The Present (France, Malemort du Comtat)
Campsite Font Neuve, 28th June 2019:
Here we are, in a luxurious camping place in the middle of Provence. The average age of the guests here is around 75, and the place is packed with cheerful Dutch families. The Netherlands obviously took control of this campsite several years ago, since price lists and notices are written in both Dutch and French. It’s ages since we’ve been surrounded by a geriatric community. Finally, we are the spring chickens here. Uli and I are comfortably reclining on plastic chairs by a heated swimming pool, surrounded by a bunch of elderly flatlanders.
Uli: That's my husband. Grrr, I hate the expression, “my husband.” The other alternatives: spouse, companion, life- or marriage-partner – sound stiff, impersonal and crappy; when he is in actual fact the person closest to me. Where’s the right word for it in our otherwise nuanced language? I’d suggest “Superman” – at least in my case very appropriate, “my Superman.” That’s better. Anyway, my Superman and I are on our first proper holiday in eight years, with nothing to plan for, organize, and no Emails to answer. We can hardly grasp that currently, and in the coming months, we’re free of all responsibilities. This feeling of lightness that we haven’t experienced for years – the last time was probably during our world trip.
Well, we’re also planning our little house next year, so I want to write this book while we’re floating unemployed through the world. Oh, and we also plan to open another place for rock climbers the year after. But other than that, we have nothing to worry about!
The only fly in the ointment is the return of my annual attack of Bronchitis, aggravated by today being the hottest day I’ve ever experienced in my 45 years: 44 degrees Celsius. Agonizingly hot. Your brain melts away and you try to avoid every movement. We never encountered these temperatures even in Laos. Buuut, I anyways move at snail’s pace because of my illness, so there’s no difference.
I’ll tell you how we came to be in this situation. It’s precisely four weeks ago that we sold the “Green Climbers Home” in Laos, the climbers’ camp that we had built up and then sold to our successors. So here we are; with no work, no home, no children, relatively healthy self-sufficient parents, time on our hands and enough reserves to not worry about money for the next few months. Accordingly, we both sit here, grinning stupidly like the Cheshire cat, bathing in memories of the past eight years and patting each other on the back that, finally, everything turned out just as we had dreamed.
However, the road to emigration and the return here has been a rocky one, sometimes even traumatizing. Uli and I had shed a few feathers along the way and withstood numerous knocks – to the soul as well as to the body. That’s actually not very special we find – talking to entrepreneurs, teachers, or other professionals in responsible positions, one hears the same litany: moans about unreliable employees, the injustices of bureaucracy, the rude customers, guests, pupils and colleagues, at the edge of burnout or depression. All this seems familiar to us; nothing new, so why am I writing a book about it?
Well, we were always bombarded with question after question about our journey; questions from guests, friends and family, who listened wide-eyed to our accounts. There were repeated interview requests from TV, radio stations and magazines. Apparently a few people were interested in knowing how two long-noses came to settle in a climbers’ camp in Laos
It took a lot of convincing for me to write a book. By no means do I consider myself and our experiences so important to deserve a much wider audience. It was mainly Manfred, Uli’s father, who constantly encouraged me to set down every small episode and encounter on paper (or laptop). It was Manfred who assured me that our stories about Laos were incredibly interesting; and not only to him as a father-in-law. When Uli and some of his friends began to persuade me, I finally began to see that it would be really good to write all our experiences down, so I began to write… and now, voilà… Here's the book:
II. The Thwarted Trip around the World
“This was meant to be a regular trip around the world… ”
With this entry in our travel blog, written for friends and family, we made it official; as though we’d signed a contract. There was no going back now. As we hit the “publish” button on 15 January in Tonsai, Thailand, we each had a lump in our throats, but were amused at the same time, thinking of our friends’ faces as they read of our plans. We’d warned our families in advance by email and received every kind of warning, reservation and doubt in return. Clearly the family was not cheering us on when they heard of our plans to emigrate. Our friends, on the other hand, were beside themselves.
I have no idea what a ‘normal’ world trip is, but at least when we began, we hadn’t the faintest intention to stop over anywhere for long. And then, Laos of all places, one of the least developed countries in Southeast Asia. I must confess it was a country I hadn’t even heard of when we began to plan our trip. But that was exactly what made the whole thing more exciting.
Let me begin at the beginning.
Caution: a leap backward in time! End 2009 to early 2010.
We planned our trip around the world as follows:
Three months Southeast Asia, three months Central America with a ten-day detour to California. Naturally we pored over rock climbing possibilities in every country that we targeted. Countries without rocks to climb were mercilessly omitted. The plan was essentially a six-month climbing holiday. For that, we’d saved, planned and prepared for two years, hoping to escape the daily grind. Not that our day-to-day lives were bad! Uli had worked sixteen years as a carpenter, and I had worked the past few years at a jobs portal for artists where I looked after the accounts and sometimes customer service. We’d always had our free weekends, hardly ever worked overtime, had a cosy little apartment in Cologne-Sülz, a halfway serviceable car, great friends, indoor climbing halls in winter – in summer we travelled to climbing rocks. Climbing holidays at least thrice a year, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with friends. All in all, a perfectly relaxed lifestyle.
Of course, work was a bore. Up early, slalom through rush hour traffic, dealing with customers… not really what I wanted. More than anything, I felt robbed of life in winter, leaving home for work in the dark and coming home again after sunset. The best thing we could do was to leave the cold and boring winter months behind us.
