Archive for the 'Offbeat' Category



The Keeper, Yuba River Character Study

Didn't take a picture of The Keeper. Though he apparently doesn't mind. So here's a Flickr photo instead

He stood like a masthead on the wooden deck and yowled at the river.

His shirt flapped open in the breeze. The stomach was hard, muscles like little knots and skin tough as old leather. Cargo pants and sandals, not-quite-Birkenstocks. Eyes as spooky-clear and sharp as the river water, blazing from behind a scraggle of hair: shoulder-length gray and a light-socket beard that seemed reminiscent of those old miner photos, made you wonder if he wasn’t the descendant of some wayward band of them, a man born into the wrong era, or the last living vestige of an era that’s dying, been dying, might already be dead.

“He’s a dyin bread, for sure,” Alicia said as we tromped over the dirt path, stepping sideways so our worn old sneakers wouldn’t skid us into patches of poison oak. “Like a real-life troll gate keeper.”

Backpacks and coolers and limp plastic flotation devices—we were rolling 22-deep, a smattering of tattoos and a trail of cigarette smoke rode up from Oakland for an annual camping trip.

I could glimpse the river from the path: slick green between these flat, broad boulders, like a long line of really crooked molars. It was hot—Northern California hot, which isn’t really that hot—and each spot I saw along that Yuba River looked perfect, picturesque, a postcard of Sierra-Foothills pristine.

“The best spot is further down,” Chummy called back. “But we gotta to pay The Keeper.” And he smiled at the joke and people called out “Keeee-per” and we laughed.

“It’s the OG dude,” they’d explained, “that’s got one of the best swimming spots on the river on his property. There’s a fence and shit, a sign telling you you’re on private property, but you keep walking down and you get to this shack he built down there, where he lives and is always kinda hanging out. And you give him a couple beers or some weed or something, and listen to him talk for awhile, and he lets you pass.”

“I once took a photo of him,” Matt had said, “that I was gonna mail him, to some PO Box he’s got somewhere. I never did,” shrugged, “but he wrote the address down on one of those discharge papers they give you in jail—you know, we’re they’ve written down everything you have in your pockets and shit. It was all like: ‘$1.17 in change, a bus ticket, a pint of gin…’ Homeboy’d just gotten out of the drunk tank like the night before.”

“That guy is cool as shit,” Moe’d added, grinning. “The Keeper.”

And we tromped and skidded down, and sure enough: a wooden shack and the sharp glare off a tin roof and a gang of chickens clucking and a grizzlied old man standing in a semi-squat hollering at it all.

It seemed like a continuous stream of somewhat-intelligible drunk babble that we’d happened to walk in on—I could imagine him going on and on, with or without an audience, talking to himself and the chickens and the rocks and the river that didn’t ever stop flowing either.

“See that there,” pointed to a little fenced-in patch of green, “I call that My Feeble Attempt To Grow Something,” and yowled in laughter. A rooster yodeled back, as though in response. “Here you can hear the roosters crow all day long, yep. I been here, watching this tryin to grow—” pointed at the green again “—and haven’t left in damn near three weeks. Just had some people passin through to give me a few beers and some LSD from time to time and that’s all I need to live, you know what I’m sayin?”

Sadie opened her bag and handed him a few cold beers.

“Well alright, alright,” The Keeper said, nodding. “You are officially no longer tourists, you are guests, welcome. The only rules are that you bring back your cans and that you remember to come back, cause—” a pause here “—if you didn’t, it’d break my heart.”

“Yessir!”

“Keep coming back, it works!” The Keeper called out and laughed as we shuffled by. “And be careful on the rocks, watch your step—these are the most difficult steps you might take. Twelve steps, my own twelve steps,” and howled again in laughter, a not-quite-crazy kind of laughter that got swallowed by the rocks and the river and passing of the river, as we marched on to our swimming spot.

Going Native: The Anti-Irony of Khmer Glamour Photos

I sat once in a cafe in Tangier, Morocco. Some famous man-filled cafe where Western writers used to pen masterpieces, or cruise for ass, or trip out on then-exotic drugs, or most likely some combination of the three. It was popular with tourists—in the way that that Hemingway bar in Havana is popular—and with well-heeled locals. I was the only female, Western or otherwise, in the joint.

I watched as a man strode in—large, burly, brusque. He may or may not have had a white beard—I remember something about white hair, though his head was most definitely adorned with some scarf. He had that expat look of permanent sunburn and wizened self-satisfaction; he wore a long, flowing robe of ethnic print and carried a thick wooden staff. Two younger men, one with a notebook, another with a video camera and a microphone, followed as he walked purposefully over to what I assumed to be his regular table.

He leaned back in a posture of pontification, began what I imagined to be a long soliloquy, in French, on Moroccan culture and the changes therein over the last decades, as observed by his keen eye. The guy with the notebook nodded and scribbled. I watched the camera man look around at all the Moroccans in the cafe, wearing t-shirts and jeans, then back over at the burly old dude before his camera, his attire some approximation of those sepia-hued photographs old explorers and anthropologists took, that are now sold as postcards.

Our eyes met briefly. I smiled; the camera man looked embarrassed. I chuckled, imagined we were having the same thought:

My God—he’s gone native.

There are few things funnier to me than people taking themselves too seriously. Travelers/expats who over-identify with their adoptive countries provide endless amusement while on the road. So when I saw the pointed fingers and fake-gold-gleam of Khmer glamour photos, I knew it had to do it—my own chance to Go Native, as it were.

To clarify, this isn’t some chintzy gimmick produced for tourists; this is a Cambodian—nay, Southeast Asian—phenomenon. People dress up, get a pound of foundation and fake eyelashes slapped on, squeeze into gaudy garb and let themselves be molded into ridiculous poses, to be later Photoshopped several skin tones lighter and superimposed in front of illustrious sights like Angkor Wat, or the parlor of a well-to-do person’s house (a fireplace and Persian carpet are key). People do it for their wedding, for their coming-of-age, as family photos—it’s not uncommon to see a large framed print hanging in someone’s home.

It is, in short, the Khmer version of cheesy K-Mart photos. It’s is legit, authentic inauthenticity.

I hadn’t noticed the photography studios sprinkled around town until someone pointed them out. The sun-bleached signs of smiling couples, the window displays of sequined gowns—they’d faded into the visual static of Phnom Penh storefronts. Until I decided to get my own.

Khmer glamour photos are something of a rite of passage for Phnom Penh expats, especially the females. So I rounded up a posse, walked into the first decent-looking studio we passed on Monivong, and made an appointment to be turned into an Apsara princess.

