by CLAIRE CRIPPS
To South-East Asia we went, meandering through the north-east hills of Thailand, soaking in every bit of charm we could find. From limestone karst caves to bowls of khao soi soup in rustic kitchens, we sought the most luscious landscapes and people we could find. Perhaps a bit foolish, we deemed our Kokopelli packrafts essential components in our ventures. It was possibly the most parched dry season there ever was in the region, and when our first ‘river trip’ involved a week of more boat-dragging than actual boating, we were left just a wee bit disheartened. But, thankfully, that didn’t last too long.
One evening, we met two Australian men who have explored the rivers of South-East Asia for over 30 years. Maybe one too many whiskies in, we were lamenting the current flow levels. One of our new buddies alluded to a jungly river in a remote region of Laos that would almost certainly have more water, but was a true bitch to get to. Casually, he threw in the detail that this river happened to flow through possibly the largest river cave in the world. For what it was worth, he told us the name of this river, a major tributary to the mighty Mekong: the Xe Bang Fai. Our beta, vague at best, was solid enough to warrant a week-long journey to this alien region of Laos, where we would then attempt to figure out how the hell to even make it to the put in.
We spent two days on a quest for a bus driver who had even heard of the biggest town close to the river; better yet, who would actually drive us there.
‘Boulapha?’ (Insert shoulder shrug and furrowed brow here.)
‘Yes! Yes! Boulapha!’ (Insert another shoulder shrug, head shake no.)
Finally, one gentleman responded to our request with a hearty ‘Ohhhh, yes! Yessss! One hour! Leaving in one hour!’ And just like that, we were tossed into an old makeshift poultry bus next to a box of cranky chickens and 10 other people, headed who knew where.
Boulapha. Getting dumped with dry bags and packrafts seemed peculiar in this land with no signs of a river, like showing up to a swimming party sans bikini. The village appeared barren, uninhabitable even, both in environment and culture. Remnants of a war-torn region resonated, evidenced by foreign aid posts with individuals donning hazmat apparel. They were working to complete one task: detonation of the nearly 75 million leftover U.S. unexploded bombs (UXOs) from the Vietnam War. With Laos being the most heavily bombed country in the world, this region was hauntingly saturated with UXOs left live and active underground. It made sense now why this village felt like a land so forgotten. I felt embarrassed at times to think the locals might associate us with the shady penumbra of our country’s past. But, amongst broken language conversations, giant smiles, even bigger strokes of empathy, healthy servings of Beerlao on ice, and of course a Laos pop music dance party here and there, we were fortunate enough to connect and engage in fascinating encounters with these resilient individuals. Surviving, just as people survive all around the world. Beautiful humanity, at its core.
Our attempts to hitchhike to the river began a new routine in Boulapha – each morning, an ungodly amount of Laotian pho fuelled us at the kitchen of one of the two older village ladies, and then we’d attempt to hunt down a farmer arriving to town on a mechanical tractor apparatus. Noticing at least one a day, we dubbed this mode of transportation the ‘Iron Ox’. We’d beg said farmer for a ride to a village 30 miles away by drawing a map in the dirt. This would typically lead to the giggles, the shoulder shrugging, and eventually giving up catching a ride for the day.
But on day seven, after waltzing through the jungle one eerie evening, treading lightly to avoid being blown apart into tiny American tourist fragments, we finally nailed a tractor ride. The daunting journey to Xe Bang Fai had challenged us all the way to the spot we’d marked on our Gaia GPS app as ‘Maybe the put in?’. Now we heard the whooshing of the river a couple of hundred feet below us. Game on.
We inflated the packrafts. In less than a mile, the surroundings would morph from dusty farmland to the lush, theatrical jungle we came for…
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Read this article in Spanish, here.
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Jordy & Nass