Day Two in Nong Khiaw

Today we woke up earlier than usual, and after all toilette and pleasantries were managed, we were on the street and operational by 9:30 a.m. This was pretty good of us, considering we would rather have laid snuggling inside a cold bungalow for another hour or so. But we had a sense of duty and we were eager to embrace the day, such as what could be had in Nong Khiaw, this rocky, dusty northern-central Lao outpost.

Linthavong Bungalow

Starting the day at Linthavong Bungalow.

We had been plotting a trip up to Muang Ngoi, having heard wonderful things about it. Logistics, however, got in the way and we realized this would be impractical. Not only would it take 24 hours to reach it, and cost another 300,000 kip, but it was only accessible by boat from where we were. This was entirely inconvenient, and we put our minds to forging other plans (or leaving ourselves open to whatever the day should present to us).

Breakfast was had down at Sunset Resto, across from Sunset Guesthouse, just a bit down the dusty path from our place of residence. The pancake I ordered was better than usual, if I can judge this from thousands of miles and dozens of days since my last American pancake, and it was further improved with chocolate sauce and sliced banana. Rebecca enjoyed an omelet with tomato and onion (based on this, she made a spot-on Baron von Raschke reference, which I appreciated). She split her fruit salad with me. I’m quite sure these details will become pertinent later; pretty sure.

I want to iterate this point: we’re really enjoying these meals. We appreciate that they’re familiar (if not always accurate), and the ingredients generally are fresher. Nowhere have we ordered a meal that was reheated from a freezer; the fruits and produce were grown within walking distance. It’s just a nice touch, you know? If tasting the local cuisine helps you understand a regional culture, tasting very fresh and very local food further impresses you with… where you are. I don’t know how else to say it. You’re eating things that were grown and prepared right there, and something in your body will respond to that, appreciating it. It’s like the function of an organ you didn’t know you had, one that crosses gustatory experience with GPS function. That’s the best way I can describe this experience.

Nam Ou River

Bridge over the Nam Ou River.

After breakfast, Rebecca led us up the road toward some caves she’d heard about. This information either came out of the Rough Guide book we picked up or from conversation with other tourists in town. She’s good like that: she can accrue and assimilate information entirely outside of my purview. I mean, I knew nothing of Lao PDR before we showed up, and now I was forming information at the same moment I experienced it. It’s not like I was incurious about the travel guides, but with my wife doing the pertinent research, that left me to stumble through and receive every new experience with complete naivete and openness. I had no idea what to expect, but she knew of some caves in the area that were open for exploration, and I was up for anything. After a good breakfast, I’m up for anything.

If you follow on the embedded map here, we were residing in a small guesthouse slightly to the northwest of the bridge over the Nam Ou River. We had breakfast nearly on the shore of the river (more accurately, at the top of the steep drop-off leading to the river), and then we headed up to the northwest to explore the Pathoc caves, the name for which we did not yet understand. Bear with us.

Furniture makers

Furniture manufacturers laboring by hand.

And please bear with the alternate spellings: Lao is transliterated into English by multiple sources, so sometimes the town is “Nong Kiew” or “Nong Khiaw,” and “Pathok” is sometimes “Pathoc,” with many alternates for each. It was something to get used to while traveling, as a guesthouse could be spelled one way on the building proper and a different way on all the signs leading up to it (and maybe a third way in the guide books).

Well, we made our way up the road, which was highway 1C. The environment was astounding: the one word all the guide books kept repeating was karst, and nowhere did we see this word exemplified better than in Nong Khiaw. Tall sheets of rock shot up into the sky and abruptly tapered off into small grassy patches. In between the bases of these structures we saw thriving green farmland or patches of jungle-like wilderness.

It was amazing to stumble up the road through an environment of powerful, wild life like this. I recall the air being muggy but clean, full of the scent of mineral paths and robust vegetation. There were insects, happy colonies of insects buzzing in constant shrills, rising and falling as we walked. Any time the shrubs on the side of the road cleared, momentarily, we were compelled to peer between them and study the land, where rice paddies sprouted between tracts of water, and sheer cliffs of rough stone erupted and shot upward with no subtlety at all.

Forest trail

Momentarily exploring a forest trail.

Every time it happened, every time the brush cleared, every time we rounded another rocky karst, every time we found a new forest or rice paddy or anything, we had to stop and soak it up. Rebecca was more emotionally moved than I was, perhaps, but I still had to stop and take it all in, breathlessly, soundlessly.

