By John Spampinato
Strolling the leafy promenade along the Mekong river, I told myself to slow down and savor every last minute of these last few hours before an interminable series of planes and connections conveyed me back home to the other side of the world. Up ahead a bench conveniently appeared as if to second the motion. Between it and the river’s muddy banks, soil – Southeast Asia’s most fertile – yielded corn and mustard, both of which would be replaced by rice before the next monsoons. Field workers were bent in labor, their efforts typifying the work ethic that permeated Lao culture, its contract with the land, its compact with the seasons, its acceptance of the inevitable. Thinking back on the previous weeks, Laos had been an easy place to get lost in.
So I sat back and began replaying the whole thing in my mind – Sommai and I winding our way up through the central mountains, leveling off just beneath razor sharp peaks â€” immense tilting dominos of black basalt perfectly accented by dense forest outcroppings wherever anything could take root – then down in to a settlement tucked far back in a mist-covered valley where unexpected winds and rain threatened my plans for a hike that first night, creating an atmosphere shrouded with foreboding. We bargained for the use of a shanty at the base of a limestone mesa that reached for the sky, where the darkening jungle held the promise of a nocturnal world of exotic life forms, or so I first hoped. I had no way of knowing then that local notions of conservation pretty much ended at the rim of the cooking pot, that here anything that moved was fair game – a potential meal or a potential sale – an ethic shared and a threat compounded by thousands of Laos’ illegal immigrants who’d been making their way in to these mountains for years now, leaving major voids in what was once a full tapestry of forest life.
Most Americans hadn’t heard a word about Laos in decades, back when it had gotten inextricably tangled in what first began in Vietnam then expanded into the war – or was that ‘police action’, to reduce it to cold semantics – in Southeast Asia. Since then Laos had all but fallen off the world’s collective radar screen. I had hopes this obscurity somehow meant its hinterlands had remained pristine, trackless wilderness. My time here was to reveal to an alarming extent they only looked that way from a distance.
Sommai proved an affable companion in a cowboy sidekick sort of way. OK, so he couldn’t sing worth a damn, his English was intelligible and he proved a skilled driver, here where just staying on the road took fortitude. Going off-road was asking for it.
But an Eagle Scout he was not. Given his bulk, I found his reluctance to over-night in the wilderness an endless source of amusement. I mean, the guy was as big as a lowland gorilla but he couldn’t be coerced in to joining me on a nighttime hike at gunpoint. And as he began building our first fire and bashfully admitted this was his first camping experience, I somehow wasn’t surprised. When I reminded him I only wanted to boil noodles – not signal the MIR space station, he confessed a fear of all things nocturnal; evil spirits, wily critters and the dark, then proceeded to reenact the burning of Atlanta scene from Gone with the Wind.
He slept in the truck every night, doors locked, soundly insulated from any real or imagined lions or tigers or bears I would have given anything to move in on close enough to fill the frame.
Lucking on to some stately mahoganies perfectly spaced for a hammock, my first night in a Laotian jungle ultimately resulted in two major disappointments and one outrage before it was over. The first was an unexpected cold so brutal I found myself deep inside every long-sleeve shirt I’d brought with me in addition to layers of pants and sox, and still I needed the fire’s warmth right up until sleep was undeniable. But not an hour after nodding out in the enveloping chill I awoke in semi-hypothermic shock, my internal thermal stockpile so depleted I could barely muster the motor function needed to crawl back to the truck a mere hundred feet away through the thicket. Restoring the fire to a manageable scale, I never deviated from my cramped position squatting over it for the rest of that night, crashing at least twice to earth after falling over dead asleep. Thereafter Sommai’s snoring from inside the truck conspired to keep me awake.
The second disappointment was the conspicuous absence of forest sounds â€” that anticipated buzzing, croaking and howling cacophony of the awake and the predacious. Instead, an ominous silence prevailed, a silence that said in its own undeniable voice something was very wrong here.
The outrage came later when nearby gunshots and the flickering flashlight beams of poachers explained everything. This might be a wildlife preserve, but what that was suppose to mean here now became highly questionable. Such designations evidently made little impact on what locals and increasing numbers of outside intruders saw as a birthright, if not an obligation to the hungry mouths of oversized families.
This attitude manifested itself again on the third day after we hired two locals to boat us up the Kumai river. While hiking down a bluff edge overlooking the river, a couple of cliff swallows suddenly swooped in to attack as we inadvertently encroached on their nesting site. Both boatmen immediately removed their sandals and began almost crazed attempts at nailing the tiny birds with them, followed by the use of sticks and rocks. Sommai just shook his head in embarrassment. I found the scene unbelievable. The two swallows together wouldn’t have filled a teacup with broth, yet these cretins went after them like rabid predators who had lucked on to a fat forest turkey or a wild boar. To my relief, the tiny birds managed to outmaneuver their demon-possessed attackers.
