a suspension Bridge with concrete pillars

The Outsider

The road turns to a rocky trail. Carefully, I follow the slightly smoother paths of motorbikes before me. Turning a corner, I see the tyre tracks disappear onto a suspension bridge. I am thinking, if they can, I can.

Three or four metres onto the bridge, its swaying side to side, and there are boards missing! My feet are like trainer wheels, keeping me upright as I aim to follow the central steel girder. Look ahead. Look ahead. Concentrate.

I make the other side, park the bike and video the bridge. I just did that, crossed it, I tell myself. Wow. Back on the bike, I follow the road around to the left and up past sparse village homes on the right. People are staring. I guess not many foreigners come this way.

Further along, a cluster of village houses nest on a small treed hill to my left, overlooking the river below me. Some people are at the river edge, and I make a mental note to come back and look. First, to see where the road goes. The sign on the main road in Muang Ta Oy posted that Ban Laxeing was 3km this way.

Lady with a child on her back

I pass some women and children on their way to the village. They smile and answer ‘sabaidee’ to my greeting. Two more rocky hills, one up one down, and I am at the village gateway. I pause, then ride in slowly.

All faces are at window and door openings. I wave and call sabaidee. There are no replies, no smiles, just stares from 50+ pairs of eyes. I am the intruder, probably one of the first foreigners to come to the village.

Carefully, and trying to appear casual, I slowly turn the bike around, and ride out in retreat. The walking women and children are almost at the village and I pretend to stop to let them pass. I want to make a photograph.

One woman chats in ethnic Lao, and I think she is inviting me to go into the village. I am unsure, and maybe there are strict protocols for a solo man to walk in with a local woman. Its not hard for me to feign no comprehension. Instead, I try to ask if I can photograph the older woman, who carries an enormous bamboo smoking pipe.

I think she agrees, though when I show her the photo she is all looks of consternation, with sharp words which I fail to understand, and I am quickly looking for a way out.

I smile and wave goodbye and ride back to the other houses and the river. I park the bike, remove helmet and jacket and wander towards the river. An older woman sits topless with her back to me as she washes. Two women with her are just leaving the water’s edge to walk up the trail. I turn my attention to the 2 men on the timber canoe, crossing the swollen river.

When the 2 ladies are at my level, I greet them hello / sabaidee. Some children have descended from the village hillside to see what I am doing. I am unable to communicate, other than a feeble hello.

Before I realise any change, there are at least 20 more in the audience – men, women and children. Most are standing on soil heaps, looking down at me. I feel like a clown in a circus – comic entertainment. Eventually, amid friendly smiles, I don my safety gear and ride back to the swing bridge. The children playing near the road race to the safety of the house when they see me coming.

Almost back to the main road, I take a left turn and see a row of seemingly derelict timber dwellings down a lane. I start along, and see its a dead end track. As I turn around, a woman beckons to me. She is weaving on a handmade loom, her granddaughter watching from a hammock.

Lady weaving with child watching from a hammoch

I stop, and walk over to say hello and watch her working. She lets me take some photos. She indicates she has some finished garments, and I guess she wants me to buy some. I thank her politely for the photos, and depart.

Another small road beckons opposite my exit, and I launch down that. Less than 1km later, light rain is starting, and the bare lane is looking greasy. I slide downhill to a narrow bridge and cross. Its raining harder and I turn to hasten my retreat. Its a skidding slipping ascent.

Back to Ta Oy, I take refuge and lunch in the local market. I choose some sticky rice and some eggs, shell cooked. I have a mild concern that I am about to discover a chicken embroyo inside. Its a popular delicacy in Laos and the Phillipines. No, its egg. Well, egg probably mixed with some sugar (tastes a little sweet) with shallots added on the top. At least here, in the local market, the people smile and nod at me in approval.

Pointing myself homeward ( to my guesthouse some 100km away), I detour again to a small village in the hills, about 6km from the main road. As I reach the small village, young children flee at my passing. Rain begins to fall, and I round the bike for a ride back to the main road. There are people doing something further downriver as I cross the small bridge. I choose not to investigate, as there is a woman below toileting and washing herself.

I ride on, the observer, the intruder into village life. It may be a long time before I can truly communicate with locals.

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