Vertical Jungle: From Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, Laos
Seven hours today up and down mountains, making our starting point in Luang Prabang, ringed with peaks, look flat. We rode in a giant bus up onto their shoulders, thousands of feet above sharp valleys carved by streams. The jungle on either side was dense. With machete, I could imagine making only two or three miles per day through that foliage, filthy, stung, with heavy arms.
In the tracts where the jungle was gone, it was shaved clean from the slopes, exactly rectilinear, like the work of an electric sheer on the green wool of Laos’ crumpled skin. On these patches of baldness there was either nothing, the thinnest scrub or grass, or near vertical orchards mostly of banana and papaya.
The smell of smoke was oddly sweet and common, as the dry season brought a cycle of burning for the local farmers. Haze made the views hard to capture in photos. Rice paddies stood dry, sporting cattle and water buffalo grazing on what remained after harvest.
As we descended in altitude, the air warmed. Children played and splashed naked in streams and occasional reservoirs, cloudy with runoff from latrines.
We rode down these green ridges, snapping photos through the filthy window that I now see reveal nothing. We approached what in my mind I called “Dr. Seuss Mountain.” It was so steep and jagged on its flanks and across its toothy summits that I wonder what young forces of geology had shorn limestone karst into those shapes. I would guess its height at 2,500 to 3,000 feet above the valley floor and our tourist bus.
I daydreamed about mountaineers. How would you climb sheer white walls stained with black rot, sometimes passing vertical and so punctuated with dripping stalactites as big as Teak trees? Where would you place gear to protect against falls? Vines hung there. Sometimes patches of bamboo like massive tufts of verdant hair sprang out at all angles. How would you deal with these cliffs punctuated by thick jungle at every imaginable ledge, every slope just barely 80% in pitch sprouting a cascade of plant and tree, even unlikely coconut palms and birds and likely thousands of biting insects. I imagined building a string of bamboo ladders, secured with hemp rope to whatever could be found, perhaps seventy of these would gain you the summit.
And I remembered that book, the one that, in my mind, made Vietnam a visceral expedition of endless suffering, killing and succumbing to death. It was called Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. I imagined American troops forty years ago, pushing up and down slopes like these, avoiding the sanctuary of trails for their traps and ambushes. Simply moving through this under the friendliest of circumstances would be brutal. With Viet Cong at every turn, I saw in those grand mountains, the path to alluring madness for survivors.
After 7 hours, our bus finally flowed down into flatness. It was jarring. I’d decided somehow that all this country offered was steep range after range of green mountains. We rode in dust past traffic, shops and car dealerships and into the bus station just north of Vang Vieng. I waited outside for my pack and when a friend handed it to me, I passed it on to a tuk-tuk driver and did not haggle over his 20,000 kip fee to take me into town.