The sole guesthouse tout at the Muang Ngoy boat landing was ten years old. Muang Ngoy has electricity just three hours a day and no road access at all, but it has 17 guesthouses now, thanks to a Lonely Planet write-up describing life off the grid. So Eng has learned basic English and knows how to charm falangs. With pride, she showed the ‘WC’ first, a concrete-floored bamboo hut where you shower with a plastic scoop unless the electricity is on. Most people in these parts just bathe in the river.
The dollar rooms were basic and exactly like every other room in town. Woven walls, no windows, grubby mosquito net, and a hammock strung on a little balcony looking over the Nam Ou river and the karst mountains opposite. When I agreed to take it, Eng beamed.
‘Where you from? How long you stay in Laos? What is your name?’ She told me her name, then stuck out a small hand in a businesslike handshake. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said firmly. The rat who would share my quarters that night was not introduced.
Faced with Eng, I didn’t know whether to laugh or write a pompous entry on the evils of tourism. Nor, I suppose, do the dazed grannies who stare out all day long at the falangs who have transformed the town in two years. Now the ambitious young men promise cooler trekking routes than the competition. ‘See the ethnic villages! Also fishing and cook the fish you catch.’ And Germans in short-shorts take pictures of the public safety posters that explain how to avoid unexploded ordinance
The previous day, I’d hiked up to see a spectacular limestone cave where an entire village had hidden for years during the American War. From 100 feet up, you could see fish swimming in a bomb crater below. My Muang Ngoy boatman rowed one-handed, steadying the oar with his stump; presumably the other hand was left in some field hereabouts. We passed another boat made out of the fuel tank of a bomber plane sliced in two. That’s Lao recycling: the temple bells that call the monks to prayer are often made of bomb casings, too. Wars don’t finish when the Orderly Departure planes depart.
In Nong Khiaew, an hour downriver, clean-up still goes on. I watched a small UXO team (with stylish t-shirts) drink coffee before jumping in their truck to head to work. A soldier followed on a Honda. He had a UXO Division badge on his sleeve, too, and a six-month-old baby tied to his back in a sarong. This cossetted son won’t grow up to be a sapper, though. When I come back in ten years he’ll be running my guesthouse.