October 2010 – Thailand
We set off on the 4th of October 2010. We’d succeeded in convincing our bosses; I was able to pause my annual subscription to Modern Dance in the Cologne Dance Center for six months; sublet our apartment for three months and park our car long-term for free in the garage of friends of Uli’s parents. We didn’t have much else to worry about. It’s best to have little, then there’s less to worry about.
Our first destination was Thailand: Kho Phi Phi, Tonsai, Kho Yao Noi, Chiang Mai. It was fairly overcast and rainy the whole time (the monsoon was late that year) but we went climbing nevertheless, with a little bit of sightseeing in between. We wished to see the country and its people after all. Uli knew Southeast Asia from earlier trips, but for me, this was a completely new world. Absolutely freaky, these Asians. My first lesson: Accept the mess! You can’t clean up Asia. My love of neatness and order was severely tested here – and it was not much better in Vietnam and Laos! Cheezust! How much lack of esthetics can one tolerate? Here was an entire nation totally unconcerned about it, which was almost fascinating to me.
Another thing that was new for me: never being cold anymore. Why was I as a child repeatedly dragged to the North Sea when there were so many fine, warm places in the world? From those trips to Holland I’d probably acquired a coldness trauma and am now freezing already at the very thought of water. I learnt better in Thailand though. Surprise, surprise: seawater can be pleasantly warm!
Our budget was modest at best, so we always stayed in cheap, shabby huts that were occupied by a multitude of roommates. We shared our accommodation with toads, leeches, spiders, mice, cockroaches and every other kind of small pest. We once even had a bat in our room. We didn’t worry much about it at the time. Such things were accepted as part of a backpacker’s life. A fine hotel would have been more comfortable, of course, but somehow wouldn’t have felt right. Now I no longer need these experiences and I’m glad to have them behind me.
The landscape, the climbing, sun, sea, sand, palms, and cliffs in every direction… were all breathtaking. We felt so free, savoring every day of the holiday. How often did we look around us and gasp, “Incredible…” meaning to say, “Insane, here we are on our trip around the world, and we still have five months to go! We can do whatever we like! How exquisite!” But instead of groping for a thousand words to express ourselves, we repeatedly and breathlessly exclaimed, “Unbelievable!” Each of us knew exactly what the other meant.
The sight of so many rock climbing opportunities led us to fantasize sometimes, about how it would be to spend more time in Thailand, setting up new climbing routes and maybe sometime, someday doing something related to climbing. It was a vague idea, lingering in the air, and as such this bonkers idea fascinated us both. It was fun to dream and picture ourselves completely upending our old lives.
After a month in Thailand, Laos was the next country on our itinerary
November 2010 – Laos
Huay Xai – Luang Phrabang – Vang Vieng
We sputtered along for two days from Huay Xai, a small town in northern Laos, in a “slow boat” down the Mekong. This is the kind of ‘individual’ tourism that one embarks on, hoping to do something different, only to end up meeting masses of other travellers in the same search for their own ‘different’ experience. After a month of backpack-living we were still foolish enough to think we were the only ones to have read and followed a hot Lonely Planet tip.
What was supposedly a pleasant boat journey had an uncanny similarity to a ride in a cattle car. There were no seats for Uli and me in the wooden cutter the first day, so we spent eight hours squatting on our baggage on the floor. From that position we could only look up and so we saw nothing but the big sky on our first day. This gave us the wonderful opportunity to observe the dull mass of ‘like-minded travellers’ for hours on end. How they drank one beer after another out of sheer boredom. They sang, they caterwauled, and finally they slept. For me, from this point on, a backpacker existence came to seem painfully embarrassing. Travelling on the boat the next day was much more relaxed. We had seats, so that we could look out of the window and follow daily life along the banks of the Mekong.
The Laotians we met on our first encounters were not exactly likable. In retrospect however, I can well understand that even the usually gentle Laotians were totally exasperated by the tourist hordes who merely wished to be transported from A to B, and once a while lost it. Similarly in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, two tourist hotspots in Laos, we met far fewer truly relaxed individuals. One felt how the average tourist’s demands took its toll on even the most good-natured Laotians and drove them to anger if they’d been annoyed just long enough.
The atmosphere in Thakhek was completely different to what we experienced before in Laos. We arrived in this sleepy little town on the Mekong on 19th November 2010, exactly on Uli’s 37th birthday. Despite it being the administrative capital of the province of Khammuan, and despite its population of 70,000, Thakhek was not ‘a point of interest’ for the mainstream tourist, and therefore tourism did not leave its mark here yet. Thakhek was only a transit point for the normal backpacker on the way from the northwestern capital Vientiane to Pakse in southern Laos. At most, travellers stayed overnight at a lodge, rented a moped the next day and rode it for three days along the so-called Loop. This was a five hundred kilometer round trip through a wonderful karst landscape, past the lake of a new dam and through countless little villages. The high point of this moped tour was a trip through the seven kilometer Kong Lor cave that was made in small boats. The Lao universe was still intact in Thakhek, and a Westerner was still a rarity. The essence of Laos still existed here; relaxed enjoyment of life and a refusal to take things too seriously. Most Laotians really lived up to this reputation, at least in Thakhek. The people exuded an air of calm, were relaxed, always friendly, ready to help and mostly wore a smile on their faces. A country and a city made for well-being.
