Between caves and muddy rice paddies, my coordination has certainly been put to the test. But if the past week and a half was full of tests, today was my final exam. In our quest to find something to do that didn't involve beer or balloons full of laughing gas, we discovered an off-the-beaten-path hike. Literally. The hike had no path - it was essentially a series of fallen rocks with a few ladders nailed in here and there. If you don't believe me, look at the above photos. It was less of a hike and more of a rock climb, but well worth the journey. I honestly couldn't tell you which I was more afraid of - falling on the sharp rocks or a snake coming out of the many rock crevices. Either way, the latter kept me going the entire way up, despite the heat. In the end, it wasn't even that far to the top - the terrain was what really made it tough - and we enjoyed another insane 360 degree view of Vang Vieng. Even the mountain seemed to celebrate our successful climb with a bamboo post and an orange flag fluttering in the wind at the top. We stayed up there for a while, enjoying the view and chatting with two girls who had gone to McGill. One was interested in event planning, so I told her to email me and I would put her in touch with some of my friends at the firm. They were at the beginning of their six month travels and balked at the idea that I was only in Southeast Asia for two weeks. It was a reaction I was becoming accustomed to - most people who journeyed out there with their backpacks stayed out there for a long period of time.
After the hike, we walked another kilometer towards another cave that was recommended to us. Miki's knee was bothering and I was thinking that one test of my coordination was good enough for today, so we decided to turn around and head back. We also wanted to be sure we had enough time to grab a smoothie at The Other Side before out 2 o'clock bus. Even still, the walk back was beautiful and peaceful. We walked through rice fields, past cows and through the woods. I felt so relaxed and let my mind wander - New York doesn't have enough trees and grass, so I inhaled as much fresh air as I possibly could.
After grabbing our smoothies, we headed back to the hostel to catch a van back to Luang Prebang. After the fiasco on the way here, I had very low expectations for the drive back, but it actually was extremely pleasant. Our driver sped through the mountains at a speed that made me actually fasten my seatbelt, but we made the journey in four hours and stopped twice at appropriate gas stations. The drive was beautiful as well - around every bend was another vista featuring rocky mountains, rolling green valleys and little huts fit snugly into the corners of rice fields.
Since we made such great timing, Miki and I had time to shower and relax before grabbing dinner. I wore my new elephant pants and we headed out to the night market where we had previously had an incredible all-you-can-fit-onto-one-plate vegetarian buffet dinner for $15 Kip (less than two dollars). In addition, we shared a whole grilled fish, fresh from the Mekong River and stuffed ourselves with one of my favorite meals of the trip. Another stroll through the night market to make sure we weren't missing out on any other fabulous purchases, and we headed back to our room for the night because tomorrow we catch a flight to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
I want to end this post with a bit of history. A sliver of a country tucked between Vietnam and Thailand, the tragic history of Laos is often forgotten. While waiting for our flight the next day, I spent a good amount of time reading the Wikipedia page on The Secret War, also known as the Laos Civil War. America had its finger in that pie the entire time, but since it was a covert operation involving training local H'mong tribes to fight a guerrilla war against North Vietnam and the communists, it is often overlooked. In fact, the US didn't openly acknowledge its involvement in The Secret War until the late 1990's. What began as an uprising against the French and the weak puppet government of the royal crown, quickly became a battle of factions. Local communist groups began to form and were greatly influenced by the North Vietnamese, a faction of neutralists (a middle ground between the communists and the Royal government) became too divided to become anything other than a splinter group, and a US-backed royal army was on the brink of collapse, leaning on the West like a crutch. Of course, the US's intentions weren't so pure - they used Laos as a playing piece in the Vietnam War and the larger Cold War against Russia and China. In fact, the US dropped more bombs on Plain of Jars, an archeological site that was utilized by the North Vietnamese as part of their guerrilla tactics, than they dropped in all of World War II. Today, there are still many unexploded bombs buried around Plain of Jars that the Lao government is working with the UN to have removed. Everyone knows the Ho Chi Minh Trail ran along Lao's eastern border during the Vietnam War, but most people don't know how much the country suffered for something they had little control over. The North Vietnamese exercised so much power over Laos that, even with the US's help, there was no way the country was going to be democratic. In fact, during one battle, the Royal Army dropped their weapons and fled. Meanwhile, the CIA was training local H'mong people to fight the communists. The communists had plans to kill the H'mong people and seize their land. This, sadly, became an eventual reality that even a US/Thai evacuation by airplane couldn't stop. Once the US pulled out, realizing it was a war they would never win, the communists took full control, eventually seizing private property and committing a horrible genocide - one that is often overlooked - against the H'mong people as revenge for supporting the the West. Whoever managed to flee, ended up as refugees in neighboring Thailand and the US, who resettled around 200,000 of the H'mong people.
This history only skims the surface of what is a rich and largely unknown past. If you ever visit Laos, which I encourage you to do - it is beautiful and full of culture - be sure to take the time to read up on the country's brief history. It'll only enhance an already meaningful experience.