Laos and the knifeman in the jungle

January 2016

With plans to move on tomorrow, today would be my last chance to climb a mountain in Laos. I had scoped out a mountain, unnamed, but among the highest that surround the Luang Namtha basin where I'm staying.


This morning I parted ways with a few other travellers to go solo once more. I had a dawn breakfast, hired a mountain bike, stocked up on food and water, bought a machete from the local market, and set out below lingering clouds.


After a 10 mile ride, I stopped by a small village named Ban Kok Mee. Chained my bike to a tree, and set off. Mercifully, the lower two thirds of the mountain was a sparse but steep rubber tree plantation, which made for good progress. But the tinkling of polystyrene pots against the trees and falling leaves all around made me feel like I wasn't alone. After some time, I turned around to see that I was indeed being watched.


A young man stood some 30 yards away, holding, like me, a machete in his hand. We stared at each other for a couple of seconds until I said 'Sabaidee,' ('Hello,') to break the tension. He paused, then nodded. 'Phou?' He said ('Mountain?'). I nodded, and pointed up the slope. Offering a brief smile, the young man turned and disappeared back into the trees.


I soon came to a faint trail which led up into the rainforest. What followed was three hours of hacking paths, hitting dead ends, crawling along animal trails, getting lost and being on the brink of turning back. All the while, although there are no mines in this area, I grew paranoid about the presence of tigers, leopards and bears which reside in these forests. Eventually though, there was no more ascending left to do. I hit the summit of the unnamed peak (~1265m) and saw from atop a tree stump that the sun had fallen on the hills around.


As I later cycled back, I paused for a while to watch the sun set over the mountains, feeling happy and reflective about my lesson in perseverance and looking forward to bigger challenges ahead.


Thank you for having me, Laos.


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© Oliver France