Loose in Laos

Photographer and general world-traveling derelict Rick Gunn does gravitational research above the Nam Song River near the northern Lao town of Vang Vieng. ****Photo by Eric Jarvis****

Photographer and general world-traveling derelict Rick Gunn does gravitational research above the Nam Song River near the northern Lao town of Vang Vieng. ****Photo by Eric Jarvis****

"This is ridiculous," I thought to myself as I applied direct pressure to my leg. Holding it firmly for a moment, I watched as the blood flowed over my fingers, then down my shin.

I'd cycled over 13,000 miles, across 20 countries in the last year-and-a- half. During that time, I'd been chased by nearly every breed of dog known to man: Dobermans, Rottweillers, German sheperds, even a three-legged collie.

Vicious, snarling beasts, in numbers I could no longer count. All of them looking upon my legs as two giant chewy toys. All of which I'd escaped from unscathed. But there I was, just short of the Laos border, freshly bitten, and holding the gash on my leg.

I imagined the the headline: "World cyclist succumbs to rabies in Northern Thailand."

The story would read something like, "Gunn described his assailant as being a foot long, six inches high, wearing a small red sweater and a poof-ball hairdo."

As I began cleansing the wound with a thin stream of water from my water bottle, I looked up to see the poodle lunging again. I'd had enough. I turned the stream of water toward the lap dog's face and scored a direct hit.

He yelped in retreat. As he did, I held back the irresistable urge to step off my bike and punt the pint-sized pooch into orbit.

I dried my leg, cursed, then pedaled away.

Eighty miles later I reached the Mekong River and searched for a place to stay. That's when I came upon a guest house with a diminutive woman standing out front.

She looked me up and down, then said, "You stay heer wit mee!"

Then she flashed a devilish smile. Tired, hungry and wounded, I wasn't in the mood to argue.

"Please make yourself at home," she said, as I piled my bike and gear into one of the rooms of her Asian mansion.

"Are you married?" she inquired.

"Can't find anyone that'll put up with me," I replied.

"Girlfriend?" she followed.

"Afraid not."

A glow came to her face.

"Are you hungry?" she asked.

"Uh ... yes, I am." I replied honestly.

"Why don't you get cleaned up," she said, "and I'll make you something to eat."

Twenty minutes later, after I'd shaved and showered, she showed me to a candle-lit table.

Delirious from the day's ride, I watched as the woman emerged from the kitchen and lifted the lid off a steaming pot.

She poured me a sizable bowl of something that looked a lot like soup. I dug heartily into what seemed a strange mix of greens, and what I thought to be a rather rubbery consort of tubular noodles.

After a few mouthfuls she asked, "You like?"

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's fish insides!" she said pointing gleefully to her stomach. I nearly blew a mouthful upon the tablecloth.

Moving quickly to a large bowl of sticky rice on the other side of the table, I finished my meal, and began to droop with exhaustion. In the time it took to push my plate away, the woman had zipped upstairs and returned, having slipped into something "more comfortable." Just as I mustered the energy to make for my room, she'd put on soft music, dimmed the lights, and taken the seat next to mine.

When she finally moved her head close, I focused to get a better look.

What became startling apparent was that I was looking upon the hottest thing on the Mekong River - before the invention of the light bulb.

"W-w-Wow!" I said jumping up, "Look at the time! I've gotta get up real early!"

I made a dash for my room. A few moments passed, and I was laying in bed when I heard the sound of fingernails scratching at the door.

"Y-Y-Yes?" I called out, pulling the sheets up over my nose.

"It's just me." the woman said, "If you need anything, anything at all, I'll be just upstairs."

"Uh...Th-th-thank you." I stuttered, then listened as the woman climbed the stairs to her room. In the impending silence, another invention came to mind. One that would allow me to completely, and instantaneously disappear.

The next morning I jumped on my bike and followed a winding stretch of tarmac along the smooth, wide waters of the Mekong. When I reached the Friendship Bridge, I flashed my passport, then cycled into Lao's capital, Vientiane.

I was checked into my mid-priced hotel and reading a book when I heard someone approach. I looked up to see my good friend and fellow photographer Eric Jarvis.

