Adventures in Cave and Jungle

Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on earth,
Wandering companionless?

The monsoon rain, swept north
out of India by the winds of that season, continued most all of the day for several day, clouds clinging to the karst cliffs of Vang Vieng like the canvas of a great dripping tent. I spent some time thus circumscribed and recovering from my injury; until, in between drizzles, I moved from the farm to a guesthouse in town.

My foot was swollen from the rusty wounding and I was taking antibiotics. I did not trust the hospital. The nurses dumped iodine on my punctures, taped on a bit of bandage, and shouted, “Pay now!” In fever dreams I had visions of deeper infections: gangrene, cellulitis, blood poisoning, and amputation. I considered going south to Vientiane and crossing the border to see real doctors in Udon Thani, rather than risk an ambush by some medical complication in rural northern Laos, where medicine consisted of Band-Aids and papaya juice.

The next morning an English-speaking doctor told me the foot was fine and just give it time. I had to return north to Luang Prabang anyway, to get my passport and Chinese visa, so with some confidence I boarded a minibus north, full of Thais and Dutch. The karst hills were beautiful in swirls and eddies of morning mist.

The heavy rains had caused mudslides, and there were delays all along the winding mountain road. When we first stopped, at the edge of a great valley, I walked along the lineup of cars and trucks a mile long to the barricade of a mudslide, sloped across the road, which a long-necked excavator was patiently removing. We were there for an hour, then moved through the cleared cordon only to suffer more delays. The radiator cracked and all the passengers of our minibus were dispersed into others. I got into one transporting Europeans, which stuttered forward.

Around sunset we stopped again at the top of a hill overlooking a steep green valley and waited for the excavator to clear out the infill in the basin. I played Shithead with the three English as the gloaming descended, and I chatted up the two Dutch girls and wandered the line of cars because I was starving.

There was a truck full of small pineapples and the family was carving them up with a big Laotian knife and selling them out the back for $2 a piece. A pair of local women moved up and down the caravan with a basket of sugar drinks and potato chips hanging between two of them. The Laotians were fine with sitting around on blankets with little improvised picnics laid out, playing cards and sipping whatever was at hand, even though some of them had been caught in the delays since dawn.

I was always impressed with the Buddhist capacity for patience: their ability to accept the things over which they had no control, to nap at leisure through tiring tribulations that would have a Westerner fuming and stammering and asking everyone, “What the hell is taking so long?” The Buddhists never wasted time taking account of all the time being wasted: rather, they found some quiet things to do or just sat back and smelled the world.

It was dark when the caravan began to readjust itself, fitting into one lane so the first cars to come out from the far side could get by. It was nine when we started moving again, still with half the journey before us. We stopped at a diner around ten, and I ate noodle soup with the tall Dutch girls, fair-haired Annabelle and one dark-haired Sarah; and we arrived in Luang Prabang near midnight.

It was only seventy miles from Vang Vieng but took fifteen hours to achieve, and this was short, thanks only to the wild, desperate driving of the captain. Other travelers were not so lucky: the French family I met in Phandindaeng took nearly twenty hours to cover the same distance.

Having been in town before, I set myself in charge and organized everyone to get to hotels, leading a big group of Brits and Dutch girls to the guesthouses on the Nam Song, though I myself was left without a bed. I voyaged down the dark alleyways of the old town, asking in hotels and following pointed directions until I came to one filthy hovel wrapped around a dusty courtyard. A voice from a black window said, “Hello?” and I made a deal with this void for a bed and went to it, feeling very Faustian.

In the old French town of Luang Prabang I picked up my Chinese visa, got medicine and saw a Chinese doctor, changed to a different guesthouse in the warren of alleys near the Mekong, and arranged to meet the two Dutch girls for a drink later.

Not only were Annabelle and Sarah quite pretty, they were also sorority girls from Amsterdam, where admission to a sorority requires a five-week hazing camp. We wandered to the market and had rice and papaya salad and bottles of beer, talked of studies and their young trip, the first week of five, and then said goodnight, exhausted—and hopefully we say goodnight again, and pleasantly!