Their boat, a converted B-52 fuel tank jettisoned decades earlier by a not-so-cost-conscious US Air Force, proved a little too wobbly for my taste and the foaming white water did nothing to enhance its stability. Landing on the far side of the river a few klicks downstream, I distanced myself from everyone to escape the bad karma and was soon rewarded with the discovery of fresh tiger tracks that continued deep into the brush. Having all but abandoned hope of finding any signs of exotica by then, I was exhilarated. The well-founded fear of an apex predator had apparently kept small-game poachers away. That, and being on an unpopulated side of a treacherous waterway were proving effective deterrents, at least for now. Needless to say, Sommai wouldn’t spend the night anywhere near there even if he’d been taken hostage.
Further troubling revelations awaited on our way down a dusty southern highway when we spotted a backcountry roadside marketplace and stopped for a look-see to find, among other victims; five rats, two martins and an elf owl, strung up by their broken little necks as locals fussed about and haggled over prices. Seeing those beautiful martins in their luxuriant red coats was sad enough â€” almost certainly an endangered species in this region – but who the hell would hunt down and eat an owl, let alone a miniature species?
Almost anyone, it appeared. And, almost anything. Buckets and boxes were brimming with frogs, crickets, toads and small fish – too small even for a home aquarium. Trying to subdue judgment, I tried to put myself in the position of these villagers, but one’s most unshakable convictions are not easily compromised. Clearly, any life form that had even trace elements of protein was in demand here, was in danger here, would somehow need to adapt to higher ground or eventually face eradication.
Heading further south would theoretically put us in a particular region where wild elephant sightings might be possible, Sommai cautioned – a qualifier I found almost laughable, I mean, that we had to make an arduous effort perchance to spot pachyderms here in ‘The Land of A Million Elephants’ â€” to use a phrase the literature in my research had employed ad nauseum. And arduous definitely describes the road conditions, examples of which I’m sorry I didn’t photograph, as they proved some of the most hazardous aspects of the trip. If some of those ruts had been any deeper there would have been helicopter tours down the middle of them. And at many creek beds we had to reconstruct the bridges, finding nothing but dislodged log ramparts. As for the elephants, well, we saw fresh scat and fresh paths they had trampled into the otherwise impenetrable bush, and we even heard some of them not far off, but were strongly advised not to dare follow the unpredictable beasts into the thicket as some local villagers had only a month earlier in what ended up being their last act on earth. But actually see any? What?- in the ‘Land of A Million Elephants’? Not a chance.
I thought my luck was going to change for sure after we met a World Wildlife Fund field researcher who invited us to stay at his remote campsite for as long as we desired. The surroundings certainly looked promising; he had cataloged prints and other evidence of rare endemic species including pangolins, civets and pythons, had rigged up some treetop perches from which observations could be made and data collected. And he even had two full-time Kalashnikov-wielding anti-poaching guards with him. Certainly this all meant I should keep both cameras at the ready for eminent stampedes of wildlife, a virtual Asian Serengeti right outside my net. But alas, the armed guards were a few decades too late.
Hardly an interesting bird showed itself in the days to follow, let alone any mammals or reptiles. And of course, the researcher wasn’t Laotian. That would have been far too progressive and far too incongruous. A British-educated Chinese, he had come down to complete some field studies. Sure he had seen elephants â€” but he had been here months, spending much of that time in a treetop platform. Somehow his field notes indicated that the local elephant population was a tad shy of the advertised million – say by just under a million. We’d been introduced to him at a nearby village through government contractors busy developing the next dam project â€” without question the most robust industry in Laos. I think the intent was to initiate a ‘Land of A Million Dams’ theme sometime in the near future. There wasn’t a decent-sized river in this country that the government didn’t deem worthy of at least one hydroelectric project, and for what? -so that two or three locals per village would have full time government jobs while the rest wondered what it was they suddenly needed all this power for? – so they could wake up to ‘desperately’ needed toaster ovens and foreign music, or so they could cast-off centuries of cultural heritage all in one generation and get it over with?
Of course, all the engineers and contractors we encountered were outsiders also. I don’t care what the historians say – colonialism isn’t dead; the flags of invading countries have just been replaced with corporate logos.
Children we encountered everywhere were far too adorable not to inspire some candid portraits, and with the paltry wildlife sightings my productivity waned. One tiny beauty I recall in particular embodied everything that is delicate, innocent and symbolic of her culture. Her father was so impressed by how taken I was with her he all but insisted I return home with them for a meal of what I at first interpreted as duck, as I envisioned a savory entrÃ©e of Peking duck smothered in plum sauce, until it started sounding a little more like dug, then, ultimately, dog, immediately purging any pangs of hunger I may have had only moments before, with or without plum sauce.
Whenever anywhere near a remote village, camping or hiring of boatmen was a risky notion without the patronage of the local headman, some of whom were easier to deal with than others, though each seemed honored to host a foreign guest. And invariably, as soon it was learned I was paying more per day for my driver and vehicle then the headman grafted off for himself in a good month, he suddenly had several daughters ‘of marriageable age’ we had to meet, though that definition often got seriously stretched even by local standards. Maintaining our host’s dignity while weaseling out of these predicaments severely tested my diplomatic skills. “Charming…” I’d assure them during the mutually embarrassing introductions as the poor young things were paraded out for our review. “…just as lovely as their mother. They’ll be a fine catch for some lucky fellow some day and will bless you with lots of little hunter-gatherers”. Later, when his curiosity could no longer be contained, Sommai would inquire what I really thought of the potential brides. I tried to convince him I’ve got sox older than they were.