We made our way along in this fashion, slowly but with determination. After a brief detour into some woods, we hiked up three kilometers (or so) to a large blue sign that announced we had arrived at the Pathoc caves.

This sign started a trail off the road, and that trail led downhill to what looked like a small house all by itself. I would have expected a small village or something to be there, but I guess there was room for one household out in the rice paddies, as the nearest town was only a short walk down the highway. That’s reasonable, I’m just… used to more congested environments, where people barely have yards and they buy groceries in units of weeks at a time rather than on a daily basis. I have different associations for a wooden shack in the middle of near-wilderness, but that’s my cultural bias. I don’t know any better, do I.

Valley farms

Farming in the valley of karsts.

There was a large hut with walls, which looked like the central living arrangement, and across from the tread-beaten yard was what I would have called a crude gazebo. But it was just this kind of structure that was quite common throughout SE Asia, I found. I didn’t know what the particular function was, only that my friends and I had used it as a chill-out area with music and beer, usually with a dense woven carpet and some pillows.

None of those were here; a bag of trash was hanging on one corner and clothes were drying. It was just an… extra structure for chores or utilities, I guess. At times like this I wish I’d had the language to ask them and protracted spans of time to talk about all the details of their domestic life, provided I could do so without coming off as condescending or disingenuous. I really did want to understand what this community’s life was like, outside of the tourist industry, but perhaps that’s just outside of what I can access as a privileged Westerner. Shucks.

Pathoc Caves signage

Entrance to the Pathoc Caves in Nam Ou.

In this area there was a woman tending to two small children, running around the “gazebo” and laughing, in the resourceful and spontaneous way small children will. There were a couple teenagers between us and the structures, and these two were pulling maintenance on a nice scooter. They were dressed more fashionably than the woman, who was clad in pragmatic traditional gear. The teens had stylish hair, tight jeans and fancy shirts, and they peered at the scooter in conference. I couldn’t tell if they were actually fixing it or what, but they were focused on it intently, and it served as a convenient excuse to ignore us as we approached.

All by himself was one young man in a red shirt, situated by a small fire. Something about the way he slouched slightly and did not flow with the current of activity told me there was something different about him. He didn’t watch the small children, and if he wanted to join with the teenagers, something seemed to hold him back. Of course there’s a gulf between cultures, where they have pools of reference that do not resemble each other, but there are also patterns that echo throughout communities, common threads by which travelers can pick up a whiff of familiarity. I understood the preoccupied and vain teens, and I understood the busy woman in her domestic duties. There was something “other” about the teen by the fire, with his short hair and blank gaze.

Bridge by Nam Ou village

Starting out on our educational hike.

Behind this camp (not knowing what else to call it), there was a rickety wooden bridge of poles and woven panels, crossing a large stream. There was probably no risk in wading through the stream, beyond getting wet: it wasn’t forceful enough to knock a child off its feet—in fact, one of the children fished a small crab out of the stream and tormented it with the other child, having torn off a claw, and watched it crawl in wide, slow circles with a scientific curiosity.

We deduced the way to the caves was across the bridge, but there was no path to the bridge but what led directly through this domestic encampment. I began to suspect these people lived here as permanent guardians of the bridge, and almost immediately we saw a crude sign tacked up to one of the gazebo struts, setting the entrance fee to the caves at 5,000 kip. This was about U.S. 60¢, and how sad would we have been to not have been able to afford that? We paid and received two crappy Xeroxed “tickets” in exchange, then started across the rickety bamboo bridge.

When I turned to get a shot of Rebecca crossing mid-stream, I also captured the dull boy in the red shirt hastening up the steps to the bridge behind us with a pronounced limp. He never said a word but didn’t back off when I looked at him, either, not now and not all the way across a cow pasture as we meandered down a rambling dirt path. Once we reached the Pathoc caves, however, he sprang to the fore and, with awkward, crippled gestures, guided us up the steps and into the network of caverns.

The silent, withdrawn boy in the red shirt was now our guide.

Stairway to caverns

“Becare full. The ladder is slipperly.”

