dharma walking

Yesterday, I met a young novice (monk-in-training) while taking pictures by the river. Phong Sawaph is his name, and the first words out of his mouth to me were “please to walk with me.” I was a bit taken aback, but it was so out-of-the-blue, I had to allow the moment to have its way.

We ended up walking for several kilometers along the river and through various back alleys of Vientiane, and he showed me his school and his temple. He also introduced me to his English teacher, a monk named Phra Khanthon.

I visited with them for a while, and the monk asked me if I would allow him to be my volunteer tour guide to Vang Viang – a village about 100km north of Vientiane and known for its beautiful landscape and numerous caves. Basically, he was asking my permission(!) to provide me with expert (and free) tour service to a scenic Laotian village, as well as a day of interesting company. It was the kind of too-good-to-be-true offer you’d never accept from anyone but a buddhist monk.

I met Phong Sawath and Phra Khanthon at 7:00 this morning, and we walked to the bus station. We boarded something called a minibus, which is really a standard Japanese pickup truck with a sort of canopy installed over the bed. Aside from the monk, the novice and me, seven others boarded the “bus” – making ten in all. Ten people may seem like it’s pushing the capacity of the back of a pickup truck, but at one point along the way, there were seventeen of us and about 25 chickens – tied in three bundles by the feet, although only about a third of them were dead. At another point, there were 26 of us (and, thankfully, no chickens). I was the only foreigner on board, for the duration.

The trip to Vang Viang took just over four hours (and cost US$1.50) , and we were not dressed for the cool wind whipping through the “bus” (I’m going to continue to put it in quotes). When we arrived in Vang Viang, however, the sun was shining and despite the higher altitude, it was already pretty hot. I was happy to have the temperature change, and I’ve never been happier to stand and stretch my legs.

We walked through the village, past the usual assortment of street vendors and curious children, to a footbridge on the outskirts. A sign told us about two caves – one at 2km and one at 6km – down the dirt path. We debated for a minute about whether to walk or hire a tuk tuk – the monk nixed the bicycle rental option – and decided to walk to the closer of the two caves.

We paid the bridge-crossing fee of 5,000 kip (US$0.50), and a little further on we paid a cave-viewing fee (another 5,000). We walked for another 600m through a dry rice field and then scrambled up a steep and boulder-filled trail. The energetic young novice led the way, and his childhood roots in Luang Prbang province suddenly became obvious. Luang Prbang is a region famous for its beautiful cliffs, caves and waterfalls, and the monk and the novice were born in neighboring villages there. Up the difficult trail, it was amazing to watch the way their feet naturally landed in all the right places without any hesitation. I eventually stopped bothering to look at the trail myself and just walked in their footsteps.

The cave itself was bigger than any I had ever explored, and the air inside was hot and damp as a sauna. At the deepest point, we turned out our lights long enough to let our eyes adjust, and we were able to make out the very faint light of the entrance.

A few minutes later, we scrambled back down and made our way back to the main trail. The novice barrelled ahead, and by the time we caught up to him at the main trail, he had stopped a tuk tuk for us to travel the remaining 5km to the other cave – which promised a swimming hole.

The tuk tuks in Vang Viang are not the sleek (ha ha) urban variety found in Bangkok and Vientiane. They are the off-road variety – chopped farm tractors pulling wagons. Having experienced one, I now call them egg scramblers, for reasons you can surely guess.

The inside of the second cave was as big as a cathedral, and indeed a reclining buddha shrine had been installed inside it. The cave air was cool and dry. We could feel it well before we entered, like the earth breathing to cure us of our second strenuous climb.

We paused inside in silence for a while and then scrambled back down to the swimming hole. The sight of two orange and yellow robed buddhists and the whited dude strolling up for a swim earned us a lot of strange looks, but the turquoise water provided the perfect cooling break.

Eventually, we hired a tuk tuk back to the village and made our way to the bus stop. There were no more minibuses back to Vientiane, so we boarded one that would take us about two-thirds of the way.

As darkness fell, I could see that the “bus” had no working tail lights, which added an extra bit of thrill to our rapid descent down the winding mountain roads – often cutting curves across the oncoming lane or breaking to avoid trucks and cars doing the same in the opposite direction.

About 3 hours later, we transferred to a large air-con bus for the rest of the way back to Vientiane, and when we stopped at Wat Yapa – the home of my buddhist friends – the monk hailed a passing motorcyclist for me. I hopped on the back of the bike for the last few miles back to my hotel, and tonight I will sleep the sleep of the buddha.