Thakhek has been well known in rock climbing circles ever since Volker Schöffl started exploring here in 2010. A surgeon and sports surgeon from Bamberg he, with a group of seventeen other people, drilled fifty climbing routes in the area. Since then, for rock climbers, Thakhek was no longer just a transit point. Thanks to reports in trade magazines and the internet, it quickly became known that a new climbing mecca had formed, just twelve kilometers away from this peaceful town. And so it happened that besides us, there were a few other climbers residing in the ‘Travel Lodge‘' for several days. For the lodge employees, this was a completely new situation: guests who stayed for more than two days! Mr. Ku, who rented out mopeds from his shop right next to the lodge, was also overwhelmed. Mr. Ku was tall for a Laotian, a slender man in his late thirties, always smiling with his hands folded in front of his belly. His entire posture and gestures were expressions of modesty approaching extreme humility. He was dedicated to the running of his business with a fleet of around twenty mopeds. With the patience of a saint, he showed his Western customers how to operate his mostly worn out clunkers. Sometimes we saw how he taught (or tried to teach) complete novices within a few minutes how to ride a moped on the thirty meter path that led from the street to his shop.
He was quite happy to rent us mopeds that were not to be raced along the Loop, but rather be placidly driven the twelve kilometers to the climbing area.
Even the road to the climbing area was breathtaking. As soon as we left the town, the magical karst landscape opened up in front of us, with its sawtooth ridges and the mountains shimmering in the morning sun. At least to us flatlanders from Cologne, these were real mountains. A Tyrolean might simply call them hills. We drove past small bamboo huts, pigs, cows, chickens and goats. The road led us right up to the climbing routes, an absolute dream for the lazy sport climber who does not relish a longish approach.
We spent a couple of idyllic climbing days in Thakhek – up early, then on to the climbing routes after breakfast; and climbing, climbing, climbing all day to return exhausted in the evening to eat and sleep. What more could one want? And the thought crept into our minds; perhaps sometime, somehow, we could find something to do with climbing. We checked out the area around the existing climbing routes carefully. Was there potential to create more routes here? Yes, there was. Endlessly. Was there water nearby? Yes, a river ran right around the corner. Was there a protected nook large enough for a couple of bamboo huts? Yes, there was. It was so verdant and lush – a little distance away from the road, surrounded by rock cliffs. And at the bottom of this valley was a little wood.
We weighed the possibilities. Twelve kilometers to Thakhek was far enough to make a daily commute with a moped bothersome. Potential guests would rather live here, directly at the crag rather than in Thakhek. On the other hand it was close enough to quickly reach shops or a hospital and to enjoy civilization. The proximity to Thailand was also very important to us, where one could buy things unavailable in Laos and which – medically speaking – were years ahead of Laos. All the conditions that we considered important were ideally fulfilled here. And so we began to look around and think hard about the idea in earnest.
We walked on, immersed in thought, through the little wood and suddenly there we were, with the river in front of us. Not broad, probably around eight meters (twentyfive feet) wide, bordered by trees, bushes, and rocks. It was heaven sent. We badly needed to cool off, sweaty as we were. A little to the right was a tiny sandy beach that led right into wonderfully clear water. It was so warm that we jumped in fully clothed. One way to get shirts and trousers washed and clean.
The afternoon sun rays dappled through the treetops, glittering on the water. This moment was already total perfection, only to be topped further by the discovery that the river in which we bathed emerged from a cave! The idea of living in the middle of a rock climbing area with our own cave and its emergent river was simply fabulous. The place dotted every i and crossed every t that we could think of. I think that was the moment we secretly decided to begin this adventure.
So back to our idea, perhaps somewhere, someplace, sometime, somehow, to do something with rock climbing…
Why not ‘definitely’ instead of ‘perhaps’? And why only ‘perhaps’ or ‘sometime’ and why not now? And the ‘something’ had now become a camp for climbers. Only the ‘somehow’ remained, letting us rack our brains.
Where should we begin? Where should we go? Who should we ask? We returned to the Travel Lodge, and as luck would have it the owner, Mrs. Pok happened to be there. She was a tiny, resolute businesswoman, about our age, who usually lived with her husband and child in France and seldom visited her guest house. Mrs. Pok was the only Laotian we knew who spoke fluent English and therefore our first port of call to ask about our idea. We expected her to reject our flea-brained plan out of hand. On the contrary! On being asked to whom the land around the climbing walls belonged, she asked us to take her there right away. She wanted to see exactly which piece of land we were talking about, so that she could commission her friend, who had extensive contacts around Thakhek, to find out exactly who the owner was. She hustled us into her fat pickup truck and drove us at a jolting 40 km/h to the piece of land of our dreams. We were happy with the tempo, since tiny Mrs. Pok could hardly see over the top of the steering wheel.
That very evening, Mrs. Pok’s friend had not only identified the owner, she’d also arranged a meeting for us with the owner, Mr. Keo, at 10 the next morning.
What? At the location, right next to the climbing cliffs? The next morning? That was a bit sudden… we weren’t thinking about a meeting so soon. But yes, it was the logical thing to do, to speak to the man concerned. Only one thing was missing; an interpreter. Mrs. Pok unfortunately had no time so in short order she recruited Mr. Ku, from the neighboring moped rental agency for the task. He was quickly briefed by Mrs. Pok about our idea – to build a few huts and so on.