"Dude," he said with a smile.

"Dude," I returned, and gave him a long hug.

Jarv and I hit the streets of Vientiane almost immediately, weaving through a succession of spectacular Buddhist Wats (monasteries). From there it was on to Vientiane's bustling markets, food stalls, wine shops, and tree-lined boulevards interspersed with French Colonial architecture.

After shooting everything that moved, we returned to the hotel and spent the evening rifling through a guidebook. Agreeing that I would park my bike during his stay, we ran through a laundry list of alternate activities that included: climbing, caving, kayaking, rafting and trekking.

Then Eric said it: "Tubing."

"Tubing, as in inner-tubing?" I queried.

"Tubing," Jarv affirmed.

He read aloud from the guidebook: "Virtually everyone who comes to Vang Vieng goes tubing down the Nam Song in an inflated tractor tire. The 3k trip has become such a popular rite of passage on the Asian backpacker circuit that bars have been set up on islands and beaches on route."

"Sweeeet!" I said excitedly, "We're there!"

Two days later, after an eight-hour journey north, we stood on the banks of the Nam Song River, our carcasses glowing white, and inner-tubes in hand.

Minutes later, we were floating beneath a spectacular series of limestone cliffs, when we reached a deep, wide eddie in the river. There we spied a horde of Westerners perched on bamboo platforms, roughly 10 feet above the water.

We heard a scream, then turned to see a bikini-clad woman flying through the air. She clung to a small metal t-bar, as it rolled to the end of a cable. As it did, she was sent rocketing into the water.

"Nice!" I screamed as she emerged.

After cutting our teeth on the t-bars for a bit, we continued downstream.

Moments later, we crossed under a bridge, and came upon something that resembled an MTV beach party. It took place in what seemed a small bamboo city above the river bank. There, on a collection of wooden platforms, a riot of scantily-clad 20-somethings drank cold Beer Lao, and swayed to the beat of several house-sized speakers.

Then I spotted the bar's main attraction: a massive bamboo tower.

At the top was a trapeze-like rope-swing with a platform perched 30 feet above the water.

"Wicked!" I called out to Jarv before excitedly setting ashore.

When I reached the swing, a sign read, "Price of admission - one Beer Lao."

"Couldn't hurt," I thought to myself, then made my way to the bar. I ordered my first Beer Lao, and the woman behind the counter handed me a liter-sized bottle.

"Uh-oh," I thought to myself, then tossed back the bottle of liquid courage.

When I finished, I made for the tower.

Within moments, I was doing gravitational research in the form of inebriated aerials.

Collecting information on speed and velocity each time I jumped, I spun like a corkscrew three stories above the Nam Song. Time and time again I hurled myself into spinning trajectories, flying weightless for a moment, before gravity called me back to the liquid earth.

Each time I hit, a plume of white water bellowed, exploding on the surface of the deep, green waters.

It was quite simply bliss.

I followed my bliss for several hours, before Jarv and I decided it was time to continue downstream.

As we did, the Nam Song seemed to have changed. It'd become the river of the living dead. Drunken, sun-burned tourist floated everywhere, drooping over their tubes like boneless chickens.

But as they failed, Eric and I had become bullet proof, stopping downstream at another rope swing. Climbing to the top of another 30-foot platform, we proceeded to perform incredible feats of aerial acrobatics, most of them by accident.

"Yoooooheeee!" I'd shout when I hit the surface, then climb back out to do it again.

After each jump, I felt as though I'd just added another 20 years to my life.

This was not without consequence.

Inevitably, Jarv and I would botch one of our dismounts. This would result in a series of painful landings that would take the form of the standard back-flop, or neck-twisting head slap.

Even more painful was the next morning.

As Eric and I awoke, we looked and sounded as though we'd been attacked with sledgehammers.

"Uhhhh ... my neck," I moaned lifting my head from the pillow.

"Oh, my back," Jarv chimed as he struggled groggily to his feet.

Sitting like a pair of invalids on the edge of our beds, we stared at each other for a moment.

