Keith and I were lucky enough to tag along on a trip to see some more caves, to visit some villages and to check out the ride to the Vietnamese border from Vieng Xay. Some locals who lived in the caves around the time of the war were heading out for the day with Laup, the guy thats played a major role in developing the caves for tourism.
Keith and I, Laup and his friend Paul, plus three people who work for the Tourism Council in Vientiane, all gathered in the morning, ready to depart. Around 9, five more Lao people arrived in a car from Sam Nua, the closest city, about an hour away, and we were off.
First we stopped at a few villages known for basket weaving. Laup is exploring the possibility of reopening the market cave, which existed during the war as a place for people to purchase goods. He thought it’d be wonderful to sell local products in the market cave to tourists, products like baskets woven from bamboo.
It was funny, about twelve of us showing up in these tiny villages, asking loads of questions, the villagers pulling out all their baskets
to show us. The villages sell their baskets in Vientiane though, so they don’t have a huge backstock. While Paul asked questions, the rest of us admired and bought baskets. At the second village, I was talking with some local kids and noticed one boy with a broken zipper on his pants, wearing no underwear, his little wienie poking through the hole. I teased him with the other kids, then another boy was like, hey, hey look at me! My pants are the same! My wienie is poking out my pants too! We all giggled together until I departed. (Since then, I've learned that many parents actually cut holes in their infants pants on purpose, so the kids can defecate freely until they learn how to control themselves, without dirtying their clothes. But these kids were about 8 so I'm not sure if this was the case for them too.)
Four of us rode in the back of the pickup truck. It was a gorgeous day and we were riding by small mountains, peaceful, green valleys, flowing rivers, children playing, women and men working. We saw many caves cut in to the karsts but our plan for the day
only included certain caves, so we rode on.
We arrived at the Vietnam border, about two hours from where we’d begun. We thought the plan was to just ride to the border, see it, then turn around. But it turns out, the Lao people had all planned to go over in to Vietnam for lunch. Which was a great idea. Except everyone knows non-Lao people have to get a visa in advance to go to Vietnam. So the Lao people on this journey said, OK, get out. See you in a bit. We’re going for lunch. And left us at the border. Driving the two vehicles over in to Vietnam.
The four of us were surprised, but surprises happen all the time in Laos, so we weren’t too shocked. We walked up the street to a little restaurant, where the locals were drying strips of buffalo meat in the sun, I think to make jerky. There we sat and talked for about two hours, happily, until the trucks drove back and stopped. They’d brought us Vietnamese beers and a pear, which was sweet, and we instantly forgave them. Sitting in the back of that truck, in the sunshine
with a nice breeze, passing by gorgeous views and drinking our beers was pretty heavenly.
After a short time, the trucks stopped again and everyone began hiking down a small hill towards a cave set up high in to a karst. We traversed a shallow river, everyone rolling up their pants or skirts, some people taking off their pants completely. Then we continued walking down a dried up part of the riverbank, arriving at the foot of the karst, which was thick with jungle greens and no discernable path. As I’d earlier asked if this route up to the cave had been cleared yet of UXO and received answers of Yes and No, I had no desire to go any further. Surprisingly, everyone else took a chance, and hiked straight up in to the dense bush, towards the cave. I wanted to see the cave but also didn’t want to step on a UXO, so I stayed down by the peaceful riverbed. This cave was the steel-forging cave and one of the men with us had worked in it during the war. Thankfully, everyone arrived back from the cave safely about an hour later and we continued on, stopping
at the sewing cave, where another woman with us described what it was like there during and after the war. She said that for five years following the war, the employees were paid only in bolts of cloth as the factory could not afford to pay them. Apparently, the employees continued to work because 1, there were no other jobs available, and 2, because there was no actual work to be done. So they were being paid nothing, to do nothing, though they were technically employed. Interesting.
We finally reached the hospital cave, prefaced by a dilapidated building that had become the hospital after the war, but it was nearly dark. Keith and I were hitching a ride to Sam Nua with the other truck-full of people, and they did not have time to go see the hospital cave. They had said we could both ride in the bed of their truck, but they had bought so much stuff in Vietnam, the bed of their truck was almost completely full! We managed to jam Keith in there and they kindly shoved me in to the back seat alongside three of them, and we were off to Sam Nua.
The first thing we saw in Sam Nua was the massive bizarre statue decorating the center of the rotary right downtown. It was composed of four alien spaceship-like forked arms, holding aloft a shiny, sparkly white disco ball. Apparently it is a tribute to the hard work and struggle of the Lao people during the war.
Vieng Xay had been very short on food and so we’d eaten very simply the past few days: rice, noodle soup, some ginger vegetable soup. We were delighted to dine at a Chinese restaurant in Sam Nua. The restaurant was of the strangest kind, a high-ceilinged, echoing cement box, assorted items displayed within glass cases on the wall: sweet-chili sauce, sugar, coffee, napkins. The walls were also graced with an assortment of posters of women from Lao calendars past, of enlarged local scenes, and of unfamiliar distant scenes. The plastic tablecloths were nailed to the table. The designer had gone through the trouble of putting English instructions on the sliding glass doors, unfortunately he hadn’t spell checked, and each door said, “Slibe”. The nearly empty room reverberated loudly with the noises of kids playing in one corner. The design was just an out
and out failure. The waitress refused to show any sign she'd heard our order and brought us instead a beer we hadn't ordered. But the food did appear, and the flavorful tofu and vegetables with a decadent fake-silver tubful of white rice really hit the spot after the bland food of the previous days. As well, the 5-liter box of wine available for order on the menu in the drinks section really impressed us.
We chose a particular hotel because we were told it had WI-FI, but after checking in discovered the truth. The receptionist told us the WI-FI worked great, BUT it only worked, swinging his arms around to show us, in the five feet surrounding the computer. Um, we said, I don’t think that’s WI-FI. But he said we could use the computer so that softened the blow. We went downstairs to settle in, and when we came back upstairs, the receptionist was nowhere in sight. We actually stayed in the lobby, writing and using the internet for a few hours, and felt oddly as though we were the only people in the whole place. Including staff. Later in the evening, the receptionist drove up on his
motorbike, shut off the computer, and drove away. His mouse pad was lovingly covered for the night with a cloth, embellished with the words, “I love America”.
Compared to the small towns we’d been in, Sam Nuea felt like New York City. There were a variety of ethnic groups, as evidenced by hairstyles, head coverings, and pant widths. There were tourists here, speaking many different languages. The streets were wide avenues, with paved sidewalks and people out walking at all times of day and night. Villagers from the countryside passed through town, walking with heavy loads on their backs, looking oddly out of place in this modern town, though they appeared to be perfectly comfortable with the juxtaposition.
The market was stunningly large and well used. At least one hundred tables were set up from morning til evening, with some vendors going home mid-day and coming back again for the evening rush. There was loads of foot-long bamboo, leafy, green vegetables, sweet rice-based, fried-dough like desserts, a huge butchery section, with dozens of women hacking away at boulder-size pieces of pig and cow, and a special section with cages stacked tall full of chickens and ducks. The most
impressive part, to me, were the giant rats, cut down the middle, their insides proudly presented to the world, as if to decipher a good rat one must see that the insides are red and shiny. Also unique was the furry oppossum, the adorable guinea pig-type creatures and the live frogs, each with one leg tied to all the others, so they could not hop away.
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