Location: Luang Prabang, Laos
Today was a no-destination-anything-can-happen day, Adventure Time style. Caleb, Jack, and I grabbed a few beers and our cameras and meandered up the riverside, soaking in the Mekong-way-of-life.
One of the most fascinating scenes was down the flowery hillside at the river’s green edge, where a tightly-packed row of ten slender, tin-roofed, wood-bottomed boats were tied up. As we watched, another vessel chugged full-speed toward the center of the column looking like it was ready to crash right into it. When it was about ten meters away, a few men hanging out on the shoreline clambered up onto the shiny metal rooftops of two middle boats. They held long, thin bamboo sticks and, using only this tool, their wiry muscles, and willpower, began to push apart the boats in unison, creating a narrow v-shape in the water. The captain of the other boat just barely wedged it in. As he did, they continued to drive the boats apart then back together until it was slotted in entirely, a perfect fit.
We continued on, passing riverside cafes where twosomes lounged on white, wicker armchairs and sipped Laotian-style coffees, which are a thick, sweet mixture of strong drip coffee and condensed milk. It seemed like it was all about romance on this end of Luang Prabang: from spotted yellow orchid blossoms potted and hung from mossy tree trunks to crinkly, colorful paper lanterns hung throughout gardens to secluded wooden benches half-hidden by ferns. Caleb referred to it as the “couples” part of town, a more expensive but impossibly quaint place.
Shortly after sunset, we found ourselves near the end of the main walking area and staring down at a rickety bridge. When I use the word rickety, I mean it in the most definitive sense; it was most unsafe, ramshackle bridge I’d ever laid eyes on (and this is two months into Southeast Asia) constructed only of woven bamboo, palm fronds and broken sticks. I wasn’t sure how it stood in front of us, a thin, crooked platform over the Mekong. It looked like the barest gust of wind would splinter the non-existent foundation.
Caleb told us that he’d come to the bridge in earlier explorations and pointed out the temple on the hill across the river. The pale walls and lights inside the single building glowed bright like a beacon. It was otherwise surrounded only by forest. Caleb mentioned there was also usually a man that charged 20,000 dong ($1) to cross it.
“20,000 to cross that death trap? Are you kidding me? People should pay you to cross.” Jack was appalled.
“Yeah, I didn’t do it. I don’t see the guy now, though.” Caleb searched up and down the sandy shore below, which was becoming more shadowy as the dark settled over the world.
“So does that mean it’s free?” I said. I couldn’t help myself; I know a bargain when I see one.
The hazardous, should-be-demolished bridge instantly transformed into an opportunity. It was like we’d won the lottery, like there was a flashing neon sign above the dilapidated thing reading “FREE” with big arrows pointing at it. Of course we had to cross it. Because if something’s free, what’s there to lose?
First, we had to climb down a steep cliff path. Caleb, whose canvas Vans were barely more grippy than my flip flops, began to describe the giant centipede that he’d almost stepped on the last time he was there.
“I think they’re poisonous, too. I swear I saw it right around here.”
I squeaked, clumsily jumped over a stick-or-possibly-venomous-insect, and skidded over the gravel in my sandals.
When we made it down to the sand, we squinted around. Nobody had a flashlight. The beach was totally empty except for us, the bridge, and a strange spotlight to the right, pointed up at nothing in particular and swarmed by moths. Standing in front of the bridge, my stomach began to gurgle with nerves. You could see through the fronds-and-sticks platform. It was just a single layer of material between you and the bottomless, cloudy depths of the Mekong. Who knew what was down there? I knew Jeremy Wade had spent some time relating gruesome stories and catching man-sized turtles and shark-sized fish on the Mekong for River Monsters.
What was that episode titled again? The Mekong Murderer? Mayhem on the Mekong? Mutilated on the Mekong? Why am I thinking about this right now?
