The Road to Xien Khouang 4

When we left Sour Hak’s place there was no one in sight in the street. Dupont said that the officers would be eating, so why worry them? We would motor off quietly down the road, have our bathe, and then see how we felt. So, driving quite slowly and pretending to take an interest in the sights, we edged our way out of the village; past the sentries, the last house, the last Laotian girl squatting on her veranda looking into space; out into the splendid and menacing amphitheatre of the landscape; very much alone, but invulnerable with the good red burgundy awash in our stomachs.
The river was there, as Dupont promised, and we swam about in it for half an hour, while the Laotian driver sat on the log bridge holding his Sten between his knees. People always alarm you with stories of the perils, the leeches and the parasites to be picked up from bathing in these countries, but as far as could be seen, the River Song – tributary of the Mekong – looked like any river in the south of England. The water poured with a swift, black, curling surface round the boulders and under the bridge. It was cold and there were long, flat, trailing weeds just below the surface. As we went into the water great mustard stains spread from us, were thinned and borne away. The Meo dog, yelping in protest, was thrown in over and over again.
Dupont now made mention of the next part of his programme. Since things had gone so well, why not stroll over to the village of Pha-Tang, half a mile off the road, down the river, and ask permission to sleep there? In this way we should at least get a comfortable night’s sleep, and then, in the morning – if, of course, we felt like it – we could rejoin the convoy without more ado, and no one would be the worse.
Pha-Tang was a cluster of palms and thatched roofs under the high scrawled translucent mountain shapes. A flourish of cranes deserted the village paddy fields at our approach. Dupont told the driver to wait behind as we went into the village. As a convert to the Laotian way of life he paid much attention to local etiquette; he said that we must on no account appear with arms. There were no signs of life in the village and Dupont found this disconcerting. We must keep a careful look-out, he said, for a white thread across the path, or a cross decorated with red flowers. Either would mean that the village was taboo to strangers; in the first case because of a violent death or the presence of epidemic disease and in the second because the feast of the tutelary spirit was being celebrated. It was for reasons of these periodical taboos that Laotian villages, although built as near as possible to roads, were not actually on them. The places where we had stopped that day were not true Laotian villages at all, but military posts, around which a few storekeepers, mostly Chinese, had grouped themselves.
Although Dupont could find no signs of a definite taboo, he was still very uneasy that no one had come out to greet us. The correct thing on entering a Laotian village with the intention of staying the night was to ask for the headman and obtain his permission to do so. Unless this were done it would be a grave discourtesy to enter any house. Dupont empha¬sised that while the Laotians were tolerant, civilised and hospitable, there were certain indispensable forms, and as we mooched about the deserted village, he poured out information on the subject; even describing the position for correct sleeping; body stretched out at right angles to wall containing door, feet pointing to the door. When I suggested that we might find an empty hut and sleep in it, he was startled. Although the villagers might overlook minor breaches of custom, he said, this would be a grave one, involving them in an expensive purification ceremony before the hut could be occupied again.
I offered no more suggestions and in the end we found a rather scared- looking woman who said, when Dupont spoke to her in Laotian, that the headman was away, and was not expected back. It was quite clear now that we were not welcome, and Dupont said that perhaps it would be better, after all, not to sleep in the village. Thinking about this experience after¬wards, I concluded that the villagers dared not welcome us in the usual way, being unable to guarantee our safety, with the Issarak bands and the Viet-Minh in the neighbourhood. I expected that Dupont would now resign himself and return to Vang Vieng, but he began to produce argu¬ments for carrying on. The worst thing about the convoy, he said, was that it prevented our seeing so many things and doing so many things that we could otherwise do. Up in the mountains there were Meo villages, he said, and he badly wanted to get another Meo dog. They were rare and hard to come by, but he knew one of the Meo chiefs who would oblige him. Having found out that I was very ready to be interested in such things, Dupont produced this Meo village as a kind of gaudy enticement. The only thing that separated us from the leisurely enjoyment of such pleasures, was a single village, not more than three kilometres away, which, once passed, was the last until we reached the military post of Muong Kassy, fifty kilometres away, over the mountains. Dupont’s final suggestion was that we should stay where we were until about an hour after dark, then creep up to the outskirts of the village – Pha Home was its name – with lights off, switch on the lights to make sure there was no barrier, and rush through it.

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