The road from Vang Vieng is a bumpy one. It curves and turns and you feel all the uneven surfaces in the pit of your stomach. If you focus on the horizon, or some other point in the distance, perhaps you can stave off the feeling of motion sickness, but these days, it’s been getting the best of me. If I know I have a van or a bus trip coming up, I don’t eat much and I mentally prepare for the bumpy road ahead. After my time in Vang Vieng, I went to Luang Prabang, about four hours north. Four long hours in a cramped van, so I wasn’t in the mood to get in another one anytime soon (especially knowing I bought a plane ticket back to Bangkok), but a photo captivated me and I wanted to see the views for myself. Nong Khiaw, another 3 hours north by van, a village that doesn’t even have a name on my Maps.Me map but in recent years has grown a bit. There are a few westerners who own some establishments, including Delilah’s, the hostel where I stayed.
It’s recommended you do the “View Point” Hike as a sunrise or sunset trip, so once I arrived, I brought my small day pack to the hostel, had lunch, cooled off a bit, and let some time pass.
I set off on my own, there are not many tourists in the small village. I thought I may meet someone along the way seeing as it is one of the few things to do around the area. When I arrived to the ticket booth, I paid my 20,000 kip entry fee (about $2.40) and read the signs. “Unexploded bombs still in the area,” and “One of the most bombed areas in Laos.” That means, stay on the trail.
In the West, at least where I am from in the United States, I feel most people do not know much about this small landlocked country in Southeast Asia. I didn’t know much about it myself until I arrived and have since learned that the official name of the country is Laos, PDR, the Peoples’ Democratic Republic, but at the same time, they are a communist country. Laos made up part of French Indochina (along with Vietnam and Cambodia), but they gained independence in July, 1949. The Laotian Civil War took place from 1953-1975 between their then communist political movement and the Royal Lao Government. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped over two million tons of ordinance in this country. According to some sources, Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita and over 580,000 bombing missions were conducted. This time was called the Secret War In Laos and the US wanted to support the Royal Lao Government against the emerging Lao communists and they also wanted to disturb traffic on the trail to Ho Chi Minh. Like in Vietnam, many of the bombs that were dropped never exploded. In some cases, the thick jungle provided a buffer to incoming bombs, and in others, the rice paddies were too soft so bombs did not detonate upon impact. Since the end of the war, over 20,000 people have been injured or killed due to UXO and although over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped, around 80 million did not detonate. To this day, less than 1% (ONE PERCENT ?), have been destroyed. People still die from remnants of a war that ended nearly 40 years ago.
That brief history lesson to say: Don’t go off the trail! Back to my hike. Because I’d traveled in the morning, I treated the hike as my exercise and activity for the day. I carried a 1.5 liter bottle of water with me and started off at 4:00 pm. The mountain was void of people. I was alone in nature, save for the enormous insects in the dense jungle. The path was muddy and steep. Jagged limestone rocks line the trail, as well as thick bamboo forests and trees of unknown origin to me. It didn’t take long to work up a sweat in the thick humidity. In fact, I was already soaked by the time I got to the trail head. My hike up wasn’t too bad. My knee and legs are strong enough to continuously climb. I only took a few momentary stops to chug some water. Part way in, I noticed my electrolytes were off, I was feeling a bit uneasy from the heat, the beads of sweat dripping off my upper lip no longer tasted salty, and not to mention I’d hardly used the restroom all day. But I’d rest at the top and have a proper dinner when I finished. I was cautious of my every step. Having had surgery in January, I’m still careful with my knee and protect it as much as I can in an unsteady environment.
There was a good stretch of dense jungle, the trail darkened and it was difficult to tell which way to go or how far I was from the top, but I kept on and before I knew it, there was a cleaning towards the sky.
All the drops of sweat were worth it, the view was incredible. The sun was still high but would soon set. A blue background broken up with pointy peaks of green, a meandering river down below, beauty all around.
After some time, I laid back on a flat rock marveling at the scenery around me and the peaceful sky above. “I’m the only one here,” I thought. Then just at that moment, the serenity was broken by a voice, my heart jumped, but it was just another tourist, and honestly, I was thankful. As it turned out, 6 of us were at the summit for sunset, but my nerves got the best of me. I’d left my pack in Luang Prabang and inside, my headlamp. I never use it, but it’s one of those things that when you need it, it’s incredibly handy and now, I needed it. After watching the skyline transform with the setting sun, I started off on my own. With my knee, the steep descent, and a muddy path, I wanted to beat nightfall.
As I approached the thick part of the jungle, it was as if someone turned off the lights, it was already dark so no way could I beat nature. I went slowly, cautiously, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. Luckily, the rest of the group caught up and I expressed my concern over going back down. I turned on the flashlight on my phone and placed it in my tank top, facing out. It did the trick and lit the path in front of me. The others let me keep the lead and followed my pace. Every step was precarious. A slight slip in my case (or anyone’s for that matter) could result in a serious injury. These things are now always on my mind. I run through different scenarios, what would I do, how would I get out? I was thankful I wasn’t alone. As I age, I grow more cautious. A major injury really makes you aware of your body and movements. But we descended, slowly and surely, eventually down the path and onto solid ground. Enriched with the natural beauty of the setting sun, and even the darkness, for the stars shone bright in the night sky. United in the end by a fortuitous meeting with strangers, grateful for their company and support, another experience in the books. I didn’t use to worry about these things when I was younger. I used to run free and not be afraid of anything, and now, I fear falling, yet when it doesn’t happen, I tell myself I’m stronger, and not to let my fears get in the way of what I want to do. And well, as you can see, I don’t! I go and seek opportunities, often alone, I meet great people along the way, and see epic scenery. Plus, an hour up, an hour and a half down, I got in my exercise for the day.
What are some of your fears? Do they change as you age? Have you over come any of them?