"What do you want to do today?" I asked.

"Should we go do it again?" He queried in reply.

"I don't see why not."

I smiled, and we were off again.

A day later, we continued north to the former capital of Luang Prabang. As Jarv checked in at the front desk of a guesthouse, I ran my eyes down a poorly translated list of rules taped to the wall.

They stated:

1. Staying at hotel or guesthouse to attach guest inside and foreign country guests. Come to stay.

2. Guesthouse will not responsible for your valuable has lost the room.

3. Prohibit to bring any procession into the guesthouse that illegality including other weapons.

4. Disallow to apply another dopes and betting in the guesthouse.

5. Every tim you get in and get out please locked your room, before you leaving out of the room.

6. Not be allow any Lao woman, not your wife into the room.

7. Please deposit your wastes in their properly.

8. If any one not to perform this regulation, will get penalty to put on trial by the law.

After reading it, I discovered a new-found pride in my grammatical abilities.

Luang Prabang proved nothing less than enchanting.

With its mixture of French provincial architecture, sparkling Wats, and peaceful night markets, I recognized that two days within this Unesco Heritage site was not nearly enough.

But I only had a handful of days with Eric, and in attempts to see as much as we could within that time, we continued to the Lao's northern-most Province, Luang Nam Tha near the Chinese border.

Arriving at the small town of Muang Sing, we found a guide and began an amazing two-day trek into six hillside villages.

"My name is Oung...." our guide said, then added "and I am hung over."

Eric shot me a strange look.

Oung continued, "I was at a wedding last night and I drank too much Lao Lao." (Lao Lao being the local firewater made from rice). After his introduction, there was a long silence, then Eric shot me another strange look.

Despite his hangover, Oung slung his pack, and began leading us through the landscape like a caffeinated jackrabbit.

Not long after, we hit our first village, and Oung spoke with a young member of the tribe there. He introduced him as Inu. He would be Oung's assistant on the trek. After butchering the pronunciation of his name several times, I affectionately referred to him as "Irian Jaya."

After that, we were standing there listening to Oung's fairly indecipherable blatherings, when I spotted a small piece of paper tagged to a tree. It contained a kind of formulaic scribble.

It resembled one of the markers I'd seen back home that entomologists used to denote information near insect traps. So I reached out and grabbed it.

"Don't touch that!" Oung screamed. I jumped back. "It's to guard against the spirits!"

Only later that night - after I'd witnessed Oung pull his second all-nighter drinking Lao Lao - did I understand just how much protection he'd need from the spirits.

When we reached the third village, we came upon a group of children that laughed, ran and played. They looked different. Their faces were somehow wider, their hair lighter.

"This is a Hmong village," Oung informed us.

The Hmong had gained notoriety during the Vietnam War, where they were used as pawns by the U.S. to fight against the North Vietnamese. When the war ended, and the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, the Hmong were left behind, many of them to be slaughtered in retribution.

Engulfed by that thought, I took one last look at the children of that village, and a sadness came from within.

I turned to walk away.

As I did I felt something strange. A pop beneath my sandal. It was followed by a squish. It was the sensation of having just stepped on a banana. When I lifted my foot I was horrified to find the squashed remains of a baby chick.

Eric and I stood for a moment dumbfounded.

"No," I said remorsefully, "I did NOT just do that ... I feel awful."

Eric stared for another moment then added, "Yeah, but you should probably feel worse about the villager who will now die after not eating for three days."

Trekking on, Oung led us along a jeep road, to the base of a mountain, then turned onto a foot path. From there, we climbed 5,000 vertical feet, through the heart of the jungle, struggling for footing on the twisting stretch of single-track.

Six hours later, entirely drenched in sweat, we exited the dappled light of an ancient Bamboo forest, where we were blinded by a vista. We had reached the crest of a ridgetop.

A few kilometers later, we rounded a corner, then came upon the edge of a village.

"This is Sopee Kaw, a traditional Akha Village," Oung announced, adding "275 people live here."

Before we'd arrived, I'd read that the Akha were a Tibeto-Burman speaking ethnic group, animists that first appeared in Laos during the mid-19th century. One of over a hundred ethnic sub-cultures in the country.