That evening we sat down at the Travel Lodge’s old computer and sent an email to Volker Schöffl telling him of our plans. We asked whether he had any designs of his own for the area. As he and his friends were the first to start developing the area, we didn’t want to intelope on any projects from their side. He replied the very same evening. “Nope. Go right ahead.” He had set up the routes because, among other things, he was due in Laos for 2-3 weeks every year to help out in the local hospital. And naturally the good doctor, “upwardly mobile” as he was, wished to climb the routes at every opportunity during his stay here. “Get in touch with Green Discovery Laos!” he advised. Its owner, Inthy, is an old friend of his who was 150% trustworthy. Wow! This was a platinum recommendation. Despite frequent crashes of the old bucket (in this case the computer), we were able to find that Green Discovery Laos (GDL) was an adventure travel and ecotourism tourism company with environmental sustainability writ large on their business platform, along with fair working conditions and inclusion of local populations. That sounded very progressive and friendly. After yet another restart of the computer and router, we sent the company a direct enquiry through their contact page. “Have heard from Volker… wish to set up a camp for climbers… if GDL knew whom we should contact”… and so on. We didn’t expect much, but we had to put it out there. There was nothing more to be done that evening, besides, the other guests were looking peeved at us hogging the computer. Smartphones and iPhones were still rarities then, and there was always a queue for the computer.
We were bursting with excitement as we lay down to sleep in our room No. 8 with its over-sized bathroom and rock hard mattress.
The next day, it must have been the 22nd November 2010, things started to happen. Uli and I set off to see Mr. Keo with Mr. Ku in tow. To our business appointment. We met him, with his wife Mannivone, in a bamboo hut.
Mr. Keo: Laotian, end fifties, looking very sprightly compared to many of his contemporary compatriots, black hair and brown eyes (who’d have imagined that) medium height, slender, very friendly and open face. He wore a dress shirt, long trousers combined down at heel sandals
Manivone: short, plump Laotian lady with small eyelids behind which the eyes almost vanished, her long gray hair was swept up in a severe bun. She was probably not much older than her husband, but could have been his mother. She wore the traditional wrap-around, called a ‘Sien’ – with a sharp ‘S’ – and a blouse. She looked a bit battered, as though she’d much less to laugh about in life than her husband, but was nevertheless extremely friendly and warm.
“Sabaidiis” (Hello, or good day) greetings were exchanged. The men shook hands. I primly greeted them with folded hands, having learnt this much about Laotian customs.
The hut was simply constructed on meter-high stilts, without walls, only a floor and a corrugated metal roof. The little hut was quite run-down. As usual in southeast Asia, shoes were left outside. A gaudy plastic mat was spread on the floor of the hut and we all sat down.
Introductions were swift. Uli pointed to himself and said, ‘Uli.’ I did the same. ‘Tanja,’ with a big grin, added ‘Sabaidii’ just for the sake of saying something. Boy, did I feel dumb!
Mrs. Manivone offered us warm beer with ice. Yummy.
Three reasons why we should have refused: it was ten in the morning (at least for me, a reason), the beer was warm, the ice diluted the beer, releasing its carbon dioxide and making it flat. Of course we accepted nevertheless.
Lacking the language, we had nothing to do but drink and look foolishly around. We had so many questions. Uli turned to Mr. Ku.
“Could you please ask him if we could rent his land?” Enquiring look on the moped rental man’s face. Obviously he did not understand the question.
Second try. “Rent land, ok?”
Fortunately Mr. Ku knew the word ‘rent’. His business was a motorbike rental after all and the word ok seemed to have become internationally established.
“Aaaah,” said Mr. Ku and his permanent smile grew even wider. He translated the question for the landowner – and talked and talked. Mr. Keo said something in reply – and talked and talked.
Oh, this is taking too long. Seems to be a problem, thought Uli and I. After around ten minutes Mr. Ku turned again to us.
“Yes,” with a wide, sincere smile.
Wow, we didn’t expect this. But we were well prepared, so zipped right in with the next question.
“Can we install electricity in the area?” Mr. Ku: questioning expression (but smiling all the same – how does he manage both at once?)
Ok, simpler then. “Electricity over there, ok?” pointing to the land. The same spiel as before… translation, endless talk. Uli and I followed the conversations hopelessly, trying to read the expressions of Ku and Keo. Nah, it definitely won’t be possible, if they have to gab about it for so long… without electricity we can forget the whole project.
Come on Uli, let’s go home, it was a crazy idea the whole thing with the camp. After umpteen minutes Mr. Ku turned to us again. “Yes.”
Huh, this was another surprise. Well then, let’s ask some more. “Telephone ok?” This time only a short discussion. “Yes.”
“Internet?” Mr. Keo and Ku were briefly silent, then Keo nodded.
Ha, gotcha! He has no idea what we’re talking about but doesn’t want to admit it. We’d probably have to forget about the internet, so after another gulp of warm, watery beer, we uttered the second phrase we’d learnt: “Khop chai.” (=thank you) to show that we’d exhausted our catalog of questions, hoping all the while the Laotians had understood what we really wanted from them.
After more mutual khop cha-ing (both men and women with folded hands) and bye-byes from us we left the hut.
A Small Aside:
We’d always said our goodbyes in English, right up to the very end. There is the Laotian word ‘la gorn’ but Laotians rarely use it. I can’t do this, leave without a word of parting, a deeply ingrained habit that stems from my western upbringing. Try to end a conversation without parting words. It’s absolutely painful, leaving behind a sense of unease. So we persisted in our ‘bye-bye’ out of a sheer sense of self-preservation.
