For those of you who have yet to read the blog post which won the tripwolf Bloggers’ Competition:
How Crashing a Wedding in Laos Saved My Life – Edward Wisdom
I woke up with our bug net canopy draped on my face. “We should use longer sticks next time…” I thought. The sand of the riverbank had molded almost comfortably to my back under our bamboo mats through the night. I smelled the fresh river water bubbling past the brush and palm trees along with the damp cotton of the bug net touching my nose. “We’re boat owners,” I chuckled to myself and smiled.
I hadn’t slept quite like a lamb. I slept more like someone with a wedgie on a cold night. Northern Laos’ temperatures dip way down in the PM. Through the night I had put on all my clothes: shorts and “Make Art Not War” T, two pants, two button downs and my fleece vest. Even wrapping myself in my trusty Japan Airlines blanket didn’t do the trick. But then again, why would it? They are made for Japanese infants.
I got up, blew a coal into flame and looked for the “wealthy family log.” Though an official name, it is unsuitable for capitalization. It was a log. That is the only appropriate portion of its name. It should have said simply “Log” on the packaging. The thing was a foot long and four inches diameter resembling a giant summer sausage to the unsuspecting. When we saw it in the shop our eyes lit up, “This monster could sustain us for a week! Wealthy Family Log? Hell yeah!” It was low grade spam.
With my solid iron machete I sliced the remainder of the wimpy log into four disks and put them over the fire with our hand-held grill. Tim woke up at this point. I knew because I heard him laugh, “Hey! We’re boat owners!”
We toasted our spam disks. I dropped mine. The sand changed the texture of my breakfast, but for better or for worse was unclear.
We also ate the remainder of our “rice bananas” – rice cooked in a bamboo shaft that you peel off. We untied our craft which had filled with water through the night and began floating downstream as we bailed.
Originally the plan had been to build our own raft with bamboo. We’d set off from Muang Kwoua walking south along the Nam Ou (river) in search of no-mans-land to freely cut all the bamboo we’d need. We came across a skinny old man with whimsical graying beard and a 1:3 ratio of teeth present to absent. Surprisingly, he spoke almost fluent English. When we told him our plan to raft to Nong Khwai or perhaps even Luang Prabang and then asked where we could get bamboo he nearly fell to the ground with laughter. It seemed he might literally die. It was not a good omen. It was especially bad because this was the third time we’d had this experience. We accepted at this point that if the locals started laughing hysterically at us when we’ve told them our plans it was a sure sign that they had understood us correctly. They would laugh for five minutes or so and then give us some genuine help. They’d point us in a direction or pour us a shot of lao-lao, homebrewed rice whiskey, to slow our delusional minds.
A few kilometers down river the bank became excessively steep and cumbersome when before it had been a frolic of sand dunes. We spotted a number of dead chickens flopping like soggy paper dolls against the rocks in the back current. Bad omen we decided.
There was a father and son mending their nets fifty yards away on the opposite bank which was a sandy beach. We waved. The father started into his canoe-ish boat to pick us up. He effortlessly crossed the swift river straight to us and then brought us back to the same spot just as easily. He knew every rock, eddy and current.
Once on the beach, we pointed to the bamboo grove behind him and then to the machetes and wire on our backs. We said, “Nam Ou – Nong Khwai.” He chuckled. And then-Tim and I aren’t sure how it happened but within moments we had written a series of numbers in the sand, gave him 450,000 Kip (~$55) and were floating down the river in our very own longboat!
Our craft was of absurd proportions. It could have transported a whole party of Indian braves. Tim and I sat at either end and yelled to each other. It was reminiscent of a stereotypical visit to your rich great aunt’s house to have dinner across her stretch-limo dining table. We were given a pair of oversized spatulas to power the vessel. They could have been “Dazed and Confused” memorabilia. Unfortunately, there were no freshmen around. Our boat was literally twelve meters long and our oars were maybe four inches wide. None the less, rule #76: no excuses; play (paddle) like a champion. Our local boat dealer could man this by himself, why not us.
That following morning it was especially awkward even to simply turn it down stream. There were six inches of water to bail. But we righted our ship and set off further into the unknown.
