Monday, 13 January 2014

Laos: Leave no Trace

I don't do high fives simply because I don't understand them. I'll be sitting there with someone, we agree and then suddenly I see an open palm before me. I look blankly, they look confused at my reticence, 'high five' they prompt: my smile strains as my palm reluctantly reaches up and touches theirs and that's where it goes so terribly wrong. Sometimes people grasp my hand on contact sometimes they don't so then there's an awkward fumbling on my behalf as I keep their hand in mine waiting for them to guide me through the next steps. Do we twist or slide, do you then punch my knuckles. My hand seizes and their eyes are saying 'What are you doing?? Let go of my hand!' My eyes are saying 'Help me, I just don't get this'. I finally release my grasp when I feel the sweat from our palms mingling and mirrored we both lower our offending hand, surreptitiously wipe it on our trousers and try and forget it ever happened.

Through Laos I further resented every high fiver that ever lived. Hurtling down a dusty potholed hill with panniers flapping I see excited children jumping from stilted verandahs, clambering down trees, dropping their catapults and rushing to greet the falang with their palms outstretched. It's not just the navigation and coordination of such a challenge - ensuring you hit each child for fear of retribution from the dropped catapult or tears from the 3 year old whom you missed while trying to keep upright while braking with one hand over terrain that is akin to the north side of scafell pike - it's the trepidation of pain. I'm lucky I have good genes that have given me a high pain threshold, however it appears that all my nerve endings were allocated to the palm of my hand and hitting a child’s palm at 40km an hour hurts!

Yet it's not all high fives and as I continue with my journey through Laos the 'sabaidee' call from every single child lifts your heart. I'm chased up steep inclines by young boys with sticks masterfully spinning tyres, children from the fields greet me clutching minature scythes. 

 In hill top villages where I stop to regain my breath and quietly observe and absorb the village life children coyly appear from wooden huts with sides of woven bamboo to see me. I try not to intrude, to force upon them the high fives, the low fives, to give them pens and sweets. Maybe I'm wrong I don't know I just try and do what feels right . Should a camera even be pulled out and a shot taken..

Yet then there's the strange phenomenon where some villages greet me with a cry of 'goodbye'. Confused I return it with a Sabaidee.  While pedalling up my 2nd 25km uphill of the day I mull this over. Leave no trace becomes my mantra with each turn of the crank. Leave no trace. I like to see cycle touring - or whatever you wish to call it -as one of the less intrusive means of tourism yet us myriad cycle tourers have left our wake in Laos. Shouting goodbye in return to the hello to some villagers means that now in the hills of Laos people no longer say hello or simply Sabaidee. So be it our innocent high fives or our goodbyes – we have left a trace.

And then there is Vang Vieng...
As I make my way towards the bamboo bridge that defies the laws of engineering I stumble over a body. I peer at it in the dim light. Indistinguishable letters are scrawled in fluorescent pen across his naked beer-stretched torso: a waterproof pouch around his neck lolls to the side like a hangman's noose.. A moan. It's alive. "Erm, are you ok?" I ask. He opens his eyes and lifts his head slightly. "I don’t know where I’m staying" he says and promptly bursts into tears, letting his head drop back heavily on the road. A girl with braided hair sporting the 'tubing in Vang Vieng' vest top uniform and with ample bosom spilling out from the sides staggers by clutching the arm of another flourescent tattooed, bare-chested man with his hair in a high ponytail who holds under his arm the obligatory bucket of local spirit- Lao lao - and red bull. I stop them and ask if they can help. They peer down yet stagger back but eventually between the 3 of us we get him to his feet. I remove my arm from his clammy waist and with him wedged in the middle of the two, arms around shoulders I watch them vacillate for a while before they reach a more in tune drunken gait and wander off towards one of the bars to refuel

I return to the hut I'm staying in, a tranquil place on the other side of the river surrounded by magnificent Karst scenery. After months of seeing only a handful of travellers I am overwhelmed by this in your face alcohol and amphetimine fuelled debauchery. They clutch their Lonely Planets to their chests, open them up on arrival, go to the place the Lonely Planet recommends, obeying everything their bible tells them apart from the section on modesty and that the reserved Laos people have covered themselves up for centuries for religious reasons: walking down the street in a bikini or with naked torso is not considered respectful, neither is peeing or vomiting in the river, taking your clothes off and doing things that should be done in a bedroom.. nor is dying... Guardian - Vang Vieng the world's most unlikely party town . I begin to annoy myself with my self righteousness and recall the times I had woken up  wrapped round a table leg, after the free tequila shots that came with my spaghetti bolognaise, during my early backpacking years (and no doubt in recent years, months,.. erm..weeks too). I realise I am suffering culture shock after all these months on the road yet I never believed it would have come from meeting my fellow country men again!

The beauty of Laos is staggering yet I only became privy to it when I reached the lowlands. Higher up I saw nothing while cloaked in a cloud of dust from potholed roads and choked by the smoke of slash and burn farming. This was not the ideal time of year to see Laos in all its glory. I would arrive at my destination for the day covered in a yellow grime from the road and smears of black on my face and clothing from the fallout of the ash.  In one small village at 1400m where old men wore halfmast widelegged trousers and brimmed bamboo hats I went in search of a guesthouse. A man beckoned me, he had rooms. We have a view too he insisted as he took me to a ledge where there was a great expanse of.. nothing. I can imagine what lay behind that layer of smoke. I knew there was a valley below us of vibrant green paddy fields, dramatic limestone pinnacles and jagged hills carpeted in trees that had so far escaped the deforestation horror yet I could see absolutely nothing. I looked at him, he looked back at me and nodded towards the nonexistent view and we both gazed out over a blank canvas, a mutual the Emperor's got no clothes agreement of silence, compliance and acceptance.

1 comment:

  1. One of the saddest pieces I've read in an age: I went through Vang Vieng almost twenty years ago, and remember it as a dusty but peaceful town. There was a small handful of westerners, none of whom could have been considered a paragon of virtue, but all of whom behaved fairly respectfully - fuelled, probably, by tales of what happened to lowlife tourists in those days (we'd also had the alarming experience of thinking we were being held up at gunpoint on top of a bus, until they started shooting the local sitting between us).

    I suspect that ultimately, Vang's time as a hedonistic party capital will come to an abrupt - and violent - end. I'm not sure that I feel as bad about that as I should....