Sometimes you just have to go it alone in nature to find yourself.
A fan whirred softly above me as I lay spread out on a mattress in a cheap hotel in Luang Namtha, a quiet town far in the north of Laos. I was going nowhere. Everything I touched seemed to fall apart, and I was beginning to feel worthless. From the moment that I had left Phnom Penh nearly a month before, I had traveled 2,000 miles to the north. During that time, I could count the number of conversations that I had shared with my fellow humans on one hand.
Self-imposed isolation was gnawing at my psyche, and all the happy faces around me, surrounded by friends and lovers, filled me with a desire to drift off into a long deep sleep and never wake up. Two days passed like this, lying alone in bed, reading a book at times or just staring at the wall. One of them was my 22nd birthday.
Finally, I did what I had come to do. The authorities hadn’t made it easy. Finding maps to the Nam Ha National Protection Area was impossible, and no one was interested in giving me trail descriptions. In fact, I was warned that walking alone in the park was illegal, and that I had no choice but to hire a guide for an exorbitant fee. I doubted it.
I finally got a printout of an area road map that had the names of some of the villages in and around the park. Armed with this, a mountain-pack, and several days’ rations of rice, peanuts, and carrots, I squeezed into a cramped minibus with fifteen Laotians.
“HuuuEEEEEKKK PUUT! HuuuuuuuEEEEEEEEKKK PUUT!” I cringed every time someone spat a gooey hawker over my shoulder and out the window, cursing in English when someone spat on the floor.
“Fuck these people…” I muttered to myself as I closed my eyes and leaned back on my undersized chair, a sharp chill passing up my spine as the young woman next to me generated a massive phlegm ball in her throat and let it drip from her lips to the floor.
Finally we were off. Within half an hour we reached my stop, a dusty village named Nam Ha, after the river that passes through it that also serves as the namesake of the national park.
Dozens of eyes locked on me as I grabbed the pack off the top of the minibus. As it pulled away, kicking up a dusty cloud, I crossed the street and entered a food stall. I smiled at the curious crowd, motioning that I would like something to eat. The options were limited, but I found some Chinese biscuits that would serve as a decent snack and asked the girl who ran it if she could prepare some eggs.
Twenty minutes later, she returned with a heaping pile of sticky rice and four soft boiled eggs. I ate as much as I could, and decided it was time to go, the sun already nearing the middle of the sky. I paid $1.20 for the meal, thanked her, and hoisted my pack.
“Yanama?” I asked the group that had formed around me, looking at my pathetically inadequate piece of folded paper that would serve as my only guide for the journey. I planned to make for a dot on the map several kilometers inside the park and hoped that I would see a good entrance into the forest along the way.
“Uhhgg,” the group grunted like cave men, pointing toward the river and up the valley.
“Chai?” I said, mustering my best Laotian and pointing after them. “Yanama?”
“UGGGHHH! UGGHHH!” They grunted more assertively, nodding their heads and pointing.
“Right,” I said with a smile. “Khob Jiy!”
I waved at the grinning crowd and headed off. Once out of the village, I discovered a trail leading down to the river, and met a group of young men bathing a rancid pig’s head in the water.
“Sabaidee!” I said with a grin. “Yanama?”
“Sa…bai…dee… falang…” replied one of the men in the group. Then he said something that I took to be an offer as a guide.
I shook my head and repeated the name of the village. They pointed across the river and laughed at me. I couldn’t understand what was so funny, and immediately took off my shoes to cross. As I waded out to midstream, the water suddenly grew much deeper. It would soon be well above my waist.
“Man, this can’t be right…” I muttered to myself, looking back at the grinning Laotians, who were all watching me, leaving the pig’s head to soak in the water. The man who had originally spoken to me pointed up the river, and I immediately saw that further up the water was much shallower. I thanked him and crossed to the other side, where I found that the trail continued up the valley.
I hiked rapidly over the next couple of hours, occasionally losing my way and stumbling into a farm, but generally heading east, into the park. After a quick break, I set off again, and soon after found a trail leading uphill into a banana plantation surrounded by dense forest. It looked like a perfect access point into the forest.