At two o’clock on a sweltering Sunday, five of us clamored up the back stairs of a photography studio to the dressing room. It looked like the backstage of an Asian cabaret, make-up and sequins and traditional costumes stacked to the rafters.

There was only one girl doing hair and make-up; at about thirty minutes each, we ended up being there for a loooong time. My friends chose the $10, more modestly ridiculous options; I opted for the $15 Apsara extraordinaire, which included more fanciful skirt folds, extra fake-gold bangles, even a wig. Behold the transformation:

I'd never worn fake eyelashes before.

Looking sufficiently like a drag queen.

Through the mirror

Fancy folds

I went to Cambodia and all I got was this mullet

Lock and load.

A couple days later, I went back to the studio to pick up my prints—three prints were included in the $15 price. I thought of the dude I’d seen, years ago, in the cafe in Tangier. The difference, I decided, was humor. And self-awareness: I was doing it as a joke, a statement on the ridiculousness of myself in the Khmer cultural context and how I, at 5’10” and a riddling of tattoos, will never, ever blend in with or a be a part of that culture. The photos were tangible evidence of the chasm between worlds.

I smiled and laughed out loud and thanked the ladies again.

I went to meet a few other friends for dinner at the Chinese Noodle Restaurant. I took out my prints and they laughed—it was ridiculous, right?

I noticed the waitress peering over our shoulders. I felt suddenly self-conscious—would she be offended? Would the joke translate?

To my relief, the waitress smiled, a chipped tooth and deep lines. Then she reached over and took one of the photos in her hand, examined it more closely. “Very beautiful,” and she looked up at me with a kind of sincerity that made me blush.

This was not the reaction I’d expected. I felt somehow more embarrassed.

The waitress proceeded to pass my prints along to the other tables in the restaurant, all the women smiling and nodding and murmuring their approval. The women’s eyes glanced over at me and it was a kind of warmth I felt, maternal and accepting and utterly devoid of the snarky irony with which I’d walked into the photography studio with.

They didn’t think it was funny, and they weren’t offended. They thought it was beautiful.

I hung my head. “I’m an asshole,” I announced. Then, looking up and grinning, “But at least I’m a beautiful asshole.”

Phong Nha Farmstay, F*ck Yeah

I could tell by the way he slid the business card over to me, by the utter seriousness in his eyes, that he wasn’t fucking around. “Hands down, without a doubt,” he stabbed the card with his index finger, “the best thing I did in Vietnam.”

I put the Phong Nha Farmstay card in my wallet. It stayed there for nearly 3 months. I knew I’d be headed back through Vietnam for my flight home and, now, I knew where I’d be stopping along the way.

Central Vietnam’s caves have been making a lot of buzz lately. A few months ago, National Geographic ran a feature on the newly discovered Song Doong/World’s Biggest Cave. And Thien Duong/Paradise Cave, which had previously been thought to be the world’s biggest cave, officially opened for tourism. Not that I’m the biggest cave person in the world—just that I’ve traveled enough to know that the best recommendations often come, not from guidebooks and tourists offices, but from other travelers.

And so it went with Phong Nha Farmstay. Sure, I could have ventured out to the area independently. Or I could have done a day trip to Paradise Cave and been sufficiently blown away by the other-worldly spectacle of it: stalactites dripping and stalagmites rising, looking like sea kelp, so that I didn’t know where in the earth I was, so that I looked up at the cathedral of limestone and exclaimed, “Holy shit, I didn’t know the earth could do this.”

I could have stared out of a bus window at the Ke Bang National Park that contains the cave, as well as some 300 others, and I could have seen American bomb craters or perhaps even spotted the rare langur monkeys that we saw rattling around in the trees.

But I wouldn’t have ridden down Victory Highway. I wouldn’t have gotten to learn the local history so well. I wouldn’t have watched a former VN medic squat down beside a girl’s motorbike-accident wound and apply crushed penicillin to dry it out and keep the insects away. And I wouldn’t have had a pool to swim in or killer food to eat either.

Phong Nha Farmstay opened in December 2010, in the same month as Paradise Cave. While the nearby Phong Nha Cave was the second largest internal tourism site in Vietnam last year, the area is still largely unknown to Westerners—children still wave when you pass by, women touch your curly hair curiously and giggle, and you don’t see a single “Good Morning Vietnam” shirt for sale. But with the biodiversity and political history of Ke Bang National Park, and the never-ending quest of travelers to find the “real” fill-in-the-country’s-name, the region unlikely to stay that way.

Which is what Phong Nha Farmstay is banking on. Its 7 private rooms and 1 dorm room were never full during my 3 night stay, though this too is unlikely to stay that way. The place is run by Australian expat Ben and his Vietnamese wife Bich, who grew up in the Cu Nam village where the farmstay is located; milling around are also their infant son; Ben’s daughter; Bich’s mother (the medic), father and brother; and a slew of easy-going staff. They set the tone for a professional yet homey environment—solidifying my view that, more than uniforms and fawning, the best thing you can do in the service industry is really, truly give a shit about your product and your customers.

I took their 1-day tour of Ke Bang National Park and Paradise Cave. We rode on the back of motorbikes, down Victory Highway, which is officially closed to foreigners (Ben’s wrangled some kind of deal, I didn’t ask what), which was built to transport goods during the war. Riding down the near deserted highway, I couldn’t see any of the rare mammals or the thousands of species of plants or birds that the park contains—all I could see was dense green, the cliffs and peaks of mountains, the white flutter of butterflies along the roadside.

We made several stops along the way at sites important to the Vietnam/American War. North of the DMZ line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail runs through the park, which was heavily bombed during the war. A museum is currently being built. We stopped at the memorial 8 Ladies Cave, as well as a somewhat-obscured vista of a downed helicopter.

The tour was led by Ben and his buddy Dave, a white dude with deep smile wrinkles, a camouflage vest and a permanent cigarette dangling from his lips—the kind of semi-grizzled expat guys that off-road motorbikes and cold beer were made for. They were knowledgeable and funny and didn’t take themselves too seriously. Along for the ride was also their underling Tom, a recent transplant from Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, who had Iron Maiden board shorts and the greenest goddamn eyes I’ve ever seen.

Paradise Cave itself was a trip. It was designed by a private developer, and felt like a tasteful, eco-Disneyland. There was an automated turnstile and go-carts to transport the half-dozen tourists we saw. Unlike the nearby Phong Nha Cave, decked out in red, green and purple disco lights, Paradise Cave is lit with energy-efficient lighting. We wandered through the kilometer of deck open to the public, our voices the only ones echoing in the cavernous dark.

