Luang Namtha, Part One

I shaved in the morning for the border crossing. Shorn, I look about seventeen and very harmless. Borders always gave me a strange feeling because almost all of the foolishness you hear about regarding foreigners in foreign lands involves border police.

There is a specific border aesthetic. I prefer to cross in my mirrored aviators, raising them only for the brief eye contact that verifies me as the fellow on the passport.

The Chinese guards wore green army clothing with officers caps and dark ties. They stamped my passport and waved me through and I walked my bicycle alongside a dozen empty flatbed trucks in a caravan, bound for the timber beyond.

The Chinese side of the border had been extremely well manicured with islands of lawn and red and green bushes planted in rows along tiled sidewalks. When I walked under the raised toll gate, everything was suddenly overgrown. Ragged weeds spilled onto the pavement and the trees hung thick with vines. It was the no man’s land: three bare kilometers between China and Laos. The first thing that I saw was an enormous bunker with a Communist hammer and sickle on it; it was also overgrown and appeared abandoned. I rode down a twist of hillside and reached a fence; behind it was Laos, hilly and jungle green.

The parking lot had some pickup trucks lined with benches and canopies; boys lounged in the back waiting for the people they would take to the next town. Some children were kicking a cardboard box that had two fat turkeys in it. At the immigration desk, a group of Chinese men stood around. One of them clammed vigorously, puffing out his chest like a rooster about to crow, letting the foamy spit dribble down from his lips to the ground.

“Look, look, look!” they said to each other, giggling at me. “Laowai! Laowai!” (Foreigner.)

“Aren’t we all foreigners here?” I said.

They thought this was mad and laughed like hyenas. One of them had bulging, bloodshot eyes. I looked at his “entry/exit card” and it had dozens and dozens of red stamps for crossings between Laos and China. I asked him where he was going.

“Muang Sing,” he said. “We’re going to have some fun!”

This was the opium capital of Laos; the man threw back his head and laughed throatily, followed by a viscous cough of phlegm. The border guards waved me through and the visa cost me all the cash I carried. I would have to get to Luang Namtha without any money.

On the other side of the border there was only a China Mobile shack and a few food stalls. Within a half a kilometer, even these tiny buds of development had disappeared. The north of Laos looked like a broccoli head on a map; all mountains and rivers. The silence there amazed me.

Every half hour a truck would pass me, or a small pickup loaded with passengers going home from town to town carrying sacks of rice and crusty field tools. Everywhere there were rivers and rivers forking out to other rivers where children played and bathed. The villages were always small; just a few houses made out of logs and boards and straw with chickens pacing in the yards. There were sheds like general stores and they sold sun-faded Chinese batteries and noodle packs and soy milk from Thailand. Only the eggs appeared to come from Laos. The jungle was thick and green over the rivers and everything hummed with insects and birds. Every little clearing that I passed had naked children in it and they jumped and shouted sabadi! sabadi! I answered them in every language I knew and by the end of the day I’d said hello more than a hundred times. The jungle lined the rivers but by the time I got up to the highest hillsides, I could see for miles and realized that the all of the hillsides had been stripped bare. They rolled out into the horizon, dozens of flowing brown hills covered in tree stumps where the forests had been. The Chinese would take Lao timber and build roads in return. Their main highway (the one I was riding) was paved, but it was two lanes and without any cars. I had left the People’s Republic at last, I thought, but from here until the eastern edge of Indonesia I would see traces of China all across the continent.

It was getting hot and I passed a billboard that stuck out like an abandoned sign in the desert. “Luang Prabang Cigarette Factory.” The sign was in Chinese and I decided to go in and take a look. I leaned my bike on a tree and walked up a dirt path to the open factory gates. There was nobody there except for two black dogs who lunged at me. Cover your throat with your arm and find a rock, I thought to myself as they approached, but thankfully a man appeared who called them off in Chinese. I gasped and dropped my rock and he walked over to me and held out his hands.

“Welcome to our factory,” he said in Mandarin after I’d said nihao. “Everybody has the day off but come inside and have a smoke.”

He walked me inside a hot room with many open doors and pointed with an open palm to a leather couch where I could sit. The factory grounds were simple; a few dormitories and a big hangar stood in a field of loose brown dirt. On the balconies of the dormitories, women were hanging laundry. I sat down and the man brought over two cups of tea, the Chinese way, with loose leaves floating in the boiled water. I asked him about the company.

“All of the management is Chinese,” he said. “And the workers, of course, are Lao. It is much easier to do business here. There are no taxes in Lao. And the cigarettes are very good,” he said. “Try one.”

He pulled out a pack and lit one up for me and one for him and I smoked it, though I didn’t really want to. “I smoke two packs everyday,” he said.

“That’s quite a lot. Are you worried about your health?” I asked.

“My health!” he laughed. “Mao Zedong smoked every day. And so did Deng Xiaoping. Look how long they lived! It is good for you. Even Reagan smoked,” he said, and pointed vaguely at a curling map of the world on the wall. “Ask the boss! He smokes three packs a day!”

