There are many secrets here in Laos. And the most obvious – nobody told me it is beautiful. Eighty per cent of the country is mountainous – not snow capped like the Himalayas, but rugged and mysterious and covered in a patchwork of jungle greens. There must be a metropolis of wild life in there, from monkeys to elephants to snakes to – tigers? There may, I was told, be a few tigers left; but much of this country is unexplored and may well be home to unknown creatures that would look right on the pages of Alice in Wonderland.
I crossed the Mekong, from Thailand, in a wooden longboat and spent my first night in Laos in a Homestay. We ate rice and vegetables – morning glory, pumpkin and river weed – on the floor with the family (and I learned that the Lao for pumpkin is mukfuk, which, after a couple of bottles of beerloa, I found unfortunately funny). We slept on the floor, under mosquito nets – I suspect these are a luxury for tourist use only. For the paucity of their lives was obvious when we visited a local market, with few vegetables other than something that looked a bit like a turnip, and for protein – mice, rats, and squirrels.
From the Homestay, I came to Nong Khiaw, a little village by river. My room – a hut, high above the water, with balcony and hammock. There is a stretch of sand by the water, and occasional tourists make it down to paddle, a few to wash or to swim. The water – a deep green – wears the colour of the jungle. It stumbles over rocks, but does not hurry. Longboats, with angry diesel engines, ply up and down, taking local people home to their villages, or upstream to fish. Birds (too few, they are eaten here) twitter and whoop. The air is sweetly clean.
The only boating trip for tourists did not run – there are too few of us here. I could, of course, go trekking. Maybe I could hire a bike and go the caves. Or I could climb a waterfall.
Or I could sit on my hammock, listen to the water, watch as the jungle on the opposite banks tints with orange at daybreak and falls into deepest green as the sun sets. Rise out of my hammock to eat, and maybe have a massage.
What would you do?