Even though we were tired and a bit squiffy from the Lao Lao, sleep that night required grim determination. A needing-the-toilet dream had woken me in the night and I lay in the dark deciding if it was urgent enough to negotiate around my roommates, find my shoes and the torch, avoid the ashy remains of the fire, the buffalo dung, not to mention the buffalo, without slipping in the mud or waking anyone up. Hell no, I decided, so by the time I woke up the next morning, I’d needed the toilet for hours. When I headed off to my toilet spot over the brow of the hill, stiff and bleary-eyed, I saw that we were above a thick, creamy layer of cloud. “Now we’re in heaven,” Sao had been saying every time we’d seen clouds below us. I was going to the toilet in heaven (just a number one).
When I returned to the hut, I was heartened to see that Sao wasn’t any more rested than Alex and I, though TZ seemed to have slept like a baby. Sao showed me his rucksack, which, as promised, had fallen apart. A shoulder strap had come away completely from the rest of the bag and hung limply in his hand. My Leatherman is great for taking fabrics apart, but not so good at mending them. “What will you do?” I asked. “Maybe they have string at the village,” he replied casually. I wanted to offer to help, but I think I saw him work out that anything he gave me to carry would end up broken, spilled, or covered in mud.
After another enormous meal for breakfast, we were on our way again. I’d found the first day hard going because it had involved, as you’d expect, a lot of walking up hills and, although I like walking, I’d rather walk down a hill than up it. But, as the song goes, what goes up must come down. After a brief upwards march, we meandered along a ridge with beautiful views of hills scattered with clouds and, far off in the distance, Sao pointed out the first glimpse of our second home for the night, our hill tribe village, far away on the opposite side of a valley which, even to my mind, was too far for a bridge. Eventually, our path began the descent down one half of the massive V that was our route. With a bigger bag, higher centre of gravity and further to fall, it was Alex’s turn to find things hard and we swapped places in the line, Sao bouncing along behind us using his own arms as bag straps.
TZ, who had seemed so quiet, suddenly burst into song, a beautiful, haunting Akha melody I wish I could describe better. This encouraged Sao, behind us, to start singing Lao pop songs that weren’t half as atmospheric so we tried to keep up with TZ. We didn’t notice for a long time that Sao had stopped singing. When we finally did and turned round, we couldn’t see him. We waited for a few minutes. TZ marched off into the distance and, after a while, he'd also disappeared and still no sign of Sao. “He’s probably just picking mushrooms,” I said. Some more minutes ticked by. “Well, he must have found the mother lode,” Alex replied, glancing back up the hill. “What if he’s fallen in a ditch? Or hurt himself?” Finally, he decided to head back up the hill to look for him, at which point he suddenly reappeared. “There you are!” we called, “We were worried about you.” “Sorry!” he shouted back happily, brandishing a big bag full of mushrooms. “Something for dinner!” I bloody knew it – the forest is just a big Tesco to Sao. He was bloody shopping.
Perhaps two hours later, we were at the bottom of the hill, walking through lush paddies that made a level puddle of bright green at the bottom of the valley. Alex was exhausted from the pain in his knees walking downhill and I was dreading the effort required to get back up the other side. These hills looked better from further away. After crossing the bottom of the valley, we came to a river which we heard before we saw. ‘Come in,’ it babbled, and I would have if I hadn’t worried about being the only woman in the company of Lao men whose culture was a modest one. So, I remained on the bank taking pictures of a cloud of butterflies fluttering around Alex’s shoe while the boys splashed about enjoying the highlight, apparently, of the day. What goes up must come down and, in Laos, must go back up again and the path back up began at the other side of the bamboo bridge crossing the river. It was the longest hour of the day.
When we finally arrived, the sun was about to disappear behind the hill we’d just come from and the village glowed a dusky pink from its last effort for the day. The hills stretched for miles but the only visible signs of human life were in this village. Sao led us on a tour, pointing out the sacred sites honouring the village’s ancestors and the swing, about 20 feet high, swung on for four days once a year by the whole village in a big celebration of the end of the year’s work to weed the rice. We waved at faces watching us from the windows of each hut (bamboo structures of varying size, mostly on stilts) and they waved or smiled back. There were homely sounds of cooking and washing, children laughing as they darted about here and there, chickens clucking and pigs snuffling about followed everywhere by tiny piglets.