The boss came in and he nodded proudly at the comment. He had a pockmarked face and his teeth were a deep shade of yellow. “It is not dangerous,” he said. “For each person it is different.” He pulled out three different packs of cigarettes that were all different colors and handed one to each of us. They held the cigarettes under their noses and inhaled as though they were cigars. They lit them up, but I said I would save mine for later.

Zaijian!” they said, and sat smoking contentedly. I went down the path and out to ride on to Luang Nam Tha.

I had no great reason to get to Luang Nam Tha. It was the first significant place on the map, fifty kilometers from the Chinese border, and was marked with a circle inside a circle which meant it was not merely a village, and slightly bigger than a town. I didn’t know what would be there. I heard there were a lot of French expatriates left over from their colonial days. I still had my Rimbaud poetry book and I was excited to practice my French using phrases like Please monsieur Satan, a little less fiery eye!

The road seemed blue and the sky was pale; pink clouds, high moon. A child sat in the brush, burning plastic bags. Children on bicycles were riding home, waving, yelling, smiling wide at me. I passed a factory making bricks, made of bricks. The road curled along the hillsides. Small boys in bathing suits hopped along barefoot with diving goggles hanging around their necks. They carried fishing spears with small steel barbs fitted onto the shafts of wood. They had woven baskets full of fish and more fish tied by the tails on string. All of the fish were small and the boys tried to compare them as they walked home. The villages were lit by firelight. Men slapped hoes on the red dirt. I stopped at a little cabin that sold water and eggs just to see what was there. The owner was watching a Lao soap opera in the shadows. Shelves of candy, soda, and peanut butter. There was a picture of him with a woman, superimposed on a backdrop of wet green forest. He wore a white collared shirt. She wore a red dress and flowers in her hair.

Soon the land was flat again and everywhere little huts stood in the fields. Some of them had a few things in them: a pair of gloves and shoes; a metal bowl and a battered bicycle. There were no people in them. There were so many huts, all over the fields standing up on stilts. I didn’t know what they were for.

There were only a few houses and they looked like barns, tall wooden planked buildings with windows of gnarled glass like Ogden House. Loud music flew from one of the courtyards and I dropped the bike and went to take a look. On the first floor there was a picnic bench and some teenage boys and girls sat around a hollow booming karaoke machine. Chickens walked across the floor. I didn’t yet speak a word of Lao beyond sabadi bao, how are you? And I said it. Sabadi bao! they said right back and one of the boys got up with a shot glass overflowing with clear liquid spilling down the sides.

My God! I winced

“Lao whiskey!” he said, overjoyed.

I sat down on the bench with a thump and felt the warm glow spread inside of me. They passed me the microphone and I howled into it not knowing any words. They passed me another shot and I took it. It was dinner time and they were eating bowls of soggy cabbage on rice and I had some, too. In our little gathering, I learned the words for I, you, and go, and I told them I was off to Luang Nam Tha. Already lit, I got jerkily back on the bike and pedaled down the empty road.

I arrived in the town after dark. There were a few brown dusty streets and some cooking fires from inside restaurants. I found a Chinese woman who changed money and changed twenty dollars from my last reserves stash. The whole town was full of middle-aged tourists. I sat in a small restaurant and listened to some people talking. There was a bald man that looked like Hemingway, sunglasses hanging on a plastic cord. The table was covered in dishes and empty green bottles of Beer Lao.

At another table, a couple in their late twenties was talking about their around-the-world tour with another couple. They were ubiquitous: seven weeks in China and Tibet, six weeks in India, flying to Bangkok and then Luang Prabang. “Thailand is too touristy,” the girl said. “I’ve heard Halong Bay is beautiful. I really want to buy some silk clothing. Dresses and things. Does anybody know where to buy it?”

In the The Great Railway Bazaar of 1970s Asia, Theroux found bedraggled hippies that he described as tribes. Those seemed interesting to me. The modern versions were long-distance tourists searching for some kind of aesthetic comfort, and everything was amazing but the poverty. They wore waterproof zip-off pants and Gore-Tex jackets and carried mountaineering backpacks. Everything was designed to keep them as clean and comfortable as possible.

I went out into the night and looked for a place to sleep. The town was quiet by the time I left the café. A few dogs trotted through the empty streets and the wind blew through the palm leaves. I went up to a small hotel where the lights were on and knocked on the door. The man inside said there were no rooms and I told him I’d be happy to sleep on the porch if he’d let me. He thought this was amusing and offered me a cot in his garage instead. I accepted. Inside there were several dismantled motorcycles; it was a repair shop. There were two cots under a swath of mosquito netting and on one of them a Lao fellow was dozing. I rolled out my sleeping bag and went to sleep on the other cot.

Jonathan Ward spent five years in Russia, China, Latin America, and the Middle East after graduating from Columbia in 2006. He speaks Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic, among other languages. He is currently at Oxford, starting a doctorate in Oriental Studies.