Heading down river in Laos, I wonder is this a dream or reality? I am nearing the end of my stay in Laos; my visa expires in three days. I have been staying at a guesthouse along the banks of the Nam Tha River. Across from my guesthouse is the boat landing where the river really comes to life. For days I have been watching long-tail boats take off with passengers and cargo. The boat traffic is headed towards the confluence with the Mekong River and the border town of Huay Xai, Thailand.
A good traveler has no fixed plan and is not intent on arriving
Before I arrived in Laos everyone I spoke with said, "Oh, you have to take a trip on a long-tail boat, it's fun." I thought; let's give it a shot. I walk over to the shack where you purchase tickets. The boatman is not around, but a petite Lao woman who constantly smiles, assists me.
"I would like to hire a boat to take me to the border with Thailand. How much will the ticket cost?"
"It depends on how many people are going with you," she responds.
"Well – uh – no one, just me."
She continues smiling and says if I want a boat for myself, it costs 110.00 dollars. I picture myself a true explorer; just myself on that boat with the Lao crew heading into the unknown.
I wake up the next morning with my backpack and head to the boat. I am glad at least I understand some Lao; the crew only speaks two words of English – hello and goodbye. I should not leave out the fact that I cannot swim. If you're not familiar with long-taill boats, they are very shallow; easy to lose balance sending you overboard for an impromptu swim.
I look for a life jacket and find one that resembles a relic from the Titanic. So much for the life jacket. I guess I will use it for a pillow. My crew mates are two teenage boys, with bleached hair and heavy metal T-shirts. The grizzled looking captain happens to be my age, 33, but looks ten years older. I was told I will spend a night at the captain's village located along the river.
We cruise past several boats with foreigners on board, They soon pass us, apparently on a tight schedule. Other boats are zooming by us at top speed. I notice my captain is definitely taking his time; perhaps due to the Toyota car engine he has mounted on the long-tail boat that continually floods. We drift in the water while one of the crew tries to get the engine started again. After several similar episodes, I decide I better get used to this and relax. After all, I am on Lao time now.
We finally seem to be making some progress when we stop at a village along the river for lunch. When we arrive it appears abandoned, until I notice some children peering out from the walls of the huts. After lunch I stretch my legs and take a walk around the village. I pull out a few books with pictures to show the youngsters who have gathered around me, pulling at my arm, hair and giggling. One of the few items that I carry is a medical kit. I wanted to show them a medical book to distract them.
I help a man – now I'm a doctor
I notice a man who has a bad skin condition around his feet. He is shuffling over to us. I decide to help him, having had First Responder Training years ago. I look for some antibiotic ointment and a crowd gathers to inspect my medical kit. It's as if I'm an astronaut who has landed on Mars! After assisting the villager with what looks like trench foot, we continue our trip down river. We finally make it to the captain's waterside village at dusk.
I haul my pack from the boat and immediately, I am led by a small girl to the captain's hut where his family is waiting to welcome me. The girl leads me up a makeshift ladder. I enter the tiny dark entrance to the hut and smash my head on the door jam. She laughs as she connects two ends of what appears to be jumper cables attached to a car battery. She joins the cables to a light bulb hanging from the celling. I don't know what to expect; women are mumbling something in Lao.
The girl prepares my dinner, which consists of a package of instant noddles followed by my choice of a 40-liter bottle of beer, or a six pack of Sunkist. I suppose since I am the only foreigner in the village, everyone decides to look me over and request medical attention. Healthcare in rural Laos is almost non existent. The "word" downriver is that I am a doctor. The number one guy I am supposed to "diagnose" is the captain's father.
He comes up the ladder with an assistant. When I see him, I gasp. There appears to be a tumor the size of a grapefruit on his wrist. What do I do? I can't ignore him. Everyone from the village has gathered, with anticipation. I request a bucket of clean water, as I pull on rubber gloves. I consult my medical guide as well as my Lao phrase book. The old man motions to his wrist and keeps repeating jep jep.
This is nuts! I will have to at least clean his tumor. What if I mess up; will the captain dump me in the river? Or, will I become like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, with my own kingdom on the river. All of these crazy thoughts are racing through my mind when I see, upon closer inspection, that it's an infected wound. I clean it and tell him to take two aspirins. He smiles; I give him a tube of antibiotic ointment.
I am beat. I feel like an impostor. Everyone soon loses interest in the "doctor". I decide to wash up and plan to fall asleep. I notice a girl wearing a sarong. She sits down; watches with fascination as I brush my teeth. I pass out under the mosquito netting. The next day I am awakened by the captain indicating that I should eat breakfast and prepare to leave. On the river time seems to stand still.
I'm the cargo – will I make it to the border on time
At one point I awake to find two teenage crew members sleeping. The captain is steering the boat. We are heading into some rough rapids. I am still groggy, but I distinctly remember three enormous rocks jutting out from the river with barely enough space for a boat to slip through. I notice we are headed straight for one of the largest rocks. The captain is frantic. One word I remember, da-rai, dangerous. I yell it out to the captain above the roar of the rapids and engine. He smiles, slyly, and continues guiding the boat towards the largest rock. I think; this is it, I'll die on this river with captain, Ahab, taking us into oblivion. At the very last moment, he steers the boat right through the space between the rocks – without destruction. I laugh and Ahab laughs. I look back laughing and I realize I should have trusted his judgment; he knows this river well.
We continue; I begin to relax. As I drift off to sleep, I hear shouts from one of the teenagers. The boat is turning around from the direction we had come from. I see what appears to be a Water Buffalo carcass floating in the river. I look on with astonishment and discover we are returning to inspect the carcass. I am not sure how it died, but it is bloated with gases like a hot air balloon. We drag it to shore. The captain then pulls out a machete. With that sly smile, he hacks into its flesh. The teenagers fill pots with the Water Buffalo flesh, as flies buzz overhead.
The process takes about an hour; I pass the time peering into virgin forest, listening to bird calls I can't identify. I conclude that I am not making it to the Thai border before my visa expires. The dismemberment completed; I find myself wedged between two pots of the animal flesh. We are on our way, or so I thought. It can't get more bizarre than this.
We motor down river about one kilometer when I see two derelict huts on a hillside. The captain steers the boat in that direction. I notice two disheveled boys waving from the shoreline. We pull up to an embankment and disembark. The captain motions to the boys to come down and carry the pots of buffalo meat off the boat. They look wild eyed; I wonder if it is because of my presence, or whether they are not used to seeing foreigners on this part of the river. Could it be that they will have buffalo stew for dinner?
We climb up a an embankment to one of the dilapidated huts and settle down for lunch. I wonder what the story is regarding these kids. About an hour later, the captain decides we need to leave. I assume he remembers his cargo, me. We return to the boat and depart for Huay Xia. I see the boys from the shoreline staring at me with blank expressions; one of them hesitantly smiles and waves good bye. I eventually make it to the border with about 20 minutes to spare. The captain and I shake hands; I give him a small Lao flag I had planned to bring back to U.S. as a souvenir. He ties it to the stern of the boat and flashes me a smile.
A good traveler has no fixed plan and is not intent on arriving. – Lau-Tzu, The Way Of Life