I entered the plantation, and within a few minutes the banana trees petered out and I was tramping through dense broad-leafed vegetation— high altitude jungle. The trail ran to a small stream, and I followed it for another half an hour up to a remote squatters’ camp. It looked like someone was building a bungalow, but no one was around. Afterward, the trail completely disappeared, and I continued upriver trying to keep my feet dry and avoid slipping on the wet rocks. For a couple of hours I went on like this, deeper into the forest, seeing no more traces of human occupation.
The sun was falling behind the hills above me as I settled into camp. I chose a spot in the narrow valley, just to the west of the river and began preparing for the night. I imagined there could be cobras, vipers, and other poisonous creatures in the area, and wanted to take all possible precautions. I cleared the area below my hammock as thoroughly as possible with my machete, pushing all the leaves and debris to the river, leaving the dusty red ground below me. I searched into ground holes around me, poking the machete around inside just to make sure nothing would take me by surprise. Satisfied, I went to work preparing a fire and cooking dinner.
It had rained the previous night, and the forest was still quite damp. Being completely uninformed about area flora, I resorted to tearing pages out of my journal to get the fire going. After a tedious effort that left my eyes burning and my back sore, I had it and cooked a hefty portion of rice, peanuts, and carrots: nutritious, but hardly appetizing.
As I sat alone in the forest in the waning sunlight munching on my soggy dinner, I thought back on better days, a time when I could consider myself happy, surrounded by friends and loved ones. A deep melancholy silence surrounded me, and I made my way to the hammock that I had perched on two trees over the ravine, on one side about one meter from the bank, on the other nearly three meters down to the rocks and water. I hoped that I wouldn’t fall.
I rested silently, contemplating life as the last light faded from the sky above me, and the forest became enveloped in total darkness. The tall, old growth trees around me blocked all light coming down from the stars, and it became impossible to discern my own feet, let alone anything else around me, including any potential predators. I began to regret having not researched anything about the area wildlife, imagining a tiger mauling me in the darkness.
Almost at once, the forest broke into a tremendously noisy chaos. Thousands of creatures, big and small, were waking up just as I was getting ready to sleep. The darkness played strange tricks on my perceptions, and it sounded like a far off marching band was coming up the river toward me.
“Impossible…” I muttered. “Strange acoustics from the stream… there can’t be any humans around…”
I noticed a strange glowing light that seemed to float in the air above the river. I watched it intently, at first it seemed like a flashlight shining from far away, and with no other reference points in the utter blackness it could be anything. Then it was joined by many others, at which I was astounded.
“Fireflies…” I mumbled, grinning as one landed on my sleeping bag. “I can’t believe you guys live here…”
“Thump!” I heard a sound several feet away. Then seconds later, again, “Thump!”
I tried to ignore it; there was no point in being afraid of something I couldn’t see, anyway. I dug into my pocket and pulled out my harmonica, jamming off a few awkward notes, then began singing as loudly as I could, raising a mad, ecstatic laughter at the same time. One of the greatest joys of being completely alone, totally removed from humanity, is the freedom to make any amount of noise. I began singing wildly, shouting and whooping, laughing hysterically at myself the whole while. I didn’t stop until my throat hurt too badly to continue, which didn’t take long, as my voice had been used so little over the previous month.
Then I lay in the humid forest again, alone. The noises continued, amplified in the obscure night. I lay awake for hours, uncomfortable in my suspension, unable to find a comfortable position where I felt safe from falling.
I drifted in and out of sleep for many hours, waking from strange dreams and staring up to the blackness. One star became visible above me, and I watched it sway with the trees. A peace settled over me in those hours, something I hadn’t felt since the moment that I had arrived in Asia. I drifted back to sleep, finally comfortable in my hanging bed.
When last I awoke, I could make out the outline of the forest around me, shrouded in mist. There was an awesome mystery to the morning, and I sat watching as the colors formed, browns in greens, competing with the silver mist around me. It was damp and cold, and I wanted to go back to sleep, but soon the day was growing brighter, and I was forced out of my cocoon to make breakfast.
I started the fire again, tearing more paper from my notebook, and cooked a pot of plain rice with salt. I filled my water bottle in the river and packed my bag. Finally ready, I hoisted the tattered backpack over my shoulders and continued upriver deeper into the forest, and for the first time in a quite a long time, I felt proud of myself as a man.