“You’re 180 kilometres away…!” proclaimed the Lao songthaew driver after a flurry of conversations with the locals. A small crowd had gathered as I stepped out of the vehicle onto the dirt track, completely unaware as to where I had wound up. Infants peered from behind their mothers’ sarongs and husbands beamed charming grins, all eager to know why the white stranger was in their village.
I was wondering the same. A few hours earlier, I’d clambered into a songthaew – an open ended red truck, at the Laotian capital’s bustling Morning Market in Vientiane, expecting to judder along to my destination by midday. I had shared the jarring ride with weather-beaten women whose baskets were laden with vibrant coloured fruit. Their toothless smiles were an aspect of Laos that had become so familiar, their bright red lips and teeth stained from years of betel nut chewing. Unwittingly, I had taken their nodding grins as agreement when I asked if we were heading towards Ban Na. It actually transpired their gestures had been a consequence of travelling over pot-holed roads.
Amongst the dust, hubbub and flailing arms in ‘Village Unknown’, a young man proudly said he’d help me out. I was whisked away from the crowd on a motorbike, the astute driver seizing his opportunity to earn a day’s wage. Riding pillion I sped past workers stooped over rice paddies in their exhausting effort to eke a living. Children scampered alongside us, their clothes hidden beneath a veneer of dirt, laughing exuberantly at the rare sight passing them by. We rode towards a crumbling temple, which in a last attempt to maintain its glory, glistened in the afternoon sun. But for all the photogenic moments before me, I soon became disillusioned when I realised the driver had no idea where I wanted to go.
Just like that, I found myself unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road with not even a water buffalo to keep me company.
Amongst a spate of arm gestures and sighing, we turned back and headed towards the village. Looks of bewilderment were replaced by genuine concern and the adults eagerly discussed my next move, keen to get me to my intended destination, which became apparent no one (except the long-gone sangtaew driver) had any knowledge of. A group of small children, oblivious to the surrounding kerfuffle, were playing cat’s cradle with a pair of battered shoe laces. A cacophony of giggles erupted as a few the courageous ones wound the laces round my hands and tied them up, in an apparent attempt to see if I was related to Houdini. I clearly wasn’t.
Meanwhile, the adults had decided my fate – I was to catch the next songthaew and retrace my steps on a two-hour journey back to Vientiane. Once untangled, I clambered into the back of the rickety vehicle and perched on a side bench with a gaggle of teenagers. I felt slightly relieved when the driver promoted me to the cab area with the luxury of forward facing seats, but that was short lived.
The journey didn’t go particularly smoothly, partly because of the uneven road, but mainly because of the turbulent conversation. The driver’s persistent ramblings about wanting, very conveniently, a British girlfriend fell on deaf ears but when I refused the ever-so-romantic proposal of marriage, he’d had enough. So in his chivalrous manner, he announced I would have to get out instantly and wait for the next songthaew to come along. Just like that, I found myself unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road with not even a water buffalo to keep me company. In a gesture of goodwill, however, he added that I would not be charged for the drive so far!
A fair while later as I was drawing patterns in the dust, I was picked up by a tooting songthaew. Opting to sit in the rear this time, we jostled back and forth to the exact spot where I had left five hours earlier. With a slight chuckle, and after checking countless times, I hopped in the correct vehicle which juddered along slowly to Ban Na. Under the dim blanket of dusk I finally arrived and learnt that the village chief had been waiting for me all day.
“Where have you been?” he enquired, concerned.
“I’m not entirely sure,” I replied apologetically. “But I set out eight hours ago!”
With a wry smile he said, “And I thought we were known for our slow pace of life!”