At the end of 2011 we quit our jobs and set off in our 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, "Nacho". Our plan? To circumnavigate the globe, slowly, while discovering culture, food, recreation, and emergency roadside Volkswagen maintenance. We are Brad and Sheena. Just wingin' it.
Just as the captain pushed the boat away from the shore a seventh body catapulted onto the deck. He was winded but clearly excited to have made it with not a second to spare. We didn’t know who he was but he surely wasn’t a local. He was like the Incredible Hulk with tan skin and curly shoulder length hair.
Once he settled in on the bench he spoke. “Excuse me, but can you tell me where we’re going?”
What kind of crazy person…?
Someone explained to him that we were on a boat trip down the Mekong River to Don Khon—a different island—where we were going to ride bikes for the day and then later in the afternoon head back to our island. It would be an all day kind of thing.
He didn’t seem like the bike riding type so I was quite curious to hear what he thought of his new itinerary. He laughed and clapped his hands. I think he was pleased. “I saw the boat leaving and said to myself, I don’t know where it’s going, but I want to go!” He smiled and then looked at his feet and was silent for a moment. “Do you think they rent scooters?”
On the boat there were six of us now: Manuel from Germany, John and Karen, who we’d met in Laos, and now a crazy free-spirited Algerian.
I told him he was the first Algerian I’d ever met in my life and he laughed, clearly excited to be representing his nation. His excitement about pretty much everything was contagious.
The day before, we had arrived at the highlight in southern Laos: Si Phan Don or 4,000 Islands. It’s here that the wide and shallow Mekong allowed for the formation of a great number of islands, which vary largely in number and size depending on the season, although it’s safe to say that even an estimate of a thousand islands would be a bit of a stretch. We could only guess that the exposed lumps of grass and random tree saplings must have been included in the count.
Within these “4,000 islands” only three were inhabited, and of these three, only one had a car ferry. So, we drove Nacho onto a rickety ferry and headed to Don Kong. It was an easy crossing and while we waited at the ferry’s loading platform, we watched the locals on the motorcycle ferry. It was a creative contraption; merely a wooden platform that stretched across two canoes.
Within five minutes of arriving on Don Kong we had pretty much seen and done everything. We expected that would happen—hence the reason that the entire island’s foreign population was now aboard a boat on the Mekong headed somewhere else.
Aboard the boat we moved down the Mekong. The water was murky and brown, but it was still beautiful. The weather was good with sufficient shade and plentiful breeze. It was a quiet morning and we didn’t see another boat for the entirety of our commute. At an hour and a half we broke our huddle under the boat’s canopy and followed our boat captain up Don Khon’s steep embankment. Once at the top he settled into a hammock and told us when to return.
We stopped at the first nondescript restaurant and had lunch, delaying our bike ride by an hour to foolishly coincide with the hottest part of the day. Lunch took forever and Brad joked that the lady must have had to go catch a fish before preparing my meal. My dish of pok la was definitely worth the wait; a moist and fragrant mix of river fish, coconut milk and herbs of ginger and basil steamed in a banana leaf.
From the same establishment we rented cruiser bikes at $3 for the day. I loaded my cruiser’s wire basket with a few liters of water and Brad loaded his with a new cat friend. Our dirt road wandered through the sleepy village where families rested under their raised bamboo homes and water buffalo faces poked from the murky ponds.
We continued on until our road turned into a boulder strewn mess and pitched down to the beach. The rocks were sharp and loose and for a moment I imagined I was on my mountain bike somewhere in the desert. Brad and I raced down and I can’t remember for sure, but I think I won [editor’s note: she lost]. At the bottom was a fishing village of some sort with nets stretched across the burning hot sand and wooden boats pulled up out of the water.
This remote little sandy beach acted as the primary take off point in Laos for spotting the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. With only seven Irrawaddy dolphins left in Laos, they are verging on extinction and even despite the species being fully protected, the numbers have continued to decline. Locals don’t know why but it’s thought it is related to polluted waters and loss of habitat.
We walked for a bit and cooled off in the shade under a nearby shop’s canopy. The shop owner wasn’t interested in selling me a drink or food, rather he just wanted to show me his adorable son sleeping in a nearby hammock. Various stuffed animals held the boy in place, and his mother slept in a hammock next to his.
“He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” the man asked, stared at his son with admiring eyes, and then rearranged the baby’s arms to make him more comfortable.
Our last stop for the afternoon was Don Khone waterfall, a wide and powerful cascade. Up to this point, I had not seen the Mekong looking so fierce. We all expected this would be an ideal place to swim, but we were clearly mistaken.
Our bike ride had been too ambitious and we arrived back in the village far beyond our allotted time. I feared our captain would be put off, yet this was island life- even better, island life with Buddhists. It was hard to put them in a bad mood.
I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that our captain hadn’t moved since we had last seen him. He looked to be in no hurry and slowly rolled out of the hammock, stood back on his feet and said his goodbyes. We were off, back down the river amid the 4,000 islands.
The arrival of rainy season in Laos fell on deaf ears.
“It sure seems to be raining a lot lately,” Sheena would say.
“That’s just orographic precipitation and the rain shadow effect, my dear Sheena,” I would confidently retort. My lady can be so silly.
We woke up and started driving south, the rain continued to fall, and it seemed it would never stop. Without any warning, the mud on the side of a particularly steep mountainside got very saturated, and then became free from friction’s evil grip and covered the road—our road. We came around a bend to find a long line of cars just sitting there. I asked Nacho to stop and I walked all the way to the front of the cars to see what in God’s name was going on.
And then I saw the rocks and mud and very mature trees all sprawled out across the narrow mountain roadway and I realized what had happened. It was a dang landslide, and it made even me start to question everything I ever learned about orographic precipitation and the rain shadow effect.