But if one perseveres, they’re bound to be rewarded. Our campsite overlooking the Kin Lang river revealed natures’ potential bounty and represented everything that brings out the escapist in me. Perhaps with the exception of falling in love there isn’t anything more fulfilling or inspiring than finding a corner of the world that’s just as magic as you envisioned it could be as a child. The shear elation of having a spectacular river and the entire valley it had carved essentially to myself, with waterfalls of every size and description, whirlpools, rapids, limestone outcroppings, lagoons, jungles and beaches all made it worth the 26 hours folded up in a coach class seat and then being beat to a pulp traversing treacherous roads getting there. In this Eden wildlife, even if elusive, thrived; animal noises after dark were deafening, a variety of fresh paw prints led down to the water each morning, clouds of birds often circled camp invariably landing on the far side of the river and, unfortunately, out of camera range. Retiring late, I rose early, ate quick, and hit the trail each dawn returning only when daylight or food starting running out. And over dinner, as he over-stuffed his big fat face, I’d regale an indifferent Sommai with the day’s discoveries as he burned his fingers grabbing the next fish off the fire.
The caves of the northern regions were likewise world class if not as easy to access. It was incredible discovering how many of Laos’ mountains were literally hollow shells. We eased the truck across many a bridge built with nothing larger than ox carts in mind and scraped along the top of irrigation berms for miles, followed by long hikes right up to the base of vertical cliffs where yawning entrances hid behind resisting vegetation. The cavernous interiors went on endlessly, draining my floodlight and testing my footing on usually nothing more than a creek bed. Given Sommai’s usual reluctance to enter, I often found myself conversing with bats and whip scorpions.
One remote setting provided a glimpse of life as a cloistered monk might live it, as we followed one’s daily routine from prayers to lunch then joined him for a riverside soak that afternoon. As guardian of an ornate cave temple dedicated to elephant spirits, his was truly a reclusive existence. Apparently there were lots of elephant’s spirits hereabouts; they leave few tracks and posed little threat, and were no easier to see than real ones.
I’d taken hazardous routes penetrating wilderness areas before, but our venture into one particular forest in the central highlands was the first – and I hope to God last time I ever had to cross a minefield doing so. A legacy of Laos’ civil war, I could only hope that it had thwarted exploitative intrusion and that our route lacing through it had in fact been completely cleared of all ordnance. Slinging my gear to head out, I shot Sommai a smart ass look when he cautioned me to ‘be careful’ on my hike, and was totally amazed to find him actually outside the truck when I got back to camp hours later. He rejoiced seeing me return life and limb intact, knowing now he’d get paid for sure.
Returning to the capital the afternoon before I was to depart, I procured a seriously under-engineered bicycle and somehow coaxed it far outside the city limits like a reluctant burro, replete with the squeals of rusting bearings which caught the attention of locals taking noontime break and resulted in countless lunch invitations, possibly in pity. I finally took up an offer from one insistent family, but only to wet my whistle with some tamarind juice, and pushed on when our mutually limited language skills ran out – just about the same time the grating cries from their two terrified toddlers became intolerable. Stopping miles on at a roadside stall for some real nourishment, I was constantly interrupted by passers-by intent on distracting me from my lunch. But a ravenous hunger prevailed. I ordered and kept ordering until I’d relieved the place of its last noodle and last beer, and shortly thereafter, fully sated, found myself napping on the same riverbank that Thai warriors had entered and conquered Laos by six centuries ago. My intentions that afternoon were nowhere near as ambitious. I just wanted to make it back to town before the damned handlebars came loose in my hands.
Later, while wandering the gardens surrounding a local pagoda an amiable young monk appeared from behind a flowering shrub and struck up a conversation in surprisingly fluent English. Still in his late teens, he had completed seven years studies and had only four more to go. Learning I was from the U.S. and apparently having scant concept of its scale, he was eager to know if I happened to be acquainted with his uncle in Tennessee â€” one place I’d never been anywhere near – going into the most minute detail describing him as if this information was certain to stir some latent recollection on my part.
As the final evening approached I got creative and hailed a tuck-tuck to follow the setting sun as it descended over the Thai side of the Mekong river for some slice-of-life shots of distant fishermen using a dramatically amplified sun for a back drop that only something like a 1200 millimeter lens affords. The big camera drew a lot of attention from passers by, all of whom were wowed by the close up image in the viewfinder.
It felt almost noble making friends right up until my last hours here. There could be no better use of what precious little time I had left, and I had no idea how long it might be before I ever returned to Asia. Philosophers have long extolled the virtues of treating all our journeys as if they were one way. How often we actually apply this wisdom is a question I think we begin asking ourselves more and more the older we get.