The night was warm and clean, the air fragrant with the rain and the river. Well relaxed, I unlocked my room at the Padichith Inn, then heard a strange grating sound and happened to look up— “Holy Christ!” I backed up to the bathroom. “What the fuck is that?” A huge bug, like a moth as big as a fist with the wings of a fly, started barraging around the hall, ramming into the lights and the walls. I stood watching it, then shuffled by and grabbed the basket off the water tank. With this and some courage I trapped the thing.

A Laotian came in as I was scooting the basket towards the door. “Hold on,” I said excitedly, “there’s a big bug in here!” The Laotian followed me to the threshold, curious, and I pulled away the basket like tada. But the scarab was on its back. “Oh, it’s dead?” Suddenly it sprang at us and flew past, back to the hallway, barraging around again. The Laotian went over calm as Christ and took the bug in his hand. It clung to him till he went outside and cast it up at the night.

Well I did who-knows-what for the next two days, and finally took a bus north to Nong Khiaw on one of the last days of July. It was a cramped, leg-crushing affair, as I was seated over the rear wheel and next to a poor tall Laotian, my knees jammed into the backrest of some Italian gentleman sitting before me, who kept glaring back at me from his cuddly Thai wife.

My plan for the rest of Laos was the following (as gleaned from a traveler of these parts whom I chanced to meet in Burma): from Nong Khiaw I would take a boat up the Ou River to a distant village called Muang Ngoi, and after exploring those horizons would go from Nong Khiaw north and west to Luang Nam Tha, a city near the Chinese border and surrounded by one of Laos’ largest National Protected Areas.

Laos contains huge tracts of primordial forest, untouched since the dawn of time, and the nation guards these forests and the tribes within with a will worth admiring, especially when compared with the exploitation and whoring out of nature in their closest neighbors.

In Nong Khiaw I followed a Dutch couple down to the river docks, and the Italian with his Thai wife and a French couple came as well, and after an hour’s wait (during which time I enjoyed some dish called suzee, a soup with chicken, lemongrass, and onion in coconut milk), we were, together with a dozen more, crammed into a narrow pirogue longboat for the hour journey upriver to Muang Ngoi.

The jungle about the river was a creeping thing: alive and introspective, drooped under the weight of its color. Little thatch houses stood on the shore, dark and fragile under the wild bower. Women washed clothes and they washed their children in the water.

The boat wove back and forth in the current to find the path of least resistance and avoid the shallowest obstacles. Water sprayed into the boat as we crossed the rapids. Then the skies cut loose with a torrent, and all the passengers folded down tarps from the light roof of the boat. We huddled inward, trying to stay as dry as possible, though the rain lasted only fifteen minutes and it would be hot again after that. I disembarked soaked on my left side, having been near the front, but my knapsack and haversack were dry, which is all that counts.

At the jetty I went with the first tout who called to me from the crowd of them encamped on the stone stair: a mild old woman who owned the bungalows just next to the dock. I got a hut with a mosquito net over the bed and a bathroom in the back for 20,000 kip a night (that’s about $2.40), under the condition that I tell no one about my deal. Feeling accomplished, I went to get beer and dinner, and met the Dutch couple there in the street. We ate a curry meal at the restaurant recommended in the Bible and waited out the downpour there as well, then sauntered home in the warm evening air. I realized only on the road that I had never asked them their names.

To share a meal and conversation with nameless faces is one of the atrocious circumstances of travel. I rarely eat alone, and rarely too know the people with whom I eat, except for a basic biography. I, too, am some stranger. To most people, when they ask how long I’m traveling for, I’ll say, “Well I’ll spend a month in Laos, two in China, one in Japan, and then go home,” and make no mention of all that year preceding this, because it is just too absurd to have existed for so long without the defining context of a home, the warmth of true friends, and the worshipful arms of a girl.