We then stopped by a mountain-stream river, where we stripped off our clothes and leaped from rocks and sunbathed and poked around the lagoons and sandy shores. We were lucky enough to spot some langur monkeys hopping around the trees on our way back to the farmstay, where we chilled and drank smoothies/beer.

And I have to agree with the random dude, whose name I forget, who handed me that business card all those months ago—Phong Nha Farmstay was the coolest thing I did in Vietnam. It gave me a fuller, more complete experience of the country—what it’s like outside of the cities and the tourist towns and even the beaches. I don’t think I’d be walking away, as I will in a few short days, with the same picture of Vietnam if I hadn’t gone there.

Sunset over the rice paddies

**

Travel Tips: Phong Nha Farmstay

Contact the farmstay, and they’ll make it easy to reach them—they’ll arrange a taxi from Dong Hoi, which costs about 370,000 dong. It’s best to come by plane or train; as there’s no official bus station that I could discern in Dong Hoi, it’ll be hard for the taxi to locate you otherwise. Dong Hoi is along the Reunification train line, and well-connected to other cities by bus.

The farmstay is a mid-range experience. Private rooms are $25-35 night, with air-con and hot water, and there’s a somewhat cramped 6-bed dorm room with beds for $8. Additional rooms are being built next door, at Bich’s brother’s house. Food is not cheap but delicious. It’s all at restaurant, not street food, prices, so you’ll be paying $2-6 per meal. It is, however, some of the best food I’ve eaten in Vietnam.

You can also expect to meet awesome fellow travelers. Like these Icelandic dudes. Bad asses all the way.

The 1-day tour of Ke Bang is $45, $50 with a driver, which is recommended. This is steep for a lot of backpackers, but like the food, definitely worth it. Besides, are you really gonna come all the way out there and not see the park/cave?

One of the goals of the farmstay is to train local folks in Western tourism. There’s a sweet note on the front page of the menu explaining that some staff have more experience than others, and that if mistakes are made, please communicate them. So when one guy was brought Coco Pops instead of Muesli, the situation was handled gracefully. You can tell a lot about a business by how they handle their mistakes, and in this regard, Phong Nha Farmstay proves itself as quality.

Adventures in Vietnamese Bureaucracy: Dong Hoi Visa Shenanigans

I didn't take many pictures amid all this. So here's a boat.

Blond and sun-crisp, with a Marlon Brandon mouth and board shorts, Ben was the first Westerner I’d seen in Dong Hoi.

He lit a cigarette and sighed as his driver secured my backpack to the roof of the SUV. “Where are you from in the States?”

“California.”

“Ah, well,” he exhaled an agitated puff, “this is like the Alabama of Vietnam.”

I’d only spent 20 hours in Dong Hoi, so I wasn’t exactly in the position to agree or disagree. But I could verify that during those hours, I hadn’t seen any other foreigners. I hadn’t been able to communicate with anyone, hadn’t seen any English or any Western food, and I certainly hadn’t seen the travel agency I so desperately needed.

My first clue that I was officially off the beaten path was when the minivan from Dong Ha had more or less slid the door open and pushed me out onto the main strip of Dong Hoi, the tout smiling and yelling back at me, “Dong Hoi.”

I’d been lured to this part of the country by the Phong Nha Farmstay, an independent, family-run homestay that was also one of the few outfitters to run tours to the newly opened Paradise Cave.

But what I needed first was a travel agency—the kind I’d see all over the other places I’d been in the country, English-language signs advertising tourism services. I needed a visa extension: my 3-month, multiple-entry one was due to expire just 4 days before I fly out. While in Laos, I’d spent a good hour researching extensions, grace periods, whether I should just apply for a new visa or try to extend the one I have. I’d come up with zero in the way of solid, conclusive information. You could, it was rumored, overstay by 48 hours with no penalty. After that? Both Google and the Vietnamese Immigration website were wholly unhelpful. My plan was: get to Vietnam, find a travel agency in Dong Hoi, drop my passport there while I went to the farmstay for four days, pick up my passport when I returned to Dong Hoi for my bus to Hanoi. It wasn’t air-tight, but it was the best I could devise.

But after circling a dusky Dong Hoi a few times, I determined that there were no travel agencies. Because there were no Western tourists. I picked up a SIM card and called Ben, from the Phong Nha Farmstay.

“Listen,” Ben told me after I explained my situation, “I’ve got a guy in Dong Hoi.” He gave me the info of a man named Hung. After an ensuing half-dozen phone calls triangulating between Ben, Hung and myself, I ended up at Hung’s office the next morning, 2km down the main highway, a small room crammed with computers and tourism posters—in Vietnamese.

“Why didn’t you just get another visa?” Hung drilled me.

“Because I didn’t know I needed to.”

“Why did you wait so long to apply for an extension?”

“Because I couldn’t find any information on whether I had to extend it or not.”

Hung sighed. “This will be a problem.” He lectured me on much easier it would have been to just get a new visa while I was in Laos. I nodded, not bothering to explain the obscurity of Vietnamese bureaucracy.

He made a phone call; I sipped a glass on tea. He wheeled back over to me, giving a grave-faced and round-about explanation for why I couldn’t apply for a normal extension, why I had to have a rush, one-day extension. Which cost $100.

At which point Ben called me. “How’s it going with the visa there?”

I explained the situation. He sighed. “Let me talk to Hung.” The phone passed back and forth a few times. “Okay, listen,” Ben told me, “what Hung’s telling me is that you can’t leave your passport in Dong Hoi, because if the extension gets denied, we could possibly get fined for having someone illegal at the farmstay.” I chuckled at the idea of myself being illegal. “So it looks like you’ve got to do the rush, sorry bout that.”

After the initial wave of nausea, I succumbed to the idea that I’d have to part with $100. Live and learn—and blog about it so that other poor saps can learn too. Hung told me he’d call when it was done, around 3 or 4 o’clock.

I commenced to wander around the sweltering town of Dong Hoi, the faded colonial streets, the floating restaurants and wooden fishing boats, waving at the boys on bicycles that called out “hello” at me. I’d retreated to the lobby of my hotel—where I’d been the only guest—when Hung called. “There’s a problem with your visa. You didn’t tell me you have a business visa.”

I let out a laugh. “Well, I didn’t know I had one. I applied for a tourist visa.”

“The Immigration office says they need a health check and a letter from your employer to extend your visa.”

“But I don’t have an employer. I don’t actually work in Vietnam. It’s a mistake.”

“Then you’ll have to go to Hanoi. Immigration here can’t do it.”

That was about the time Ben showed up, an SUV packed with family and supplies he’d picked up in Hue. “Well shit,” he said, “let’s drive over to Hung’s.”