Into the side of a prominent karst was built a sturdy-looking concrete staircase with painted metal rails. We went up these without a moment of alarm and found ourselves inside the caverns. The rock walls were blobby and amorphous, as though formed by centuries of dripping, running water leaving mineral buildup behind—no sharp edges, no glassy surfaces. There were plenty of stalactite-like formations, mineral deposits where decades of moisture dribbled down, as well as mossy buildup on boulders and slanted walls. Fallen rocks also canted at odd angles occasionally, lying next to entrances and pathways; if they’d fallen there, it was a long time ago and everything was clearly stable now.

We didn’t know the significance of the Pathoc caves, so every discovery was significant and meaningful to us. Rebecca and I conferred frequently as our guide only limped ahead, waited for us to finish chatting, then waved for us to come up and join him for the next turn.

Eroded cavern floor

Shaky, blurry picture in dim light of a very interesting floor formed by erosion and sediment.

We stood upon a broad stone floor that rose up in a very small mound, and this floor was covered with little lumps the size of baseballs, as though it had a bad case of goosebumps. Some of the mineral formations on the walls looked like beehives, I thought, and it was interesting to see the different effects this formations could create. A break in the wall provided a small window out over the valley of cow fields, the dirt path we took from the small household across the field to this karst we were now inside. When you’re touring caverns, any glimpse outside looks especially valuable, maybe.

I did wonder whether the mute boy in the red shirt actually lived at that household, or if he was unrelated to the fashionable teenagers and the hard-working mother but just resided there as a kind of employee. I wondered whether the teens in the nice clothes and stylish haircuts ever led tours. I’m afraid my mind was beset with all sorts of beside-the-point and tangential questions. I just wanted to understand the infrastructure here, in the verdant valley between tall, forbidding karsts.

There was a series of signs in the first chamber, a large and spacious room with a kind of dune in the center of the wall on my left. First there was a blue metal sign in Lao and English that read “Police Unit”, without any kind of context: no furniture, no markings on the wall or anything. We puzzled over that.

On a section of wall nearby, prior tourists had taken liberty to scrawl their graffiti in various languages. Other people I know would find this charming but I was irritated at their lack of respect. Tourists from many nations found it more important to carve in evidence of their passage than to afford proper respect to the historical events that made these areas worth visiting in the first place.

Pathoc Art Unit

This section of the caverns was for art and culture.

Deeper into the cavern we spotted a dilapidated wooden table and benches, quiet out of place on the sandy floor and within the cold stone walls. With this stood another sign: “Art Unit.” These two signs, Police and Art, made no sense to us and our guide was unable to decipher these for us—he gave no indication he could speak his own language (as other guides could do, muttering under their breath or stumbling for phrases), much less our own.

For a moment I played with a scenario in my head, in which something unfortunate had happened to one of us and someone had to rush off for help. It’s good to think of these incidents in advance, but this was a pretty grim one: if I got hurt and he had to run back to his house, how could he communicate to them what had happened? He’d have to convince the woman to pull herself from her chores and follow her into the cavern, leaving the small children unattended (which was probably safer here than in the States, honestly), where she’d appraise the situation before laboriously running back out to convince one of the trendy teenagers to bike back into the village, assuming their scooter was working… I resolved to not get into nor cause any accidents that would snap our limbs.

Sign in eroded cavern

Signs posted through ancient eroded caves.

Across the corridor from the Art Unit was a much older sign, in a state of disrepair, that said, “Provincial Art Unit.” The extra wording didn’t provide any useful additional information, so we stumbled on in confusion, waiting for more clues. There was more graffiti here, as though tourists took it as a cue to provide their own artwork. And I dunno, maybe that would be appropriate here. If only every historical society had the foresight to leave one blank wall for idiots to commemorate their passing, they might preserve the rest of their artifacts and edifices.

All the way in the back of the cavern, which stretched on like a wide hallway, where light began to grow dim over a damp and sandy plateau of flooring, there was a raised ridge reinforced by a wall of bamboo. It looked to us like a small, makeshift fortification in a recessed bunker. The sign here said, “Sand Unit to Protect Bullets.” I supposed the word against may have been missing from this sentence, if this bunker was a defensive posture, though maybe it was also a storage area for ammunition. It was impossible to tell, even considering the previous three signs.

The sign “Meeting Hall of the Provincial Governor” greeted us in the next cavern, with another table made out of bamboo and more signs alluding to governmental and administrative positions, so at least a pattern was forming. We inferred that this had been the meeting place, at one time or another, for local government. Flush with our “discovery,” we were honored to be escorted to these traditional, perhaps ancient civic meeting grounds.

