“I’d love to do a stretch of travelling by foot, instead of taking a bus. I’m planning on walking to Vientiane.”
You looked at Felix as though he was insane- you were a solid ten days walk away from the capital- but your interest had been piqued. Hikes and camping are two of the things you miss most about your life in the UK.
“A hammock and a pan to cook up whatever veggies we find along the way is all you really need. Though I don’t want to do it on my own.”
You started mentally compiling a more comprehensive list of required equipment and all the possible hazards (how easy would it be to find water? Can you find hammocks with mosquito netting on the top and bottom in Laos? Would it rain?).
“I’ll go with you.”
“Yeah, seriously. I’m in.”
You had had that conversation in Vang Vieng, but the difficulty in sourcing camping hammocks meant it was not until you reached Pakse, in the south, that you were able to get started. By this time, a fellow backpacker called Alex had joined you.
Around 4pm on the first day of your trek, you measure the minutes of sunlight remaining with your fingers, and decide to start scouting for a secluded area to camp. You needed three pairs of trees the right distance apart and hopefully in the same clearing. A gap in the trees with a faint trail running towards the river looked promising. The three of you split up and begin searching, and soon find your way to a flat, dry plateau of cratered rock: the exposed bottom of the Mekong river.
Back on the bank, Alex gives a yell- he’s found the perfect spot. You set up camp and take your pot and all the food you’d managed to buy from the little shops along the way down to the river bed, where you’re almost certain there isn’t going to be unexploded ordinance. Felix has already started gathering firewood; after half an hour, you have collectively amassed enough to keep the fire burning into the night.
The following day, you set off early. At noon, as the sun bleached the clothes on your back and turned the dirt roads to rivers of dust, you again turned to the Mekong for shelter. The grass was well worn and there was an old hammock hung from a couple of dying trees.
“That’s such a good idea,” Alex said. A few moments later, reclined in his own hammock strung from two sturdier looking trees, he added: “Yep. Totally a good idea. You guys should try it.”
You have one quirk that several years of travelling have failed to alleviate: you cannot lie in bed unless you are clean. Hearing stories of going to sleep coated in dirt had put you off a well paying job working as a tree planter in Canada, and all of your friends knew better than to be anywhere near your bed without having showered within the last hour.
Curling up on the grass is a far more agreeable option. The cool moisture of the grass against your sweaty back and the gentle flow of the river below almost lull you to sleep. A small darkly tanned face peeks out from beneath the crest of the bank. It darts back, out of sight, and then a quartet of children appear.
“Looks like we have an audience,” You say. The ropes creak as Alex moves to have a look. Felix rouses from the shadows of an old cinnamon tree. “We’re probably on their land.”
After ten minutes of observation, they get a little closer, squatting in the shade a few metres away and making small remarks to each other.
“I’m gonna break the stalemate. Pass me my ukulele please.”
Alex unclasps the instrument from its hard case and strums a chord.
“Felix, do the percussion.”
Felix dutifully turns the cooking pot upside down and holds it between his legs, hands poised, ready to drum.
The lyrics have since left you, but what followed was a four minute improvised composition about four young children living along the Mekong who met three sunburnt white people taking a nap on the grass banks of their river. The memory of it still makes you smile on occasion.
You had been warned that the people of Laos were less friendly than the Thais; that the bombing campaign during the Vietnam War (and subsequent refusal to take responsibility) by the Americans had turned the locals against foreigners. What you experienced while hiking- and later hitchhiking- through the country, was a people who were less open but kind nonetheless to travelers.
A short distance up from the river, just before the path along the water ended and you were forced to turn back up onto the red dirt road, you came across a fishing village. You went down to them cautiously, anxious not to barge in where you are unwelcome. They spot you coming and give you a wave.
There are more children playing around the terraces of onions and herbs and other crops, and washing hung from bamboo poles. Old fishing line was tacked to driftwood hammered into the ground to make a rudimentary fence. Fish lay on the roof of the nearest house, drying in the sun and scenting the air.
“Sabai dee!” You call out.
“Sabai dee.” Comes the answer.
Three of them stand barefooted in a boat, emptying their catch from the net. You have a conversation limited by your basic Lao, and then go on your way.
(To be continued..)