Our Southeast Asia trip order was Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, then Vietnam. We followed the guidance of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, which was packed full of incredibly helpful information. Following the suggestion of the book, we signed up for a tour that would take most of our second day in Laos. It started early in the morning and we spent most of the day trekking through fields and admiring the beautiful scenery.
The spring weather made for a very pleasant journey as our small group of three American English teachers followed dirt paths that took us through rice fields, a teak forest, and eventually into the mountains.
Our two guides were men dressed in khakis and t-shirts and spoke as though we were all friends out on a stroll. Their natural tones differed from the practiced performance of American tour guides, but the soft friendliness matched the scenery better than any theatrics would have. What I remember most about Laos is how peaceful our time there was. Almost everywhere I looked I could see the picturesque three layers of nature. The fields rolling into distant trees which were then dominated by the mountains looming them.
At the beginning of the tour, as we followed the guides who every now and then would explain rice harvest seasons and how the produce was used, I thought the country had somehow escaped being marred by humanity. The lush fields, the growing forests, and the whole mountains held no traces of roads or wires slicing through. The dirt paths were simple and completely free of litter. No billboards of expensive and useless products shattered the natural landscape.
We finished our wanderings of the rice fields and began to head into the forest of teak trees. The trees were tall with thin trunks, the spring foliage created a sparse canopy, and it was easy to see far out in all directions.
The guides stopped and turned to us with a simple warning. “Don’t go off the path. We don’t know if there are more bombs in here.”
With that quick word, they set off again. Talking to each other a little ahead of us as we trailed after.
So distant was I from any idea of war that the warning seemed more like what a caregiver would give a child who refused to stay in bed. “Don’t get up or the monster under your bed will eat you.”
So dazzled was I by the lovely and peaceful scenery around me, the laid-back way the men showed off their country, and the lack of crowds that I did not fully comprehend the warning.
Not only had my experiences in life not tuned me in to the atrocious possibilities of scattered bombs still not found, I lacked historical knowledge of why bombs would be hidden in the lovely forest.
The water I had chugged at breakfast had been for some time announcing its readiness to depart. I stepped off the path to find a place to relieve myself.
I admit this even though now in my maturity and better understanding I know how incredibly stupid that was. I admit it because it proves how completely detached I was from the horror that stretched into Laos.
I caught back up with everyone just as we broke through the trees and came to a clearing. A white pickup truck was parked next to a wooden shelter. It turned out to be our lunch break.
We were each handed a large, cold water bottle and a tied up leaf. Once untied, the leaf proved to be a giant banana leaf that had kept the fried rice and baguette inside fresh for us.
We ate quietly. I looked back into the trees and tried to rearrange my idea of the country not being scarred by humans. I could not imagine bombs lying in wait in such a beautiful place. It was far easier to ignore that harsh truth than to rearrange my ideas of the peaceful morning’s trek.
We packed up and moved on towards the mountains. All the while the tour guides stopping to provide more information about the field workers and economy. They had no more warnings for us. And so, as I walked further from the teak trees, my mind created more distance from the bombs.
Eventually, we caught up with another small tour group at the bottom of a mountain. Another tour guide with a pink polo shirt and khaki pants was taking over this part. He was handing out flashlights to everyone, explaining our trail would take us inside the caves of the mountain rather than climbing outside. I was towards the back of the group as we made our way into the mountain so I heard snatches of the guide’s speech.
Clear water dripped from the stalactites onto tiny pools below. The ground was wet and slippery at some points. I was struck by how jagged some places were. Our group had to walk single-file at places, carefully keeping their flashlights trained so they wouldn’t stumble into massive holes. It was as though the earth had simply fallen away. Still, the beauty of the country and nature could be found in the sharpness of the stalagmite. In times when the group was silently navigating, tiny plinks of water could be heard. I thought of the different kinds of creatures that could live in caves, tiny and colorless; often blind – but still magnificent.
Eventually, the guide led us to an opening that was large enough for all of us to crowd around him. He had been talking about how the Laotians had hid in these mountains, but I had been more focused on not slipping off sharp crevices and pointing my light into pools of water to see if anything swam in them.
“They were too afraid to light fires for cooking since the smoke may be a signal. They often didn’t use flashlights because they were too afraid the light may be seen,” the guide said.
I looked to my right where the cave floor was uneven and covered with stalagmites. One slip and at the very least my leg would be cut. I would possibly sustain even more injuries depending on how I fell.
“Many people died from cuts,” the guide continued. His voice sounded more like that of a history teacher lecturing than the flare of a typical tour guide.
“I want you all to turn your lights off, now,” he said.
We obeyed. His light remained.
“Many people lost their ways in these caves,” he whispered. “They say there are wandering souls trying to get out.”
I realized the guide did have a flare for the dramatic just as his light went out.
As an English major and avid reader I had read accounts of authors trying to describe complete and total darkness. I felt then how woefully inept the English language is to describe it.
This was my first touch of darkness.
I followed my instinct to put my hand in front of my face. I could not see it. To my horror, I felt as though it was detached. I could no longer sense my hand. The darkness had cut me off from those around me. My disoriented body twitched. This darkness was alive. Palpable. Moving. I breathed it in and became paralyzed by absolute nothingness.
This darkness breeds insanity.
The tour guide turned his light on and let out a small laugh. I almost appreciated the lack of pomp and flare that could have really amped up everyone’s fear before he turned the light off, but at the same time his lecture-like way of speaking made it even more terrifying.
He spoke of his past, of his people.
This wasn’t a fun ghost tour.
The snip-its of his tour that I had heard started coming back to me. This was real.
People had fled from something so much more horrifying than dying in the darkness of a cave.
People left the sunlight in hopes that they would survive.
People had hidden there, more terrified for what was in the sunlight than the death they would face in the caves.
Ghostly images filled the cave walls. A mother rocking her baby to sleep in between stalagmites and a deep crevice; rowdy children playing until one stumbles against a jagged edge; grandparents rubbing their aching bones as they try to find a more comfortable position. A father slowly realizing he lost himself looking for food.
The group solemnly turned on their flashlights and shuffled back towards the sunlight. The tour guide had nothing more to say. He had reached his crescendo and it was now time to get back to the present.
I wondered what was going through his mind as we were free to move into the sun again. How many times had he brought groups into the cave and tried to scare them with the ghosts who haunted the smothering darkness. How well did he know these caves?
Had he ever found the remains of a lost soul?
How often had he wept as he practiced his spiel for the tours? Did he have any coaching or any desire to add more flare to his production?
Perhaps he didn’t see the need for theatrics.
There is nothing more horrifying than the truth.