Initially I stood there like a wide-eyed schoolboy, sheltered from the driving rain by my purple umbrella, staring with amazement at the enormity of the mud and detritus strewn all over the place, and then at the naked hillside devoid of trees and much of its prior landmass. And then the mud. And then the hillside. Wow! I eventually walked back to the van and told Sheena.
“Wow! There was a hillside with nothing on it, and there was also a thick layer of mud and detritus!” She was just going to have to see for herself, for I was too excited to give a non-cryptic description.
We speed walked together back to the scene, she with her orange Snoopy umbrella and me with my purple one, and watched the scene unfold. The folks on the near side of the slide stood around in the rain, looking at the mud. The folks on the far side looked on in a similar fashion.
Ironically, the first vehicle to arrive on the far side was a semi truck carrying a very large bulldozer, but I rationalized that there was something wrong with the bulldozer that would prohibit it from clearing the slide. I came to this conclusion after the bulldozer failed to make any attempt at clearing the slide. After much nervous chatter, some brave people had ideas.
First, a man with a 4×4 Toyota Hilux fired up his truck and timidly approached the slide. He steered off the road, toward the thick vegetation separating the road from the bottomless abyss of the deep canyon below. He gunned it, slid all over the place, spun his tires, flung mud, and just by the skin of his teeth managed to get his truck back onto the road before either rolling or sliding off into oblivion.
The confidence of the people had been aroused, and a few other Hilux owners followed suit. The Hilux is a popular truck in these parts. Soon, a crazy bastard in a two wheel drive sedan tried and succeeded. I stood there for many minutes studying the best lines, noting the obstacles hidden by the deep river that had formed in the right tire track, and visualizing Nacho’s triumph over this seemingly insurmountable challenge.
“I can do it! Nacho can do it!” I exclaimed.
“I don’t know, ” Sheena said, “I’m going to make a salad. Let’s try after lunch.” And so it was. Sheena made her salad and we sat down to a nice lunch while we watched through Nacho’s window as more and more people became brave enough to make the treacherous crossing. I wanted to get on it before my bravery waned, so we ate our fancy salads with balsamic vinegar and olive oil very quickly. All of the other cars had made the crossing now, leaving Nacho alone.
Just as we finished forking the final pieces of lettuce into our mouths, a young man on a farm tractor whizzed by.
“Oh joy! A young man on a farm tractor!” I exclaimed.
I touched the corner of my mouth with a napkin the way British people do, and then I took my purple umbrella to the slide to watch the tractor boy work his magic. Oh the utility of people under hardship! The miracle of communism, just the way Marx envisioned! By the people for the people!
The young man on the tractor started by proving his worthiness with a bit of showboatery. He worked the controls like a machinist, deftly scraping one or two tons of mud into the tracks that once served as the only passable route from our side to the other. Next, he pulled to the side of the road, turned the engine off, and sat there silently.
“What? Hey, why’d he stop? Sheena, do you know?” I walked over to the tractor and inspected the undercarriage. Was it broken? I took my shoes off and walked into the mud to see if the track was passable any more. It definitely wasn’t.
“Bah, I’m going to read a book.” And so we retreated to Nacho to read books. It would be thirty minutes before the young man on the tractor was content with the growing number of drivers that had collected on either side of the slide. He fired up the tractor and resumed his work while two of his associates worked their way up the line of cars. They approached Nacho, so I rolled down the window.
“Man oh man,” I commented, “that guy sure is making good progress.”
“Good money, good progress,” the tractor man’s associate said. “We’re collecting ten thousand Kip from every car.”
Marx would be saddened to know that communism in Laos had failed, even despite the Vietnam war in which the evil Americans were defeated, allowing communism to thrive. But dare I say that even Marx would be at least somewhat impressed by this young man’s astute planning and entrepreneurial prowess.
The rain continued to fall. It fell and it fell, and it covered the roadways. When it was shallow, we drove through. But when it was chest deep we had to find another way. Laos is serious about its rainy season.
Since arriving in Laos, we’ve been the proverbial thorn in the side of the country’s Buddhist monk population. Owing to southeast Asia’s distinct lack of camping opportunities, we’ve had to get pretty creative with our camp sites. Sometimes we simply camp in public parking lots (romantic), while in extremely rare cases (like twice), we find a nice beach overlook or rare dirt road into a forest where we can camp. While complaining to our friends in Thailand about this, one of them suggested that we camp within the grounds of Buddhist temples.
“Just ask the head monk if you can camp in their parking lot,” he had told us, “they always take care of travelers.”
And so we did. I must say that getting Sheena to agree to camp next to Buddhist temples is very hard, and I can’t understand why. It must be some deep ingrained malformation in the female genome that makes her feel uncomfortable whenever people know that we’re sleeping inside of our car, and it’s especially strong when those people are peace-loving Buddhist monks. But on occasion when we’re desperate enough, she will agree to it. This night was one of those nights.
After descending the mountains beyond the landslide site we arrived in a small village in heavy rain just as evening set in. We asked around at a couple of huts to see if we could park for the night, but were pointed in the direction of a temple. Sheena wailed her disapproval at the idea, but after convincing her that it was either this or on the side of the road, she grunted, crossed her arms, and silently agreed. I parked Nacho in the driveway of the temple, grabbed the paper from our dashboard that a Laotian man had written for us, which asks in Laos script if it’s okay for us to camp here for the night, and I headed into the monks’ house.
After five or six monks had read my note, each giggling a little bit and passing the note on, the paper landed in the hands of a monk who knew the English word “yes”. Riding high on the sweet endorphin wave that success brings, I floated back to Nacho, hopped into the front seat, and started lying to Sheena about how charming I had been when dealing with the monks. I threw it into drive and lurched forward. Almost immediately our front wheels disappeared straight into a hidden mud trench, and our bumper slammed to the ground.
