Guys and Girders

Hongsa Travel Blog

 › entry 31 of 52 › view all entries

 The most memorable thing about Hongsa was getting there.


First off I had to catch a ‘speed boat’ from Luang Prang, then I found myself cadging a lift with a group of workmen & their cargo.


The speedboat was a standard painted canoe with a monster engine strapped to the back. There was only the driver & myself onboard and neither of us understood the other’s language but we managed to agree a fee by typing numbers into our mobile phones and shaking or nodding our heads until both were happy. There didn’t seem to be any further need for communication after that.


The journey was scheduled to take 2 hours, which was just short enough for me to manage without a loo break.

Or so I thought…


After 20 minutes of pounding along the Mekong at glorious breakneck speed, my bladder had been bounced to it’s very boundaries & I was forced to make ‘please stop and let me pee’ type gestures at the driver.


He looked confused and ignored me.


Another ten minutes and I was almost crying in desperation. I flung my arms towards the shoreline and made elaborate leg crossing gestures & pained facial expressions.


Finally he stopped the boat.

I sprinted up the sandy riverbank and crouched down behind a lone sprig of leaves that would one day grow into a bush. Ooo the shame.


About 3 hours later we arrived at the Hongsa transfer area; a landing bay on the beautiful banks of the Mekong where there’s a handful of houses and a lone snack store selling fizzy drinks and the sort of highly preserved sweets that look like they’d survive a nuclear fall out. The place is far too small to qualify for a regular bus route, but if you hang around long enough there’ll be someone heading into the hills willing to give you lift for a dollar or two.


My pick up was a battered old Toyota truck that happened to be transporting a large pile of greased cylindular girders. There were 4 labourers perched in the back with me. (One guy sported killer cheekbones covered in oil smudges, which I tried hard not to gawp at) We sat with the girders under our feet, bumping along a dusty red track that wrapped itself around the edges of the mountain like tinsel to a Christmas tree.


The problem was that the greasy girders slid backwards with every dip & divot, so in no time at all they were hanging perilously off the back of the vehicle. The guys bellowed for the driver to stop, which he did, and the girders were shoved back onto the truck.


From then on all 5 of us used our combined body weight to pin down the girders, resulting in all sorts of contortions…but still they slid backwards. Finally, with ingenious creativity, the driver worked out that he could reverse the truck into the wall of the mountain, thus pushing the metal poles back onto the flatbed, and only slightly risking tipping the Toyota over the edge, or having an oncoming vehicle plough into our side. One or two girders got bent as a result of over zealous reversing, but for the most part, much manpower was saved.


You’re going to think I’m a right ol’ bull dyke, but there’s something really enjoyable about being part of a dirty, physical team.

I enjoyed this trip a billion times more than any deluxe tourist transfer. Not for the first time I wished I ticked ‘manual labour’ on that red & white career choices form at school.


The Town


The main man on the Toyota truck seemed grateful for my collaborative girder-pinning efforts and offered me an orange & a cigarette once we arrived in Hongsa,  (I accepted the orange).


Hongsa itself is how I imagine an old American western town might look: Wide, straight, dusty grid-formation streets, small ramshackle houses, modest shops, a marketplace & the local school. Children and animals skirt the edges of the road, and from any point in town you can probably see the sun rise or set.

Lo-Lao; Absolutley bloody lethal local drink..


I stayed in a new guesthouse that had all the facilities you could hope for but no sign of any other guests. In fact, I can honestly say that for the 1 night & 2 days I was in Hongsa I did not see another pink face.


The guesthouse owner, Chanti, was so eager to please that he followed me everywhere I went, from the moment I stepped out of my room to the moment I stepped back in again. One time I went out to find breakfast and got no further than reception; he grabbed my hand & I was forced onto a padded seat by the door and made to ‘Sit!’ until a baguette, a slither of butter & cup of coffee (none of which I wanted) had been located & presented before me. He then sat down and watched like a hawk as I ate and drank. It was terribly uncomfortable, I didn’t know where to put my eyes and felt painstakingly aware of every chew & swallow.


The Parade


The upside to being Chanti’s forced companion was that I got to be part of some authentic town life.


When Chanti’s friends came over for some Lo-Lao (evil, evil clear alcohol seemingly made from fermented snake brains) I matched their hearty gulps with a tentative sip & was immediately sent into a choking frenzy much too everyone’s amusement.


Later there was a parade through town. Chanti’s mum & aunts had made a spectacular waist-high paper mache elephant & decorated it in bright garlands and banknotes. The men of the family proudly hoisted the elephant onto their shoulders and we marched from the guesthouse to the local Buddhist temple (Wat). More and more people joined the parade as we went along. Everyone was dressed in smart clothes, and from their smiles and clapping hands, clearly very happy. The women chanted in high-pitched voices, creating an eerily hypnotic sound that made me think of mermaids or exotic birds.


The Elephant.


Hongsa is famous for it’s elephants, so Chanti took it upon himself to find one for me.


We drove to the outskirts of town on his motorbike & stopped at a large wooden house on stilts where we met with a middle aged man, his son and a lady who looked to be at least 250 years old, she was teeny tiny, her back bent into a perfect ‘C’ arms & legs thin & knobbly like old bamboo. Toothless face collapsed in on itself, all her features lost among the folds of ancient skin.


Chanti chatted with the man, who seemed to know where the nearest elephant was hidden and together we all (except the dear old crone) headed off on a trek that took us over two streams, paddy fields and into a thick forest.


It dawned on me that I was pretty vulnerable out here alone in the wilderness with 3 strange males. However I think/hope I’m an okay judge of character & I felt secure of Chanti’s good nature. Just for safety’s sake I kept my hand in my back pocket brushing against my flicked-out Swiss army blade. I actually ended up with a whacking great hole in the pocket of my combats… and completely in vain, as the men behaved perfectly.


Once in the forest there was clear evidence of the Ellie; the trees & scrub were broken apart into large, high gaps framed by snapped twigs. The middle-aged man disappeared into one of these natural alleyways and emerged a few moments later pulling a large, sad elephant along by a chain that bound all four hefty feet together.


Immediately I wished I’d never come. The Ellie had the look of a ‘dead man walking’ not just because of her shackled feet, but also in her empty eyes. I was not sure how to react. It seemed wrong to express delight at the poor animal, but at the same time, rude to seem disapproving of a situation/culture. So I tried politely stroked Ellie’s shoulder & trunk and tried not to grimace as the man made her, sit, lie & stand again. As soon as possible I said ‘Thank You for showing me, I think that’s enough now’. Then Ellie was lead back into the jungle & out of sight.
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Lo-Lao; Absolutley bloody lethal l…
Lo-Lao; Absolutley bloody lethal …
photo by: paaltjes