There aren’t hardly any Westerners in this province, Ben explained, so they aren’t used to dealing with tourists. The Phong Nha Cave might be the biggest tourist attraction in Vietnam, but that was only for Vietnamese. Westerners are rare, and everything having to do with Westerners exceedingly difficult.

On the sidewalk in front of Hung’s office, Hung shook his head and handed my money back to me. We stood around and ate ice-cream from the corner store, brain-storming.

“I mean, fuck,” Ben said, “you could just overstay.”

His Vietnamese wife Vik shook her head. “No. Better to do it the legal way.”

We discussed options. I could take a bus to Hanoi that night, and get it sorted out there. I could take a bus to Hue, hoping I could sort it out there, then take a bus back to the farmstay. Or I could say fuck it.

“I mean, what’s the worst that’ll happen?” I asked. “Will they arrest me or detain me?”

“No, no. I think officially, they charge you $25 a day. But a mate of mine overstayed and they just waved him through. Worst, I say, is they put something in your passport saying you can’t come back for three years.”

I shrugged. “I can live with that.”

I had something less than a chuckle when I imagined myself actually being an illegal in Vietnam. But after all the day’s shenanigans, I really could live with it..

Adventures in Lao Transit: Ban Natane to Savannakhet

One hand tractor, a boat, two sawng thaew and a local bus so packed I had to crouch in the stairwell amid the rice sacks for 87km—I’ve had my Lao transit experience.

Tell other travelers you’re headed to Laos, and you’ll hear two things: “The people are so friendly, so nice!” and “Ugh, I was on this 12-hour chicken bus…”

Picturesque breakdown

Lao transit is infamous for being some of the ricketiest, breaking-down-ist in the SE Asia, maybe the world. Travelers hang weary heads over bottles of Beer Lao, swap war stories: the number of people standing in the aisle, the amount of livestock on board, the various strange cargo, number of break-downs and length of time to go 370km (12 hours is actually purty good). Instead of garnering scene cred, it seems more like commiserating, deriving solace from a shared trauma.

Given that context, my mission from remote Ban Natane to bustling metropolis Savannakhet was smooth, seamless, enjoyable even. An at a cool 10 hours, it could be said that I lucked the fuck out.

I awoke in Batane to a breakfast of fish soup, sticky rice and Nescafe. One of the men from the Baci ceremony a few nights prior came up the wooden ladder, chatted with Pauline’s supervisor. They nodded, glanced over at me. “Okay,” the supervisor said, “you go with him.”

With my transport clearly mapped out for me, I gathered my bags, said my good-byes. I left Ban Natane in a spray of brown water, thrown up from the wheels of another hand tractor. I’d gotten a little better at riding, crouched down, clutched the railing, teeth chattering with every dip and tree root. It’s a little like the squat toilet—it takes time, practice, to hone your particular method.

A half hour later, we arrived at the “dock”—a dirt slope where wooden boats lay half-submerged in the still river water. A small local group of men gathered, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, all with the lean muscles and chiseled features of people who’ve done hard labor their whole lives.

They commenced to scooping out water from one of the boats with a halved gasoline canister, assembling the engine and oars. Now, if you take the tourist boat, they allow a maximum of three passengers with two boatmen. But this was not the boat of life vests and Tevas (which would have been useful); this was the local boat, whose main purpose wasn’t to transport people but goods.

We piled six people, about a dozen parcels and one motorbike on that baby and cruised into the cave.

This is how we roll/paddle

Suffice to say, we bottomed out a half dozen times. Hopping out, pushing the boat, scooping water out, the crunching sound of rock—through a particular patch of rocks, the men had to unload the boat entirely, then reload it. They wouldn’t let me help. I stood in the damp cool and watched a sixty-some year-old man carry my backpack.

As they stood ankles in the water and moved boxes, one of the men lit a cigarette. In the light of his headlamp, I thought the dance of the smoke was about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was all still magical, majestic to me—the cave, the village, the way of life. But this was these men’s reality. They moved with efficiency, knowing the cave like I know the rhythm of the stoplights and crosswalks and trains. They seemed neither annoyed nor frustrated with the archaic and cumbersome method of transport. They had the expression of commuters. Except they smoked and laughed more.

On the other side of the cave, I bowed and said my thank-yous. I rode two largely uneventful sawng thaew—one back to Ban Na Hin, another to the Highway 13 crossroads. The sky thundered and the plastic bags of produce whipped and whistled in the wind.

It began to rain as I climbed off, hoisted my bag over my shoulder and dashed for an awning. I’d been told that buses to Savannakhet pass through the junction “all the time”—though what that meant in rural Lao speak, I wasn’t sure. I stood in a place that seemed like it wanted to be a bus stop, amid the fruit and sticky rice vendors, crouched down against the rain.

An old Korean bus rattled by, slowed to a stop. The tout leaned out the doorway, waved his arm at me as I jogged through the puddles. “Savannakhet?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” he nodded and ushered me in before I could think twice.

I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.

For the last 100km, managed to score a seat in the back. Catch: I had to climb over the piles of luggage to get there.

That’s because I couldn’t move any further. The crowd of people, luggage, cardboard boxes and rice sacks was so thick I had to wedge myself into the corner the bus door vacated when it closed, the leaky seal splashing a refreshing mist of Lao rain on my face.

Two grim-faced Westerners stood out in the crowd: a boy sitting on a blue plastic cooler, a girl standing behind him, trying to clutch anything she could. When a lumbering cow in the road made the driver screech and swerve, the girl lurched forward, toppling into several people and inspiring a chorus of “ooh”s.

“Twelve hours of this shit,” the boy told me later at a side-of-the-road piss stop (which I actually prefer to the squalid squat toilets you have to pay to us). “They told us when we got on in Vientiane that there’d be seats open at the next stop.”

They had twelve more hours to go, and were thoroughly spent on the authentic local experience.

We shared a what-the-hell-are-you-gonna-do laugh and crammed back on, men pulled zippers and stubbing out cigarettes. When the door closed, I wedged myself back into my corner, where I had just enough room to shift my weight from time to time. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.

Hand Tractors and Impending Tourism: Day Two in Ban Natane

My first morning in Ban Natane, I woke up with the sun and the roosters. It isn’t saying much—it could have happened somewhere in the States—but it was still a first for me.

The morning was misty and, as I sat up and peered through my mosquito net, I could see out the open-air common room into the dirt paths of the village, the common room of the next house over, where the TV already blared and the family sat on the floor around a metal table of steaming bowls. The day had begun.