Each bend was a mystery. Sometimes the river widened and slowed. I’d lay back and listened to the calls of unknown animals, birds and insects. They were complemented by the gurgle and splash of the river against our hull. I’d sit up amazed at the countless broad and thin leafed plants I’d never seen before draped with vines. Pink, purple, white and yellow flowering plants were interspersed among the various greens. The smell was rich and fresh.
Around some bends the river would narrow and we’d hear a torrent of rushing water. I’d stand up to spot our route. Our veins pumped with adrenaline as we paddled like tiny dogs with our spatulas into the mess. “Rock, starboard! Roooight aheaad!” Tim would shout. “All hands to port bow!” I’d shout back.
The river seemed to know just what we wanted. Or maybe we just wanted all that the river had to offer. In any case, it was a perfect blend of excitement and relaxation. The rapids steadily got more challenging as our skills maneuvering the craft improved. When our arms were tired the river let us rest.
Though we both had The Bear Necessities stuck in our heads all day there was in fact a major problem. We did not actually have the bare necessities. We had absolutely no food and no water left. The river was perfect in every way except for drinking and though the “wealthy family Log” hadn’t settled right we wanted more. Originally we planned to be around town for a few days more to construct our raft. Blinded by excitement after impulsively buying our massive boat we had neglected to go back to town. By noon our hunger from the day before had rolled over like minutes on a good cell plan and our stomachs were eating themselves.
We docked at a village to ask for water. A man who had been wading in the water looked up. We yelled “Sa bai dee!” and made a sign for water. He gestured us to follow him. As he started for the village he bent down to pick something up from behind a tree and then slung an M-16 over his shoulder. Tim and I looked at each other with a silent “woah.” At the village he called someone to fetch water. The man had no distrust or hatred in his eyes but we still agreed, hungry or not, we should move on.
We had already bushwhacked up into the hillside questing for bananas but around 15:30 again set out AND actually found some! Sure, they were unripe little green dudes but we downed the tree with our machetes and had the bare necessities again. Tim said banana trees were annual anyway. Something I hadn’t known. He had been working on an organic banana farm for the last few weeks, so he would know. I didn’t feel bad about felling the tree anymore. The bananas were premature and in fact not even bananas but seeds. They were bitter but we ate them anyway.
Our hunger continued to rage in our bellies. But then, a miracle happened. We heard drumming. Our boat must have heard it too and agreed with us. Follow the drum. The current pushed us over to the bank. Sometimes we believed that not paddling was in fact the best option. The canoe seemed to know the river better than us. After all, it was more experienced.
We tied our boat to a rock and were greeted by a crowd of smiling children poking their heads over the twenty foot cliff above us shouting “Saa bai dee! Saa bai dee!” We climbed up and followed them to the village where we were welcomed into the first hut we passed.
We were sat down with three old men. The children piled around us as shot after shot of lao-lao was poured into a ceramic tea cup on a platter. The platter was passed around the circle of five until the entire liter bottle was gone within a half hour. Especially on our empty stomachs we were D-runk by the time we stood up.
They gestured us to follow them to where the drumming was coming from. Our presence caused quite a commotion in the tiny river village. Many seemed they had never seen a white person before. One of the kids started crying when she saw us. She thought we were monsters.
They sat us down again, this time in a larger hut full of men and now children. This one had a wooden floor. We all tried to communicate as the lao-lao kept coming. We were quite thankful when a jug of water we’d been asking and praying for was also presented. We were given cups which we could fill at will. We spent less than an hour in this tiny village, which the following day we found out was named Hapon, before we were absolutely smashed along with the villagers all jabbering and swinging our arms trying to communicate some sort of sense to each other.
Plates and buckets and baskets of more sticky rice than I have ever seen in my life along with pork and vegetable dishes were brought out. We had stumbled upon a Laos wedding and were the guests of honor! The villagers fed us, literally fed us bringing pork to our mouths then dipping sticky rice in the chili sauce and jamming it into our faces then making us swallow the whole thing with lao-lao. We returned the favor and fed all the mouths around us with chopstick-fulls of rice and pork. Pig stomach was also served. It is considered a delicacy though I found it to be bland, too chewy, strangely hairy like a sea-creature’s back and crunchy as if the pig had been eating dirt, which it probably had been. They stuffed this down our throats and completely gorged us. It was awesome to say the least. Our hunger from an hour before wasn’t even a foggy memory.
