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.

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