I am in Laos and more thankful and glad I could hardly be. I was taken fully by surprise at the bridge border. As I paid my visa on the other side, loaded into a rusty tuk tuk and took off over wooden bridges and uneven roadways, a great sigh of relief left my lungs that is still exhaling as I write. A relief to be back amongst little and less. To be amongst people whose way is considered and slow whose hospitality flows as part of their culture. Low huts and children in their jammies greet my eyes again as the dust and exhaust mix with the clear air of high green mountains. I feel like I’m part of an elite, part of a proper exploration again. Everyone’s prepped for the altitude and the climb and jettisoned their Thailand guidebooks to make way for Laos.
As if a cradle to mountainous jungles, there are so many opportunities to hike amongst the lush crests of northern Laos’ national parks and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. From the steep sided plains of Luang Namtha we set out into the belt of forest for 3 days. Me and four great trekking companions (hi ladies) got dropped at a dusty village with our guides, the roguish and brotherly Pon Sai and the unerring older, and ever smiling San. We march along the hot dust through a honeycomb of misshapen corrugated homes while our guides greet familiar faces. Chickens peck tirelessly atop mounds of sand and freshly minted piglets charge after the shadow of their weary mother. Dust covered children stop their play to see us out of sight. I count to three and the laughter begins at our backs again. Embarrassment and glee. Lines of small colourful tshirts lie drying in the sun while chimneys of smoke plume over the rooftops; the familiar signs of civilisation.
We leave the din behind and enter an ascending trail shrouded in thick green. The dust gives way to a soft terracotta mud that is to be our canvas over the next 3 days. Climbing in relay, the ascent gets pretty steep quickly. Our guides cut firm lengths of bamboo to use as walking sticks. Pon Sai at the front stops for water in a sweat and regales us unselfconsciously of his hangover from the night before. Looking back to the rear San glides effortlessly uphill humming tunelessly to himself, his face a mask of untroubled ease. Edging our way over thick roots and fallen limbs we arrive out of breath to a clearing for lunch. San, somehow already waiting for us, lays silk green banana leaves on the ground and our food of spicy tomato Jeow, green vegetables and sticky rice is laid out. We squat down together and eat with our hands, Pon Sai devouring his portion with smiling relish. We emerge from the forest onto a summit of infinite folding peaks that appear handbrushed across the horizon in the brilliant sunshine. We learn that in another time the preeminent San cleared half an acre of trees that lie below, just for the view. He surveys the scene with indifference, his eyes half closed in some heavenly reflection.
We end our track in a tranquil clearing at a turn in a shallow river. We leave our guides tending to a steaming pot and disperse with determination to collect whatever branches and tiny twigs we can for firewood. A din from behind and San emerges omnipresent from a thicket with an ancient tree trunk splayed over his shoulder as delicately as an old manuscript. He considers our ruddy pile of offshoots with compassion and places his separately. We turn, and there he is before us at the stove again. His face is the Cheshire Cat. We work with Pon Sai to erect long branches into an angular shelter. We tie bamboo poles to the frame and cover with large flat leaves horizontally which, he promises through another big smile, makes it waterproof. As night sets we eat another delicious meal cooked in long bamboo stoves over the fire. Cooking only a portion of the meat we brought, the rest is skewered and smoked to preserve it for the next few days. Bamboo is finely split into chopsticks. As we sit by the fire laughing and struggling back a promising whisky that turns out to be formaldehyde, San creeps in and out of the dark carrying more logs, whole boulders and finally, large bamboo frames stretched with rice sacks. After a silence of five minutes he reemerges visible only by his pearly smile carrying a spike of skewered river frogs, maybe a hundred. He laughs benevolently at our gaping mouths as he gently rests them fatally over the fire. When we finally turn in to our shelter an aurora of stars plays out overhead framed by the jungle canopy. By the light of a flaming torch we see the fruits of San’s nocturnal labours. Our once primitive shelter has been reformed. Dressed in mosquito nets with bedding laid out, a small fire is built and the whole structure may well have been moved a few feet. We laugh in disbelief at his indigenous turn down service.
Firewood and breakfast, the sun cuts through the mist for another day. Pon Sai and San climb above our camp to amputate enormous shoots of bamboo to build rafts to sail down the river. Cleaving half a jungle with their machetes, we form a chain and drag head-sized green trunks out of the thicket. Stripped to the waist I pour with sweat as I wrestle huge waterfilled limbs onto my shoulder and haul them to the riverside. A dip in the cool stream and we’re ready to strap them into a raft. San gets to work, as seasoned a cratfsman as could be. I work with Pon Sai, who admits with a toothy confession that he hasn’t built a raft in years. They both work with fluid dexterity peeling bamboo halves into thin bindings. Like surgeons with their blades they slice the titanium wood into measures and we clamber around the shallow water twisting splits of wood and vine to batten everything together into a ramshackle longboat. San, discretely following our efforts and re-tying every split properly as we struggle on. The discrepancy in experience becomes pretty obvious as San’s raft is preeminently rigid and flush. Our raft tapers in odd ways, as if in italics. The luggage rack rocks suspiciously and there are some unexplained gaps between the boughs where I will be standing.
No matter, as soon as we put our weight on the raft it sinks precariously below the surface. We strap down our packs, waterproof as best we can and crawl off. It is the opposite side of the calendar from the rainy season so the river runs slow and shallow. The view from the other raft must have been absolute hilarity. The water level so low we frequently collide head on with some invisible surface. Thrown fully on my front, legs slipping between the bamboo and in one unforgettable thud watching Pon Sai thrown forward head over heels into the current. The worse the calamity the louder he howls with laughter, his beaming face emerging from the surf soaked through. In another tussle with the current his oar snapped clean and back he falls in the grip of hysteria as the raft turns helplessly across the river. “We’ve built the bridge” and he falls to his knees again in cackles. While we act the dickens, San’s raft meanwhile levitates steadily and mystically down the water, its exalted captain beaming in silent rapture. Glistening currents guide us forward. Low bamboo structures and dangling vines float past as we glide on in fits of hysterics.
Pulling into a camp at a confluence, a tied vine ejects us out from a branch in an arc, dropping into the churning river. We dry and change into warm layers as the sun drops golden out of sight. From the distance of our remote jungle clearing we hear the perplexing but unmistakeable throb of dance music. San just laughs at us in great peels of unknowable majesty. A picture of a paradise day I couldn’t paint. We sit down to the fire again to await the night.