At this moment, being fed and feeding all those around me a certain parable about heaven and hell came to mind. Hell is a giant banquet table full of all sorts of tempting delicacies but your forearms are spoons longer than your upper arm and so it is impossible to get any food to your mouth no matter how hard you try. It is like trying to lick you elbow (and how frustrating is that!). In heaven it is exactly the same situation. The only difference is that the people stop and think to feed their neighbors. I was in heaven.
The night progressed into a jam session on makeshift instruments. They sang local songs. We did our best to sing along. Tim and I also invented our own rambling folk tale songs or belted out plain nonesense. The whole town would repeat each line of whatever we said. They tapped bottles with chopsticks and banged on barrels. Instruments circulated freely as did the lao-lao. I passed my bamboo flute around. We played into the night by candle light. As Cat Empire says, “music is the language of us all.”
At this point communication was easy. Music was the link between our souls. But also, on top of that we were all fluent in drunken gibberish. We discussed business, and politics and even philosophy.
It was late and we had been begging them to let us go to sleep for some time now but they insisted that we stay up with them. We were black-out drunk in a remote village somewhere in northern Laos.
We woke up on fluffy mats with warm blankets and soft pillows. A crowd of children watched in amazement as we opened our eyes. It seemed they had been watching us for a little while as an elementary class would watch an egg waiting for it to hatch.
We were served breakfast and sent on our way with a packed lunch of rice and chili sauce. Back on the cruiser we really had The Bear Necessities. Tim and I put our mats down on opposite ends of the boat where it flattened and curved up for a perfect lounging spot. We lay there in the sun as we floated down the river having lazy nonversation about the most pleasant things that ever existed.
It was a critical moment, that time when I thought, “gee…I sure hope Tim’s still awake…” as I drifted off to sleep. As it turns out, Tim had had the exact same thought pass through his mind…
We woke up abruptly to the sound of rapids. “Oooooh boy!” We doggy paddled like a drunken dachshund into the stew. In a fury we actually straightened the boat and got through. After the rapids however a strong up-current spread across the surface of the water in concentric circles. It pushed the bow uncompromisingly to the right until (“No. No! no…”) it lodged in a crevice between two rocks stacked up on each other. It was a perfect fit, beautiful really. The current did not pause to wonder at how by chance the bow could fit like a key into this hole. It did not scream “Noooo!” I may have heard it laugh, but it did not hesitate for an instant. Within moments the front of our glorious vessel was ripped off.
We managed to make it to shore before completely sinking but our craft was totaled. Luckily, we happened to be shipwrecked at a village. This one even had a Wat. Some monks and fishermen smiled in amusement as they watched our commotion.
They knew we were effed and we paid a handsome price for our motorboat ride to the next town.
Before we had even walked up the stairs to where we saw white people eating at a restaurant we heard another motor in the distance. “I bet the Brits are on that boat.” We had left them behind a few days ago in Muang Khoua and kept expecting to run into them.
The boat pulled up. Sure enough! There they were! “HAHAHAHAH!!!” We yelled and laughed to each other. “You won’t bellliiieeeeeeevvvvvee our adventures!” As it turned out, they too had ended up buying a boat and they too had floated down the river in ecstasy until they destroyed their boat in some rapids and were stranded until they were picked up by the real long longboat they were in. We jumped in theirs as it was continuing to Nong Khwai.
The only difference between our stories, well the main one, besides no wedding for them, was that their crash was a bit more dramatic than ours. Their boat, as opposed to our titanic twelve meter craft was only about two or three meters and had been on the road to rotten for some years. While conquering some rapids the middle of their boat was pushed up by a wave as they sat on either end and the vessel plain out snapped in half. They said it abruptly disappeared into the water. Instantaneously, along with all of their gear they were sucked downward. One of them said he would have drowned if he hadn’t managed to hold onto his sleeping mat. They lost many things but most memorably his prided Cannon was ruined in the process.
Tim and I told our story in Luang Prabang to various people we met. We found out there had in fact been at least four recent excursions down the Nam Ou: the two Brits, a couple from Israel, some Canadians and ourselves.
Three out of four boats were gonners.
The Canadians were the only ones who left an intact vessel on the river. It took them two weeks and they made it all the way to Luang Prabang.