Before I left Cambodia for Fiji, I booked a Lao village tour. I had remembered taking one with my mother and brother years ago on my first visit to Laos and wanted to recapture the experience. However, somehow, I missed the part where the tour company called it a leg-pumping trek and falsely assumed that I would be Jeeped to a village in Laos’ rugged interior as we had been in the 1990s.This tour was an adventure for someone else, although I think that even a twenty-something trekker would have found it daunting. During the hike, I worried most that I’d die from heat stroke or fall down and twist my ankle! That was if a snake didn’t bite me in the jungle. (My guide, a small, compact young man in his mid-twenties named Lajly, told me that snakes often fall out of the trees, but he reassured me that they would either be dead or too hot to bite.)
Lajly and I started out on a short trip across the Nam Khan River in a long dugout canoe. By luck, we came upon a small herd of elephants and their mahouts, who were leisurely preparing to spend the day taking tourists to other hamlets and over the steep, rocky trails in and around the jungle and rubber plantations. Riding elephants wasn’t an option on my tour, and neither was a special audience with a herd. I considered this a good omen for the rest of the day.
Not until I hiked to it did I realize that the Theung village of Lao Sung could only be reached by four hours of trekking on unshaded, rough dirt paths potholed from elephant tracks and dotted with large mounds of elephant poop. The temperature was close to one hundred degrees, and the only shade came from the leaves of elephant ear plants—luckily, a plant quite abundant in Laos.
As Lajly was cutting leaves for us to carry like umbrellas, he related an old Lao fable. The story went that a merchant was traveling by elephant to Southeast Asia. When they reached Laos, the elephant told his master that he was old and could not go any further. It was time for him to die. His master, who had great affection for the beast, buried him in the jungle, and the elephant ear plant grew from his ear. His eyes twinkling, Lajly said, “That’s why so many elephant ear plants grow in Laos.”
Occasionally, we would duck out of the sun by walking alongside the edge of a rubber plantation or cool off by crossing a stream on a rickety foot bridge made of twigs and vines. But mostly we walked in the unrelenting sun as it rose high above us in the sky. It was late morning by the time we reached the village; rather than explore anything, I collapsed on a bench, closed my eyes, and didn’t move for a very long time.
The village, with its bamboo huts and dirt yards, seemed intensely poor. The only inhabitants besides the goats and chickens were very young children—who appeared to spend their days unsupervised, running barefoot over the dirt—and very old women with gnarly hands and bright birdlike eyes that squinted from faces of wrinkled leather. We ate a simple homemade lunch prepared by an elderly couple whom I assumed were husband and wife. While we sat at a picnic table in front of a glorified shack, two little girls peeked out from the doorway to giggle and watch us; the apparent husband smoked on a homemade bamboo water pipe. Embarrassed by the poverty, I took off the necklace I was wearing, a colorful piece of costume jewelry, and presented it to our hostess. Although her toothless smile was shy, I think it was sincere.
Unfortunately, there was no shortcut back to the river, so we started walking down the sun-flooded trail at high noon. There was no Jeep service to call, no elephant to rescue me. Eventually, Lajly turned off the road, entering the jungle. “What are we doing? Are we there?” I asked, hoping we were close to the river. But no, Lajly was cutting through the jungle to get us out of the sun. I ignored the mosquitoes and did my best to keep hiking, even though I was unbearably hot. Lajly stopped and said, “This way; we have to climb down in order to reach the waterfall and the river.” What way? All I saw was a black hole in the ground! “Climb down? Climb how?” I squealed as I looked into the dark abyss.
“It’s okay,” he replied, trying to reassure me. “There’s a ladder.” I peered in closer. There was a rope ladder, the skinny wooden rungs about fifteen feet apart, descending further than the light. “I’ll go down first,” he said. “Then I can help you.” What choice did I have? I could turn back to the sun-drenched trail, stay where I was and get bitten to death by mosquitoes, or go down the rope.
He directed my shaking foot down to each rung, while my hands clutched the cables with a death grip to slowly lower myself. At the base of the rope ladder, Lajly helped my feet touch solid ground and grinned at me. “Are we there?” I asked. “Close, close. It is just a little further,” he answered. “Take my photo,” I demanded with a false bravado—my jeans were soaked with sweat. Close was still too far, but I was okay, and finally we arrived at the falls. Tourists were swimming in the cold pool or sitting on the deck drinking beer and wine. I lay down flat on a small deck off the base of the waterfall, trying to relieve my aching back. There was no relief, no euphoria—only dull shock. I fell asleep. When I awoke fifteen minutes later, or maybe it was an hour, I was disoriented. When I tried to stand, my legs cramped from my hips to my toes. I was dehydrated.
Lajly gave me a bottle of water and assurances that the river and our boat were just a few paces away beyond the brush. Next time, I will read the fine print.
This story is excerpted from The Wanderer.