While no villagers had been visible before, our state of distress seemed to have been broadcast into every bamboo hut in the area, and within minutes we were surrounded by curious onlookers. I circled the van cursing our bad luck so close to our final destination. I decided the solution would involve our trusty jack, so I got that out and started jacking up one front corner. Soon the villagers swarmed the van, each making suggestions to me in Lao, which I didn’t understand. I jacked, villagers dug mud and collected pieces of wood and rock, and soon Nacho’s front wheels were supported by terra firma. I fired up the engine, and to the choir of incomprehensible shouting, I drove forward.
Now Nacho’s wheels straddled the trench, and I figured it best to use my bridging ladders to create a bridge for the rear wheels. I began to get out of the door.
“Ooga bing dang booga!” The villagers shouted, signaling that I should gun it and stop being a pansy.
“But I should use my bridging ladders, no?” I suggested.
“Dang ooga bing dang booga!” they shouted, again signaling for me to stop being such a sally girl. Did they know something I didn’t? I looked at the holes I’d just escaped from and they looked deep like bomb blast craters. The villagers pointed to the holes, told me to sack up, and signaled for me to gun it.
So I gunned it. The first thing I felt was slow forward motion, and then I felt the ground give way under the van, and then the rear bumper landing solidly on the ground. Yep, should have used the bridging ladders.
Monks joined the entourage and we again jacked, dug, and shoved trash under tires. I gunned it, nothing happened, the entire village pushed, I gunned it again, and still nothing happened. Finally a 4×4 truck found its way to the temple, we attached a tow rope, the truck burned its tires, I burned my clutch, but nothing. Finally, adding village pushing power to the towing force, we managed to get loose and drive into the temple grounds. We profusely thanked the villagers, saw them off, and parked for the night.
As we parked, the monks streamed out of the temple, picked up two wheelbarrows and an array of shovels, and went to work filling the bomb blast craters in their driveway. I grabbed my shovel and joined the effort. Buddhist monks are happy people, always smiling, but I have to believe that they must have thought that we were a huge pain in the ass. We finished filling the holes, the monks smiled at us, and they retreated.
Later on, one monk returned to the van carrying a cell phone. I came out of the van and he handed me the phone.
“Yes hello, I am the monk’s friend. He wanted me to ask you what you want them to make you for dinner.”
“Oh, please, nothing. They’ve done enough. We’re just passing through and have our own food.”
“Do you need bedding? A place to sleep? They can do anything for you.”
I told the man that we were totally self sufficient, and that we appreciated the help they’d already given us. All the while I wondered how, after having been such a pain in the ass, they could extend such unwarranted kindness towards us.
In the morning there was a knock on our door, and outside we could hear someone yelling “Hello! Hello!” I opened the door to find a monk carrying a warm bowl of tapioca and corn porridge. They’d made us breakfast! He asked if we wanted any coffee, made sure we had everything we needed, and then we watched him walk through the steady rain, back to his room.
The silkworm is exhausted after five long days of work. It is happy and warm and lays there in the darkness, dreaming of the wings that are soon to blossom from its back. It will never be a monarch butterfly, but nevertheless, it will have new freedoms. But the worm is awoken from its dream. Its body is spinning out of control and its cocoon made of tightly wound silk is unraveling at lightning speed. Soon it is left naked, shocked and without wings. Like a spool with no yarn it has served its purpose.
Like most people, I knew little about silk. I knew that it came from silkworms, but the question of how, that remained a mystery. Ask most Laotians and they’ll probably know. That’s because at one time nearly every family within certain provinces produced their own silk. It was a common material and many household goods were made of it, from sarongs to diapers. It was at a farm called Mulberries late in the afternoon where I learned the story of the domesticated silkworm.
“Would you like to see the worms?”
Heck yeah I did!
When we stepped into the rearing house, I thought, well this is a new sight. A few middle aged women squatted next to a cluster of wooden trays. Behind them was a shelving unit extending the length of the room, and on it were many more trays covered in blue netting. They held little worlds inside, each one representing a different stage in the silkworms’ lives. Some trays were full of mere infants while others were nearing their final days.
I picked up a silkworm and it danced in the palm of my hand. Its skin was slightly translucent and it glowed a pale yellow. It bore an uncanny resemblance to a seahorse with deep set eyes and long nose, although Brad thought it looked more like a wolf. A wolf? Seriously? Maybe Brad ought to stick to Nacho maintenance.
Even though the silkworm can do spectacular things, its day to day life is rather mundane. It primarily revolves around eating and pooping. But this is crucial for its big task ahead. It is the responsibility of the crouching women to continuously remove waste and uneaten foliage from the trays while restocking the worms with more leaves to eat.
The silkworms have incredible appetites and will consume 30,000 times their weight in food during their life span. As a result, Mulberries has acres upon acres of mulberry bushes, used mostly for worm food, but have other purposes as well: the berries are for eating and making dye, the bark is for tea, and the remaining leaves are used as fertilizer.
After three weeks of binge eating and pooping the worms are plucked from their communal trays and given new homes; “private flats” if you will on a revolving gridded tray. It is here that each worm will begin and complete the big project: making a cocoon. For five days the silkworm busily secretes two filaments from its mouth: a strand of silk and a cord of gum, which when exposed to air harden into one strand. This filament is worked around the worm’s body in a figure eight pattern until it’s fully enclosed in its cocoon.