Large pale cavern

This cavern was much deeper than it was tall.

Our guide took us all the way to the back of this cavern, where the floor began to slope downward. At the end of this, not far ahead, the ground finally broke up and emptied into a small chasm. The young man walked nearly to the edge of it and waved us closer. His widened eyes and slight grin indicated he was excited about something: he picked up a few small rocks in the area and tossed them over, one by one. It was a while before we heard them hit anything, and when we realized the depth of their fall, our surprised expressions delighted him. We each had turns at tossing a couple rocks over and listening to them strike.

He also seemed to enjoy Rebecca’s behavior in the large cavern: she stomped around and whistled to listen to the various echoes that came from different directions. Wordless as ever, his face lit up to watch her antics and hear the effects. Along the tour, however, I noticed he seemed to suffer from a rattling cough, and occasionally hacked up and spat a pale yellow sputum. I tried to think of what sophisticated Western medicine we might have brought with us, but all we had was aspirin and that was back at the guesthouse.

When we milked as much amusement from this as could be extracted, we proceeded carefully down the rocky path. Abruptly there was a jagged, broad portal and we found ourselves on the edge of the cow pasture once again. Obviously we were further along now, we couldn’t see any of the docile herd that eyed us at the start. The valley ran on for a long while, it seemed, and it would’ve been a pleasurable afternoon to stroll the length of it (as long as we weren’t transgressing farmers’ property), just to look up at the rocky cliffs and examine the groves and brush.

Everything looked so healthy and thriving; either the air was cleaner here or sensing that was a placebo effect from seeing so much raw, jagged rock and robust vegetation. Constantly I tried to remind myself that what I was perceiving was not necessarily so, but it was fine to revel in how things seemed to be, in the moment.

Bank of Luang Prabang

Slowly we pieced together what these signs signified.

Down the path was a new entrance to some new caverns, and this time there was a clear, hand-lettered sign posted overhead: “The Bawk (Bank) Office of Luangprabang, between 1968−1974.” That was the exact moment when our naïvete fled and we finally clued into what we should have known all along. We could easily have prepared for this if we’d read up on the caverns in any guide book, I’m sure.

These caverns were where the local Lao communities hid while the U.S. bombed the shit out of their countryside for nearly a decade. The U.S. military did this without permission from Congress, JFK called it a “mission of peace” and the next two U.S. presidents lied through their teeth about its existence.

Now, I have a hard time finding “Pathoc” anywhere online, except when Google turns up my own blog posts. My understanding of the Secret War changes every time I read new information, but my understanding is that the Pathet Lao (“Land of Laos”) were a left-wing Communist movement that fought both the government of Laos and the anti-Communist Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. “Pathoc” appears on maps and books and signs throughout Lao PDR, but the online databases insist on the spelling “Pathet,” so either this is a bizarre linguistic corruption or they actually mean two different things that no one can explain to me currently.

Deep cavern exploring

He’s only two generations younger than the villagers who hid here to save their lives.

But it was the Communist Lao who took over the nation, and it was the Communist Lao the U.S. was fighting, attempting to destroy the supply lines between Vietnam and Cambodia. In the meantime, vast populations of uninvolved people were bombarded in explosions and driven into cavern networks like this one. We were in the financial and police system, apparently, and (as I learned from a German woman, later this evening) other nearby karsts housed business networks and government networks. Lao farmers risked their lives racing across the landscape on horseback just to access the mountain under which the makeshift hospital had been set up, for example. Whenever the environment seemed clear, any available resources and materials were harvested and carted off to each cavern network, in an attempt to keep their society running while JFK’s “mission of peace” erupted the earth in fire and shrapnel.

Posing with our guide

We made it this far: group shot.

Though he couldn’t speak, the young man in the red plaid shirt very effectively used facial expressions and some simple, clear gestures to direct our attention to areas of interest. For example, we were entering smaller natural passageways and going deeper into the earth. Our perception of the air went from refreshing to chilly, and the rocky slopes felt damp with cold. It was plenty humid, despite the cold, and I couldn’t stop sweating profusely.

There was no light where we were going and our guide would have halted us and turned us around, but as it happened we brought the rinky-dink little LED flashlights we picked up in Luang Prabang, so he extended the tour into deeper and darker recesses. Midway through, he gestured for us to wait and pointed up, where we found a natural chimney directly overhead. The sides were nearly white, smooth and gently lumpy, and after a minute of studying them we realized that a small colony of bats had roosted at the very top of it: most of them were sleeping but a few flitted about when our man whistled up at them. He was confident so I tried to stifle my own nervousness about this.