We learnt that the landowner couple was to visit us at the Travel Lodge the next day to meet with Mrs. Pok, whose English vocabulary was a bit more extensive than that of her neighbour.
We were on cloud nine as Mr. Ku, Uli and I climbed onto our mopeds and raced back to our guesthouse, parting from our interpreter with more khop chais and thank yous.
Alone together again, Uli and I exchanged euphoric ‘high fives‘. Man, that was a complete success! Now, what on earth do we do with what we’ve learned?
We spent the next morning (11-23-2010) thoroughly checking out the climbing area again, so as to be well prepared for our next business meeting.
First: Where exactly did we intend to set up camp? Second: How much space did we need? Third: How much potential was there for more climbing routes?
Points one and two were ticked off the list relatively quickly. On to the third: we had to check the entire area for cliff faces. We trudged into the forest with trepidation, since we knew nothing of the local flora and fauna; we didn’t know if Laotian scorpions, spiders or snakes were aggressive or poisonous. I could spin a crazy tale about this; about how dashing, daring and heroic we were, how, armed with machetes bought in Thakhek, we penetrated the wild jungle. That we sometimes stood in thickets where we could no longer see the sky overhead. How we kept close to the cliff face so as not to lose our way back… but to be honest, the entire undertaking was totally daft. Sweltering under the noonday sun, filthy, with cobwebs clinging to our clothing, scratched by thorns and stung by mosquitoes, we finally ended our exploration of the valley after several hours. We were dog-tired. We’d merely discovered one other area (the sector known today as “Climbers Home”). At least we found something. As for the other cliff faces that were occasionally visible on our tour, we could barely see a couple of meters overhead before the rest of the captivating climb disappeared into a tangle of bushes, lianas and roots. The crowning glory of our Wild East tour was that Uli had acquired a massive skin rash and his entire torso was covered with red, itchy pustules. My own left hand had been bitten or stung by some unknown creature. For the next two days my hand resembled a spastic curved claw and hurt like a mother******. Great! Two city slickers discover Nature.
We appeared for our second meeting with our landlords Keo and Manivone, covered as we were with pustules and with a gimp hand. Heartfelt “sabaidiis” were exchanged. Guest House owner Mrs. Pok was present this time. We met on the terrace of the Travel Lodge, which offered a restaurant in addition to lodging. Uli’s horrible itching had to be seen to first. The Laotians all agreed that the culprit was a caterpillar whose hairs had spread over his body. Mrs. Pok completely covered Uli’s body with baby powder. What a glorious sight! They had no idea what had caused my palsied hand. I assume – since I was lucky enough to experience the same pain frequently in the coming years – that a little scorpion had been having fun with me. Afterwards we got down to business.
This meeting was largely redundant, since we mainly repeated what we’d learned the previous day. Additionally, Snowman Uli and I made a further appointment to meet with the landowners at the climbing area the next day, in order to precisely mark out the space we wanted. We were to go there again in two days. We also were told by Mrs. Pok to report our intentions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) in Thakhek. Then ended the brief meeting, khop chai and bye.
The Present (France, Malemort du Comtat)
Still at the campsite Font Neuve, 2nd July 2019:
Despite endless bronchitis and the unrelenting heat wave, we did manage a trip to the Venasque climbing area, so that at least Uli could run up a few routes while I belayed him. Otherwise we lounged by the pool; a repeated cycle of reading, sleeping, and in and out of the water.
This would have been a pleasant and, for us, a rare routine, if it were not for the return of my mental tic: long dizzy spells that had accompanied me for the past four years, a muffled ear (as if a plug had been stuck in my left ear) that marked the beginning of my dizzy spells in March 2015. I feel like a drunkard who’s not sobered up after an all-nighter. Finally, on our return to Germany four weeks ago, I’d begun to feel better! The dizziness had almost disappeared. And now this setback. I’m starting to become desperate, this constantly whirling head is driving me crazy! But on with the story:
The very next day, on 24th Nov., we found the office in Thakhek with the imposing name. Lying as it does on the main road that leads from the climbing area to Thakhek and then on to the Mekong, it was very easy to find. We didn’t have smartphones in those days (even today, Uli doesn’t), so we had to rely on directions scribbled on paper.
We hesitantly drove through the entrance of the dark, rather dilapidated brick house and parked our ride next to other mopeds at the front door. Before we could ask ourselves who was going in first (yes, like little children), we were approached by a friendly lady, around middle age, whose question in Laotian presumably was: “What do you want here?” So as not to immediately dive into a weighty subject, Uli gave a vague reply in English, that we had a couple of questions. Obviously understanding, she invited us in. We waited a short while and five minutes later we found ourselves opposite the rotund boss of the office at a rustic wooden desk on the first floor. The friendly lady served us tea in mini glasses and disappeared as silently as she came. This seems to be going smoothly, although we haven’t even broached the subject we came to talk about. Now was the time for words… but which words? When the boss realized that apart from Sabaidii, Khop chai and Pin pah (= climbing) we didn’t know a single word of Laotian, he called the receptionist into the room again. We threw a few words and phrases like “bungalows” and “climbing” or “we want to open a guesthouse” about, and again she seemed to understand us and translated for her boss. He shook his head in disbelief when he heard “pin pah.” Did this mean he didn’t approve of climbing or that he knew nothing of the climbing area and the incredible rock climbing potential of his district? We assumed the latter, so Uli said:
“Yes, there is climbing, 12 km away, behind the Xiangliab Cave.” Translation, then head shaking again. I was glad there was some rudimentary cultural conformity between Germany and Laos, in that head shaking meant ‘No‘ and nods were ‘Yes‘. So I took out my camera, scrolling back to our climbing photos and passed it across the table. He took out his glasses, set them slowly on his flat nose, leaning back comfortably to earnestly examine the photos. He looked over the top of his glasses at us. Then again at the pictures. Silence… Uli and I held our breaths for a minute. The boss pointed first to the picture on the camera, in which Uli was shown climbing, then to Uli.