Finally the job is done. The worm is happy and it lays there in the darkness, dreaming of the day it will emerge a level-one badass: a magical worm with wings. Yet what happens next is quite unexpected and tragic. Without any notice it is pulled from its tray and thrown into a pot of boiling water.
This is the only way to remove the silk from the little seahorse-wolf creature. It is flipped around and around as its silk is pulled away, through a collection of bicycle wheels and pulleys. The system is archaic but efficient and the cocoon’s figure eight pattern quickly unwinds leaving the worm naked and lifeless in the water.
The result from one cocoon is 250 meters of gorgeous yellow or cream silk.
Nothing goes to waste. The worms are eaten by the workers and the unusable outer floss of the cocoon becomes stuffing material for pillows and blankets.
To prepare the usable silk as weaving material it continues through a multi-day process: it is soaked overnight in rice water, rinsed, dried and then boiled in a pot of ash water to create a softer more silk-like texture. It’s then hand twisted in a single or double thread and finally dyed using the plants in Mulberries gardens. On this particular day, a few thick bundles of radiant orange and dark blue silk hung from the post drying in the sun.
Our final stop was the weaving room, a tightly packed space of inward facing looms.
“It’s sticky rice season so no one is weaving right now. Everyone’s in the fields working but maybe they’ll return in a few weeks. You wouldn’t believe how loud this place gets. People are just talking and laughing all day long.”
It was easy to imagine. I walked around the perimeter and peered into a place so incredibly rich with creativity. All of the artists were at different stages; some looms exposed a few feet of design and color scheme while others had just finished the skeleton of their work, a tedious process of arranging the threads through wefts and combs. In time, every project in the room would reach completion and a new set of projects months down the road would begin again.
Before leaving we stopped by the small on-site shop that sold silk products made on the farm. I admired the shawls and scarves that had taken weeks to make by hand using the cocoons of thousands of magical worms. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Brad running his fingers over a silk shirt.
We quickly agreed that a $100 silk shirt was not in the cards, and “besides”, I told Brad, “you could never pull of wearing a silk shirt”. Instead we settled for some mulberry tea and a silk soap sleeve. At least this way we could keep ourselves smelling like berries.
In the distance the road split and the orange blob on the back of the motorcycle taxi veered left. I pointed ahead and motioned to Brad to follow. “If we keep that monk within sight we’ll find the temple.”
The rural road out of Phonsavan quickly turned to red dirt. It was smooth and fast, but given Laos’s insane population of livestock, we had to remain on guard for suicidal cows and sleeping dogs. The monsoon skies were moody and it was anybody’s guess when the dark clouds would burst like water balloons and fall upon the radiant green sticky rice fields.
As I expected the monk led us directly to the temple and hence to our destination. The temple shared a parking area with the Plain of Jars site #3. We made it here after all—despite the highway 7 road bandits and the scare they caused us a couple of weeks prior. A big red sign sponsored by an NGO provided some statistical information on the area; in 2005, 6,863 pieces of scrap metal and 22 pieces of unexploded ordinance, or UXO, had been cleared from the area surrounding the jars. While this seemed like an awful lot of bombs to find in such a small area, it was nothing compared to the untold millions of them still scattered throughout the country.
After traveling to Laos it became apparent that my schooling had failed to bring to light this dark piece of American-Laotian history: the CIA’s Secret War. It was indeed my country that created this nightmare of a scenario; between 1964 and 1973, America’s military dropped 80 MILLION bombs on Laos—killing some 350,000 men, women, and children and uprooting a tenth of the population. This was far more bombs than the U.S. dropped on both Japan and Germany during World War II. Seventeen bombs per minute for nine straight years rained down on innocent civilians who knew not even what America was. And of these 80 million bombs, 24 million didn’t even go off. This has left Laos, 40 years after the war, still dealing with the aftermath of America’s distaste for their choice of political system and its unfortunate proximity to Vietnam. To this day 100 people die every year, 40% of whom are children, from unexploded ordinance.
One of the most highly bombed regions in Laos was in the North, in a place we had just come from. The Laotians in this region cleverly opted to spend the war years living in the region’s vast limestone cave systems. One such cave—Vieng Xai—became a safe haven for 20,000 villagers. And if one could forget for just a moment the terrible fact that bombs were dropping from their skies like raindrops, the whole network of tunnels, kitchens, assembly rooms, schools, and sewing rooms were utterly fascinating.
So the big red signs we saw all over the countryside weren’t surprising anymore. They also unfortunately created a constant reminder that any place without them could be littered with UXOs. Bomb clean up is a slow process and unfortunately, while the tourist sites receive much attention from NGOs, many other places in the country do not.
From the temple parking lot a local pointed to a bridge that led us through a thicket of tall bamboo branches. The bridge ended at the spine of two rice fields and we walked between them. These fields were just two out of the dozens that connected and ran down the valley. Field workers crouched over in rows and planted rice saplings while in the next field over a man up to his knees in mud and water pushed a tilling machine. Aside from the mechanized tiller, very little about the scene unfolding before us had likely changed much at all over the last 30 years. We watched the rice workers while they watched us. They were our entertainment and we were theirs.
Past the rice fields the area opened up into a hilly grassy meadow and at the top within an outcropping of mature trees was the Plain of Jars site #3. We wandered amongst the ancient stone jars, amazed by the site and its accessibility for anyone to explore.
Actual historical knowledge of the site is sparse but it is believed that the Plain of Jars dates back to the Iron Age (2,500 years) and that the jars were made from solid rock and used as burial urns. The jars vary in size from around one to three meters in height, and it’s believed that the dead were first placed in the larger jars for distillation, ensuring a gradual transformation from the earth to the spiritual world, and then placed in the smaller vessels for cremation. All of the jars have lip rims, so it is also assumed that at one time they all had lids, although few have been found. This suggests the lids were made of perishable materials and did not survive the years.
