Thursday, 16 June 2011

Risks worth taking

Laos, Huay Xai

There are some risks one can choose to take, calculated risks, risks that you feel you understand the potential consequences of and choose to take anyway.  And there are other risks that one takes every day – crossing the road, plugging in a kettle, getting on a bus – that through repetition cease to be perceived as risks, and become normalised. And a bloody good job too because a life lived at the beck and call of risk is not a life, but an ordeal.  Living a life devoid of risk is not living.  However, taking one of these normalised risks and this risk resulting in the silent plea of I want to live, does rather make one re-evaluate the risk-reward calculation.  It was this plea that crossed my mind, surprisingly slowly and serenely, as the bus we were on spun in two full circles on a greasy mountain road between Huay Xai and Lung Nam Tha in northern Laos.  Time really does slow down in moments such as these, and watching the green Lao countryside spin past me, desperately trying to lock eye contact with Helen, there was time to compile a list of possible outcomes; (a) we grind to a halt, (b) we flip over, (c) we spin off the edge, or (d) we flip then we go off the edge.  A macabre version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  Needless to say, none of these outcomes were really part of my mental risk-assessment process when I booked the bus tickets, or got on the rickety public bus, or silently assessed the driver’s skills as we sped round sharp corners.  Maybe these potential outcomes will be more prominent in my mind next time I get on a bus.

The fact that I am writing this sat outside a book store in the delightful royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, and not from a hospital bed or from beyond the grave (m-hah, m-hah, m-hah), suffering from no more than some volatile bowels and a mild hangover will tell you that the eventual outcome was, in fact, (a), final answer.  We ground to a halt on a patch of gravel by the side of the road, the friction stopping our slide towards the mountain edge, the only real damage done to the serenity of us and our Lao travelling companions.  Given that I’ve only just mastered the Lao for ‘thank you’ I figured it pointless to engage the driver in a lecture on the correct way to drive down wet mountain roads, limiting myself to a sigh and the plea, translated with conviction by the other Lao passengers, to ‘bloody well slow down’.  I’m not sure if they also translated my muttered rejoinder of ‘you fucking idiot’, but a look can tell a thousand words and from the daggers being pointed at the driver from everyone on the bus it was abundantly clear that a tip was out of the question.  I even broke my rule of ‘always say thank you to the driver when getting off a bus’, a rule that even the sink-hole of rudeness, London, hadn’t previously shaken me from.

The irony of this incident is that for the previous three days we had been engaged in an activity that posed far more of a visceral and immediate risk than catching a bus ever could.  We had been deep in the jungle, fighting off leeches, living in a tree house twenty metres off the ground, and zip-lining through the jungle canopy.  The Gibbon Experience is a popular activity on the South East Asia traveller circuit, situated just over the Thai-Laos border in the northwest of Laos, which despite the $270 USD per person price tag is booked virtually year round.  We hadn’t booked it, of course - we’re flexible, just going with the flow man, letting each country tell us what we should do, not some traveller’s bible guide book.  I jest, of course - to put it another, more honest and less pretentious way, we’re disorganised.  But, bus journeys notwithstanding, we’re also quite lucky.  We managed to secure the last couple of places on a trip leaving two days after we had crossed from Thailand into Laos, in a fun group of sixteen.  Well, mainly fun.  I didn’t take too kindly to being told off by a young Sloanie girl for supposedly killing an ant, when (1) I hadn’t, and (2) it’s a bloody ant, not a puppy.  This is the same girl who had just made a fuss about the fact that none of the baguettes we had been provided with for lunch were vegetarian, but instead of removing the chicken like the other vegetarians in the group had eaten it anyway.  Perhaps the principles of vegetarianism don’t apply in the jungle. I have no idea given that I grew up a long time ago made the lifestyle choice to be a carnivore.  I’m joking! A cheap joke at that. You can wipe the pieces of tofu burger you indignantly spat out off your computer screen.  I said none of this to our sloanie friend, of course, choosing diplomacy over conflict.  My response of cutting her safety rope was, I think, a far more effective approach.  Still joking.   
Lunch completed, we trekked on through the jungle, sweating more than I ever have before as the jungle wrapped its humid sleeping bag around my body, stopping eventually at a wooden platform surrounded by trees.  Waiting my turn I checked and double-checked the fit of my harness then meticulously attached my roller and safety line to the steel zip line.  Now, I’ve zip lined before, and it’s fun, but this was something else.  Shooting out from the trees I was suddenly suspended 100ft from the jungle floor, the rolling landscape all around me, the wind buffeting my face as I sped across the valley and onto the platform on the other side. Some shout ‘woo-hoo’ at times like these.  I don’t, I’m rendered dumb.  Getting back my power of speech I turned to Helen and muttered the phrase that hitherto has driven me nuts for its lazy and inarticulate over-use; ‘that was awesome’.  But this really was awesome.  Most things aren’t (well, unless you’re a complete simpleton who is genuinely awe-inspired by the minutiae of everyday life), but zip-ling across a forest canopy is.

