A Refuge in the Clouds: Muang Ngoi

Wednesday 22 November 2006

BIL is standing, second from the right

Almost a hundred kilometers further north from Luang Prabang is a tiny mountain village called Baan Nong Kheo in the district of Muang Ngoi.  It is difficult to find without a guide.  Lan’s brother-in-law lived there, where he was the director of an American funded anti-opium facility.  On our last day in the North, even though it was well out of the way, we stopped to visit him and his family.  After all, you should take advantage of any opportunity to see loved ones in remote places.

We arrived around lunch time.  As we came down the winding mountain pass, I noticed what looked like a system of vertical wooden gutters attached to the rock face on our left.  These gutters channeled water from distant streams and filled troughs at the base of the mountain, where half-naked children vigorously scrubbed themselves clean. Women also washed laundry in these troughs.  I could not fathom just how cold the water was, and I didn’t want to find out.

The village could not have contained more than 50 individual family units, all tucked away in the womb of this mountain range.  The houses were just thatch and cement, but there was electricity and running water, piped in from the gutter system.  Just as I was wondering which family had room for 8 more bodies, Lan’s brother-in-law appeared and led us to the gated entrance  of a fenced-in compound.  A sign at the gate read “Lao-American Anti-Opium Cooperative.”  I will never know why my cousin Xang chose that moment to joke about seeing poppy flowers growing along the hillside.

“Really?  Where?” asked BIL, completely missing the joke (I apologize that I’ve had to relegate him to an acronym – neither Mom nor I can remember his name).  His kind face appeared to solidify with seriousness.

I glanced at Mom, awkwardly shuffling my feet.

Xang cleared his throat.

That was when Mom cheerfully chirped, “Oh, he doesn’t know anything about plants.  Can’t tell the difference between poppy and coffee,” and I could see BIL relax again.  He chuckled, and we all laughed nervously.

Children playing soccer

BIL walked casually on the side of the dirt road, while Xang drove the van into the compound.  The buildings inside reminded me of well-kept but cheap motels – maybe 10 identical units.  No one lived here, BIL explained; the quarters were built for foreign guests on official visits.  When I heard that these units were the only source of hot showers here, I did a silent dance of joy.  There was also a part of me that wondered if anyone in the village found this situation unfair (I quickly realized that it was a non-issue); but mostly I was glad that I wouldn’t have to test the temperature of the water.

After we dumped our belongings in the rooms (I shared a unit with Mom) and sat for a moment, BIL came to retrieve us for lunch and a tour.

I don’t like to think in terms of regret, but if there is one thing I would change about this trip, it was my stupid camera.  Brother had given me his old Sony Cybershot and, at one time, it was pretty elite as far as digital cameras go.  But it was worn from overuse and had been dropped on several occasions (not by me, I swear!).  Photos taken in dim lighting were virtually useless and now, of all times, the battery was almost completely dead.

There was not much time to worry about the camera situation, as we were now in a race against twilight.  I hopped on the back of someone’s motorbike.  I swear to you, what happened next is a scene from a film, perhaps one about a poor mountain girl who becomes a famous singer and later returns to her home and has an epic never-forget-your-roots moment while taking in the exact same thing I saw at that moment.  In any case, I will never be able to describe the moment adequately, just as I can never forget.

We drove across a bridge built by the Chinese – me and my traveling companions riding tandem with several locals – that crossed a wide expanse of the Nam Ngoi River.  The sun was a blood orange skimming the surface of the dark water; on either side of us, we could see the river stretching, stretching as it had for millenia.  And framing it all were these mountains, lush with trees and shrubs.

Something prevented me from asking to stop for a photo, whether it be shyness or awe or fear that the camera battery would die before we reached our destination.  Stupid!  I will never see that image again in my lifetime, I truly believe that.  The moment was desperately fleeting.  We kept going until we had crossed the bridge and suddenly found ourselves at a tourist attraction.

It was very unexpected because, quite honestly, how many tourists happen across this village?  BIL led us across a small stream, a tributary of the spectacle we had just seen, and into a cave.  Unlike most significant caves in Laos, this one contained no religious relics.  It was, instead, a historical site, where soldiers hid during the Vietnam War.  The cave was too dark for us to venture very deep, and the light was quickly fading at the entrance.  BIL told us the cave system went far into the heart of the mountain.

That night, we ate a simple dinner of fish and tham maak hoong at BIL’s house.  My cousin, Khene, who had come with us from Vientiane, went outside to look at the night sky with me.  I think we both had the same thought simultaneously, that the sky would be drastically different from anything to which either of us were accustomed.  It was pitch black in the village, except for the countless twinkling stars, more than I had ever seen even in living in the Shire.  I did not recognize a single constellation.  In the distance, although we could not see her now, was the mountain everyone called the “Reclining Lady”; you could see her profile from anywhere in the village – a woman lying on her back, her breasts and face forming subtle peaks, and the tresses of her hair made of rock and foliage.

The one remotely decent photo I have of the Reclining Lady. You can only see her face.

Muang Ngoi was the only place in Laos where I felt legitimately cold.  I could see my breath.  By some miracle, I had the forethought to bring one thin jacket and a pair of knee-high socks.  I breathed deeply, wanting to hold in as much of this place as I could.

We left in the morning, not at all thrilled about the long drive back to Vientiane.  I was partially right to think that these moments in Baan Nong Kheo were ephemeral.  A short time after this trip, BIL succumbed to cancer, and I often think about who is running the anti-opium facility there now.  I haven’t been back to Laos and, even when I do visit again, there is no guarantee I will ever see that secluded mountain village in the Golden Triangle again.  I have come to look at it as a gift, however: it is a refuge I can visit just with a thought, one I can share through stories but ultimately claim as my own.


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