And our guide took us as far as he could, as far as was safe. We absolutely trusted him and we saw some amazing things, with no overt or needless risk to our safety. My impression was that this was where he personally played, exploring during the dull moments when he was permitted to go off and wander. That’s the story I told myself, anyway.

Natural rock chimney

A naturally formed “chimney”, convenient for bats.

We three went into yet another network of caves after this, but this was full of sharp, plunging ledges and very narrow passageways. Sometimes I had to remove my backpack (we brought a small bag along for water, first aid, etc.) to squeeze through, and I’m surprised these features haven’t surfaced in my nightmares, frankly. I really did have to work to push my panic down and remind myself that I could back up and find my way back at any point. It took more work not to fantasize about a rock coming loose and blocking off a venue of passage.

To take my mind off things, I started to pick up trash along these corridors, and shamefully there was no shortage of this. However, I’m willing to be generous and not blame this entirely on tourists: it’s possible these caverns provide a fortuitous getaway for local teens to get drunk and make out, as teens will. They’re perfect for that, being both secretive and slightly dangerous. It was my good luck that someone had actually discarded a small pile of plastic grocery bags, the better to collect the detritus and clean up the area with.

Our young guide led us out of the caverns and back into the sunshine. The cows were no more or less excited to see us—complacent as they appeared, they were still powerful enough that we didn’t desire to approach them.

Lao children

These kids are unafraid of little land crabs.

But the biggest surprise was when the young man, whom we fully believed to be incapable of speech, actually started to speak. It sounded as though he were stammering through two or three words, repeating these slowly. Despite not having any grasp of the Lao tongue, it was clear to us that he was shyly requesting a gratuity. This was no problem: the personal tour was so exceptional we were looking forward to tipping him nicely.

On the way back, across the field, we ran into a young and beautiful Belgian man who intended to tour the caverns without any guide at all. Perhaps he thought he was saving himself a lot of money? 5,000 kip was only about €0.44 to him. Maybe he just wanted to explore it with fresh eyes and figure everything out for himself, which is still risky in poorly lit caverns of slick rock and sudden precipices. After some polite arguing, we at least persuaded him to take our batteries for his headlamp, so maybe we spoiled the surprise of darkness, but perhaps we spared him the surprise of breaking his leg at the bottom of a chasm.

There were two more backpackers approaching the cave, and once we crossed the stream and returned to the clearing, we found more people lining up for the cavern tour. Heading back down highway 1C into town we passed another large group of hippies, and we considered ourselves very lucky to have gotten up so early and hit the caves before the rush.

Lintong Guesthouse

Chez Linthong, Lin Tong GH, Linthavong Bungalow.

Finally we returned to Chez Linthong and collapsed in our bungalow to rest for a while. I nearly fell asleep a couple times, but Rebecca felt revitalized and wanted to go out and do more. The day was still young, so why not?

We got a light lunch at the nice café, Yongmany Restaurant, by the main bridge into town. The family running it bustled about with light construction and maintenance, putting up signs and replacing light bulbs. I remember crunching through the crusty French bread in my sandwich and looking up to notice two of the women glancing at me, for reasons imperceptible to me. Maybe I had food on my face or just represented a clownish Western tourist, but it was nice to look up and see smiling faces.

Nam Ou River sandbar

A relaxing sandbar on the Nam Ou River.

As the day was long and we had no definite plans, we decided to explore a little more of the village. That meant climbing down to the river bank. The geography of Nong Khiaw is endlessly interesting, with karsts that rise on all sides, and the deep valleys between them invite hiking through lavish jungle vegetation. But the town is divided by the Nam Ou River: when our van dropped us off, we dragged our bags across dusty, gravelly roads through the residential area and across the long, slender bridge that showed off the plunging riparian channel very dramatically.

We found a dirt trail with a wooden sign that indicated the main path down to the river, and we cautiously descended. This was tricky because this trail was frighteningly steep and covered in the ubiquitous orange dust and gravel. There was a section of concrete steps to facilitate navigating this sharp slope, but it only stretched for less than a third of the length of the drop from the main drag to the sandy shores of the river. When it ended, I took great care to pick my way down the slope; regardless, my Chuck Taylors skidded twice and I rode the way down on my ass.