Sleeping in a tree-house that you enter via a zip-line is pretty good too.  Certainly a step up from Premier Inn.  But I really shouldn’t be too dismissive about the over-use of the word ‘awesome’, brandishing its proponents as simpletons.  For this was the conversation Helen and I had when we awoke after our first night sleeping in the din of the jungle chorus, high up above the ground: 
Helen: How did you sleep?

Me: Not great, it was pretty loud, some of those insects sound like zombies.  I spent most of the night devising defence strategies for how we could repel a zombie attack on the tree house.  We’d be pretty screwed I concluded - I’ve only got a Swiss army pen knife, and if they are like those zombies from 28 Days Later then they’d be close enough to spit blood on you before you could effectively use the blade anyway.

Helen: Uh-huh, that’s not very realistic. I slept pretty well, although I did convince myself that one of the noises was a tiger, and it was laying outside the mosquito net.  But then I told myself it was probably a friendly tiger and that helped me get back to sleep.

Who’s the simpleton now?
So, what’s the moral to this story?  Do you take risks to experience something that is genuinely awesome? Do you think more carefully before taking a normalised risk, knowing that one day that risk may end your life? Do you live in fear, or do you live more freely in blissful ignorance? Jeez, I don’t know, I’m a simpleton.  Maybe you just live, and every so often say a silent thank you that you, and those you love, are alive and that there are moments in life that can, just sometimes, be awesome.

Left: One of the tree houses.  Right: Dawn breaks over the jungle.
Laos public buses - scary.


  1. Helen here - Just to rationalise my sleepy thought process - my childhood book of choice was always "When the tiger came to tea" and he was a very friendly and polite tiger. I like tigers. They're furry. baaaaaaaaaaaah

  2. H - you'll be pleased to hear that (quote)'The Tiger Who Came to Tea is now a fantastic new stage show making its West End debut at the Vaudeville Theatre. The show includes plenty of songs and audience participation and is great fun for children aged three and above. Maybe you should book tickets for when you return.
    P.S. Well done Ian. An 'awesome' blog. The best so far.

  3. H - Read 'the tiger who came to tea' to the boys last night for their bed time story. They all love it too.

  4. Lao public buses aren't all like their experience. I just came from Huay Xia to Luang Nam Tha and had a nice slow ride in the dry season. Lao bus drivers are far more courteous than the their compadres in Vietnam or Cambodia (suicidal at times).

    I have ridden buses in northern laos and through the Bolovens without any incidences, so don't let this report scare you on bues in Laos.

    If you want a better bus ride try the Cambodia phnom Penh to Sihanoukville route. not even mountainous but sometimes suicidal drivers but still best way to Cambodia coast.

    1. Thanks for your comment Anonymous. I agree with you - not all Lao public buses are poorly driven. It just so happened that the one we took was, unfortunately.

      Echo your comments that what I write shouldn't scare people off riding buses in Laos. In fact, the whole blog tries to do the opposite - to encourage people to get out there into the world and let wonder trump fear.

      Thanks again for your comment, glad to have you reading. Ian