I’d had to sleep with ear plugs. I’d become accustomed in SE Asia to geckos bellowing and incests buzzing, but I wasn’t used to the noise of the village: animals snorting, grunting, squawking, chirping, thunder booming and rain drumming. The houses are all open in the village—no windows or glass to enclose things—so you could also hear the neighbors talking. There were less filters, less divisions, more of a meshing of life, I thought as I crawled off my cot. I poured a cloudy glass of water that had been boiled and purified with local herbs, and swallowed my malaria pills.

I’d had plans to ride a hand tractor, then hike an hour out to a river, possibly visit some caves. “Too much rain,” Pauline’s supervisor—whose name I could never get straight—told me over our breakfast of sticky rice and more frog. It was determined, as we dipped clumps of rice into red chili paste, that I would instead ride a hand tractor around to the check out the neighboring villages.

This is romantic in theory. And it is pretty cool—the hand-crank wrench, the rumble, the foot pedals and gear shift, all the machinery exposed, retching and rumbling through brown puddles, water whooshing into waves beside you. Standing on a vehicle like that without falling over is another matter. I tried squatting, clutching the wooden railing, but the lurching started to make me nauseous. For some reason, I determined that sitting was my best option. (Three days later, I’m still paying for this decision with a bruised tailbone…)

Two guys from the Ban Natane took me around to three other villages. Which gave me more of a feel for life out there. It looks like this:

I suppose what struck me most was how much life there was, how much constant movement. It wasn’t exciting like a city, but there was this constant bustle, animals and people, babies of different species. It was intoxicating—I felt like I could sit for hours and just watch it pass.

Again, there seemed to be less divisions: the pig that snorted around today, for instance, could just as easily be dinner tomorrow. Even the land see more involved, more implicated, more imminently a part of life. We talk a lot about sustainable living in the West, but this was the real deal. It wasn’t ideal—there was plenty of trash strewn about, mostly wrappers for the products transported through the cave, and other trash, people still burned. But it was the closest I’d ever seen.

I met Pauline and her supervisor in one of the villages for lunch—another family’s house, another bare wooden room with modest Lao girly posters on the wall, an exposed shoulder, perhaps. On a cot on the floor lay an impossibly thin woman, skin loose on a coat hanger of an arm she raised to readjust her blanket. “She is sick,” Pauline told me, “with cancer.”

I tried not to watch as her family members brought a glass of the murky, purified water to her lips, as they rolled her over, readjusted her pillows. I stared at my frog lunch. These villages were traditional, isolated—and this was part of that too. It wasn’t just the agrarian ideal, the simple life; people here were also poor, didn’t have access to the arguably good aspects of modern life, like health care. It was all fascinating, intoxicating for me, glimpsing in for a few days—but this was these people’s lives. And this, too, was what it looked like.

Later that afternoon, I walked down to the stream by Ban Natane with Pauline. It was where locals bathe, wash clothes, where boys clutch bows and arrows shoot them into the water, actually managing to catch some fish. Pauline laid down on the shallow rocks—clothed, as they do in Laos—and let the water run over her.

“All the people I interview,” she told me, “they all want the tourism. They think it will be a good thing.” She looked over at the boys fishing. “But I’m not so sure. I think they will lose their way of life.” It had already happened, already begun, with the introduction of TV a few months earlier.

I thought of the sallow skin and boney elbow of the woman at lunch. “But who are we to say how their lives should be? If they support the tourism project—” I shrugged, made that French popping noise I’ve picked up— “maybe it will bring positive changes too.”

We talked for a long time about it—about the preservation and loss of culture, about isolation and poverty, about the role of outsiders and tourism, whether it ever does any good or not. I thought of a story I’d heard once, about some now-famous Greek statue that was discovered by Englishmen or Frenchmen, the locals unaware of how valuable and precious it was. They were going to smash it, until the explorers stopped them. I couldn’t remember the name of the statue, or where I heard the story or if it was even true or not. But I thought of broken-off noses and missing limbs in European museums, and wondered if the sanctity of some things might be seen better by outsiders, who have more of world to compare it to.

But again, I thought of the woman on the cot, barely moving. I thought of the earthy taste of the purified water, imagined that taste in her mouth as well as mine.

“There is not an easy answer, I think,” Pauline said, as the water ran over her clothed limbs.

I nodded.

Blessing of String and Sticky Rice: Day One in Ban Natane

The man held my open palm in his. In it, he placed a small clump of sticky rice and pork. He raised his right hand to his face, murmured blessings in a language I didn’t understand. He waved a piece of string, then tied it around my wrist.

“He wishes you good health, good luck,” Pauline translated.

I smiled, bowed. Outside the open-air room, lightning stuttered the night sky white.

Sometimes you end up some weird-ass places traveling. Not that they’re weird, so much as it’s weird that you’re there, that you ended up there—that the gods of circumstance conspired, whispering in their thunderous perch above grey rock, to bring you there. And it was like that in Ban Natane.

To say Ban Natane is off the beaten path is an understatement. Cut off from the rest of world by impassable roads, the only way to reach it and its neighboring four villages is through the Kong Lo Cave. Which is how I got there.

I met Pauline trolling the town of Ban Na Hin for travel companions. The boat ride through the cave costs 100,000 kip, so I was on the lookout for people to split the ride with. Pauline sat on the computer in front of her guesthouse. As it turned out, she was a French anthropology student doing her Masters research on Ban Natane and its neighbors; she was meeting her local supervisor and translator the next day and headed back to the village for another 10-day stay. “If you’d like to come with us,” she made that characteristic French popping noise, “it’s no problem.”

On the sawng thaew ride to the cave’s entrance, she filled me in the details. A French NGO was sponsoring the development of eco-tourism in the Ban Natane area. To date, all homestays and eco-tourism in the area have focused on the Ban Kong Lo side of the cave—you take a boat ride through, come back and sleep on the more developed side of the cave.

“No one stays on this side,” she told me, “because tourists don’t know the villages are there.” Since the only viable way to reach the villages is through the cave, Ban Natane and its neighbors have remained quite isolated, not reaping the rewards/wealth of tourism. “In all of last year,” Pauline told me, “only 20 tourists came to Ban Natane.”

The eco-tourism project was focused on developing facilities for homestays and training locals to act as guides into the caves and waterfalls that surround the region. Pauline’s project focused on documenting the traditional agricultural way of life, interviewing locals about the history and their feelings about tourism, and then studying the impact.

Emerging

So the Kon Lo cave became, not my destination, but the passageway into another world. Which actually what it felt like—a limestone cavern like a mouth, dripping with stalagmites, the squeal and swoop of bats, where mist floated off the cool water like thin ghosts. It felt like moving through some deeply internal part of the earth, through its innards or petrified organs.