“You?” Ah, English works! The question was serious, as though we’d done something forbidden. Oh my, what are we doing here? Are we digging our own grave or will we be thrown out of the country for inappropriate behavior? Maybe we’d better skedaddle! Uli nodded. The Suspense! I was shivering and sweating at the same time. The boss turned the hand, with which he’d just pointed to Uli and raised a thumb. “Good, good!” he said in admiration and with a wide smile. I began to breathe again. The plump man looked at a few more of our holiday photos and was visibly amused. Excellent! We’d broken the ice. He told us that he couldn’t do anything for us, but that we should try our luck at the Tourist Office. We thanked him heartily and drove directly to the Tourist Office, only three minutes away. The reception here was similar. After a few minutes we sat on the first floor opposite another rotund man and were handed again small glasses of tea. We later found out that here too, we’d spoken directly to the boss, Mr. Panyaa. Unfortunately there was no receptionist here to translate and we couldn’t communicate with him at all. Mr. Panyaa made a brief phone call and minutes later a smart young Laotian with a bright smile entered the room and introduced himself as Mr. Ice, English teacher. How the Tourist Office boss had so quickly pulled this rabbit out of his hat was a mystery to us, but we were glad to have the help. Mr. Ice spoke really good English and understood our intention immediately. They obviously knew that there was a good climbing area nearby. After some to-ing and fro-ing in Laotian, we were told what our options were:
We could try it on our own, without a Laotian partner. As Westerners it would probably take us years for the permissions alone.
Second alternative: We could form a joint venture with the Tourist Office. Aha.
And we’d have to go to the Ministry of Planning and Investment, but we didn’t get why. We quickly said our goodbyes there, knowing it was a dead end. We definitely did not want to work with the government, that was too hinky for our tastes.
The next stop in our bureaucratic quest: the Ministry of Planning and Investment. Fortunately this was only a few hundred meters away on the same road, diagonally opposite the football pitch. We’d thought we were slowly developing a routine for enquiries at ministries and offices. But this was completely different. First floor, yes, but no fat man and no tea. Instead, a large open plan office in which we were stared at by twelve pairs of brown eyes. We approached the nearest one, “ah, we want to open a guesthouse”… no reaction. “Ah… climbing”… no reaction. Like remote-controlled dummies we made climbing motions in the air. The office workers grinned. We ran out of ideas on how to meaningfully express our request, so we beat a hasty retreat after a quick khop chai and bye bye. Boy, what an awkward situation!
Exhausted after all the conversations, we retired for lunch to the centrally located Inthira Hotel, just one hundred meters away from the Mekong. We’d seen from internet searches that this hotel also belonged to the aforementioned Mr. Inthy, and it also housed the Thakhek branch of Green Discovery. Very practical. We’d check right away if we could make a personal connection there. A GDL employee actually happened to be present there: Buang (name changed). A personable, likable man who – what luck – spoke excellent English. Unfortunately he was about to leave on a kayak tour, so we were only able to tell him our plans in passing, and that we’d already contacted the headquarters of Green Discovery about this. Buang couldn’t do much more for us and so we parted with a casual “I’ll keep my ears open” from him. We rather assumed that he’d have forgotten about us by the time we left the hotel. TLDR: We’d explored four bureaucracies in Thakhek, turned down an offer to work with a state authority, made fools of ourselves and wasted a whole morning. Well, we had plenty of free tea. And anyway, we were informed that no one basically objected to the idea of rock climbing tourism.
We had quite a lot to do in the afternoon in order to be well prepared for the survey meeting with the landowners. On the way, we bought a notepad, pencils, erasers and a ruler and back in our guesthouse Uli drew plans for a restaurant and bungalows. We could imagine the rough dimensions of the bungalows, but the restaurant area, bar and kitchen were all just one big question mark in our minds. To be certain of the correct proportions, we took a 1-meter sling (a length of rope used by climbers) and went to an empty field outside Thakhek to make 1:1 scale measurements on the ground. We marked walls, balcony, bar and toilet with twigs, pacing between the imaginary rooms. Here a meter more, there a little less – perfect.
During this a couple of youngsters appeared, probably wondering what we were up to. Rightly so, because we were behaving weirdly on this private land. They must have thought we were planning to take over the land and settle there. But we no spik Lao and they no spik Inglish, so explanations were difficult if not impossible. Uli really intended to tell them everything we planned and showed the three boys the plans for the restaurant. “You’re making things worse,” I called out from an imaginary pedestal/podium in our nonexistent kitchen, while the Laotian boys stood unknowingly in the refrigerators, marked with twigs. Uli did his best, but the more he tried to explain, the more agitated the Laotians became. Since we were already finished with our preliminary planning, we scurried off, leaving three bewildered Laotians in our wake.
