In the absence of photographs (my camera was stolen just three days before I came home), here are some word pictures from Laos.
You are in the northern corner of Thailand, standing about twenty feet above the Mekong. The sun has just risen and the water swims in pinks and purple. Already ferries cross the river: longboats, so low in the water it seems they must sink. Listen – you can just hear the growl of their engines. On the opposite bank is your first glimpse of Laos, little more than shadows in the early mist. Beside you, a frangipani – turn away from the water for a second: that scent is too good to pass by. A small bird sings. A child cycles by on the path between you and the river; you can just see the tracks of her tyres in the dust.
Raise your head from your hammock; the beams will creak but it is work the effort. Below you, beyond the rooster that wakes you every morning, beyond the banana palms and small sandbank, is another river. Its water is a rich green, and although you know the colour is a reflection of the forest rising so steeply from the opposite bank you can’t help thinking of monsters that might rise from such depths of green. You know that there are caves, deep in that forest, that sheltered people during the war. They understand monsters here. Suddenly – the shock of a single gunshot. Listen again. There are too few birds singing here. They are protein. And free.
A waterfall splashes behind you, the swish of the water soothing the heat of late afternoon. Deep in the rainforest you have found a bear sanctuary – a home for bears rescued from baiting or other indignities and given huge enclosures where they can be safe and raise new families. Two, almost fully-grown, playfight. Their mother shakes her head at them, then turns away. The fight is over – it seems pointless without her attention. The smaller of the two ambles across to the pool. He rubs his back against the post and then lumbers into the water, sploshing before lying on his back with his arms and legs spread like a starfish. His head flops back and you swear he is smiling. There is no room in the pool for his brother when he lies like this.
You have made it to Vientiane. And again you stand by the mighty Mekong – so far away across a sandbank, in the dry season, that it looks little more than a trickle from here. Behind you the night market is setting up. From food stalls comes the smells of popcorn, rice, fried fish, meat (could be anything) on skewers. There’s a clatter of poles as awnings are erected, protecting t-shirts, jewellery, silks, pictures of monks and elephants, tiny Buddhas, mobile phones. The young of Vientiane are here to strut among the stalls. But look back across the river. The lights of Thailand twinkle in the distance.
If you are grieving for photographs, someone is sending me a USB stick from Australia, with over 100 pictures, so a few of those will make it to the website in due course.