When I took my first, jumpy step onto the bamboo, it creaked and I instinctively reached for the single-stick railing on one side. When my fingers wrapped around it and I gave it some of my weight, it swayed and I almost toppled over. Totally useless, a simple decoration to distract you from the real dangers of this booby trapped crossing.
How the hell is this thing going to hold all three of us?
But we couldn’t back down now. Jack went first, then me, and Caleb followed behind. I was only a few feet across, just above where the shoreline met the quiet, lapping water, when a wild, nearly inhuman cackling broke out under the bridge beneath my feet. It was the kind of maniacal laughter you hear Disney movie villains explode with after they’ve finished explaining their always-overcomplicated, evil plots to the heroes, who are inexplicably captured, interested, and patiently willing to lend a listening ear.
“Holy shit there’s a…like a kid or-or something down there!” Jack said.
I peered into the dark below and saw the stunted, Golem-like creature crouching at the water’s edge. The outline of his spine was visible, his sallow skin pulled tight against the bony ridges. I couldn’t see his eyes in the shadows, but when he leaned back I noticed he was clad only in his birthday suit. It didn’t seem to matter to him that three random Westerners were gawking at his junk. He continued to hoot at us, a white froth forming around the edges of his mouth.
Oh sweet Jesus is he rabid?
There was something thin, the length and color of a rusted butterknife, clutched between his fingers. It was also dripping foam. He waved it at us. I took a step back, falling into Caleb.
“What the fuck?” I said. I couldn’t take my eyes off the possible weapon as he swung it back and forth at us. Then, as it caught light out of the shadows, I saw what it was. A toothbrush. He was just brushing his teeth and washing up in the river.
“Oh yeah, that’s the dude that usually charges you for crossing.” Caleb said between relieved sighs.
Does he live under the bridge?
The man turned back to his business and we continued onward, not to be dissuaded by someone simply completing his bedtime rituals. We probably just surprised him.
Just over halfway across, as I was gazing down between planks at the black, rushing depths below, I heard a sharp crack up ahead. When I looked up, Jack was stumbling forward.
“Oh, shit! That whole part of the bridge just snapped. It’s just like a hole now.” He said, “Cassia, just uh, don’t step there.” I could see he was pointing somewhere at the area in front of me, but I couldn’t pinpoint the break.
“Where?” I asked, panicking. It was hard to tell what was broken and what wasn’t; it was all pockmarked with holes and splintered branches. Jack cautiously leapt back over the pitfall to me.
“Here to here.” He said.
“Dude, what? That’s like six feet!”
“I don’t understand your filthy imperial system, but yeah, it’s kind of far. You can make it though!” He sprung back over the danger zone.
I went for it, leaping forward with all my might…and landed exactly where I shouldn’t have.
Popping and ripping sounds erupted under me. But before I could register my brush with death, I felt Jack tugging me forward by my shoulders. I blundered into safety, tottering past him. He laughed, wandering forward and I heard Caleb behind me calling out.
“Hey! Where do I not step? Seriously, Cassia. I do not want to die right now.” I giggled, as only a tipsy person who can’t believe their luck does, and pointed out the large “no-go” zone. He made it with a little more grace than myself, which I credited to the fact that he’s over a foot taller than me.
Damn stumpy legs.
On the other side of the bridge we were met with another steep climb through loose gravel and pitted clay. As we scrambled up, using our hands to pull us up a few of the ledges, I made a futile effort to ignore the spattering of questions about Laotian ecology that entered my head.
Are there river snakes here? Do river snakes live in the mud around the river or in the river itself? Is there poison ivy? I’m sure there has to be some kinds of poisonous plants. Poisonous spiders?
When we made it to the top, we found ourselves in a small clearing with an open, one-room temple. It was well-lit by electric lanterns that gave the white walls and the bannisters, which were carved into wavy, scaled dragons, a soft, yellow hue. Below us, the river shone a silken, silver-flecked black under the full moon. The sky above glowed an endless indigo, the stars like flickering freckles. I drank it all in.
It’s these random moments of spontaneous discovery I keep closest, remember most fondly.