We rode again to the climbing area on 25th Nov. at 10 in the morning for our appointment with the landowners. Mr. Keo’s nephew Wang came to help us this time, but he spoke no more than three words of English. We ourselves had tried over the past few days to learn a few words of Lao from Stephan Loose’s guidebook, but we realized that we’d completely misunderstood the phonetic guide to pronunciation. A simple sentence like ‘Koi suu Tanja’ (= my name is Tanja) was not understood. We obviously had to work on our pronunciation. Incidentally ‘Tan’ means Coal and ‘Jaa’ means Grass. Spoken together – ‘Tanja’ – must have sounded ridiculous. Finally, after battling through introductions we finally got to the point. Mr. Keo grabbed a five-meter measuring tape and his wife Manivone. At the time we were considering the piece of land on which Camp 2 stands today, since we had thought the land we finally leased was not available. Our initial choice was around two hundred meters from the road, reached along a path by a field with two rectangular ponds on either side, past the bamboo hut on the left, where we’d had our first meeting three days earlier. Then past two more identical pools on either side. We learned later that these pools were formed when the nearby tarred main road was built. Due to annual floods, one needed a great deal of earth to build roads, since they have to be much higher than their surroundings.
To the left lay a large tract of land, bordered by two giant shade-giving leafy trees, Myrobalan trees, to be precise. The river ran behind it.
Uli and I went over the basics. We thought a 50 x 50 meters piece of land would be sufficient. Because of a shortage of money we wished to begin small. While Keo and Manivone measured, the nephew marked the corners with little poles. We agreed that Wang would email us Keo’s offer by email in the next few days. Hear, hear! By email. So progressive! I wrote my email address as legibly as I could and gave it to the nephew. We then parted ways, all of us pleased and content.
Back in Thakhek we strolled through the main shopping street that led directly past our guesthouse, in order to check out prices of building materials, furnishings and furniture for our future camp. Armed with suitable vocabulary, like numbers in thousands (since 1 Euro is worth 10,000 Laotian kip) and e.g. “Aan ni tao dai?” (how much is that?), we went from one shop to another and enquired about the prices of blankets, pillows, crockery, cutlery, microwaves, and refrigerators. We needed prices for our business plan. One thing irritated us already then: every time, we pointed to an object and uttered our clever query, “Aan ni tao dai?”. There could have been no question to which item we were pointing. It was absolutely clear. Yet, each and every shop keeper replied with an “Aan ni bo?” (=this one?) And pointing at the very same object we were indicating. If my Lao would have been good enough, I’d have sarcastically pointed to another one and said, “No that one back there.” Of course I mean this one, you dummy! On our first attempts to speak Lao we assumed this happened because we weren’t clearly understood. But this echoed query followed us throughout our eight years there and even grew worse as our knowledge of Lao improved! Along the lines of: “I’d like to buy this machete,” pointing to the one I wanted with one forefinger raised and saying “Nung” (= one). Prompt came the reply, “Aan ni bo?” (= this one?). Yes, that one! Pointing again to the machete, asking, “Nung aan bo?” (= one only?). Yeah, also correct! Wow! And my forefinger shot up again to indicate just one. Back then we could still laugh about these experiences, since we were on holiday mode and not under time pressure.
Phou Hinboun Park
In order to see some more of the countryside and acquaint ourselves with another climbing area, we took a three-day trip to Phou Hinboun Park. We saw the very impressive 7 kilometer-long Kong Lor Cave, through which a boatman ferried us in a craft resembling a walnut shell. We used the remaining day and a half to try out the climbing area called Nam Hinboun that had been established by French climbers. Not very frequented because of its remote location it was, as expected, overgrown, dirty and cobwebbed. In addition, all the first bolt plates were missing, probably stolen by Lao people for the valuable metal – or out of sheer boredom. The climbing there was not great. On the second climbing day we were a bit better prepared, having bought a toilet brush in the nearest village, with which Uli cleared the way as the first lead climber. I had an easier time of it as the following climber, since the routes had been cleared of cobwebs.
We noted these new insights – missing climbing hooks and dirty climbing routes – for our planned climbing guide to Laos.
On 29.11 we returned to Thakhek where we’d left behind part of our luggage. The 188 kilometer drive back took eight hours in a shared taxi, a so-called Songthaeo. Eight hours squashed between other humans and squawking chickens. Uli had a neighbour’s elbow stuck between his ribs for five of those eight hours, making it an unforgettable experience for us. We stayed once more in our base camp, the Travel Lodge. We had a couple of days before our flight from Pakse to Vietnam, so we used the time for more climbing and to explore Thakhek furthermore.
The Nimble Frenchman
Near the Mekong, at a place with a former fountain and a three-meter clock ’tower’ that marks the approximate center, there were some interesting shops with bedlinen, tupperware and other stuff. It was fairly quiet during the day, but towards evening people began to creep out of their shady retreats and filled the streets along the aforementioned center then also lined with food joints, portable bars and barbecues.
We were inspecting the shops when Buang suddenly appeared. Do you remember him? The Green Discovery employee whom we’d spoken to a couple of days earlier. Full of excitement he told us he’d been looking for us for two days. The manager of Green Discovery in the capital Vientiane, 300 kilometers northwest of Thakhek, wished to speak to us urgently and we should please call him. We followed Buang to his office in the Inthira Hotel and Uli called the manager. Vianney was his name, a Frenchman. Naturally it was about our email query. Could we come to Vientiane for a personal meeting? Whaaat! Aaawesome! Even Uli, who otherwise was so calm, was visibly excited.