I spent the next several nights eating meals with strangers—with the Dutch couple, with the two French from the bus and boat, Yarik and Aude, and Naan the pleasant waitress, with three Californians, and one night with a whole tableful of people I'd hauled together, including Brits and Dutch and Americans. I sat at the head like Caesar and ate my fill. When the place closed, the unknown Dutch couple shook my hand and said, “It was good to meet you, but we leave tomorrow.” I cried, “Wait, what are your names? I have to know. It's been like three days and we've never said anything.” The answer: Morraine and Svelatra. I renounce dining with strangers!

One day I tried to hike out into the hills to some villages. The trail was a gridworked cesspit wherever it dipped low. I took off my sandals and waded barefoot in mud to my ankles, through spare forests and past rice farms and thatched homesteads. The road went straight east along the southern end of a long and narrow valley until it found a tributary of the Ou River and, following this, came to a cliff and a cave. I met some French, coming from the further trails, who said it was muddy as the river. In their conversation with eachother I discerned, “Capitulate,” and I also gave it up.

Instead I went inside the large cave. Vines hung over the mouth of the entrance, which led into a wide chamber where the villagers had carved stairs and left trash and condoms, but the cave became more wild and dangerous as I scrabbled down the stone and clay into the black: a black so suggestive of primordial horror, of chasms and unknowns. I had only my small Gerber flashlight with its old battery, and I held it in my mouth while I made moves that took both hands. After an hour of patient work I came to a final hallway, where a pillar glittered in a wide domed chamber and bats swooped down over my head. At the end of the hall there was no Grendel nor any treasure chest: only a fast-rushing river that stopped me from proceeding.

This was my only adventure. But I felt comfortable in Muang Ngoi, grew familiar and even attached to its rhythms. There were few enough tourists there that I knew all their faces, and few enough restaurants that I had my favorite spots. There was a mangy dog I could recognize by the bullish size of his cajones who would follow me down the only street when I whistled, though I never named the mutt. Muang Ngoi moved with such regularity that it seemed eternal.

Packs of dogs snarl and brawl on the southern end of the road, and children chase each other in the last days of summer break, and a woman serves flat sodas in plastic bags with ice from blocks that she crushes with a piece of board, to a crowd of child-like mothers and wide-eyed brats with scraggly manes. Two places in town had televisions, and every Saturday and Sunday morning from eight to nine all the kids would gather in one or the other, fidgeting silently in fickle mobs, to watch a Thai broadcast of “Takateo,” a tall tale about some heroes that live in a cave.

Everyone in Muang Ngoi wears Western fashions that seem bizarre anachronisms there amid the mountains and rice fields—the boys wear jerseys, the little girls Hello Kitty dresses, the young women T-shirts with labels and tight jeans, and the women wear polo shirts and skirts, and the men wear athletic shorts, and if they have a shirt it is peeled up to show their midriff—and you know, they probably make all this in Laos and sell the same items to America for $20 a piece.

And above all this looms a steep high hill, capped with a saddle. The mountain descends east in a slope of lithe pines like stalks of broccoli, and to the west it falls toward the river with long drops of bare limestone cliff, like jagged alabaster bared between the ranks of trees. This whole western face turns beautiful when the sun sets, like a treasure trove of jade and pearl.

Looking further south, over the sandbars and the forest at the bend of the river, more green crags rise up into the blue like Crusader fortresses, striated by the slanted sunlight. The pirogues chug, and the Laotians all wash themselves in the river, men in underwear and women in wet towels, and they brush their teeth in the same water and waddle home wet. The night descends in stillness, in gloaming, in bug songs, and sometimes in a timely downpour. The generators stir until ten, and then all the village is dark, and the moon lights up the hills, and the brush rings with insects. At four the boats rumble up and traffic starts again, same as it always has and always will.

May no road ever reach Muang Ngoi, ever breach its patient serenity, but that road of the river, flowing with rain.