We emerged on the other side. Where most people turn around, we began walking down a dirt road. My cheap flip flops had finally busted, so I walked the 2km barefoot. In the distance, the sky grumbled. We arrived in Ban Natane just as the afternoon storm erupted.

My homestay was with one of the wealthier families in town. They owned the town’s only shop (and thus had packets of Nescafe in abundance), goods that had all been transported on skinny wooden boats through the cave, as they had been for generations. Even the TV. “TV only arrived here three months ago,” Pauline told me. “So the children,” she gestured towards the little ones gathered rapt around the glowing screen, “they are like this.”

The storm cleared and she showed me around the village. Everything enthralled me—I am, as previously admitted, a total city kid, so the presence alone of ducks, pigs, chickens and goats was thrilling, let alone the sarongs and hoes and looms beneath the stilted houses.

We shared dinner with the family that night, as we would for all our meals during my 2-day stay. As isolated as it is, the food was all local, not by trend as it is in the Bay Area, but by necessity—foraged snails, fish, frogs. “Frog season has just started,” Pauline translated from her Lao supervisor, “so we will eat a lot of frog.” (Sure enough, I had it 4 meals in a row.)

Walking that night, we three were called over to a large house. I could tell it was a wealthy person’s home because it had a ground floor, constructed of brick—like the TVs, this was new, Pauline told me, as traditional homes were all stilted and wooden. “It means you need more space, and have the money to build it.” She paused. “So modernity is already coming.”

Men sat on the floor around a type of altar, banana-leaf adorned in white flowers. It wasn’t a mystical vibe—they sat in polo shirts and slacks, chatting casually. A large silver bowl of pig parts, a leg and half a head, lay beside baskets of sticky rice.

We were motioned to sit, a village-made scarf thrown over our left shoulders. The man in charge began talking—“a blessing,” Pauline whispered. He held another man’s open palm, put a clump of food and a plastic cup of lao lao in it, chanted, tied the string. Then everyone commenced to bless each other.

“It’s a ceremony called baci,” Pauline translated. “They’re having it for special visitors—the district chief came today.” People took photos with digital cameras; I assumed those to be the wealthy and important visitors.

We were soon called into the mix. I wound up with a bangle of string around my right wrist and an even fuller tummy. The storms continued in the sky outside. Old men smiled as they blessed me, as they blessed each other.

And I had one of those moments when your life feels like a dream, some foreign place you don’t quite understand how you ended up in. Yes, I rode an old wooden boat through a cave and walked down a dirt road—but how I really got to Ban Natane or that ceremony, I suspected, had little to do with that. It didn’t make sense, to my Western mind, why I’d be so welcomed, so embraced here.

And so blessed.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Ban Natane

It’s actually pretty simple, even if you don’t have an anthropologist as your guide. Take your day bag, sturdy plastic sandals, a good flashlight and some snacks with you on your boat ride. It’ll still cost 100,000 kip, even if you only take it one way. So it goes.

Get off at the snack stands. Only buy the snacks if you’re desperate; since they have to be transported through the cave, they’re fuck-all expensive. Anyway, there’ll be a blue sign that haphazardly explains the homestays:

From the snack stands, there’s two dirt roads. Facing the sign, Ban Natane is down the road to your left. Straight ahead, across the bridge, is another closer village, though from what I understand, there’s less facilities for homestays. If you arrive in Ban Natane and say “homestay,” you’ll get hooked up. Or just show up and look like a Westerner, and they’ll know what to do with you.

Bringing a Lao phrasebook would be goddamn useful. There may be some people floating around who speak a few scraps of English; there’s rumored to be an English teacher at the school in the village, though she was out of town when I was there. If you can manage to communicate, there’s bikes you can rent or a couple good treks to go on, if it’s the dry season. Next month, an NGO will be holding a tour guide training course for locals, so I imagine there will be much more in the way of communication and tour options shortly.

Bananas and Plastic Bows: Sawng Thaew to Kong Lo Cave

Goat on the roof. Friendly driver.

Salt-and-pepper hair beneath a worn military cap, high cheekbones and pursed lips. He squeezes the bananas I’m clutching through their plastic bag, says something in Lao.

I smile, shake my head. He repeats; I repeat. He nods.

I can’t tell if he approves of the bananas or not.

When I climbed on the sawng thaew in Ban Na Hin, the old man slid over, made room for me between the empty gasoline barrels and bags of cabbage. We rumbled around the market. Old women climbed on with pink bags, still-alive fish flopping inside, while the driver kept climbing on the roof, adding to the goods secured atop: sacks of rice, a goat and my dusty red backpack.

The old man nudged me. “Kong Lo?” I nodded. He nodded. But where else would I have been going?

We headed out down the two-lane highway, lined with construction lots and signs for a Ford Motors Center. The main industry in Ban Na Hin isn’t tourism—as evidenced by the single-room tourism office surrounded by grass-chewing cows—but the nearby hydro-electric plant. The handful of guesthouses that run the length of the town’s main road are an afterthought, and the English spoken is minimal.

Despite this, Ban Na Hin is still the closest town to the Kon Lo Cave, a 7.5km limestone tunnel that’s purported to be creepy as shit and mildly reminiscent of the Greek underworld. But, 40-some winding kilometers from a main highway and serviced only by local buses and sawng thaew (pick-up trucks with two benches in the truckbed), what would be a top tourist attraction in any other country remains fairly off-the-beaten-path in Laos. Which, as much as the cave itself, is what lured me out here—after Vientiane and Luang Prabang, I was tourism-weary and in the mood for adventure.

So I don’t mind as it takes two hours to go the 45km to Kon Lo. Past rock that jutted from the earth like jagged teeth, past slash-and-burn fields were the land looked as though it were gasping—we stop at every village, delivering groceries, dropping off canisters of gasoline. I watch the landscape, the farms, the clouds that ito the rock like scraps of cloth that had been ripped off. And I people-watch.

And now, slyly, I study the old man beside me. He has soft yellow skin the texture of crushed silk. I notice on his sleeve, he has small plastic bows haphazardly safety-pinned on. Beside his army-green cap, I imagine them as military decorations, badges from a make-believe army. I imagine them as gifts from grandchildren, secured to his shirt and forgotten about.

I pull out my notebook, to jot down the image between the bumps that stutter my handwriting across the page. He leans over, looks at the notebook, watches me write. He nods as though he understands.

I can’t tell if he approves or not.

I smile, point to the plastic bow on his sleeve. He laughs. I give a thumbs-up.