And to think, women of middle age and older negotiated this steep, treacherous climb several times a day, hauling water from the river for household use. They’d have to be much stronger than I am, much more nimble with a better sense of balance, because I was struggling while unencumbered. One of the women scowled at us as we climbed down. I’m guessing this would be because we were traipsing down on a pleasure jaunt and she was hiking up on a chore, and though we skidded aside to give her wide berth she may still have considered us in her way. Or else she was just tired of indolent tourists when she had to work all the time. I certainly lacked any means of asking her how she felt.

Nam Ou fishing village

The prosperous houses are further up the hill from the river.

The river valley was stunning. All along its length, the Nam Ou was fringed with dense tree and brush growth, out of which emerged dramatic rock formations reaching up to the sky. Interestingly, there were little mounds of soil like small hills poking up through the river intermittently, and these were likewise covered in very enthusiastic bushes and shrubs. These spotted the placid surface of the river as far upstream as I could see.

Nong Khiaw, as I said, is divided by the river. We were staying on the south side of town with the guesthouses and tourist shops and restaurants. The north side settlement, mainly residential, was clustered on a large node that stuck out into the river, as it wended down from the northeast and snaked through the karsts before shooting south again. The majority of the houses and businesses were perched on this rocky node, but even down at the north bank at river level there was another village, so it looked to me. It nestled right on the shore of the river, at least 30 meters from the water (I estimate) where the bank was lined with long, covered fishing boats.

Chairs hanging from a tree

Nothing like the smell of sun-dried chairs.

One section of the slope was a roughly terraced garden; the houses closer to the river were rougher-looking and older, while those higher on the hill looked newer and better constructed. All were on stilts, if not to hoist them off the ground then at least to compensate for the steep grade of the hillside. Beautiful and thriving palms and other trees sprouted throughout the construction, suggesting to me that the Lao aesthetic for constructing a village involves as little clearance of vegetation as possible. I thought this was fantastic, retaining the gorgeous natural landscape even as the idle rich in California pay exorbitant landscaping fees to achieve a similar effect.

Rebecca and I walked a short length of the river, just looking for what could be seen. The sand was coarse but clean and light-colored. Other tourists were in the area, too. I think some were snorkeling and maybe had rented a pontoon. There was an elderly European couple who glared at us with open disapproval, as though they had reserved the river for themselves and we were crashing it like common boors. You know, I realize it sounds like I’m highly self-conscious throughout this narrative, but I really wasn’t. I was pretty mindless and present with my environment wherever I went, but the reactions of people like this couple snapped me out of it and made me wonder what I was doing wrong, to attract such negative attention.

Deen's drink menu

Deen’s Indian Resto features a robust drink menu.

But sometimes it was easier to shift my concern back to the gorgeous environment surrounding me, like now, and disregard two people whose only memorable quality was that of hostility. I think about that: if there’s an afterworld, and if your reward hinges upon people’s impression of you, when I’m called to testify as to the worth of this elderly couple, the only thing I’ll be able to report is that they appeared generally suspicious and unfriendly. That was my sole experience with them, and that’s how they live on in my travel journal.

We walked along the bank, our feet struggling in the sand as our weight displaced the grains—you know the workout you can get walking in sand. It seemed reasonable and safe to take off our shoes and socks, even, and roll up our pants to wade out into the water. The silt kicked up and stirred easily, flowing away as lazily as possible. The sun was bright but not brutal, and the lovely blue sky was nearly cloudless, making everything about the river and the karsts with forested foothills seem consummately healthful. It was a glorious day, and Rebecca and I were gratified to experience and share it.

After the daunting struggle to climb back up into town, we retired to Linthong Guesthouse and had a little snack before resting once again. It was after three in the afternoon and we’d done a lot of hiking and climbing, already. In fact, we’d done more walking and hiking and trekking and climbing in the last three months, at this point in our journey, than in the previous year, easily. Our bodies were doubtlessly building up but we were also regularly exhausting ourselves. So for the rest of the afternoon, all we cared to do was read our novels and nap on and off.

Warrior mouse logo

Is there a Lao legend about a warrior-mouse armed with sword and over-sized mallet? Is it Chinese?