When it was August and I knew I needed to get to China I left Muang Ngoi for Luang Nam Tha. The road was long and winding, in places worn ragged or flooded, and always surrounded by green hills, rice paddies, and scenic vistas, beneath a contrasting sky of high white clouds and low black streaks. Medieval villages came to line the highway near the end: thatch huts and wood fires, dirty kids skittering out into traffic, not to mention dogs, pigs, ducks, and chickens. The driver of my minibus was always slamming on the brakes to avoid these but was not entirely successful. One chicken was martyred by our haste.

So we disembarked in Luang Nam Tha, and it was already after six. A Catalonian, Sergi of Terragona, saw that I was alone and asked if we could split a room. We ended up with two beds in a cheap and dirty Chinese-owned guesthouse, and then, being starved, went to the night market, where they served bowls of noodles and meat and spring onions, grilled kebabs of pork fat and water buffalo, papaya salad, and bottles of BeerLao.

Now Luang Nam Tha is famous for its trekking. The primeval jungles of the National Protected Area host jurassic insects and triassic flora, nonexistent pathways and old tribes. But it can be difficult to find a group to trek with, especially during the monsoon months. All the trekking agencies had signs out front offering certain treks, and all of them had the same note next to them: 0 people signed up. The park authorities charge each group a fee to enter the jungle, so the more people in a group the smaller the individual cost. It was by total luck that I was able to find a group.

Sergi and I ate our dinner at a stone table in the market square, sitting across from a rebelliously-dressed Asian reading a book, who by his style and solitude was obviously not a local. I was looking all over the square and said to Sergi, “I keep expecting to see someone I know.” The Catalonian glanced up and was about to reply, but instead said, “Oh, I see someone. Hey!”

This is how I met Richard Popplestone and his compatriot, an aristocratic English girl named Natalie. They told us how they’d been looking for a trek for days, and soon the Asian at the table, Kevin of Toronto, was involved in the palaver and plans.

Thus we had found a group without looking for one. We shopped around some and ended up with a two day, one night trek to a Khmu village south of the town. It was billed as moderately difficult. The next morning we reconvened at the travel agency: Sai, our guide, and we six trekkers. With all the scrambling about of some of the hikers, it does not look like we'll be leaving soon, and that leaves time for introductions!

Popplestone was a young and cheerfully energetic Brit with as many interests as dislikes. Natalie spoke with an upper-class English accent: a pretty personal fitness trainer, trained in theater, and able to do anything she wanted, such as this year abroad. She was the kind of traveler who approached the locals with ingenuous curiosity and quickly made friends with even the most exotic of tribals. Kevin Lim, a cool-headed and easy-going 24-year-old from Toronto on a trip of indefinite length, could play guitar and speak Cantonese. Richard of Firth signed up separately for the hike: a Scotsman and software developer, he bore multiple scars and injuries from rugby and, more recently, Muay Thai kickboxing and also had a passion for poker and Gō and an admirably frank character.

The other characters were Ngoi, the 16-year-old sister of Sai the Tour Agent, an adorable girl who came along to practice her English and could usually be seen bringing up the rear of the group with her hands crossed, her face a portrait of tropical contentment; and then Sai the Guide, a happy little Laotian full of jokes. He was 24, a teacher of English, and unmarried, who liked trekking because it gave him the opportunity to talk with the village girls.

“English teacher not much respect. Many girls don’t like. They will marry the man who takes care of pigs before they marry English teacher.”

As for the Catalonian: Sergi was also heading into China, and we would in the course of time travel together all the way to Shangri-La, so some biography is warranted. Terragona, just south of Barcelona, was once a principle city of the Roman Empire in Iberia and retains its Hadrian wall, its ancient layout and Mediterranean pace. Like the Spaniards, the Catalonians finish work around eight and eat dinner closer to midnight, going out to the discotecas at two and remaining there until dawn, so that it is with only a few hours of sleep that they return to work the next morning. Their principle source of energy is the afternoon siesta.

