Dan and I walk through a paddock inhabited by slightly angry cows. Then we climb a stile made of bamboo over a rickety fence and into a grove of banana trees still bearing fruit. We come to a stream bridged by long bamboo poles held together with twisted baling wire.
"Where are we?" Dan wonders as the path takes another turn.
"In Laos," is all I can offer him.
We are lost in Southeast Asia, gloriously lost, but at the same time we know that once we find our location, our long vacation is evaporating behind us even as the dust settles behind our knock-off Tevas.
This week we're still on vacation, and next week and next month too, but the 'endless summer' portion of our wanders is over.
Tomorrow, we take a bus to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, then the next day we train it down through Thailand to Bangkok. The day after we fly to Tokyo to spend a day looking for sushi. And the day after that we touch down in Portland, Oregon for a nice long visit with my extended family and friends.
I'm thrilled to go to the States (it's only been three years since my last visit) and happy to check out Tokyo, but as Dan and I walked down this Laotian path startling two-toned butterflies being stalked by the most patient of lizards, it occurred to me that this was really the end of our Big Trip through Southeast Asia. We're entering the visiting phase of our travels and ending the traveling phase of our trip.
We climbed one more bamboo stile over a barbed-wire fence, rounded a clump of particularly thorny bushes interspersed with the most delicate purple flowers and passed into the shadow of the limestone cliff that bordered the farmer's lands. We were headed today, mostly, for a look at a limestone cave and a dip in a river. On our rented bicycles we'd passed a hand-lettered sign that promised both, so we'd paid a man 10,000 kip each to come traipse through this field, jungle and cow pasture to do so.
As we stepped from the 1 p.m. sunshine into the shadow of the bluff I noticed a quick, distinct temperature change--at least 10 degrees difference Fahrenheit according to Dan's thermometer. After our sweaty bike ride in the near-100 degree heat, the suddenly cool breeze was refreshing. A few more steps down the path and it got nicer--a grotto with a pool large enough for us to take a dip in. We changed into swimming clothes and eased into the glassy pool, disturbing the muddy bottom only a little.
The cave-fed stream bubbled up out of the rocks behind us and went falling through a man-made weir through to an underground cavern we could hear but not see.
The cool water woke us up, took off the grime and sweat from our bike ride, and made me start to think about the sensations of heat and cold. After spending the last nine months in countries where the climate ranged from boiling to steaming, transitioning to North America at Halloween seemed a chilly proposition. New clothes are in order.
I looked up from the pond to the craggy limestone ceiling and out to the light green leaves of the jungle we'd just walked through. As gorgeous as I'd hoped.
We dried off with our t-shirts and put on our soon-to-be-obsolete clothes and then started off toward another cave on the way back Vang Vieng. If this was the end of the Big Trip, it was beautiful.
These guys are serious.
"These guys" are three young Israeli men with enormous hair. I can see the remnants of eroded permanent marker on their wrists--they've been tubing before. They've got their own dry bag for money and cameras. They don't bother getting in their inner tubes too fast, either. They know what to do:
No. 1. Get your tube. Pay the money, and receive a blue sketch and number on the back of your right hand.
No 2. Take the provided tuk tuk taxi upriver.
No. 3. Get your free shot of alcohol at Bar 1, let the music get to you and wait for more people.
No. 4. Swing on the trapeze while waiting.
No. 5. Continue drinking.
Dan and I follow them to the trapeze and watch, a little hesitant, as they jump into it. It's near enough to 11 a.m. to start the big bottles of BeerLao flowing, but I'm not sure of the buckets yet.
We take our free shot of whiskey infused with bees, accept being tied up with yellow streamers with "I Love Laos" stenciled on them in red paint, and start trying to get in the mood of listening to the Black Eyed Peas and 1990s dance mixes.
There are two other people besides us and the Israelis in this big outside bar. They sit at the end of the platform looking over the river and watch the Israeli guys swing out on the trapeze and sling themselves into what looks like too-shallow water. They're good at it.
I smile at the other onlookers, and the guy turns and looks at me. "Welcome to Heaven on Earth," he says, swigging a BeerLao.
* * *
We drink a beer and then slide into our yellow-painted tubes, gasping at the sudden wash of cold brown water on our feet and bums. Leaving the Israeli guys back at the pumping disco beat of Bar 1. We felt it was time to drift on. The river current takes us right away, swinging me onto a sand bar and Dan out into a place protected by the sandbar. He is becalmed, I am bumping over small rocks and gritty sand. This is fun.
I hoist myself off the sandbar by waggling my feet in the air and down into the water. Dan is paddling with his arms and feet like a drowning man. We're both laughing. I get free and start sailing downstream faster and faster. Dan becomes a yellow round speck on the river.
“You want to come?” a voice hails me from the riverbank. It's a woman holding a plastic bottle tied to a rope. Behind her is another open-air bar blaring music into the Laotian countryside.
“OK!” I holler back
A guy appears behind her, takes the rope and swings it out so that the bottle hits the river behind me. I float into it, grab the rope and he pulls me in to a protected shallow area where I can ungracefully flop myself out of the innertube and wait for Dan.
He drifts by a few minutes later, and the guy hauls him in too. We walk up to the bar the woman had retreated to. They're playing loud Counting Crows and while I like the music, there's nobody else in the bar. Not wanting to drink alone, we get back in our tubes and continue on down the cafe-au-lait river.
A few hours later we've met up with the other couple from Bar 1, two Finnish guys, a German and some Americans born in Laos. There is plenty of beer. One bar has puppies. Another, under a particularly forked karst cliff, has named itself the Slingshot Bar. The owner, a laughing guy who says he works all day, promises to give us free beer if one of us beats him at knocking over beer cans with rocks slung from his homeade slingshots. Dan does, and the barman doesn't.
We stop at another with a cave.
We're having fun on the river, with our new friends when we notice it's starting to get dark.
"Was that really the last bar?" I ask Dan. "It can't be!"
But the sun is setting behind the castle-shaped mountains behind us and the river is widening and picking up speed. We need to get the inner tubes back before the cut off time of 7 p.m. We make it by just 20 minutes.
After, we go sit at a bar over the river drinking more beer and talking to our new friends.
“Heaven on Earth?” Well, at least heaven in Laos.