Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Caves of Vieng Xai, Laos

I awoke and was off to the bus station at 7:30 am. Oh, these travel days always have fun in store. What crazy thing will I see today? A small bus was waiting. I heave my backpack up on top and got on board. I was greeted by a friendly face from yesterday's tour group. My Spanish friend and I chatted as 3 other Westerners jumped on board. The little 28 passenger bus had room to spare until we arrived at a few small villages. People kept piling in along with their crops of vegetables or animals. We were full in no time and headed north east to Sam Neua. It was suppose to be an 8 hour ride but I could tell early on that it was going to take longer. We stopped at every town for someone to deliver or pick up something. There were no bathroom breaks just a stop along the side if the road. Find your bush and do your business. Every day I am aware at the advantage men have with traveling in developing countries. For us girls, it is more difficult to find a place to go.
The 8 hour bus hide became a long 10.5 hours. We were arrived in Sam Neua at 6pm. No tuk-tuks, just an empty station. I verified this was the Sam Neua station and asked if it was the north station or the main station. One thing I have learned is find someone that speaks English and ask questions. It never hurts. My Lonely Planet book told me there were 2 and one was close to the city while the other was outside the city. I was told town was 1.5 km so I figured the walk downhill would feel good. My Spanish friend and I started walking and sharing travel stories. It was a nice walk, it would not be pleasant if you were going straight uphill with a full backpack! We found hotel rooms and went to find dinner. Sam Neua was off the tourist path and was not a tourist friendly town. We could not find any restaurants. We finally asked for directions and then walked a mile to a Vietnamese restaurant. I was starving and quickly remembered the northern Vietnamese food was not so good. Dinner was awful so we decided to enjoy a beer before calling it a night. I said goodbye to my new friend and gave him my Vietnamese SIM card for his travels in Vietnam.

The following morning I was up and headed to the bus station to get a bus over to a little town, Vieng Xai. There were 18 caves where the Laotians lived during the war. I asked how far to the bus station and was told 3 km. No problem! I had an hour to get there so I started walking. After 20 minutes I stopped to ask directions. I was told it was 5 km. Ok. No biggie to walk 3 miles. I walked and walked. When a tuk-tuk pulled up and laughed. He said it was 5 more km. I decided to get a ride since I wanted to get the first bus to Vieng Xai. Luckily, I arrived in time and got on the bus with 2 Belgian guys I met the day before.

We arrived in Vieng Xai for the first tour of the caves. Vieng Xai is where the revolutionary leaders of the Pathet Lao resided during the Secret War. There are 18 caves but we only have time to visit 5 which was fine with me. I find everything starts to look the same after awhile. We were given English audio headsets to listen to as we walked from one cave to the next. A local guide went along to unlock the sites, give additional insight and answer questions. The audio and tour was very well done. We visited caves and learned about each of the leaders for Laos independence.
One of the interesting parts was where a woman said that when the bombing started they did not know who or where America was much less why they were being bombed. It took them by surprise. They quickly realized they needed to find caves for protection.  They also realized quickly that anything with colors (white, red, orange) that did not match the natural foliage were bombed. The townspeople got busy pulling all the colored foliage and killing all animals that could identify villages. They only farmed the rice paddies at night and cooked meals early in the morning before it was light and the planes would start the bombing. All of this was to survive. As many as 23,000 people and soldiers lived in the caves.

 Bombs hit the caves. They would adjust and life went on. They even built rooms for the leaders that would survive a chemical attack and bring in fresh air. Many of the leaders children were sent to live in China for safety. The war raged on for 9 years until the peace agreement was signed between the Americans and Vietnamese. In the end, the Pathetic Laos were successful in choosing their form of government.
The children in the village were friendly and I was greeted with a wave and a "hello!" They were so excited to see foreigners they came running to greet us.

Teenagers yelled out and wanted to know where I was from. I told them America and they said "It's ok. War is over. We beat the greatest and strongest nation in the world. We chose our government and everything is ok. Thank you for coming to visit and understand the past." I had heard this in the audio tapes also. I suspect it is taught in school and part of the communist education. I was gracious and thanked them for their kindness which turned into questions about my life in the USA. The one thing that always humbles me is the way other countries look up to America. They do not agree with all our policies and actions but they love that anything is possible in America. They have friends and families in America and want to visit someday. They love the technology and entertainment. One boy explained it as a place where big dreams come true as he showed me he had a Steve Jobs book in his bag. I smiled and realized what America means to other nationalities.

I returned to the bus station on time to have a quick lunch before the bus to Sam Neua arrived at 1 pm. I waited and waited. I asked people using my best Lao. Everyone laughed and said no with a sweep of their hand. Hmmm? What now? My Belgian friends walked over and asked if I knew anything about the 1 pm bus. I told them it sounds like it wasn't coming. I saw an Indian restaurant which was likely to have someone that spoke English. He told me the bus does not come if it isn't full. Next bus would be 5-7 pm from Vietnam, if there were passengers. What?!? We were stranded. He said we should be able to get a private car for 180,000 kip  but everyone one wanted 500,000 kip. Ridiculous! We decided it was time to hitchhike. Not something I have ever done before but what else could we do? After 30 minutes we got a ride half way to Sam Neua. We took it and figured we could worry about our next ride when we got there. We jumped in the bed of the truck and were off!
I forgot how fun you could have riding in the back of a truck! I had not done this since I was a kid. Back when nobody worried about seatbelts and safety. The wind was blowing through our hair. I felt free, reckless and excited. My mother was going to have a fit when she heard about this (Sorry mom!). At least it was Laos! I would never do this in America! (Kids- do not do this! I am a bad example!) The view was beautiful. People laughed and pointed as they saw 3 falang (Lao for foreigner of European descent) in the back of a pickup going through their villages. Children smiled and waved. We arrived at the turnoff and the driver pointed the direction of Sam Neua. We barely crossed the road and we found a ride to Sam Neua with 2 couples in a pickup. We waved goodbye and thank-you to the first driver and jumped in. Success! The second driver flew down the roads. We arrived at Sam Neua in half the time. It was a fun day and luckily a happy ending to my first and hopefully last hitchhiking experience!

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