Sergi had been an electrical engineer, but he left his job for a year abroad and seemed delighted to have no idea what he would do on his return. He had short-cropped hair and a thickening beard, was the easiest kind of guy to get along with, and always wore the easy, careless grin of someone who knows the difference between liberty and freedom. He spoke Spanish and English fluently and, after three months abroad, had become unused to his native tongue. It was always with great surprise and disbelief that he heard some other traveler speaking in Catalan.

And as for myself? That tall and quiet American with thick hair and fair skin, compared occasionally to Dave Grohl and Van Morrison, dressed in ragged Indian clothes and adding a ragged beard, trekking with an old army green knapsack slung across one bony shoulder, always taking notes in a pad or pondering something with a romantic inattention, always slipping on the muddy path but never falling—as the Author, it is my prerogative to say no more. I fear the Reader already knows too much.

Introductions being complete, we may now proceed with the voyage.

The company left town around ten, the sun hidden behind thick clouds and a prospect of rain. A comfortable van took us out onto the highway, then on a dirt road, circling round a rockslide that nearly blocked this, to Houay Xim, a large Khmu town of three-hundred.

Their stilted houses ran up the hillsides, and a stiff wind might have knocked over the flimsy structures. At the top were the granaries, with wide wooden shields around the struts to keep rats from climbing up. Dogs nested underneath, between the stacks of firewood, and kids peered out from the porches saying, “Sabaila.” There was a crowd of men lingering in the shade of a roof by the road, but the village headman and most of the women were out in the paddies. The current headman was very young, said Sai, and a headman could be young or old or from any family when he was elected every few months. He had only to be a man.

Natalie was the acting headman of our group and spokeswoman to the locals and questioner of Sai, and she asked many questions as we toured the village.

The Khmu were animists, undiluted by Buddhist precepts. They worshiped the spirits of nature, the phĭi of nature, the then earth spirits of plants and soil, the khwăn guardians of men—thirty-two each, guarding organs and senses and the mind. The Khmu wore orange bands so the khwăn could find them in the darkness of the spirit world. They built spirit houses in their homes and set a làk méuang or “city totem” where the spirit of the town would reside, and they believed in săinyasqat—in magic, in geomancy and astromancy and necromancy. One of these noble savages joined us for the next leg of the trip as a local guide.

Down the road a ways we turned off into the forest, quickly coming into the deep jungle. Our trail was not much of one—narrow, slick, sometimes very steep, and often crossing or following one of the rain-swollen streams that ran down the valleys. I waded through them in my sandals, the Laotians in their shoes, but some of the others tried to keep their feet dry by feats of acrobatics. They clung to vines and stepped gingerly on the moss-slick rocks, until finally falling in the water and giving up the fruitless attempt. Popplestone held out the longest with this: he made it all the way to the last stream we had to cross and slid right in.

Everything was alive around us. The multitude of leaves took kaleidoscopic shapes. They were smaller the closer they hung to the valley floor, and the closer they stretched to the sky, and in the central stratum there were fronds as large as a man. The bower hung low and thick as a cave roof, and the trunks of trees were like fluted pillars in an endlessly repeating cathedral crossways. There was the sound of all kinds of insects, of birds and wind-shifted bower.

At noon we climbed up out of the valleys on steps half the size of a foot, dug out from the slope very recently by a small shovel. We clung to roots and saplings and bamboo poles—anything to get the next leg up—and we slid around and twisted ankles, lost grips and face. Sai said, “One fall, one cup Lào-Láo. How many can you drink?” We were falling over with exhaustion as we climbed down into the next gully, sustained by the sugar in Sai’s lemon drops, as the Israelites were sustained by manna. We scaled down that ramp of mud by the bamboo railings tied between the trees. One of these railings broke and Richard the Scot nearly rolled down the steep hill.

At the bottom there was a rocky stream, in the deep shade of five strata of overgrowth, where Sai said, “Lunch here.” The local guide went off downstream with his big knife and returned with several long fronds that he laid out in the stream bed between some rocky chairs for a table, and Sai unpacked sticky rice, meat, bamboo, and tomato salsa from leaf wrappers. There was no littering in the National Protected Area.