“Of course, certainly, ah, I’ll call you right back, we have to alter our plans a little.” The conversation was in English, naturally. We hesitated for only a moment… our flight from Pakse (in southern Laos) to Ho Chi Minh City was in four days. Awww shit… whatever, let’s rebook flights, we have to go to Vientiane! Oh crap, our visa runs out in four days, so we have to act quickly. Uli called back: “All good, we’ll be there the day after tomorrow.
And so, two days later, after lovely, crazy days in Thakhek, we took a morning bus to Vientiane, found lodgings in the center and headed directly to the offices of Green Discovery, two streets away.
In the air-conditioned, long office room were around ten employees, each with their noses down to their computer screens, a few westerners among them, probably interns. We asked to see Vianney, who had an office of his own at the other end, separated by a glass door. He bounded cheerfully toward us, a relatively small, very slender man in his late forties. He exuded an air of immense energy, which made him seem much taller than he actually was. We saw immediately that this was not someone who did things by halves.
After a brief greeting he led us into a conference room with a large oval table and ample space for a dozen people around it. The glass front looked out onto the large office room. An oversized map of Laos hung on the wall alongside a magnetic noticeboard. After so many informal meetings squatting on the ground with warm beer on ice, this room appeared very businesslike. So we sat, two cheeky backpackers, intimated by the little big manager facing us, to convince him of our wonderful dream of emigration. We felt quite naive as we prattled along telling Vianney in our rusty school English something about bungalows, a restaurant and climbing. Surely now was the time we’d be brought down to earth from cloud nine. At least it was the point where we’d reveal how much start capital we had. But Vianney leaned back and heard us out, relaxed and patient until we had no more to say. Then he leaned forward, took a sip of coffee and rattled away.
What followed was a bombardment of information and suggestions that we tried, wide-eyed, to follow. I was completely overwhelmed. It all came together: my limited vocabulary in general, in business English in particular – my business sense was only halfway adequate to understand it, despite a technical college diploma in business administration – Vianney’s pronounced French accent, his rapid-fire delivery and my miserable hearing (I only found out years later that my ears are screwed up).
However we understood the gist of what he was saying. Yes, he was in. Basically there was no objection to working together – provided Inthy, the top man, agreed, which was a near certainty. Really? I mean really? What about our limited financial resources? Most of all: you don’t know us at all!
We tackled the finances first. Vianney reassured us, explaining that GDL would invest whatever resources we lacked and take ownership of the venture proportional to their investment. In the worst case, we would not be owners at all, but work as managers for GDL. The best case scenario was 49% ownership. Westerners were not allowed more, since under law we could only operate with a Laotian partner who held the majority. The company would register us as employees, and that would take care of our visas and work permits. So far so understandable and all around awesome.
As for ‘not knowing us’ Vianney said shortly: “Your bright eyes are enough guarantee for me.” That was a huge vote of confidence and we immediately warmed to the Frenchman. When did we plan to start, he asked. We thought it over… first we’d complete our world tour, that would be another four months. Then a while to save some money, make preparations and organize, quit our jobs, sell our car, make arrangements for the house…
“In two years?” I stuttered, more as a hesitant question…
Vianney: “In two years? We can start in two weeks! In two years it’s too late.” Wham. Uli and I looked at each other glumly This was a bit sudden. “Um… let’s think about it,” Uli said. “We’ll tell you tomorrow.”
Tell him tomorrow? Ah yes, correct. Our Laos visa would run out tomorrow and we’re to travel on to Vietnam the day after. We agreed to return the next day and give him our answer.
It was already dinner time when we left the offices of GDL. We ordered ourselves pad thai and crispy pork with rice at a roadside stand, then we went for two or three Laotian beers to ‘Sticky Fingers’ a bar run by an Australian woman, popular with expats, that was located in one of the two main tourist streets. A bit of background information here: Beer Lao, or more precisely, the brewery known as the Lao Brewery Company was, in 2006, the largest income tax payer in the country. Every Laotian restaurant, whether in Vientiane, Vang Vieng or Thakhek, was decorated with the orange colored advertising lights, billboards, plastic tablecloths, toilet paper rolls, serviette holders, glasses, banners and beer coolers of the Beer Lao company. Apparently conformity was more important in Laos than individuality. All the same to us, the beer was superb and cheap. It still is. Now to the real question that had run through our minds the entire evening. Should we take the offer? Not only change our travel plans, but turn our lives upside down? Should we spend the next four months of our planned world trip working on the Climbers’ Camp Project? And make this decision within an evening? Or rather follow the secure path we’d planned and lose this opportunity? We were totally keyed up, talking incoherent nonsense the whole evening, far from capable of thinking rationally. A French tourist couple who happened to share our table got an earful of our jumbled quagmire of thoughts.
We grew calmer on the way back to the hotel, occasionally exchanging glances and asking each other, “And? What do you think?” “Mmmm. I have no idea. On the one hand… but on the other…” We’d already made the decision, though we hadn’t realized it at the time and needed a couple of hours to allow the idea to sink into our minds. Our brains twisted and turned, steaming with the effort and I think I felt quite sick. Heaven, someone please tell us what to do!