Nacho vs. the Mountain Bandits
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 actually made 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.