The company ate its fill, and with renewed energy we tackled the next slope (except the local guide, who waved and headed home with the leftovers). Natalie's ankle was sore—“It's so embarrassing. I'm the personal trainer!”—and halfway up we stopped so Richard could bind the foot with a backpack strap. With Scottish humor he remarked, “You’re having a Fowler, aren’t you. Having a Fowler? As in Robbie Fowler? Having a Robbie Fowler. Nevermind.”

The bugs were biting, the air was so humid it thought it was a swamp, and everyone was full of complaints. But we came up from this steep climb into a bamboo forest, the stalks huge and untamed, stuck up in all directions like grass on a lawn.

It was an even descent from here. Sai stopped us at one point to go off into the forge of the jungle and cut walking sticks for everyone with his machete: one end sharp and one smooth. The sun lowered and the bamboo groves grew darker, and at some length we emerged into the farm fields along a fast-running river, with a little Thai Dan homestead on its banks.

It was a quiet family that lived there, in two longhouses, with a smokey kitchen and outhouse and chicken coupe, cohabiting with a triad of friendly dogs and a dozen each of ducks and chickens all running around the yard. The old woman killed and plucked one chicken while we were down washing in the muddy river. The men tried to catch ducks, and Natalie befriended Ngoi and taught her English from the children’s books we had brought as gifts for the villagers. By the light of a single bulb, powered by the water turbine the village shared, we ate chicken soup, pumpkin soup, fried cabbage, and sticky rice. The chicken soup also contained the testicles: Richard discovered the first one after eating it. Sai called them “boy balls,” and I ate one and Sai the mysterious third.

Then Sai passed around the Lào-Láo in a cup he had made from a bamboo stalk. We all drank and talked and were tired together. Ngoi drank a lot—more than most of us—and by the time we went to bed she was laughing and making a racket. We rolled out blankets under mosquito nets in one of the longhouses, and Popplestone found a giant skull-faced arachnid, as big as a hand, crouched against a beam on the dark side of the room.

“Oh,” said Natalie, “why did you have to shop me that?”

“Don’t worry, it’ll take him at least an hour to eat through these nets.”

“Unless he has acid spit,” I remarked casually.

“Yeah. Then it will take a lot less time.”

Sai caught the monstrous thing with a piece of paper and killed it.

There were several things that disturbed what should have been, by virtue of exhaustion, a fitful rest. Ngoi’s drunkenness was the first. Then, in the middle of the night, a downpour swept through the valley, accompanied by a thunderstorm that cracked the sky right overhead. Before dawn, a cow moored itself in the yard of the homestead and began to moo with a metronome's regularity, about once every fifteen seconds. “Shut up!” cried Richard the Scot from a state of half-sleep. “I was about ready to go out there and kill the damn thing,” he said later,—“What the hell was it mooing at?”

The storm meant muddy roads, and Natalie with her swollen ankle decided to take a short road home, rather than our twisting and dangerous path. First we all had breakfast—Nescafe, sticky rice, eggs, and fried bamboo—and put on our sweaty clothes from yesterday, said farewell to the Thai Dan family and forded across the river, heading east.

The day was already growing hot, and we all sat in the shade when we came to the main Thai Dan village. We met with a deputy of the village headman and gave him a few of the children’s books, and we saw the local primary school—kids hanging out even though it was summer, teachers drinking BeerLao in a classroom, a meager library. When in session there are two classrooms, five classes of students, and fifty students, in that town of 267. Anyone after further education had to go into The City. Up until recently there had been no school at all. A European charity had built primary schools, water pumps, and latrines in villages all around Luang Nam Tha.

Well Natalie and Ngoi headed down The Road toward The Highway to get a tuk-tuk home. (They would not get back until 5:30, which was still before we arrived.) We men started off over more streams and up a high steep hill that shot the energy out from all of us. We were empty shadows, slinking up the path, dreaming of a fire and a cup of tea in a warm hobbit hole somewhere else. There was a clearing at the top with bamboo poles tied between the trees for benches where we halted to rest. I rang the sweat out from my shirt—“That's disgusting,” said Kevin—and we examined all the weird huge bugs. There were beetles with chrome blue and pink carapaces and butterflies with wild patterns on their fluttering wings.