Best known for their knowledge of the forest, and rotational agriculture, the Akha made their villages on the ridgetops of Lao's highest mountains. Sopee Kaw was no exception. The view was amazing.

After stashing a few things inside a hut provided to us on the outskirts of the village, Jarv and I set out to make photographs. From the edge of the village we passed a collection of sizeable wooden dwellings. Most were constructed of hand-hewn wood, with woven bamboo walls, and grass-thatched roofs.

As we entered the village's "main square," all heads turned. Akha women pulvarized rice, most of them naked from the waist up. As a sign of wealth, many of the women wore a shimmering headress, each intricately adorned with silver, beads and coins - all of it meant to signify wealth.

When we passed, they paused in long, curious stares.

Children were plentiful along the dirt streets, along with pigs, dogs and chickens. The latter reminding me to watch my feet. Then I heard a horrific screech. I turned my eyes to see a couple holding down a baby piglet as the woman slit its throat. Dinner.

A few minutes later we approached a group of men, and Oung spoke to the chief of the village. I found out later that Oung had given him his only jacket that night in payment for Lao Lao.

Jarv and I spent the better part of the evening photographing the village, mingling with its people, and immersing ourselves in a world that I will not soon forget.

Then, sometime later I felt the call of nature.

"Wheres the toilet?" I asked Eric, knowing he'd already gone. He pointed to the hills. As I made for the bush, a mischievous smile crept to his face.

"What?" I asked.

"You'd better bring a stick," he said.

I grabbed the toilet paper, and my walking stick, then walked for a ways until I found a quiet spot and crouched. Taking a moment to absorb my surroundings, I was startled by a wrestling in the bushes. Then it got closer.

Suddenly, two mammoth pigs burst at me from the underbrush, nearly knocking me backwards. I fought for balance while I swung the stick wildly.

They retreated for a moment, just long enough for me to complete the task and pull up my pants. When they resumed their charge, I hopped out of the way, then watched as the two fought over what I now realized was a free meal.

The whole encounter left me a bit ill.

When I returned to the hut, Eric smiled and gave me a look like, "Well?" I sighed and said, "That was disturbing."

"Alright, it's time to eat!" Oung said just before dinner, and we sat down to an amazing array of sticky rice and Lao vegetables. He had cooked them over an open fire.

After the meal was finished, Oung produced what looked like a medicine bottle. It was filled with his favorite spirit Lao Lao. Although he didn't act according to tribal tradition, (pouring a single shot on the floor for other spirits in the house), he did pour a shot for all of us.

When I tipped back the glass, the liquid screeched across my tongue with a taste that I imagined matched that of rabbit urine (although I couldn't speak from experience).

"More?" Oung offered.

"I'm good," I gasped.

"Me too," Jarv added, sounding as if someone had just punched him in

the solar plex.

Oung smiled back with a look that said, "More for me," then proceeded to get plastered.

I fell asleep quickly after that, then awoke again around midnight. Heeding the call of nature (again), I stepped outside, and watered my small corner of the landscape.

That's when I was captured by a light from above. It was the sky. Within it, the stars shone brightly, madly. Like a billion tiny flakes of luminous silver stardust.

Its beauty set my mind ablaze.

Then I turned my attention back to the village.

I pondered the Akha, their livestock, and crops, then the countless cycles of life that had taken place up to that moment. In my mind's eye I watched as the hands of the clock sped forward. As they did, I watched the endless cycle of births and deaths carry on.

Then, in the slow creaking of my bones, I recognized something else. It was my own mortality. My own inevitable descent towards the great sleep.

But instead of fear, I was struck by something else that night. It was satisfaction. The satisfaction that in that cycle there was a part of me. With that, I no longer needed to cling to the idea of leaving some legacy - some testament to my being here - or place within the history books.

For there, within that cycle, it was already written.

• Editors note: This is the latest in a series of journal entries written by former Nevada Appeal photographer Rick Gunn about his two-year bicycle journey around the world. Along the way, he is raising awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. To donate, go to wish.org.


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