Local legend has it that the jars were made for the mighty Khun Cheung, who after a long, hard, and victorious battle, needed them for brewing and storing his supply of rice beer. We think Laos deserves a bit of hard won leisure—a moment to kick up its feet and get lost in a victorious rice beer—so we’ll just stick with the legend.
I wiped the perspiration from my face, lugged my backpack onto my lap and opened the door. In the corner of my eye I noticed our SPOT GPS tracker in the center console. It had a button which, when pressed, would update an online map showing our current location. As an afterthought I picked it up and pressed the button. Dead batteries. I changed the batteries, pressed the button again and waited until the green light blinked, indicating that the signal had gone through.
The sun shone brightly overhead as we made our way away from our bungalow in Nong Kiao and onto the dirt track. Above us the mountains hissed with the sound of jungle heat, while below us the swollen river whispered and whooshed around the rocks and bushes that lined the banks. As we walked away from the van our SPOT tracker silently went haywire, sending a rogue message into space where it was reflected by a satellite and passed back to Earth. Seconds later the message was relayed through a server and dispersed to a list of emergency contacts. The message was abrupt, ominous.
Brad and Sheena need help. This message was sent because they pressed the “SOS” button on their GPS tracker.
Within minutes a response had arrived in our email inbox back at the bungalow. It was from Sheena’s father—one of our emergency contacts.
WHAT IS GOING ON?
We walked on, none the wiser, into the wilderness. Cicadas buzzed in the trees while a dugout canoe silently floated past on the Nam Ou.
The dirt track rose and fell as it passed over ridges and washes extending like fingers from the mountain to touch the ribbon of water. The jungle thicket to our right soon dissipated, replaced by bare hillsides planted with corn and beans and rice paddies. Simple thatched huts dotted the bare hills, providing a place for farmers to escape the tormenting sun. To our left the river carried on, opaque with suspended mud that would eventually mix into the flow of the Mekong.
The S.O.S. message was transmitted six times in a row, one minute apart, before the signal went silent. Having heard nothing else from us after the S.O.S., Sheena’s dad immediately sprung into action. It was early morning in Arizona when he found himself launching an international rescue mission. He first called my mom to bring her up to speed, and then tried to contact SPOT for guidance. After much searching, he eventually found a phone number for the company, but no human existed on the other end—only a robot slinging cheerful automated messages repeating mantras of how great the SPOT tracker is.
Unable to speak to a human, he gave up and decided to try the State Department—a place widely rumored to employ actual humans. He also posted the body of our S.O.S. message to our Facebook page to get the word out.
After an hour of walking we saw the first signs of civilization. A dilapidated hut obscured by dense trees, a fence concealing a garden and a shed, a simple schoolhouse. We rounded a corner onto a straight section of road where we could make out the figures of several small children in the track. It didn’t take long for them to notice us; only a handful of people would pass through the village all day. Suddenly the children transformed into wild animals. Their legs were sprinting towards us before their bodies knew what was happening. Sheena and I stopped in our tracks, uncertain. What the…?
In the final few meters before they arrived they all simultaneously threw their hands out, palms turned skyward. They gasped for air and panted wildly, but their eyes were big and hopeful and full of excitement, their hands unwavering.
“Hello pen! Hello pen!” they shouted. Pen? We hesitated, and one of the little girls mimicked writing on the palm of her hand. “Hello PEN!” she shouted, smiling and excited. We showed them that we didn’t have any pens, or anything useful for that matter. Unable to comprehend why foreigners would be walking in the wilderness without pens, a few of them persisted.
Finally they realized that we must be very unlucky foreigners, and were indeed traveling without pens. They stood in front of us, hands behind their backs. The girls swayed back and forth looking at their feet, tracing out shapes in the dust with their bare toes. A small boy stood in the back of the group with his head cocked to one side. He must have been wondering how we could have been so foolish to have left home without any pens.
Suddenly one girl broke rank and ran into the weeds at the side of the dirt track, and the rest followed. They frantically grabbed at the weeds, and a minute later emerged with handfuls of flowers. They consolidated them into a bouquet and the girl in charge handed them to Sheena with a shy smile. The poor foreigners. At least now they have some flowers.
The children fell in step behind us, matching our strides while giggling and smiling. After a few minutes they stopped in the road and waved goodbye to us, yelling over one another the parting chant of the milk-face:
“Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye!”
It didn’t take long to get a representative from the US State Department on the phone. Within minutes Sheena’s dad had been patched through to the US Embassy in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The representative took down the coordinates and then typed them into his computer.
“They’re way up in the mountains in a place called Nong Kiao,” the man said, “we don’t have anybody up there.” He explained that our last known location was in a tiny village way off the grid, and that the closest police station was nearly a day’s drive away over bad roads. He told Sheena’s dad to hang tight, and that he would mount a search and rescue mission from within Laos.
We made our way down the exposed dirt track under the heat-lamp sun that left patches of dry salt on our shirts. Around a bend in the road a man rested in the shade of a rubber tree next to a makeshift wooden shelter that housed a pile of freshly picked pineapples. We placed our order and the man picked up his machete and cut off several enormous leaves from a nearby tree. He used one leaf to clean off the blade of his machete, and then placed the rest on the ground to form a clean work surface. He set the pineapple on the leaf mat and proceeded to slice it into edible chunks before wrapping one leaf into a to-go container. We paid him the equivalent of twenty five cents and continued on our way, fresh pineapple juice dripping from our leafy satchel.