We were introduced to one of the village’s teachers who held classes in two buildings used as classrooms that we’d passed as we entered the village. He had a guitar so it wasn’t long before he and Alex could give up faltering efforts to communicate and speak instead with the international language of music as a crowd gathered to watch. How great it is to play the guitar, what an easy way to make friends and enjoy people’s company. What a shame the guitar hadn’t been in tune. Alex began twiddling the knobs and twanging the strings to coax them into the right note when suddenly there was a snap and an “uh oh” and Alex looked down at a piece of guitar that had come away in his hand. He went a bit pale. “Oh god, I’m so sorry.” They replied “No problem,” but the look on their faces wasn’t quite as casual as we’d have liked. We’d just walked a full day to get here and hadn’t seen any guitar shops on the way. We decided to play with the kids. In a game of peek-a-boo, Alex chased a little one who started screaming and ran in tears into her house. So, after having broken the village’s only instrument and made the children cry, we decided to go indoors.
TZ was already making dinner using the mushrooms Sao had picked. He was chatting with the village chief and a few other village members. Eager to make up for our somewhat disastrous encounters outside, we gave the chief our gifts for the village; a collection of children’s education books that we’d bought in one of the guesthouses in Luang Namtha. He called out to one of his kids who immediately started poring over it as if it were a Nintendo DS. Then the other villagers had a look and soon all six books were being passed round with more and more people peering over each other’s shoulders to get a peek. When the light finally faded, the torches came out and everyone in the village, it seemed, was looking at one of the six books, their faces lit up by the reflection of the torch on the pages. It was, without doubt, the best reception to a gift we’ve ever had.
Sao, TZ, Alex and I ate with the chief, another delicious meal better than anything we’d been served in a restaurant, while everyone waited for us before beginning their own meal. After we’d finished, we hit the Lao Lao which I sipped because as soon as I’d finished my glass, it was filled again. Sao was clearly beginning to get a bit drunk. We were all in a good mood and got to chatting, although conversations with the Akha village proved a little tricky. “So, when was the last time a farang visited the village?” Alex asked Sao. Sao started talking to TZ with a translation that seemed much longer than the English version. Then TZ started talking rapidly to the villagers sat with us. The chief replied, speaking just as rapidly, for a long time. Whatever the chief said, everyone found very funny. TZ replied and that provoked even more laughter. Then TZ started talking to Sao and they started laughing. Eventually, Sao turned to us. “2006,” he said.
By the time everyone had finished eating and moved on to Lao Lao, we were all sat in a big circle and a conversation in the strict sense was no longer necessary. Our attempts to learn Akha phrases caused more than enough amusement and there was much cheering and clinking of glasses. And then the chief asked if we’d like a massage. After two solid days of hard walking, we very much wanted a massage. Three village girls were called and within minutes, they stood at the door. They must have been about 13 or 14 years old. There was some discussion among the chief and some other villagers, which they relayed to TZ, and then Sao. “The girls would like some Lao Lao,” he told us, “as payment for the massage”. This seemed unlikely and, sure enough, as we agreed, some more bottles were brought out and the girls didn’t drink any.
Our massage took place in the corner of the room, in full view of everyone sat around (which is also where we’d sleep that night). We lay down and the girls distributed themselves, one for me and two for Alex. In my limited experience, massages usually involve people padding almost silently around you, talking in whispers, playing some dreadful plinky-plinky music involving a harp and a triangle to relax you and me trying not to fall asleep in fear of farting or making accidental sex noises. From the minute they laid hands on me, it was clear that these girls could wrestle a bull. But they didn’t have a bull; they were making do with us. She started on my legs and worked her way up with short, violent downward thrusts that I thought, when she got to my knees, would break them. When she reached my waist and back doing the same brutal shoves, as if she were giving me heart resuscitation, the air was pushed out of me at such velocity it was all I could do to not let loose the same agonised wail Alex had made a couple of years ago in the French Alps when I’d skied straight into him. I knew Alex was going through the same thing because he was making the gasping sounds as me (he didn’t seem quite as pleased anymore to have two girls working on him). This the girls found very funny and as she turned her technique to a similar one that involved a simultaneous scrunching of my flesh with her fingers, she made little impressions of my winded noise. “Ugh,” I’d whimper. “Ugh!” she’d mimic, giggling like a lunatic.
While the girls pummelled their way all over us, the rest of the group had started singing more beautiful Akha songs. The chief took up a stunning melody that you could imagine drifting over the hills, silent but for the birds and this song, sung with such passion and feeling it could have made me cry. It didn’t make me cry because the girls massaging us also found this incredibly funny. “Here we go,” they giggled, “he’s pissed again”. When the chief reached what would otherwise have been a moving crescendo, they completely cracked up. So, of course, I started giggling too, as did Alex, though our laughs were somewhat congested as we were still having the air winded out of us. We sounded like we were being murdered, which, of course, only added to the general hilarity. Ideally, I suppose, we’d have been sat around the chief in awed silence, carried away by the songs. Instead, we destroyed the atmosphere completely in our subjection to the most violent and hilarious massage ever. After which we actually felt rather good.