It was approaching midnight. The temperature was dropping towards zero and I had begun to shiver uncontrollably. We had no blankets and I had given my spare clothes to my travelling companion. Our water supplies were diminishing and we had not eaten since lunch. We did not know where we were or how to get to where we needed to be – lost in the jungles of Laos. From out of the wilderness, men with guns were approaching.
How did it come to this? Our predicament began two days earlier through an encounter on a bus from Luang Prabang, Laos’s backpacker hub, into the remote highlands. Anna, a lone Swedish traveller and I, got along immediately. An energetic and interesting woman, we were soon swapping tales of where we had been and comparing future plans. Bored by the repetitiveness of guided treks, we were eager for something different. In the fashion of backpacker folklore, I had obtained a hand-drawn map of the area and we were ready for adventure.
We arrived in Muang Ngoi and checked into the only guesthouse in town. I spent the next day scoping the area and testing the map – all seemed well. For the following day we decided on a route of about 15km that would take us through a forest, some rice paddies, valleys and hills with four tribal villages en route, the last one from which we could apparently catch a boat to take us down river back to Muang Ngoi.
We set off at nine and plunged into the forest, a cacophony of shrubbery and tropical plant-life. The path meandered alongside a gentle, trickling river; the surrounding trees occasionally opening to reveal a nearby mountain range. Every now and then we would meet local villagers, all of whom gave us a cheery smile and ‘sabaidee’ (hello). Abruptly the forest ended and we found ourselves on the edge of a large plain, encircled by mountains. On the other side was the first village which we passed through without stopping, much to the disappointment of the owner of the only restaurant – a wooden stilted structure established specifically to cater to foreign walkers.
Our path now took us through a breathtakingly stunning valley, complete with lush vegetation and cascading waters. The sun was on our backs, a slight breeze in the air, and we agreed this was the type of experience we had come to Asia for. We arrived at the second village where we stopped for lunch. When I have visited such places in recent months, it has always been as part of a tour group and meeting the inhabitants has had a somewhat staged feel. On our own and unannounced, we were afforded a more authentic experience; the villagers, perhaps uninhibited by our lack of a guide, seemed comfortable in our presence and we chatted as well as could be managed through the language barrier.
After that, the route got tougher in the form of a steep mountain the map had failed to indicate. Never mind, we ascended in reasonable time, the view from the top amazing. Walking along the ridge, we were contented and self-congratulatory. Everything was proceeding as planned, the walk was rewarding and we were intoxicated with the spirit of adventure. Now that the trek had become more challenging, the route more isolated (we met no tribespeople on this particular trail), and the surrounding jungle increasingly encompassing, Anna started to muse upon the amusing side of what she was doing: going trekking with some guy she barely knew with only a hand-drawn map as a guide. Upon getting to know her better, I realised she possessed a natural perceptiveness, and she later told me that she would not have agreed to such an excursion with someone just because she got along with them but that she had decided beforehand that she could trust me not to take advantage of our isolation. She has also said it will be years before she tells her parents this story. And so on we pressed, sticking all the time to the principal that whenever we came across a choice of two paths, to take the most used.
Still atop the mountain, we reached the third village in a little longer than the map suggested but still with plenty of time to get to the final village and the boat back home before dark. Or so we thought. Things went badly from the moment we left the village in that there were two paths, both similarly worn. We went back and, by mentioning the name of where we wanted to go, were assured of the correct one. This route took us down the other side of the mountain and we descended for an hour when we came to another fork.
Luckily, there were two tribespeople sat there who told us the one we needed. We carried on down the mountain, assuming now that we were close. After about half an hour, we reached the bottom and came into a small valley. The path took us past some abandoned huts (usually an indication of a nearby village) and towards yet another mountain. It reached the base, which a river ran alongside, and then stopped. Or appeared as if it may now follow the river. We followed it for ten minutes when a wall of rock loomed up on the other side, the faces of both mountains now preventing any direction but onwards. It was now 4.30 and due to start getting dark at six and be nighttime by 6.30. We decided it would be best for me to follow the river/path for a while and see where it led. After about twenty minutes of wading and clambering over rocks, it was obvious it was not going to get anywhere anytime soon and we could not risk it. So I went back and tried the other direction, which turned out to be nature’s way of firmly stating that ‘Thou shall not pass’.
