Hill Chicken

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The approach to Vang Vieng was beautiful, breathtaking. Literally. The increasingly ominous rise and fall of the hills made me think that I’d reached the end of my fixed gear road, so the day Marieka and Gerben set out on their bikes for Kasi, the next nearest town of any note, I bundled the bike into the stairwell of our guesthouse and stuck out my thumb for Luang Prabang, The plan was to meet the others up North in 2 days – the time they estimated it would take to huff it over the mountains.

My hitch-hiking adventure took an early turn for the absurd when the first driver amiably booted me out at the bus station. Undeterred, I walked on for about ten minutes down the road and stuck my thumb out again. Actually, the Laos prefer a sort of gentle scratching motion in the air – as though you’re petting an invisible dog. Weird as it seemed, it worked. Within minutes I had another ride. Within minutes, I was circuitously deposited back at the bus station, where the waiting drivers grinned at me like the damned Colonel Sanders, daring me to taste his chicken.

The third time was a charm, and I ended up riding shotgun in a local minibus headed over the mountains. Ken, the driver, was deadly intent on his task, which seemed great until I realized that he was actually falling asleep at the wheel – jolted awake at the last moment as disaster loomed in the form of a slow moving cow or some village kids sharing a bicycle. An hour out of town we passed Gerben and Marieke, pedaling away at the deceptively smooth road. For a moment, I felt a twinge of shame and regret, as though I’d broken some sort of fellowship. Then Ken shifted down into 2nd to take the first 10 degree hill. It was a killer, and the tortuous road only got worse from there. Up, up, up it twisted, the smooth asphalt giving way to rough stones and then patches of dirt.

Within a matter of minutes, the scenery changed from the balmy karst lowlands to lush roadside jungle. Eventually, the crowns of the sharpening hills were bald, and I had to close the window against the chill when we passed into a shady bit of road. Spare shacks clung to the roadside like barnacles to a ship’s hull. The children played with sticks and slingshots instead of bicycles and footballs. I was breathing easier about my decision to chicken out and feeling bad for my friends who were probably still suffering up the first grade. We made a stop in every town, trying to attract more customers to Ken’s taxi, but kept moving on without a new fare. At the crossroads near Phou Khoun, where the road splits off to the east and the plain of jars, we stopped to munch some banana fritters. It was an odd place, with the feel of those high Himalayan townships where a mechanic sets up shop to service all of the sputtering vehicles pushed beyond their mechanical limits. Women fry stuff over charcoal fires and the local mini market features a display stand of Noori-flavored Lays. A clutch of cement block buildings is suspended perilously between the road and the mountain, where blue PVC pipes empty raw sewage out over the rocks.

I fell asleep, despite the woman Ken had picked up. She seemed to enjoy talking and vomiting with equal fervor, sometimes mixing her two past times in the back seat of the minivan. A few hours later I was shaken to in Luang Prabang, the old royal capital of Laos and repository of all things quaintly colonial. The city itself is quite beautiful – a small web of streets covering the hill between the Mekong and Nam Ken rivers. Like Lijiang, it appears to have escaped most of the ravages of time, although this is really an illusion. A Siamese invasion in the 18th century left most of the temples and palace in ruins and it wasn’t until the French rebuilt the city to flatter the poncey local royalty that it really revived as anything more than a provincial fishing village. The wonderful old colonial houses have mostly been reclaimed and restored to their former glory by the very people whose grandfathers ordered them built. Boutique guesthouses, art galleries, massage parlors and restaurants where the local wait staff dress in whites are the norm. The streets crawl with local teenagers burning through Chinese petrol on their rackety new Honda motorbikes and chatting on their mobile phones. Prices have soared with the airborne tourist traffic from Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Vientiane and it seems more common to see tinted, air-conditioned vans shuttling retired Europeans around than the crusty backpackers I’d expected. Prices are fixed by universal agreement and most affordable guest houses are costantly packed.

Lucky to arrive before the teeming bussloads from Vang Vieng, I quickly settled in to Oudomphong Guesthouse (071 252 419), where “mama” bid me relax, take it easy and have a free banana. Her wandering eye scanned the road for the next customer as she urged m to try the tea and relax. This was a place worth waiting for. Oudomphong really is a family house, and it feels the part, its modest wooden rooms with thin walls and cratchity electricity surrounded by the glittering antiques and halogen foofery of “downtown”. A mention in the Lonely Planet book hasn’t hurt business and Mama currently charges 80,000 KPP for a double room (about $10). The family’s friendly, easy-going manner and helpful smiles really eases that a bit, though, and I’d suggest it to anyone not traveling with Versace luggage.

