The journey up the Mekong, our first boat leg of the adventure, continues on broken shackles of propriety. From a polite group silence of British propriety and Swiss bashfulness our chatter increases with the other travellers; British and Swiss ironically. We creep up to the front of the boat to dangle our feet over the sides and feel the wind whisk over our skin in the tropical heat as the town of Huay Xai leaps into view on a rounded Mekong bend. Beers are in order to celebrate our new family group, us being the oldest by far make for formidable parent figures among the gaggle of twenty somethings. We’re parental in age gap but not in measured responsibility, the English couple from Liverpool, James and Emma, pull out a rice wine with a cobra and ginseng in the bottle and we jump in on the juvenile fun; the Swiss don’t partake, this is only for the British and the colony it seems as the two other English guys jump in on the fun.
The gaggle that has committed two days to a boat journey from a calendar that is always governed with Swiss vigilance launches into a game we all play abroad, lets find what’s in this town. There’s the border crossing but that’s not it, this town is on the tourist trail and we launch into scouting about to find what we can find. Setting off with the Swiss trio of Dennis, Fabienne and Rino we venture up to a temple which seems to be the thing to do in Laos; as predicted the elegant design, intricate carvings and cheerful monks make the visit worth the trip up the imposing staircase. In three countries now we’ve met young monks full of the bold curiosity of youth, gone is the predicted aura of solemnity as monks seem to have none of the grave seriousness that accompanies the devout from other faiths.
Ticking boxes all over the place, we’re off to an old French fort just a short walk up the hill to sweat through our clothing that seems to be pouring out more liquid than it’s absorbing. An old rusty gate sits swinging off its hinges and for the first time in Huay Xai we have a cultural diversion, the Swiss squeeze rebelliously through the gate and venture into the very closed looking fort, very un-Swiss. In through unkempt grounds that look unvisited for years we stake our places in this ghostly world and of course up the tower that looks like it’s crumbling. What a view, we’re at the pinnacle of the town and loaded with the naughty feeling of kids being where we shouldn’t. We take in the forbidden view from our crumbling fort; but the ever cautious Swiss did it first so we’re off the hook right? Good responsible parents we’re being.
The hours on the clock face run away quicker than we can load up adventures to have in this town, dinner sees the snake poisoners from Liverpool abandoning the party leaving it to us, the Swiss trio and the English twins Alie and Nick. Somehow the poms have scouted out a community driven bar restaurant so we’re off to take in views, beers and food while giving some love back to a small local organisation. We’re all very altruistic. Salads, grilled chicken and pizzas accompany a sunset that says goodbye to a day crafted from nothing in a town that has collected the most motley of crews.
Farewelling each other before bed we also essentially farewell Huay Xai, a fun little town that sits bigger on the tourist map than it really should from todays adventures. But in truth it’s not really for this town we’ve all magnetised together despite todays efforts to make it more than it is. Tomorrow we’ll all board a tuk-tuk and get into the whole reason for throwing valuable days up the Mekong: Nam Kan national park. The site of devastating slash and burn farming and illegal gibbon poaching is now a protected forest where local villages make more from tourism than poaching and destructive farming. The Gibbon Experience is what we’re all here for, what’s drawn us to a place we’d all otherwise pass up. We all sleep with vague notions and hopes for tomorrow but we aren’t sure of much, a mystery lies at the end of the tuk-tuk ride. Tomorrow Huay Xai really gets to show what it’s on the map for.