He tugs his sleeve, begins to unfasten one of the pins. He takes my sleeve, pins the bow. I touch it, smile. He laughs. I laugh.

(A little later on the ride, I discover what the bows are: a bunch of teenagers lining the road come up to the sawng thaew and, through the poles, pin bows to our shirts. They smile and sing, holding out a collection for something.)

The sawng thaew thins of its passengers and produce as we rumble along. A tank of a woman with a soft, laughing face pushes her way out, waves at me. We stretch our legs in the luxurious space.

The old man waves his arm at the driver, stands to a hunch beneath the truck bed’s dome. I tap him as he begins to shuffle off.

I open my plastic bag and hand him a banana.

He smiles. I laugh, he laughs.

I think he approves.

He steps off the back of the truck, place his hands together and bows his head. I repeat.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Kong Lo Cave

While researching Kong Lo Cave, the number one concern I encountered was over transport. The LP doesn’t have much info and it seems as though the lack of direct buses deters a lot of people from visiting.

Here’s the deal: Kong Lo and the nearby Ban Na Hin (nearest town, with guesthouses and an ATM) lie along Highway 8, which moves east from Highway 13. All buses between Vientiane/Paksan and Tha Khaek/Savanaket run down Highway 13, so the route you will often read recommended is to take one of these buses running along the 13, ask to get off at the junction, then take a sawng thaew to Ban Na Hin, where you can then take another sawng thaew to Kon Lo Cave or the nearby town, Ban Kong Lo, where it’s possible to homestay.

Another friendly fellow

I think it’s the transfers that deter people. It;s actually a lot less dodgy than it sounds. There’s enough of a trickle of backpackers that the bus drivers know where you’re headed—there’s not much else out here for tourists. Sawng thaew run from the junction to Ban Na Hin every 30-or-so minutes during the daytime, and there are supposedly a few direct sawng thaew to Ban Kong Lo every day, though it probably wouldn’t be worth waiting for those.

From Vientiane, there’s only one VIP bus to Tha Khaek a day at an inconvenient 1pm—journey takes about 6-7 hours, so you’d potentially be looking at doing the transfer after dark. Local buses, though, run every half hour beginning at 6am. They cost 60,000 kip, regardless of whether you get off at the junction or the final destination.

There’s also local buses to Lak Soa, the biggest town along Highway 8. The advantage of this bus is that you negate the feared transfer at the junction. These buses leave Vientiane every 2 hours, beginning also at 6am, and cost 75,000. This is the bus I took, and I recommend it: it was early enough in the day that the lack of AC was bearable, and even with a break-down, I still arrive in Ban Na Hin at 1pm.

I’ve also been told that there’s one daily bus directly from Vientiane to Ban Kong Lo that leaves between 9-10am. However, if there’s not enough people, the bus will be canceled, so it’s probably best not to risk it.

From Ban Na Hin, though, there’s only three official sawng thaew per day to Kong Lo—more evidence of the undeveloped tourist facilities. The first leaves the town bus station at 10-ish, the others at 1 and 3-ish. But in reality, they seem to leave more often than that. Otherwise, you’re looking at arranging private transport, about 100,000 kip versus the 25,000 for the bus.

Coming from the South, it appears as though your best bets would be to take a sawng thaew from Tha Khaek, which is well-connected to Savannakhet and Pakse, or one of the buses coming up the 13 and doing the transfer. I did meet some grumpy Brits who had gotten on the wrong bus and had the journey take a day and a half—”All this for a bloody cave.”

Which brings me to my biggest recommendation: treat the whole thing as journey-is-the-destination adventure. Don’t focus on just Getting To The Cave—everyone I met who did this seemed fairly annoyed, or at least had to qualify it with “worth the trek.” I was armed with snacks and in the mindset of “well, let’s see where this leads,” and I had a grand ole’ time.

Scrap Metal and Tourist Scars in Phonsavan

On a small stand in the Phonsavan tourism office, bracelets are for sale.

So is flatware. They sit beside a postcard that reads “Make Spoons Not War.” Beside cartoon posters depicting the Dos and Don’ts of respectable Lao tourism, posted leaflets encourage you to purchase items made by villages out of metal scraped from the UXOs (unexploded ordinances) that continue to claim lives and limbs. From tragedy to hope, a brighter future for impoverished locals—your tourist dollars can make a difference.

Or something like that.

Phonsavan is an emerging tourist destination in Northern Laos. Its only draw is the scars of enigmatic history: a landscape scattered of mysterious, 2000-year-old stone jars (think Stonehenge in circular formation), and bomb craters and UXOs. The juxtaposition has, in the last few years, landed the grizzlied town on the independent traveler route, with broader tourism looming ahead like the black storm clouds of an early rainy season.

For now, the town remains rough-and-tumble and charm-challenged. A series of squalid guesthouses line its one sidewalked road. A handful of tour offices litter the same road. It’s the kind of place where you arrive, in a mid-afternoon downpour that muddies your shoes and seeps through your backpack, and think—Get In, Get Out, Get Gone.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town. I cruised the local market, bought some rice-paper rolls and steamed greens; the hunched old woman smiled at me and refused money for the greens.

I passed Craters Restaurant; decidedly Western, it had a makeshift fence of UXO shells. It felt cheeky, performative, self-conscious—something about it didn’t sit right. But I hadn’t had my requisite three fruit shakes that day, so I sat down and watched the traffic pass.

Across the street, the sign for MAG peeked through the bomb-shell fence. The most prominent UXO-clearing agency in Laos, MAG works both to defuse and remove UXOs, and educate local communities about their dangers. They screen a few documentaries on a small TV set every evening; I left Craters and went to watch that night’s showing of Bomb Harvest.

The documentary traces the work of MAG. It’s somewhat sensationalist and self-congratulatory (“In bomb disposal, you only make one mistake”), but overall the film achieves a really good end: educating people on the realities of UXOs in Laos today.

I’d known they existed; I had more than a passing familiarity with the devastation of US secret bombing in the country. And I knew that UXOs continued to kill and maim people throughout Laos. What I didn’t know was that scrap metal had become the new cash crop. And tourism, I’d discover the next day, was fueling it.

The basic story is this: in a country as poor as Laos, a lot of subsistence farmers struggle to feed themselves. The scrap metal peeled from UXOs fetches a fair dollar—some $100 for large casings. It may not sound like a lot to risk your life for, but when you don’t have enough to eat, your life is risked already. Despite public education campaigns, people continue to harvest and sell UXOs—many of them children.