On the one hand, it may have seemed like a waste of valuable overseas time to lie on a bunk and click through the digital pages on my Kindle, but on the other hand we really needed the break. Aside from the physical exertions, it was constantly wearying to struggle with the language barriers, always trying to bear cultural mores in mind, always keeping upbeat and polite. That wasn’t just for the nationals into whose lives and communities we were invading (in the most acceptable way), but for each other: with everything else we were struggling with, I had to keep my shit together for my wife’s sake, and she had to stay pleasant for me. That was the only way we were going to function and survive this prolonged excursion, and even when you know how important and beneficial it is, it can still take a lot out of a person. I earned the right, I think, to lie down and read some recreational literature in my own language for a couple hours.

We even finished our novels, each of us did. When mine was concluded I picked up my travel journal and attempted another bout of catch-up with backlogged entries. My discipline for keeping updated in my beloved Moleskine was deplorable: I really needed to set aside (and insist upon) one hour of writing each evening, but this was a habit I would never pick up. Rebecca let me know she was ready for dinner, so we walked up the main street. The sun had gone down and, except for the lights in town, the area was absorbingly dark.

Suddenly she swore: “We forgot to get the herbal sauna!” This was a highlight of the town, passed along to us both by a travel guide and the word-of-mouth from other tourists, and we’d passed Sabai Sabai (sauna/massage/restaurant) while looking for a restaurant. I checked my watch—7:20 p.m.—and suggested we at least find out the business hours for the sauna.

The sandwich board sign for the place lacked that information, so we didn’t know whether it was still open, but we also knew we were getting hungry. Rebecca asked whether I wanted to try the sauna now and just hold out for dinner, and I agreed to this. I ran up the steps and found the young man operating the sauna. He’d been chatting with a Belgian couple: he was ably fluent in English and only wearing a towel around his waist. My wife had asked me to examine the facility first, but I was too enthusiastic, buoyed to find it open when we thought we’d missed out, and I handed over money for our storage locker without looking at anything else. She groused about my impetuousness for a moment, but we were in.

Herbal sauna at Sabai Sabai

My first herbal sauna. I like it.

The changing room was a wooden booth, from which we stepped outside momentarily to get to the sauna. Everything was constructed similarly to the Scandinavian style, so there were no surprises to adjust to. We gingerly stepped inside and found our seats; the Belgian couple was already situated and the proprietor joined us as well.

The herbal sauna generated humid air that was dense with the herbal infusion: plants were left steaming on the rocks and they smelled great. We took a few minutes to adjust to the new air, though, relearning how to breathe here, and sight was absolutely impossible, but I was enjoying the experience deeply. There were only disembodied voices in the thick steam: we traded small talk, asking about our home nations and where else we’d traveled, the usual. The Belgians were abruptly reticent, compared with how they’d been conversing with the owner. When a German couple entered and sat down, we struck up a much easier conversation with them, which prompted the Belgians to conclude their visit and exit rather huffily. I was sensitive to this only because I knew my wife was very keen on mingling with other travelers, trading experiences and impressions. It was disappointing that those two had to be so standoffish, but I guess not everyone’s out to make new friends.

The Germans, however, were much more gregarious. They’d been to Muang Ngoi and we were anxious to hear their opinion of it. Rebecca and I had thought about Muang Ngoi as a possible destination, but we ruled it out on account of how difficult it would have been to get there (paddling upstream the river, as there were no roads to it) and how much extra time it would have required. Yet they had only praiseful things to say of the place, having had very positive experiences with their travel and stay there. They confirmed it was a good destination for travelers who were prepared to rough it in a village.

Deen's Indian Resto

Dinner at Deen’s Indian Resto.

We took a little break from the sauna and sat at a picnic table outside, and the proprietor poured us some delightful herbal tea. I really felt as though my profuse sweating was carrying all sorts of bad stuff out of my body, and the herbal tea was recharging and replenishing. As well, the night air felt bracing on my overheated skin. When I’d had enough of that I went back into the sauna for another round, to tolerate as much of this as I could and to see how much that was.

Afterward, Rebecca and I walked down to Deen’s Indian for a nice dinner, as we were ravenous by this time. We returned to the guesthouse and she played Angry Birds inside while I sat on the porch and took a couple hours to record the entire day in my journal.

Also, now Rebecca’s camera works again. It was frustrating to have it break, and she was disappointed to miss out on her own photo opportunities, but now it’s working again. Don’t know what was wrong, don’t know what fixed it. We just accept the mystery.

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