by Hun Ohm
My wife and I left our corporate Manhattan jobs to spend a year in Southeast Asia. During our travels, we took a trip through northwestern Laos down to the Thai border that proved particularly memorable for both of us.
There are two ways to make this journey from Louang Namtha to Houayxai. It can be done in six hours, thirteen passengers huddled in the back of a rusted pickup as it barrels down dusty, winding roads at breakneck speeds. A tempting option, despite the jostles. After all, it promises to be the fastest route, dangerous yet exhilarating with its countless blind corners and random water buffalo crossings. Indeed, most locals are rumored to prefer it. But there are others who still speak fondly of the more ancient way.
In a landlocked country such as Laos, rivers have for centuries been the traditional lifelines of the people; they provide sustenance, leisure, and transportation. A river route could also take us in the direction we desired. It would be a much slower path, to be certain, nearly four days before we even reached the fabled Mekong. But we had left New York to see life in its infinite guises. We yearned to feel its pulse, and to listen. So in the end there was no debate. We chose the rivers.
We soon found ourselves deep within the dense green forests of the Nam Ha river, a world where there often seemed to be no sound except the occasional dip of our paddles as we steered absentmindedly along slow stretches. We were lulled into imagining there were no other souls for miles around, though on occasion we would momentarily awaken to see a set of curious eyes peering from between the leaves as a hill tribesman stopped his foraging in the forest and smiled.
There were the villages as well. In the evenings, we found ourselves shivering around open fires while we attempted to communicate with the villagers in Lao, sometimes Thai or English, more often mutual laughter. One night we drank fermented rice wine from a stone jar with the village chief, and we feasted on roasted rattan and spicy chicken salad atop large banana leaves that served as tablecloth, dish and decor. Above all, there were the countless smiling faces of the children, eyes aglow with childhood’s slippery happiness, when jumping up and down on a discarded tire was all the rage, and a brief activity like writing a Khammu child’s name in Korean on scrap paper captivated her and, for us, was a night’s finest moment.
We spent three nights on the pristine waterways in northwestern Laos, each day surpassing the one before as we grew accustomed to the river’s perpetual cadence. Still, on this fourth and final day, apt words remain elusive. All I know is this: the sun does not pierce the thick morning clouds of the river valley until ten a.m., but the villagers have already awakened at five with the crowing roosters. By five fifteen, through the open-air window of our bamboo-walled room, one hears methodical chopping, a rusty cleaver on wooden block. Chickens squawk for the last time with a shudder of feathers, then blessed silence, and the adults’ low chatter mixes with the casual calling of the December rapids.
By dawn, the children have gathered in a hunched circle around the cooking fire, their clouds of breath joining the plumes of gray smoke and heat and crackling. And now, on this last morning, we trade our kayaks for a long-tail boat to carry us down to the Mekong. Along the way, we watch three tiny women balance loaded baskets as they wade waist-deep in the cool water without protest or hesitation. Water buffalo are bound with thin green rope before being loaded onto long-tail boats the same as ours, brethren cargo on their way downriver to Houayxai. Children cannot resist waving with both hands to our passing boat while their grandmothers watch with minor amusement and light ornately tooled silver pipes with an ember from the morning fire. Black stones wrapped in emerald feathers of riverweed lurk beneath this calm surface until the descent forces the water to erupt. Our three boatmen thus draw their bamboo poles and work with quiet brilliance as they navigate seemingly impossible stretches of shallows, and prove nothing is without solution in their able hands.
All of this we have seen today, and only now has the sun made its way down to earth.
published 17 May 2014
originally published in the print anthology 2DO Before I Die