After that it got or seemed much easier. We were going up and down a path along the ridge-line without much rest. “Let’s just go,” I said crankily. Richard argued more persuasively: “If we stop, it’ll be harder to keep going, so let’s just keep walking. Is that okay with everyone?” Kevin was counting “left, right, left” in his head, and Popplestone was miserable because he did not trust the water that the family had boiled for us—they had mixed in some bitter leaf that was apparently good for digestion and had the worrying side-effect of making the water look like mud soup—and so was reduced to what he could filter with Natalie's special water bottle.

We walked, one foot in front of the other, and we sweated and thirsted. The sky looked like rain, and we were too tired to despair. What matters one extra inconvenience, one more drop in the bucket?

Coming down off the final hill the scenery turned surreal: twisted stands of bamboo, rotting and creaking, dense with death and decay, forming walls as thick as a jail cell's. Ducking and duck-walking we came out on a strait and muddy path, carpeted with wet leaves and surrounded by the forest, and still high on the hill. At this point I felt a pinch on my leg and pulled up the pants.

“Hey Sai,” I called, “send back that salt. I got a leech.”

There was a little black worm wriggling against my shin. The guide put salt on it and it fell away, squirming out its death throes in the dirt. We all started looking. I found another one on the side of my foot and one between my toes. Everyone started finding them: little toothy worms on shoes, inside shoes, climbing up socks. Leeches!

“Alright let’s go,” we said, “let's just go! There’s leeches everywhere!”

We saw them on the ground. They were stepping towards us, arching out, drawing in. They were attached to fallen leaves by the sharp teeth of their mouths, wriggling their prehensile backsides in the air like some Stygian tentacle, seeking a grip on passing feet. We started stabbing at them with our bamboo walking sticks, our faces contorted with some primal instinct, stabbing our spears into the mud.

“This is leech city,” said someone. “Sai, just go!” “He found a big one. He’s throwing it in the bushes.” “Let's just go!” “There are more coming. They’re everywhere.”

We rushed down the trail, propelled by horror, and stopped every minutes to make a leech check, always finding more.

“Can we just run?” asked Sergi,—“I want to go home. These fucking leeches.”

The end was an endurance match. We scrabbled down a last mud ramp and came out of leech city into a wide panorama of Luang Nam Tha: the valleys and distant hills and rice fields and scattered clouds. The women working the fields below peered up at us. We climbed down among them and followed a narrow path through a new forest towards the village on the highway. The women finished their work about then and sped up behind us, tools over their shoulders, wearing skirts and sandals or going barefoot, all a head shorter than we were, and outpacing us by far. At first we sped up like, “Come on guys, we can't lose to these peasant women,” then we stood aside.

“Let’s not tell Natalie about this,” said Popplestone as the women trooped past.

“It's our secret,” said Richard. “No one has to know.”

We forded one last river, met with a deputy chief of some village and delivered our last books, then rode back to town—rode unto showers, clean clothes, and market food. All of us got multiple bowls of noodles and skewers of grilled meat, and Richard and Popplestone shared a ducks. Then we moved across the street to Manychan Bar for more beer.

Natalie met us there, having dined at Ngoi’s family home, on pig brain and lungs and liver (though they made some greens as well when she looked white-faced). Ngoi and Sai also arrived, and we all played some drinking games known by the Brits. Sai and the girls were the first to leave, and slowly the rest of us did as well. I went to bed unreasonably late for having worked so hard that day.

I was excited: in two days I would leave Laos and the region for China. Sergi and I would take a bus north to the Baten border and cross into a new country. Farewell! Farewell papaya salad! Farewell BeerLao! Farewell to Southeast Asia, your fun-seeking crowds and fake bullshit! China, I expect great things from thy mystery.


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