A short while later we ducked into a grove of lime trees and found our way down to a shady place where a tree had fallen on the river bank. We found the flat parts of the downed tree where it was most comfortable to sit, retrieved the tuna and crackers from the pack, and drained the oil from the tuna can into a gopher hole. A small team of ants crawled onto my shoe, over my toes, and down the other side into the powdery dust. In the river a dugout canoe with a small outboard motor slowly worked its way upstream. The canoe slowed as it came to a narrowing in the river where the water velocity increased, and then regained its speed and disappeared around a river bend.
It was nearly midday when the representative from the State Department in Vientiane started making calls. He called every police station in the capital to sound the alarm about the American couple in the mountains who had dropped off the radar after sounding an S.O.S. alarm. He was a diligent man, and he knew that people were counting on him to bring the couple back safely. And he might have launched a successful rescue party if Laotian police were the hard working type. But as it turned out the State Department representative was unable to locate a single on-duty police officer in the entire capital city. By late afternoon the effort had gone nowhere.
When we passed the pineapple man on our way back he was chatting with a tiny dirty man with a backpack. The pineapple man waved at us and then said something to the tiny man and pointed our way. The tiny man grinned a big toothy grin and then trotted over and began walking with us.
“Mugugullubub boggily rai chap moo gulai!” the man said. I noticed that his eyes were a little glazed over.
I spoke clearly and slowly in hopes that it would help the man understand my language, which he clearly didn’t speak. “We do not speak Lao. We speak English. I do not understand what you are saying.”
“Grubai! Ha! Wulai buggarudai cruap gai!” No language barrier would stand in this man’s way.
“I am sorry,” I continued, even more slowly than the first time, “I do not understand the words that are coming out of your mouth.”
“Ha! Willynu rug moo kwai bloo roomai!” He spoke quickly with grand gestures of hand and body as if retelling a very exciting story. He continued on for what seemed like ages, occasionally glancing my way for a reaction, to which I would respond with droopy eyebrows, or a smile, or with raised eyebrows depending on the reaction that I guessed his story warranted based on his facial expression. Occasionally I interrupted him mid-sentence.
“Sir!” I would interject, “I have no idea what you’re saying!”
The tiny man didn’t care. Whatever he was on prohibited him from realizing that the words coming out of my mouth were of a different language than the words coming from his, so he filled the minutes with nonstop jibber jabber. I decided the man just needed someone to talk to, so I joined the game.
“Kuan ton prai muglai ekkamai loo boo crap-”
“Wait a minute! Did you say airplane? I thought you might have said-”
“Doo da bai kumai-”
“Excuse me, but your airplane story reminded me of a story of my own. Do you know how these bamboo trees came to be here? Well let me tell you sir, and please make yourself comfortable, for my tale is a long one. The length of my story will indeed remind you of times in your life when you wished that things had gone differently. Like the time-”
“Gooba dai prai-”
“Tanning leather? Well why didn’t you just say so! The first step to tanning leather is to obtain a hide. Now this is the tricky part, for animals with suitable hides for tanning are often quite mean and hard to kill…”
The kilometers ticked by in this manner—him speaking in gibberish, and me interrupting him to tell my own meandering made up stories—until we reached the village of the children, at which time the tiny stoned man got distracted and stopped walking long enough for us to make our escape. A half an hour later he passed us by on the back of someone’s motor scooter. As he passed he tried finishing his story.
“Goo moo bannnnnntaaaaaiiiii…”
When we got back to Nong Kiao it was late and we were exhausted from the relentless sun. We spied our tiny friend sitting in a ditch beside the bridge over the Nam Ou, so we walked to a small kiosk and bought him a lemon soda. We delivered the soda to the man (he didn’t remember who we were and was very confused at his great fortune) and made our way back to our bungalow. After showering I opened the computer to check my email.
What I found upon connecting to the outside world was nothing short of a Mongolian clusterf@#&.
It didn’t take long to suspect the SPOT tracker as the cause of this mess, and a quick inspection of the device verified our suspicions. The plastic safety cover protecting the S.O.S. button was still firmly in place, ruling out an accident on our part. The green message light, which should have stopped blinking hours before, was still blinking, and I was unable to power off the device without removing the batteries. I made several quick emails to family and posted on our Facebook page that we were fine. First I called Sheena’s dad.
“I’m glad to hear from you.” It was the understatement of the century. He sounded pretty flustered, and I explained what had happened. “You should call your mom,” he said. I hung up the phone and rung my mom on Skype.
“OH MY GOD, ARE YOU OKAY!?” She was audibly upset, to put it mildly. “Oh my GOD I’m so glad you’re okay! My sister is here and she’s been trying to keep me calm…”
I explained that our SPOT tracker had malfunctioned, and that we found this whole affair rather surprising. She finally calmed down and suggested that I write a strongly worded letter to SPOT. Sheena’s dad was two steps ahead of us, and wrote a detailed incident report with suggestions about how to improve their customer support for people in these situations in the future. Four days later a robot replied to his email, verifying that, in fact, no humans actually work at SPOT.
The morning was warm and I awoke in a patina of sweat. I roused Sheena, swung my legs over the sleeping ledge and lowered myself into Nacho’s cabin. Already the sounds of the temple and the town filled the air. Monks chatted with one another, street touts advertised their wares, and tourists fended off obnoxious tuk tuk drivers.
“Hey you mister! You want tuk tuk? You go waterfall, you go elephants? Mister! Tuk tuk?”
The sun beat down on me as I walked to the line of huts where the monks lived, perched atop stilts behind the temple. I blinked several long blinks to let my pupils adjust to the sunlight as I walked.
“Excuse me,” I called out, “do you speak English?” The monk standing in the doorway shook his head and pointed inside. He went back into the house and emerged with another.
“Yes?” the second monk said, shyly, as he adjusted his orange robe. He looked to be about 18 years old.
