There are no maps. All my efforts to procure something more detailed than the Gecko map, or that German map I ended up using failed, although James Barbush – who does the field work for Gecko – was able to assure me that a route did indeed exist.
I was coming into deep Golden Triangle, le pays réel, the arrière pays and I was not reassured.
The map said there were 30 kilometres between Moung Mueng and the National 3 but there were more than 70, of course. When the going got too tough I would hitch a ride with a tractor or a truck, but only one or two passed me a day.
Also, the problem of food and water began to present itself most cruelly: there are no more restaurants or even soup stalls out there. No more pho even, and if you want to eat you have to stop in a village and say “eat?” It is impossible to buy bottled water. In these villages there are communal taps for drinking water, bathing and washing and that is the water you drink. When I had to stop and sleep I would request the hospitality of the nay ban, village chief and share their dinner. I still do not know how they manage to make food that is both bland and painfully spicy. The people are Lao gentle - with that sweetness that binds, and it was an honour to sit with them.
Also, since I’m bitching, the problem with the nay ban’s house is that he is often the richest man in the village. Ergo, he is the one with a television set so instead of having the eternally romantic silent Indochinese night during which the sound of insects and geckos rocks you gently to sleep you listen to the mindless riot of Thai television and its eternally stupid drama of insistent mothers-in-law, bad guys with guns and beautifully evil home wreckers. For my next trip out I am going to have to figure out how to say, “may I stay in your village in a hut with no television, please?”
The landscapes were less dramatic than I had expected, especially considering the difficulty of the terrain. When you spend 25 minutes climbing a radical dirt path you feel you should be rewarded with a fabulous view, but sadly you mostly have stomach cramps from the lousy food and water.
None of this stopped me and in five days I was able to cover 250 kilometers and return to Houey Xai red with dust, tired, hungry, satisfied and grateful.