Paths Exist in Laos
Article and photos by Kevin Kato
The village of Ban An in Laos
When night descends on Ban An the isolation feels complete. The closest village, an hour’s walk away, may as well not even exist. The gas lamp on the wooden table casts a glow across the side of Kem’s face as she works on the strap of her sandal, the small tube of epoxy in her hand looking very much out of place here in this primitive oasis of civilization. Animals bellow and grunt in the darkness. Hushed words drift in and out from somewhere unseen; voices of children, not at play but at task. The cooling air smells faintly of earth.
Reeb has not yet returned. Kem had expected him to be back the previous morning; still, her face wears no new hint of anxiety. Stranger in a strange land, I feel the weight of wonder falling on my shoulders. Besides the leeches I don’t know what dangers might be lurking in the mountains of northern Laos.
Turning her sandal over in her sinewy hands, Kem bears the air of a woman not taken by the specter of sudden catastrophe but encumbered by the constant awareness of the burden of existence.
"Yes. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe morning."
I’d met Kem not entirely by chance; I knew from a passing conversation with another traveler that there was a woman in the village down the path who had a hut for rent. As it turned out she had two of them, eight-by-eight wooden boxes on stilts, with small covered porches and no windows. Mine is the closer of the two from where Kem and I now sit, and is the only one visible in the encroaching black of night. Over the course of three days Kem had offered up emotionally stunted fragments about life in Ban An. As I watch her work the strap of her sandal through with a rusty nail I listen to the words she has left unsaid.
“I was told there was a waterfall,” I said to her that first afternoon. “In the next town.”
“Yes. You are going tomorrow? Too late today.”
I hadn’t planned on when. “Yes. Tomorrow.”
Kem explained how Sanna was a 3-hour hike along a trail winding through the forest and along a mountain ridge. “It’s best if you go barefoot,” she added. This I accepted without thought or hesitation. Kem also told me Reeb could go with me if I liked. She gave no indication who Reeb was, only that he was supposed to be back the next morning, she could introduce us then and by the way would I like her to prepare dinner for me that evening. After pointing out the bathroom Kem left me to figure out the rest of her world on my own.
The path to Ban An is a series of disappearing and reappearing ruts in the dirt, passing through canopied groves, crossing narrow, ambitious rivers and bringing one past rough, fenced in fields. Men were pounding holes in the ground with long wooden poles as I passed. Women followed, dropping in handfuls of seed and covering them up. They worked not quickly nor efficiently. Their labor had a staccato quality, as if they were not fully convinced that their labors would amount to anything, even though they had no other recourse.
As the path nears the village the land opens up to wider, tamer swaths of farm, separated by low walls of grass and dirt and clothed in much tidier greens. The entrance to the village proper consists of a break in the cross post fence and a hand-painted wood sign reading, concisely, Ban An. The mere existence of such a sign is incongruous without the assumption of the occasional traveler passing through. Yet there is no other hint of foreign influence among the wood frame, bamboo wall, tin roof homes, the dirt of the only road, and the footpaths that string everything together.
As I sought out the woman about whom my traveling comrade had spoken I encountered precious few souls. They worked separately and in silence, cleaning or mending or perhaps venturing to further various parts of their existence. I nodded to each of them; each eyed me with an indifference veiled in suspicion, borne of ignorance or maybe familiarity. In my head I heard the words of a dear friend who had lived for many months in a remote Rwandan village doing research for her anthropology thesis: “You can’t just go up to these people and start asking them questions, you have to let them accept you first, and this takes time.” In a place like Ban An, it feels as though time is just about all they have.
Kem’s two huts stood in a patch of dirt and grass at the far end of Ban An. Nearby a raised and roofed wooden deck looked out over the irregularly-shaped fields keeping the surrounding forest at bay. Two men, their skin a dark shade of nature, guided their plow-bearing water buffalo in trudging lines through the grass and mud, working with bowed heads, glancing up only to check on each other’s progress until the late May evening turned their field to gray. They disappeared together, no hint of a conversation passing between them. I remained, allowing myself to be hypnotized by the serenity, listening to the village behind me whisper and settle as night came over the land.
Reeb would not appear the next morning, nor for the rest of the day. This, for me, was not a momentary set-back but a day’s opportunity as Ban An, like all of Laos, captivates without adornment. The sounds of a new day rise up with the first glints of dawn. Iron utensils and subdued voices serve as prelude to the shuffle and clatter of another day – in the fields, around the home, along the path to the next village. Women tend to domestic matters without power or running water. Men lead their beasts with rope and harness to coax the Earth some more. “They need a plow, a machine,’” Kem tells me. “But it is so much money.”