“We’re ready to go. Do you have the keys to the gate?” He disappeared into the house and emerged with a ring holding a couple dozen old keys. He trotted down the wooden stairs and fell in step beside me as we walked back to the gate enclosing the temple grounds.
We’d arrived in Luang Prabang the previous day around lunch time, plenty of daylight left to secure a suitable campsite—a seemingly simple task, until one considers the state of camping in Southeast Asia.
In South America we were spoiled by the ubiquity of camping options. Most nights we slept in the wild near rivers or rock outcroppings or deserted vistas. Over the course of our final five and a half months in South America we’d spent only one night in a hotel. One night in a hotel to one hundred and sixty five nights of camping.
In Southeast Asia, however, finding places to camp has been no easy task. What undeveloped land there is usually remains undeveloped because either it’s covered by impenetrable jungle, it’s too steep to walk on, or it’s polluted by unexploded land mines. “Camping” has been reduced to finding a suitable parking place in a low traffic area where we can draw the curtains and imagine that we’re surrounded by nature.
After an hours-long search for a suitable camp spot in Luang Prabang we came up empty handed. We asked at hotels, hostels, and shops if we could stay overnight in their parking areas, but were refused. We drove endlessly up and down the outlying roads looking for anything resembling privacy. Nothing. But there was something. When we had first set tires upon Luang Prabang’s streets I had suggested it, but Sheena outright refused. Only after reaching the point of exhaustion, she relented.
“Fine,” she sighed, “we can try to camp at the Buddhist temple.”
We drove to the temple in the bull’s eye center of town, found some monks, asked about camping, explained what we meant by drawing pictures, were invited to come chant with them, gained permission to camp, drove inside of the temple grounds, popped the top, and drank a beer. We had forgotten to ask if drinking beer in the temple grounds was cool, so we did so with curtains drawn.
“Do you mind if I try the key?” The young monk had worked his way through all two dozen keys, but none would open the gate’s lock. The sun had long since cleared the horizon and now bore down on us from the cloudless sky. The poor guy doesn’t know how to use a key, I thought to myself. He handed me the ring of keys and I started trying them in the lock. Nope. Nope. Not that one. Nope. I worked through all of the keys and stated with the utmost authority to the young monk that indeed, none of these keys was matched to this lock.
The boy retreated to his hut. A minute later, he returned with an older monk, one who had been there longer and had more knowledge of keys. The older monk took the ring of keys and proceeded to try each one. When he had finished, he started over at the beginning and tried each one again with more twisting force. I watched him as he applied all of his strength to each key, and I hoped that none of them would break off in the lock.
By now a crowd of monks had formed around us. The foreigners were trapped in the temple, and that was something to see. Whoever had locked the gate the night before had misplaced the key, but the monks weren’t ready to accept defeat. They worked diligently and with good humor to find the right key for the job. A third monk, even older than the first two, decided that the problem was not with the key, but with lack of experience. He took hold of the key ring and went through it twice, testing each key and turning it with great force before conceding that in fact the proper key was missing.
The foreigners are patient, but the sun is high and the day is getting hot. How long will the foreigners remain calm? We must get them out of here before it’s too late!
A young monk, acting on orders from an older one, ran behind a building and returned with a fist-sized rock. He began feebly smacking the lock with the puny stone, an action which caused the gate to ring out like a temple bell with each awkward swing. His aim was sloppy and he began hitting his fingers on the metal of the gate.
“Hold on,” I said—a command not understood to Laotian people not well-versed in English. I held up my hands like a traffic cop until the boy stopped smashing his fingers, and then I walked over to Nacho.
“What’s going on?” Sheena asked. I told her that they’d lost the key, and that I was going to have to coordinate a jailbreak. I opened the ammo can on Nacho’s front bumper and pulled out the switchblade hack saw that I’d picked up at the Home Depot, but hadn’t yet found occasion to use. The monks were excited by this, and motioned for me to give it to the oldest, wisest monk.
The wise old monk began timidly sawing at the lock, but his efforts were fruitless. The blade repeatedly slipped off of the shiny chrome surface of the lock’s shackle. After a while I took over. After getting halfway through the shackle I stepped aside and handed the saw to a young monk so that he and his fellow monks could own the glory of finishing the job. Finally, after several of us were covered in sweat, the blade passed through the shackle.
In the movies, this is the point where the lock victoriously falls open and we make our escape. But in Laos, escape scenes unfold much more slowly. Despite the shackle being cut, the lock still inexplicably refused to open. The young monk picked up his fist-sized stone and continued feebly smacking the lock. I made traffic cop hands and retreated to Nacho, returning with a large crescent wrench.
“Stand back!” I said, and then fitted the jaws of the wrench around the lock’s body. I leaned my weight on the handle and slowly twisted the shackle until it could be removed. The monks cheered as the lock came free of the gate, and the young rock-wielding monk enthusiastically dropped his rock and slid the gate open.
At this point I would normally flop around the group giving celebratory chest bumps and bottom slaps, but being that we were guests in a Buddhist temple, I restrained myself and thanked each of the monks in turn by pressing my hands together in front of my face and discreetly bowing my head while repeating one of the few Laotian words I knew—”kopchai…kopchai…kopchai…” The monks smiled and walked together back into their huts.
We had won the battle, but there was still a war to fight. Our first night in Luang Prabang was behind us, but we had several to go. I could see the defeat in Sheena’s eyes before any words were said. While she’s usually very picky about our camp spots, she already knew that there weren’t any good places in Luang Prabang. It would be up to my less discriminating eye to choose a suitable spot, and I quickly found one: a parking space wedged between obnoxious tuk tuk drivers on the tourist street that runs along the banks of the Mekong. I triumphantly backed Nacho into place while explaining to Sheena that she needed to lower her standards. For camping, of course.