In addition to selling scrap metal, locals began to use casings for planter boxes and building supports. As tourism trickled in to the Plain of Jars sites, Westerners were charmed with the aesthetic and ingenuity of this repurposing. Tourist-geared establishments are now getting on the bandwagon.

With this backdrop, I eyed the scrap metal bracelets carefully. I liked the idea of them, liked the feel of the dented metal and the notion that I could both accessorize and ease my American guilt. “It helps the local people make money,” our tour guide explained.

“Do they make the bracelets from harvested UXOs?” I asked.

He nodded.

“But isn’t that very dangerous? Don’t people die that way?”

He nodded again, this time more reluctantly.

I slid the bracelet off and placed it back down.

Our tour continued on bumpy muddy roads. We trailed one other 6-person group, but largely had the sites to ourselves. To get to one of the sites, we tromped through rain-soaked rice fields, down wooden slats and past families bathing in brown water.

Tourists, our guide told us, had only been coming to the sites in the last few years. There were plans to pave the roads, our guide told us; an international airport would soon open near the town. Only 15 sites of jar sites were currently open; several more were being de-mined. You got the feeling that mass tourism was just around the corner.

We stopped at a modest farm house. Standing behind the bamboo fence, our guide pointed our the bomb casings used as supports for the barn. We snapped photos. “Not many houses still like this,” our guide said. “Now, the casings are mostly sold to guesthouses and hotels, for decoration.”

I thought of Craters Restaurant and cringed.

Tourism can bring a lot of good to a community. Phonsavan is poised to become more wealthy because of it. But I thought of the children I’d seen in Bomb Harvest, carefully digging through the earth, crude metal detectors and frightened eyes, and wondered at what cost.

It’s hard to always be informed about where your tourist dollars go. Over lunch, I had a long discussion with a British couple about their experience volunteering at a “real” elephant sanctuary in Thailand. They told me about the farcical nature of most eco-parks, how the Thai government worked to block the release of information about the real conditions of the animals, information that would surely hinder the precious money brought in by Westerns who unwittingly wanted to ride elephants.

“And the sad thing,” I remarked, “is that all those people think they’re helping, that their money is going towards some kind of solution.”

They nodded. I leaned slightly and slurped another mouthful of rice noodles.

My spoon, I realized, thumbing its texture, was made of scrap metal.

***

Travel Tips: Phonsavan

Phonsavan is well-connected to provincial capitals and tourist destinations. I took a minivan from Luang Prabang, a bumpy and cramped 7-hour affairs; a bus would have been 9 hours. I took the overnight VIP bus back to Vientiane, getting about 2 hours total of sleep.

Guesthouses are in a sad state in Phonsavan, especially in the budget range. I ended up at the LP-recommended Kong Keo Guesthouse. It wasn’t great by any means and I’d read some sketchy things about the owner, but after checking out three other guesthouses, it was still the least squalid.

A tour of the Plain of Jars sites seems to be the best option, especially if you can buddy up with some people. The sites are pretty far apart, so you’ll need some transport anyway. We paid 150,000 kip (little under $20) each for a group of six, which included lunch. The guide was knowledgeable, and there’s plenty of outfitters to chose from.

Fellow travelers tend to be pretty friendly and less Spring-Break-ish than the backpackers I’d encountered in Vientiane and Luang Prabang, so teaming up should be easy. Definitely visit in the dry season, until the roads are paved and facilities modernized; it was super muddy, and Site 3 becomes impassable during the rainy season.

The only Wifi I found in the town was at the Western and fairly decent Vanaloun Cafe, along the main drag. Wifi is free, espresso drinks passable, and the breakfast was actually pretty good and not too expensive. They also have a small guesthouse. Might be worth checking out, though a girl I met in the cafe told me she couldn’t ever find the shower.

National Geographic Moment: Gecko Vs. Praying Mantis, Bungalow Porch

Alicia got the shot; I can't take credit.

So I love traveling sola. You know that by now. But one of the great things about traveling with friends—and fucking cool friends at that—is that they open your eyes to things you’d normally never notice. You end up, say, in a towel at 11pm on the porch of your bungalow in the Kep hillside, watching a gecko and a praying mantis the size on your middle finger in a life-and-death stare-off amid the rafters.

My best friend Alicia is a science lady. She’s a taxidermist and has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of animals and insects. I know shit about science, skirted through classes in high school with charm and wandering eyes. All bird calls kind of sound the same to me, but Alicia will pause, listen, then tell you all about the species that made the noise, usually some cool anecdote to go along with it. It’s kind of like having your own personal nature guide.

So when she stopped in her tracks along a dirt road outside one of the Angkor temples, I knew it had to be something good. She brushed off a frenzied pile of ants, stared at the dead body that had caused the swarming excitement. “Oh, rad!” she exclaimed, carefully picking up the insect, an unhatched cicada. She explained the reasons behind its rarity while sliding it gently into used film canister. She was bringing it back for a co-worker at Academy of Science.

And so when she tapped gently on the door to my bungalow as I was stepping out of the shower, I knew I’d better open it. “Hey,” she whispered in the glow of the porch light, “check it out.”

It was the biggest praying mantis I’d ever seen. Which isn’t saying much, since I’d only seen my first a few hours earlier. But it was big, is the point. It was near-frozen, its head bobbing gently as it stared at a small moth.

“Look,” Alicia pointed to a green head peeking out behind the rafter. It was one of the big geckos, the kind that makes the belly noise you hear in the night all over this region. I’d never have seen a big one before.

“A stare down?” I asked.

Alicia nodded. “They’re both ambush predators, so they’re waiting for someone to come close.” The praying mantis was waiting for the moth, unaware that the gecko was waiting for him. “They could sit like that all night.”

I shrugged, clutching the towel around me. “I’ll give it a few minutes.” We stared, surrounded by the buzzing blackness of a tropical evening.

Suddenly, a huge moth swooped by. The praying mantis forgot the tinier moth sleeping on the rafter, which darted away, and lunged towards the larger moth. They danced like that for a few flurried seconds—nimble bright green chasing a flurry of grey and black wings. “Oh damn!” we exclaimed. It was like a nature show, gone live.

The praying mantis leapt toward the mammoth moth, not realizing it was landing within reach of the gecko, who’d held still throughout the chase. One swift dive, and the mantis became nothing more than thin green neon hanging out of the mouth of a darker, reptilian green.

The gecko slunk behind the rafter to consume its prize. Both moths had disappeared into the night.

“Well,” I said, nodding, “that was fucking cool. Thanks for the heads up, dude.”

“No problem,” Alicia laughed. “Little excitement for your evening.”

We said good-night and disappeared behind adjoining doors.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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