Nong Khiaw, Laos

Getting here was a little slice of magic, and another dose of torture.  But after many hours in mini-busses on bad roads, a lesson on how to play pitong (Laos’ version of Bocce Ball), and a few thousand less kip (currency of Laos), we slowly untangled our way out into the sun.

Nong Khiaw is a quiet town on the banks of the beautiful Nam Ou river.  It may not have the same impact as the name “Mekong”, but it doesn’t have the pollution either.  There aren’t too many attractions here, it’s mostly just a place to relax and soak up the languid pace of life in Laos amidst large limestone cliffs.

We quickly grabbed a bungalow overlooking the water and melted into the hammock.  Once we mustered enough courage we decided to take a walk through town and get some food.  In this remote part of Laos we were surprised, but delighted, to find an Indian food restaurant and in no time we were using naan to laddle heaps of delicious curry between our smiling lips.  The small effort of digestion officially tipped us into exhaustion and we retired to read and dream in our little thatch basket.

After a good nights rest we were ready for some action.  We looked around for a bike to rent but weren’t satisfied with the rates so we decided our legs were made for walking, and that’s just what we did.  A half and hour or so landed us at a large limestone tower with big gaping holes in it’s side.  These caves were used by the local people to hide from US bombing during the secret war.  Over 2 million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos over 9 years, that averages out to a bomb every 8 minutes for 3,285 consecutive days.  The government of Laos and thousands of civilians made their lives in these caves during that time.  The chambers are named, this one is for the bank, that one is the kitchen, that one over there is for getting your hair cut.  It was fascinating and depressing, a place who’s beauty is rivalled by it’s terror.

On our way back we passed a small restaurant serving cold beer.  The hot day teased me into a second bottle as we chatted with a Canadian and two Brits.  The owner dominated us in a game of pitong and beamed as he showed us his prize turkey, who’s technicolored head looked like something out of a grateful dead flashback.  The Brits moved on, leaving us with Ben, the gregarious Canadian.  We decided our beers should be followed up with food and Laos Laos (rice whiskey) and we once again found ourselves at the Indian Food restaurant.

As things loosened up we were joined by Helen from England.  She was far behind us with the booze but took quickly to the Laos Laos and had caught up before we knew it.  Ben informed us that he had a harmonica in his room and we informed him that we’d be waiting for a seranade on the riverbank.

As Helen and Val told jokes Ben did his best to hold a tune on the harmonica and I pushed a stolen dugout canoe along the water with a long pole.  Things deteriorated from here as the strong rice whiskey brought wave after wave of laughter upon us, leaving our faces aching and our bladders barely hanging on to abundant stores of pee.

Eventually we ran out of gas, returned the canoe, and had to face the climb back up the hill.  Helen was dead on her feet but Val valiantly pushed her all the way up the hill leaving her on flat ground.  As she turned back to make sure that Ben and I were okay a figure flew past her in the darkness.  That figure was Helen, who would have surely won gold had she been in an Olympic tumbling competition.  She flipped and rolled back the way we came, passing Ben and I and coming to a stop with her head on a concrete stair 20 feet below us.   Everything was silent, and in an instant that seemed to last forever we found ourselves suddenly very sober.

With immense dread I gingerly picked Helen up so we could check how serious the situation was.  She started to talk, good sign.  She could move her scraped up jaw, good sign.  She started to walk up the hill on her own power, really good sign.  So with three escorts alternating helpful shoulders Helen made it home, but not before Val broke into her locked Hotel – desperate times called for desperate measures.

The next day, nursing light hangovers, we packed up.  I met a nice couple outside our room and engaged in a long and fulfilling conversation in English.  “You guys should come to Mong Ngoi, the boat leaves in about 30 minutes,” I told them.  Near the boat to leave we ran into Ben and Helen.  “Oh, you’re okay!” we exclaimed, to which she emphatically reminded us she was black and blue beneath the clothes, she couldn’t remember a thing.  Well, in our eyes she was doing great, we breathed a deep sigh of relief.   As we were about to pull out the couple still hadn’t turned up.  Bummer, I thought, but hey we had Ben.  As I turned to look forward again a saw a backpack fly onto the boat and two familiar faces jump off the dock and into the boat… Let’s roll.

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Scott Dusek is a writer and photography originally from Seattle, Washingon.

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