OK, so now we had to decide what we were going to do. We concluded that we were lost: in entirely the wrong place, not knowing where we were or how to get to where we needed to be. After all, the map had been correct up to this point so why were we not at our destination? The inhabitants of the previous village had not exactly given us a warm welcome – most were surly and one woman even shrieked at Anna whilst gesturing toward the physical work she had to undertake, presumably to illustrate the difference between her impoverished life and ours. As such, we considered that maybe we had been pointed in the wrong direction; hatred of Westerners being so ingrained in these particular people that any stupid enough to need to ask for directions were, as a matter of course, sent the wrong way.
It was now time to start considering where to spend the night. We could go back to the last village or we could try the huts we came across. The unfriendliness of the villagers put us off the first idea. We gave it one last try to get going – we walked up the path for forty minutes with the intention of paying anyone we encountered to take us there and then to the final village, Hasaphui (whose name I shall never forget). As we did not find anyone, we turned back to the huts for the night.
There were three huts, of which we took the best. Unable to find anything to make us more comfortable such as blankets or pillows, we braced ourselves for the night which we expected to be cold. No food, a diminishing water supply, the cold air drawing in, and remarkably we were in good spirits. The two of us were getting along well, swapping stories and generally keeping one another’s moods up. She even found the time to worry about the state of her hair! Two days previously, we were strangers. Now we were thrown together in the most remarkable of circumstances the like of which even the closest of friends seldom share. The ultimate bonding experience; it was the quickest I have ever got to know anyone. Thankfully, neither of us was overcome with panic or distress – something we were both grateful for as this had the potential to create an unbearable situation. Not knowing her character, I was unsure of how she would react when it started to become apparent we were lost and may have to spend the night out here. I decided that if she was to become unhinged and start blaming me, rather than stand my ground, I would let her unload – this was not the time to assert my righteousness. Thankfully, we were both stable and, mindful of boredom, talked incessantly, racing from one subject to another. We later agreed that having the other there for company helped immeasurably, the concept of enduring such a night alone appalling. It was really a case that being in such a situation, we had to get through it and make the best of it. When tomorrow came we would set off early and get home. We did not know where we were, but we did know that to get back, even though it would take all day, all we would have to do would be to retrace our steps.
Exhausted, we turned in around nine. But it was getting colder, and therefore difficult to sleep, especially as I gave her my spare clothes as she had none (one lesson I hereby learnt was that aside from adequately equipping oneself for such an excursion, ensure that your companions are also!). Lying there, shivering away, I listened to the sounds of the jungle. And gunshots.
Many tribespeople go hunting. So I started to wonder about the huts we were in. Sure enough, around midnight, a couple of hunters armed with huge, antique-looking rifles came along and tried to enter our hut. Or rather, their hut. I opened the door and through hand gestures explained that we were walking and it got dark so we needed somewhere to sleep. I also told them our destination. Thankfully, they were friendly and sympathetic, one of them even speaking enough English to tell us we were in fact in the right place, had not gone off course and that we should go down the river. They were also fine with us staying and they took one of the other huts. Thank God they were friendly – had they been hostile, we were at their mercy and I do not know what we would, or could, have done. Now feeling a lot better, we tried to sleep again. By now though, it was freezing. Between twelve and two was the worst. We even got up and started exercising to get our blood flowing, although its beneficial effects were only temporary.
I eventually dropped off for about an hour before we were woken shortly after dawn by another hunter who needed the hut. He was irate as he too arrived in the night but, upon learning of our presence, took the remaining dirtiest and most uncomfortable hut. He informed us Hasaphui was about two hours away and yes, we should take the river. So that was where we went wrong – the map indicated the walk from the penultimate to the final village to be one and a half hours. It turned out to be more like four. We took off down the river which we stayed on for about 45 minutes before the path led us away and in a direction my compass confirmed would lead us to Hasaphui.
We walked into a field of head high, sky blue flowers and a weight was lifted from our shoulders. We came across someone who confimred we were on the right path; the relief was palpable. It was still another two hours, up and down another mountain and, although we should have been exhausted with ridiculously insufficient amounts of rest and food, adrenaline was pulsating through our veins. Although we allowed ourselves to physically rest when necessary, we were unwilling to do so mentally as we were not home yet.
Spurred on by the brute animal instinct for survival, we powered on through. We met plenty of friendly locals along the way who were heading into the fields and jungle for their day’s work. The confused and then amused looks they gave us suggested they had figured out it was too early for us to be coming from anywhere inhabited and where we had spent the night. We arrived at Hasaphui around 9.30 and yes, we could hire a small boat to take us home. By 10.30 we were back.
We made it!