Vehicles danced the twist around each other in drifts of yellow leaves and butterflies. Red tracks, fringed with thickets of straggling shrubs, disappeared into the blonde fields of the plains. Hills appeared, with trees holding off the sun, then mountains, growing in green swamps. In the shrubs of a slope a golden Buddha mediated over traffic swinging through a curve.
Lines of bougainvillea, pink, white, red, tan, replaced the yellow dashes of a centre line. Loei came and went, a low and sensible city tumbling over bumps in a valley. At a crossroad an empty road moved westward in farmed mountains, a bridge and a border somewhere in the dusk beyond. The north road led to Chiang Khan.
Darkness fell. Strings of fire sidled the verges, burning weeds. Over one last crest, and past a lone traffic light, nothing and no-one moved in a short lane. O’s mother’s house was made of little plastered bricks. Beer warmed in tall glasses. The hot night melted ice.
“When O’s mother won the lottery, she built a house. We came back from Australia to see her. She was dying. We came for a month. That was 18 months ago,” said Pete. Once he had been a builder. Now he was a professor.
The ground floor opened into the street, with a bathroom and a kitchen partitioned behind. Blue tiled stairs led to bedrooms and a balcony. Car number plates covered a wall. O topped the glasses with beer and ice again. “I haven’t spoken English with anyone for weeks.”
Word of strangers spilled from Pete’s lips. “B has rented his house to a man from Alaska. He goes home for 3 months every year. P lives in the guesthouse over there. She married a Dutch man. He is visiting his mother. And G bought land beside the river, on the road to the new bridge. She is watching the men building their house.” A Wat watched over a man asleep.
Outside a guesthouse, the rising sun caught flowers. “You must try the coffee at the café. They buy real milk from a dairy with black and white cows. We didn’t expect to find a dairy here.” Pete yawned.
Near the café women teased white balls of cotton into woolly sheets, and cased them in pink nets. They stuffed the nets in quilt covers, and stacked them next to triangular cushions. Beside a beach of coloured stones, children floated on the Mekong River. Tyre tubes buoyed them.
On the edge of the town G exhibited houses. Her own house was half up. The spirit of the land had moved into a smaller, finished house. It stood red on a stand below a tree.
A gravel road ducked out of the town, and under a white cliff face, streaked in black and orange tears, then twirled into a clearing in ranks of planted trees.
A tree trunk sported a green board. White painted words said “Toarch tobe rent.Our appolecise for poor facilities. Please keep the cave clean. Donations.”The earth smelt rich. The air smelt of damp shade and dry leaves. Nearby, two dogs snuffled at another tree trunk. Two rusty nails pinned a page on it, ripped from a notebook. Khmer writing, replete with the shapes of flying fish, wriggled through printed lines.
Concrete rails pushed rocks aside as they shouldered up a slope in parallel. A single step between the rails supported a yellow flower topping a stalk rising from an earth pot. A footpad wriggled from it, into the rocks, and a black hole in the hill.
“Not me,” said O’s friend P. “Snakes or anything in place like that.”
The dogs scattered as she sat down on the bench. She cooed to them, holding out a hand to each. The dogs came closer.
High above the dogs, in the green light, not even the air was moving. A shelter, abandoned, sagged on the slope, walls and roof peeling away. Sandaled feet sounded like buffalo herds. Ranks of trees beside the rails camouflaged thin poles supporting a single room. Orange robes hung at the head of a ladder leading up to it.
The black hole of the hillside opened into a pale cave. Inside, water had shaped a giant elephant, one turned inside out. A head torch illuminated massive legs, empty columns stretching into the rock of the ceiling, thicker than tree trunks. Dark wings of bats studded the insides of its feet. A trunk curled behind a wall smoothed by water, a tunnel disappearing into darkness too far to follow.
The rock that spawned the empty mammoth had given birth to another. Sculpted by water, a furrowed elephant’s head, life sized, faced the daylight of the opening. Further in the water had cleaned soft rock from a pillar of white crystals, leaving it freestanding, and chest-high. Flowers and incense holders stood in the hollow of the lingham’s head. It sparkled in the torchlight. Elsewhere the water had left a shelf. There a golden Buddha meditated, an orange cloth resting transparent on his shoulder.
Orange candle grease stained a lower shelf, and green light fell on more Buddha statues. It came from a porthole high on a wall. All the statues sat on concrete steps built for them inside a cave within a cave. Absence of sound wrapped them like a blanket. One held a garland of flowers woven in coloured bands.
The road wandered back another way. P swished this way and that way with her hands beside a water-melon stand. Dinner and breakfast fell into the boot before the car corkscrewed up a slope, one always growing steeper. The car felt as if it would topple, backwards, end on end, on end.
“If someone dies, people here don’t grieve like we do,” said Pete. “They have gone to be born again. That’s why they don’t wear helmets on their scooters.” A last vertical twist vomited the car into a car-park edged in trees. High wire fences surrounded a tower bristling with antennae and dishes. “It’s a Thai navy tower”.
Where the Thai navy monitored a river, a thousand kilometres from the sea, soft blue smudged the outlines in Chiang Khan far below, and waves of Lao ranges undulated into the horizons. We picked long pods from the trees at the cliff edge. Sitting under them, sucking tamarind pulp, and a long way from home, watched the river’s rapids as we waited.
Tonight would be O’s temple’s annual fair.