arrive in Stung Treng after a three hour drive
from Banlung, northeastern Cambodia. Seven of
us are packed into the taxi, bouncing along what
must be one of the worst roads in the country.
Forty-five minutes later we’re in a dugout
wooden boat, a motor attached precariously to
the rear, sputtering slowly north through the
Mekong to the Laotian border and the massive black
cloud that seems to hold sentry.
half an hour, the engine cuts out. I look at Dean,
the tripping English lunatic I seem to have befriended,
and he does the only thing one can when stuck
in the middle of the Mekong, about to face down
a lightening storm- he offers me a smile. After
a few minutes, the engine starts and we sputter
forward before it quits again. I turn around to
look at the passengers behind me and notice a
Khmer man standing, carefully balancing in the
boat as he waves his mobile phone in the air.
He says something in Khmer and the boatman starts
the engine. We inch forward and the engine cuts
out. The man continues waving his cell phone in
the air and after half a minute or so, a broad
smile crosses his strong square face and I know
he’s found a signal. We wait there as he
makes a call to his wife or girlfriend or, more
likely, the border officials we’re on our
way to see (and whom we’ll undoubtedly have
to bribe). He finishes the call quickly and the
motor starts without hesitation, shepherding us
into the rain cloud that erupts just before the
Laotian border, heading to the land of a million
elephants/irrelevants; the most heavily bombed
country in the history of warfare. I’m wet,
I’m cold, and I’m covered in mud.
drive for an hour or so after crossing the border
to an area known as The Four Thousand Islands, eventually
landing on Don Det after yet another boat ride.
I follow the tripping lunatic, Dean, to a paradise
of lackadaisical leisure- Mr. B’s Bungalows.
Water buffalos actually roam the grassy patches
in front of each hut here at Mr. B’s. simultaneously
providing a sense of the outlandishly exotic and
a low-maintenance lawn mowing service.
morning routine makes every day seem wonderfully
similar: the sputter of motors drifting in and out
of my half-awake, fully-confused state of mind;
roosters crowing to urge me from a bumpy mattress
nestled beneath a mosquito net punctuated by gaping
holes; a breeze drifting through the wooden planks
that make up my temporary castle- a hut on the banks
of a furious monsoon-season Mekong. The humidity
is slow to arrive, but when it does it strikes with
somniferous vengeance. I spend the days sitting
for hours on a red plastic chair, watching the mighty
Mekong and all its dirty secrets floating furiously
by, or walking lazily around the island, traipsing
along the edges of rice paddies looking for water
falls and hidden treasures.
a week or two (Mr. B’s has a way of making
one lose track of time), I decide to head northeast,
with planned stops in Pakse, the weaving villages
of Ban Sapahai and Don Kho on my way to Sekong Province.
Sekong is presently the least-populated but was
the most heavily bombed of Laos’ twenty three
provinces (the ‘hmmm’ sound, faintly
audible, from this page results from my contemplation
of the correlation).
morning of my departure, I sit on a red plastic
chair and slurp one of Mr. B’s wonderful
sweet milk and coffee concoctions. It’s
7:25 a.m. and already I can hear the dull roar
of several all too common makeshift motorboats-
one of which will soon arrive to take me away
from this place. I finish my coffee, peel my journal
from the sticky yellow vinyl tablecloth, and say
my goodbyes to Dean and Mr. B, one of whom I’ll
see again soon, the other probably never again.
occurs to me that this is a place I’ll never
really leave. It will forever serve as a jumping
off place when I wonder how I came to be the person
I am and how I’ll become the person I want
to be. Eventually, I’ll stop to retrace
these steps I have taken through Laos. Perhaps
paradise isn’t the singular static location
that so many of us assume it to be, but a loosely
woven collection of the moments that exist forever
by surviving the fickleness of our memories. Laos
has awakened me to a profound realization- perhaps
the moments and days that seem nugatory to the
casual observer are the ones that change the course
of a life.
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