Alone at a table at the edge of the village I am anything but detached. Observing people unnoticed closes the physical distance. As I watched a woman with a flowing blue skirt gather sticks for her fire a loose cluster of children tumbled out from behind a row of trees. Some of them were of normal schooling age, which led me to realize I had no idea what day it was. Their straw hats contrasted with their clothing, a sampling of western world cast-offs. They were barefoot and seemed not to notice as they bounced through the half-alive grass. One by one they stepped up onto the raised edge of the nearest field and jumped off, shouting and shrieking as they splashed around in the muddy water of an irrigation ditch. They yelped and played, indistinguishable in spirit from Japanese school children in a bleach-clean swimming pool or half the neighborhood around an open New York City hydrant. I drank in the scene from Kem’s table, aching to join them, tethered by the absolute perfection of a moment I didn’t want to interrupt or end.
Kids at play in Ban An
Young souls sated, they slowly dispersed. Two of the kids led a third younger boy across Kem’s grass. I tapped my pen against my notepad until one of them looked up. His quiet burst of surprise brought the others’ faces to mine, and in the time it took to smile they understood, as I did now, that we had just spent several hours together in the same world. They giggled and bounced out of sight, and I climbed down from my perch to navigate my own barefoot way across the prickly grass and through the muddy water, down to the river where Kem had told me the path to Sanna begins. The men in the fields kept at their labors. The sun dashed across the sky. Reeb was neither seen nor mentioned as Kem prepared for me a dinner of rice and vegetables as there was no meat to be had that day.
The dishes, the sun and Kem were long gone when a girl of about eight climbed up the short ladder, plopped down at the table and slid a notebook out of her ratty Barbie knapsack. Without a word or a look my way she began working, writing numbers and letters on lined pages in no manner I could discern and no language I knew. I put down my own pencil and leaned over, close enough to pull her nose out of the page. I smiled. ‘Very nice!’ Her hair fell over her face as she put her head down again, not quite fast enough to hide her flustered grin.
For an hour not another word passed between us, cementing my suspicion that she was there despite my presence, not because of it.
Bugs flit in erratic circles around the gas lamp on the table. Kem’s hands rise in front of her and fall out of sight again as she continues mending her sandal. Both of her wrists are naked, and I wonder what time it is. Not for me, for I have become well-accustomed to sleeping with the stars and waking with the sun, but for the children whose quiet voices continue to ebb and flow from the darkness.
“The waterfall was beautiful,” I say. Kem nods without looking. I scratch at the faint leech marks on my toes, wondering why the hell she would tell me to go barefoot. Or why I listened. Over the next few days an answer would slowly come to me. For Kem and the rest of Ban An going barefoot seems a matter of practicality; sandals don’t go well with river crossings and muddy mountain trails. For me – and I wonder to this day whether Kem knew it or not – keeping my sneakers on would have made the experience little more than a walk through the woods.
It’s best to keep a stick in your hand. Leeches can latch onto your feet no matter how fast you are running, and trying to pull them off with your fingers just gives them more time to tighten their suckers as their friends on the ground get busy burrowing into the skin between your toes. As I ran through the mud and wild grass, jumping roots and rocks and opaque brown puddles, I wondered whether the locals carried sticks too, or waited until they got home to scrape all their leeches off.
The path had begun steep, rising muddy from the banks of the river. Drier dirt and grass predominated as the land slowed its ascent and then leveled off. In places, ruts in the soft earth told tales of wheeled vehicles passing through, though it seemed unlikely the trail would ever see the likes of even an ox cart. Around a bend I came upon a small herd of water buffalo lazing in a massive mud puddle; further on a wooden fence stood across the path, ready to keep them from wandering too far. I encountered nary a soul until I came upon the wood and bamboo of the sign-less village of Sanna.
Encounter on the way to Sanna
Surprisingly, Sanna was larger and more complex than one-road Ban An. A maze of homes and pathways spread over the undulating crest of a hill, nothing but the forest and more hills in every direction. There were no adults to be found. There were young children everywhere, dressed in dirty clothes or dirty underwear or in nothing but their dirty skin. Two of them smoked suspicious-looking cigarettes as they gazed at me through cloudy eyes. None of the kids looked above ten years, yet something in their manner told me they’d lived for many more. I saw no toys, no balls or bicycles as they tightened in a circle around me.
