5.8 with two bolts. Going up and right from the communal anchor through overhanging terrain gets you to another anchor. This makes a great 5.10a route with a total of eight bolts and 100 feet of climbing. The lower off from the upper anchor is completely out in space (photo at top).

All of the routes will stay dry in the rain.

Despite being fully in the jungle, the mosquitoes were almost non-existent. There were however, “virgin bees” somewhat like we had encountered in Belize. These are non-stinging bees that produce honey and love sweat (of which we produced buckets). All day long we were covered in these bees, which had never had such a salty feast! Yai tried making some smudge fires to keep them at bay, but that just made it harder for us to breathe.

We returned to the boat about 4pm and had a stellar ride back up the river. The skies were clear, the sun was out and the views tremendous. Combined with the boat ride, this cliff will make a great outing for tourists wanting to try climbing.

The following day, we first went back to the section we had been climbing on the day before. I led the longest route (5.10a; 30 meters) and installed links at the anchor so we could lower off. Yai followed the route, climbing very smoothly.

 We then moved about 50 feet down and right to the next overhanging section of cliff. I spent several hours leading up a steep groove, ultimately getting seven bolts and an anchor installed (also 5.10a in difficulty). There was a veil of vines hanging down from the lip of the cliff-top overhang that I occasionally had to fight through.

After getting the first route established, I swung right and got in another anchor. This became the top of two other routes (a 5.5 and a 5.11). The easier route started at the mouth of a deep, downward trending cave and went up through some very cool sculptured rock to a ledge. About 15 feet right of this ledge was a cave in the cliff face that had historically been filled with Buddha statues. According to Yai, the Buddhas were stolen years ago by looters. All that remains now in the cave on the cliff face are some lashed together bamboo poles. From this ledge, the route went back up and left along the overhanging lip of the ground level cave. For an easy route, this was very, very fun and will be popular with clients. Finally, we bolted a route directly up through the central overhang of the ground level cave.

Once we had the routes installed, Yai went up to the top of the first route armed with the Lao version of a machete and went to work on the curtain of vines. By the time he was done, there was a pile of debris at the base of the climb about eight feet high. Once he got down, more chopping reduced this pile in size and it was thrown off into the jungle.

During the day we spoke with Yai about a number of topics. We told him about finding the snake skin at the base of our climbs in Vang Vieng. He said the snake was a tiger snake; that these reptiles are very poisonous and he then told us the same story that Adam had about the snake following you home if you steal its eggs. Yai described the snake as being up to two meters (over six feet) in length. We’re glad we saw only the skin!

While we were climbing on the second day, the boatman (who waited for us each day) vastly improved the trail from the river up to the cliff. After chopping through some amount of vegetation, the boat typically pulls up to the bank and ties off to a tree. You then ascend a steep (60-70 degree) mud slope directly above the boat and water. If you slip, it’s likely you’ll be in the drink. The boatman, apparently having pity on we farang, dug out giant steps all the way up the dirt slope for us. This certainly made our descent at the end of the day a lot less exciting.

When we got back to town, Phai told us that he wanted to take us to dinner as a gesture of thanks for our new route efforts. Both Yai and Phai felt our new routes would allow them additional guiding opportunities both in the wet and dry seasons.

After dropping our packs at the hotel and taking showers with LOTS of soap and shampoo, we met the guys for dinner. Phai kept the Beer Lao flowing freely, which went well with delicious Lao food and interesting conversation.

Phai is 32 and was born in a northern Laos village with no road, electricity, or school. The village is a two hour drive, one hour boat ride and two-three hour walk from the closest city. At nine he left the village and went to a Buddhist temple, where he was a monk for seven years. He was provided an education, learned some English, then waited tables at a hotel in Vientiane, before he got a job with an adventure travel company. The owners sent Phai to Luang Prabang to open a satellite office, and Phai ran this operation for five or six years before setting off, solo. He opened a business seven years ago, and it’s obvious he is doing things right.

Over the past few years, he purchased some large tracts of land outside of LP for about $70,000 so that he could develop his own elephant camp (a place to take tourists to ride and see elephants). Last year he bought two elephants.

Who knew, but a young-ish (20-30 year old) elephant costs about $23,000. If you make payments, it will cost about $27,000. If you then want your flock/covey/clutch/pod/herd to grow, you need to pay for a male elephant to inseminate your female. This costs about $3,000 if you pay up front and hope things work out. If you’re not a risk taker, you can wait until the baby elephant is born, in which case you will own 60% of the baby, and the breeder owns the other 40%.

In addition to the elephant camp, Phai purchased land along the Mekong River about 150km to the north of LP. This land has cliffs on and adjacent to it.

Phai asked us to come back to Laos and develop routes there so that it becomes a climbing destination.

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