As it turned out, our new French friends had also ended up in Luang Prabang, and had chosen a similarly questionable campsite just down the street from us in a parallel parking spot. We convened outside of their camper for a picnic dinner on the bank overlooking the river. The children ran wild through the dark while we enjoyed the evening. Afterwards we strolled back to Nacho, our path illuminated by street lights; the tuk tuks had long since gone home and the street was ours.
We opened Nacho’s rear door and set up the shower, and then took turns washing under the cool water on the street in the middle of Luang Prabang. Outside of the shower, of course, we imagined rock outcroppings, deserted vistas, and solitude.
We spiraled our way up into the sky, slowly working our way over the jagged backbone of the Annamite Mountains. The curves in the road had put a twist in my stomach and I had to alternate between admiring the view and reading my Laos guidebook. Since Brad is the driver, my official role is route planner (and cook) and I take pride in leading us to the most interesting sights.
I had picked the Plain of Jars as our next destination, described as a collection of ancient funerary urns and the remnants of a lost civilization. We were a few hours in to our drive and as Brad drove I scanned my book for potential highlights along the way. A little orange box on the bottom of page 149 caught my eye. It was titled “Safety in Xieng Khuang.”
Occasional attacks by mountain bandits or insurgents have given Xieng Khuang province an uncertain reputation. In particular, tourists have long been discouraged from travelling along Route 7 between Phou Khoun and Phonsavan due to attacks on vehicles by armed bandits – these days, the threat appears to be less….Of more immediate danger are the mines, bomblets and bombs littering the province.
Crap. I flipped back and forth between the boxed text and a map of the region. I feared I was in trouble this time. Maybe I would finally be fired from my high ranking position as route planner. I didn’t want to ask, but I had to.
“Brad…so what road are we on anyway?”
“Route 7, Miss Bean. It’s slower than I thought it would be, so we probably have a few more hours before we make it to that one big town. We definitely aren’t going to make it to Phonsavan today.”
The last time I missed one of these warning boxes we had spent 12 hours driving down a rubble-strewn road in Guatemala that was still recovering from a landslide, and later in the trip through the back roads of the FARC rebel group’s “red zone” in Colombia .
This was an out-and-back sightseeing adventure so even if we made it to the Plain of Jars problem free, we’d still have to come back through the bandit infested territory. I feared that if banditos tried to capture Nacho on foot, we wouldn’t have the juice to make a run. It would end very much like one of those slow motion bad dreams.
Most likely nothing would happen, but if something did I could just imagine how stupid we’d look on the news. “These fools actuallymade it through the first time, but then they decided to drive back through the danger zone! Oh the naïveté of youth.”
“I think you should pull over, Bradley,” I said. I had some explaining to do.
We pulled over and scanned our surroundings. So far we had passed through a dozen or so bamboo and wood thatched villages scattered along the mountain roads over the course of a few hours on Route 7. While they looked peaceful enough, we began to create elaborate stories in our heads with our new information.
There sure weren’t many men around, only children playing in the dirt, women carrying grain, young girls fetching water, naked boys with spears, and kids manning their parents’ banana stands. Were they decoys in this crazy bandit game? Were they radioing us in to the higher ups on their walkie-talkies?
Maybe the men were watching us from the trees? I tried to convince myself they were just working in the fields of sticky rice.
While we sat there on the side of the road wondering what to do, a man slowly walked by Brad’s window. Slung over his shoulder was a homemade rifle. The barrel was made of a long piece of pipe, and it was attached to a stock of hastily carved wood. At the back of the barrel a makeshift hammer was cocked against the force of a long spring, waiting to be released to fire the gun. We’d noticed several men along the road carrying these, but couldn’t tell what they were until now.
We were quite sure that the men used their homemade rifles to hunt for bush meat, but nevertheless we did what we’ve done only a few other times on our trip: we flipped Nacho 180 degrees. We realized that this was a longer side trip than we were wanting to take and that we just didn’t feel all that comfortable. We had psyched ourselves out. The Plain of Jars just wasn’t meant to be.
A few hours later we were back at our starting point. Just the previous day we had crested this same ridge, shocked by the views but even more shocked to spot our first campervan in Asia parked at an overlook. As we had approached it, we both guessed they were French. And they were. We’ve come to find that almost all of the French people we meet drive the same style of campers, find the best camping spots, and are quite high on the list of nationalities who travel overland.
As often happens with people who live in their cars, we became instant friends and decided to call this destination home for the evening. The weather was so unpredictable in the mountains and with the snap of the fingers our beautiful panorama of bamboo huts sprinkled down the side of the peaks disappeared. We had been engulfed in a gigantic marshmallow of white puff which dumped endless buckets of water on top of us.
“The kids are so excited! They haven’t worn their sweaters since we were back in France!”
Benoit and Aude were from Paris, traveling with their four children. The French government has made such things exceptionally easy for families to do, providing the parents with all of the curriculum needed to educate their children on the road for up to one year, and even providing a free service for grading papers through email.
Alexander, the oldest, was required to practice his English every day and so we became a part of his lesson. In their camper the family had taped a piece of paper to the wall with a list of useful English phrases:
What is your name?
I would like rice with vegetables.
I miss my friends back home.
I wondered, did these kids even know how cool they were? Did they know how cool their parents were? If anyone can make you believe that it is possible to travel with kids (and actually kind of want do it yourselves) it is the French. And besides, we could see there were substantial benefits to traveling with kids. They make you coffee in the morning. Brad spent the night scheming ways to kidnap one of their children. “I wonder which one makes the best coffee,” he said, and then rolled over and fell asleep to the sound of raindrops on the roof.