I greeted them, in English and in gesture. They responded in their own words, to each other as much as to me. They reached out, some to shake my hand, some just to prod. We shared but one idea, conveyed in the only word we both knew: waterfall.
They could have been leading me straight into the jaws of hell for all I knew. The path barely wavered as we descended further and further along a chute of mud and leaves. All around me the children laughed and shouted as they climbed over and through the brush. More of them seemed to be naked now. They swung from branches like monkeys at play. They gathered berries, dropping them into my empty water bottle. They howled in delight as I slipped through the mud, grabbing wildly at branches, sliding into bushes and tree trunks, cursing the same incorrigible ground these kids had thoroughly mastered. The world I knew was as far away as it had ever been.
The sound then the sight of the waterfall was not an end to the torturous game; it was merely a blessed respite. Alone I would have lingered on the rocks and swum at a snail’s pace. At this moment, I needed Laos and all her gentle quiescence. Instead the children leapt into the pool at the base of the falls and chided me, so I believed, for every second I remained with my feet on semi-dry ground. They splashed each other, then began splashing me. They climbed up rocks and jumped right back down, their delirious smiles daring me to do the same.
Thirty minutes later, as I was clambering back up that mountainside of mud, drenched and bruised and the long trail back to Ban An still in front of me, the kids did something I never expected. They totally abandoned me. They took off up the hill and back to their village, which had also disappeared by the time I reached the top. There was no trail. No footprints. No sign or sound of the children of Sanna, or of Sanna itself. I was alone, wet and barefoot, and suddenly faced with the notion of being lost in these woods, these mountains, for much longer than I’d bargained for. How many children under ten, left to play all day under no adult’s care, ever got lost out here? My thoughts then switched to Reeb and I jogged off, searching for Sanna in a subdued panic.
My erstwhile companions seemed neither surprised nor interested when I finally returned. The two smokers approached, then stood and stared from a few feet away as I passed. Their eyes were dark and hard. I saw a message in them, one of confidence and arrogance and contempt. This was their world, and I was welcome to leave. Back below Sanna I discovered two faint but distinct paths, running off not in opposite directions but as the legs of a wandering triangle. Glancing around at the eternal, unchanging forest, I wasn’t sure which one to take. I looked back; at the top of the hill the children had lined up along the fence, watching as if they knew what was coming. I pointed down one path and they rose up in a clamor, pointing and urging me on my way. I then pointed down the other path; again they pointed with me, inviting me to go ahead and see where it might take me. Again I motioned, to the first path, to the second. Again a wave of encouragement, both ways. Except, I saw, for two little girls. They had pointed one way but not the other. I raised a hand to them and trotted off, praying for the next hour to whatever god existed out there for that cattle guard to appear around the next bend in the path.
The children’s quiet voices seem to have suddenly been switched off. I watch Kem tie off the strap of her newly-mended sandal. My feet ache from a million sharp rocks and knuckled tree roots. I feel an overriding urge to ask her if she went barefoot to Sanna too – or if she ever even went at all. Instead I keep quiet, and continue listening to the things she isn’t saying.
Kem stares down at her sandal, maybe one thought in her head, maybe too many.
"I leave tomorrow," I say, although she already knows. "Thank you. It’s nice here."
She looks around at the darkness. "Yes..." After a silent moment she turns to me. "Good you see the waterfall…"
"…I wanted to go with Reeb."
For a short eternity our eyes remain locked. Kem looks into me, like I know something I shouldn’t – or something she should.
"He’ll be back tomorrow, probably."
Kem brushes her fingers over her sandal. "Yes. Maybe tomorrow."
The next morning, on the path back to Muong Ngoi, I pass a man about my age. He has a sack slung over his shoulder. In one hand are his sandals. As I step to the side to let him pass I speak.
"Good morning, Reeb."
His expression softens, if only a little, as he gazes at me for a quick moment before continuing on his way.
The isolation of Ban An is an illusion that dissolves not with the sun but in time. Men and women work, albeit with different tools. Children play and laugh and learn in their own way, the universal way. Paths exist, leading to Sanna and further into the mountains; back to Muong Ngoi and Luang Prabang and the rest of the world.
In northern Laos it doesn’t take long to feel completely isolated. It takes a little longer to realize that the isolation is never truly complete.
Kevin Kato is an avid writer and incurable traveler. His first novel "The Tunge Pit" and his first travel book "Greenland - The End of the World" (English version of the Slovenian original by Damjan Koncnik) were both published in 2010.
Details on published works, loads of travel stories and photos and contact info at: www.kevinkato.com.