2011. Day one. Four friends from three countries: Eric, Janina, Eevee, and I. We boarded a bus and traveled the only paved road in Laos running north into the mountains, disembarked outside of a city three hours later, and walked into town without knowing where we were going to stay. Eventually we ended up in a small little place on the river. Bare necessities—beds, water, and a toilet where flushing equaled ladling out buckets of water from the adjacent barrel. Six dollars per person a night. I love Asia.
Second day. We rented kayaks and got dropped 10-12 kilometers upstream from town without a guide. Utter freedom and adventure rolled into one.
Two of the things that evoke the biggest sigh of contentment from that deep, deep soulish place inside my heart are mountains and water. I had both. Every so often I had to stop paddling, lean back in the kayak, drift backwards and drink it all in. It’s beautiful, Abba. With the sun on my face and my feet dipping into the water, it was a moment that echoed with gratitude at being alive and for a God who is so much bigger than myself.
Halfway down the river we stopped for lunch. The river was peppered with bars and restaurants, shaded hunts by the riverbank, and picnic tables half-submerged in the water. Each establishment blasted music and boasted swings or slides requiring varying levels of daredevilry. We of course managed to pick the highest trapeze available. By the time we got back on the river in our boats, Eric had nearly perfected his flip off the bar into the water. I contented myself with attempting the art of letting go in such as manner as to avoid landing on the water in a way that invoked pain. Janina mastered hanging on to the zip line so well it was forced to abruptly throw her off at the end of the line. Her body folded in half midair with perfect form before smacking the water back first. Eric and I winched from our perch on the platform.
The rest of the day included swimming along the river route, sunburns (have I mentioned it’s January), showers, naps, dinner Lao style around a low table with cushions, and several card games.
Third day. We wanted to go hiking. Different guided hikes were advertised in town, but they cost more money than kayaking, which we all unanimously decided was ridiculous. So we ladened ourselves with water and sandwiches and trekked out hoping that a blue dotted line on a tourist map would prove worthy of being explored.
What we found first was a cave. We paid a dollar to have two young Lao girls lead us into the cave with headlamps. The stretch where we had to crawl on our stomachs ensured we were covered in mud by the time we arrived blinking back into the sunlight.
Not bad for a bit of an epic start. But we still wanted to conquer some serious mountain. The trail seemed to go further past the cave. The girls tried to tell us something, make us go back to the road, but Eric’s Lao wasn’t quite fluent enough to understand and his curiosity was insatiable. “I just want to see what’s around the corner from that machine up ahead,” he said. We laughed at that one later when we finally came back.
We followed the trail, which was actually a dried-up streambed. We crawled over rocks at one point that were closer to mini-boulders.
A handful of workers were mining rocks from the riverbed. They smiled as we passed. “Lagoon,” one of them said. “10 kilometers there is lagoon.” We all stopped and looked at each other, eyes gleaming with adventure. Our hiking took on a more determined gait.
The mountains were glorious. No picture can ever suffice to capture them. There were cliffs and trees covered in tropical growth, glens that opened up gleaming with sunlight.
A little piece of hidden Eden. We walked for hours without seeing any falang (foreigners), at least an hour without seeing anyone at all. We felt like four hobbits, trekking their way toward Mordor.
I’d like to say we found the lagoon. We didn’t. Five kilometers into our trek, the stream turned into a small gully that dwindled to something we decided was unwise to follow. Getting lost in the mountains of Laos before dark was blinking somewhere in the danger zone of foolhardy in our adventure meters. So we turned back. But the trek was worth it nonetheless.
On our way back to town we thumbed a ride with six Lao students in the back of their pickup truck for the last kilometer or so. Once in town they invited us to go out with them back to the river, but we told them we had to catch our bus back to Vientiane. “We’re going to Vientiane tonight,” they said.
So the day ended by swimming in the river and having authentic Lao food with our six newfound friends.
Then the four of us falang piled into the back of their pickup truck for the three-hour drive back out of the mountains. Hitchhiking back to Vientiane. Check.
As the temperature dropped we all pulled towels and scarves out of our bags, layered ourselves down in the truck bed like Tetris cubes, and watched the sunset and then the stars thicken in the sky. We shared stories and constellations and prayed. Not a bad way to start the new year. Rather epic in our opinion.