I got to work immediately on our next mission: to buy a boat for Gerben and I. The current incarnation of the plan called for him to arrive the next day, take it easy for a bit, eat a free banana and then head off back downriver with me a la Huck Finn. The Mekong is mystery incarnate – from whispered mentions in the literature of the Colonials to the more recent lore of the Vietnam era soldiers, the mighty river is shrouded in perpetual mist, crawling with ubiquitous tigers and fraught with deadly rapids and unreadable currents. It’s the stuff of legend in a way that few places are in this age of GPS and Google Earth – a massive muddy ribbon slicing Southeast Asia in two. Neither Gerben nor I have ever piloted a boat.

The next afternoon, Gerben rolled in with his bike, exhausted from the ride he made up to Karsi and sick from a celebratory BBQ feast he shared with the Thai couple who picked him up from the roadside and gave him a lift over the last mountain into town. He retreated into the room to sleep off his wicked chicken and I struggled on with the increasingly tiresome task of finding a boat. Like the river itself, the Lao people in Luang Prabang are hard to pin down. Tomorrow might mean in a few hours or it might not show up til next week. A boat doesn’t necessarily imply a floating object. Motors are 500,000, then a million, then “too expensive” – a dubious moniker that means, approximately, that the person you’re talking with would rather not bother at the moment. Maybe tomorrow.

Four days. I’m getting tense now, thinking that Tet is over and I ought to be in Vietnam working on my documentary. The days slip by, lubricated by CafeLao and fresh baguettes. Yesterday I wandered the length of the docks putting out word that I wanted a boat and today I slunk back to the guesthouse in defeat. Trekking didn’t sound interesting. Coffee didn’t sound interesting. The gimpy Amero-Australian couple making unfortunate biological noises in the room next door all night didn’t sound at all interesting. There was a brief moment of respite for the entire guesthouse when I played “Je t’aime” by Serge Gainesbourg at the anticipated peak of their sleazy encounter. Someone, somewhere in the building applauded and there were snickers from behind the paper thin walls. I almost considered a bus and spent most of the day drawing new keychains for Mama, decorated with all of the numbers Gerben and I could come up with in from combined linguistic. Apologies to all nations for the spelling – I’m an American, after all, so what do you expect?

Then came another Ken. He showed up at the guesthouse looking for me, saying that his brother told him I was looking for a boat. He knew where to find one, and it’s an excellent little boat. About 5 meters from prow to stern, she looks as though a few coats of paint had seen her through 10 seasons. Gerben and I agreed to buy it from the near-comatose fisherman who claimed ownership, and set off with Ken to buy a new motor at the Chinese Market. Motors are called “Honda’s” in Laos, which fits pretty well, since most of the Chinese machines sold are piece for piece copies of the trusty Honda engines made with substandard casting and cheap alloys. We picked out a 9cc model and managed to get the woman to throw in a propeller and the drive shaft for an extra $15, thanks to Ken’s negotiating. Tomorrow, the boat will be cleaned and the new engine installed. We’re waking up early to buy paint, tools and the various sundries we figure we’ll need for the three day cruise down to Vientiane. After that, it’s all wide open as the river dishes out onto the plains of Udon Thani and eventually washes up to Savanakhet, where I’ll take a hiatus to shoot the video I was meant to be shooting all along.

My thoughts of the video are scattered still, and I’m looking forward to finding some time to think on the river. All the big stories are there: a much-studied battle, an oft-maligned minority tribe, a pair of nations that seem at peace with their propoganda. Khe Sanh. My father was there nearly 40 years ago. One of the handful of American men who fought off the tedium, mosquitoes, vicious jungle and the hordes of North Vietnamese who, by all accounts, suffered as hideously to take the base and protect the Ho Chi Minh trail as the Marines and Special Forces did to hold it. Today it’s a forgotten backwater in one of the poorest corners of the poorest province of Vietnam. There’s lots to think over, and conveniently the Mekong doesn’t appear to be getting any older… This’ll be a trip, as Tim Page would say.

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About themicah

I'm Micah.

7 responses to “Hill Chicken”

  1. Jebro Smith says :

    Bok bok.

    ‘Never get out of the boat. Absolutely goddamn right. Unless you were goin’ all the way. Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin’ program.’

  2. abe says :

    man – i can’t wait to hear about the river trip – see some pics
    huck fin? more like Charlie Marlow…

  3. B says :

    you took Honza’s suggestion about the boat seriously?! any chance of getting Ken to pilot the boat? please…? 🙂 have fun!

  4. carlie says :

    micah- i would love to be able to do something like this. you need to post some pictures soon 🙂

  5. Bill Jayne says :

    Actually, the “siege” of Khe Sanh was January-March 1968, or 41 years ago. My company was based on Hill 881 south prior to the siege and the defensive lines we manned looked to the west out across Laos. In the relatively quiet days of late 1967 it looked very different than our muddy, shell-holed hill top.

  6. Bill Jayne says :

    Oh! And while we’re counting…Happy Birthday!

  7. Uncle Ed says :

    Sounds like an exciting adventure. Can’t wait to hear the next installment. Great writing. Keep it up and be safe. I hope the boat actually floats!

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