It’s true that I’m a bit of a scaredy cat. Especially about water. And it’s also true that as we wandered around Northern Laos during January, I got a lot more comfortable travelling on the rivers. Gangplanks were no longer objects of fear, but rather a convenient means of keeping my feet dry.
As for footbridges they were, and are, my nemesis. They’re everywhere. The first one I came across was in Vang Vieng.
I bravely walked across it several times, telling myself if can deal with this I can deal with anything.
Well, not quite. (In fact, when I look at this photo now I realise, as footbridges go, it’s a four lane highway!)
In Luang Prabang there’s a footbridge that crosses the Nam Khan near its confluence with the Mekong. Made of bamboo, it’s usually washed away each rainy season and replaced once the rains stop and the river level drops. The bridge is used all the time during the dry season as a short cut to nearby Ban Xang Khong, a village known for its artisans especially weavers, paper makers, and carvers.
I studied the bridge. I don’t know about this, I said to John, noting it was on the rickety side by my standards.
You’ll be fine said John. What could possibly go wrong.
Hmm. A number of obvious possibilities presented themselves, all of which culminated in me swept into the mighty Mekong only to be washed up, thousands of kilometres and several countries later, somewhere in the South China Sea.
I watched others walk across. Some, and it was only ever the travellers, were more nervous than others but every single one of them made it across. Nothing was dropped. No-one tripped. No-one fell in.
We bought our tickets. The bridge is free to locals but tickets cost 7,000 kip per return trip for foreigners.
I managed this photo. Can you guess I’m already a tad nervous? I’ve cut the dog in half.
I followed John on to the bridge. After a few steps I slung both my camera and bag over my shoulder – I needed both hands free to hold the railings. About half way across, I noticed the weave of those bamboo slats, the only thing between me and a dunking, had worked loose. There were gaping holes. The surface was uneven. Between the gaps I could see water. It was fast flowing, or so I thought.
One step at a time, I told myself. And then, as if matters were not already bad enough for this timid traveller, the slats developed a precarious slope. It was no longer possible to hold on to both railings.
We’re nearly there, said John.
An irrelevant albeit accurate remark.
My options were few. I could turn back which, as anyone struck by vertigo or plain old panic will know, seemed physically impossible because that would require letting go. And that was not a happening thing. No way.
Or wait for rescue. Perfectly viable and my preferred option. Although the idea of John carrying me off the bridge was not only unlikely but also not exactly reassuring. A helicopter, that was what I needed and wanted. Surely, if I stayed put for long enough somebody would call for one. Not that I’d seen a single helicopter since we arrived in Laos. But there must be one, somewhere in the country, right? Yes, dangling at the end of the rope while being winched off the bridge was preferable to risking life and limb and taking one more step.
In the end I took a third option. I hurried forward as fast as I could.
Surprised to discover I was alive, breathing, and dry, I scrambled up the bank past the small temple that watches over the river. Scrambling turned to ambling until we reached the village where we whiled away an hour or so checking out the handcrafts. I found an ice-cream shop. My reward, apart from an attractive paper rendition of the Tree of Life, was a Magnum ice-cream which, in the heat of the afternoon, seemed colder and creamier and more chocolatey than any I’d eaten at home.
And then, as the drums at the monastery began to sound and the monks wandered along the road to afternoon prayers, the realisation dawned that getting back to our guest house required another bridge crossing.
I wish I could tell you that, having already crossed the bridge and found myself to be alive on the other side, my fears were successfully vanquished. I wish I could tell you it was as if I floated across that bridge, unafraid and all conquering. I wish I could tell you I approached the bridge as calmly as these monks.
But no, none of that applied. This time a third of the way across, at the point where the water beneath the bridge begins to flow quickly, where the pedestrian approaches the high point of the bridge, such as it is, where the bridge tilts precarioulsy, and the bamboo slatting loosens, I tripped. Well, it might have been more of a stumble, recovered from quickly enough. But in that moment, in my mind’s eye I imagined myself falling into the brink, camera ruined, the straps of my bags tangled around my neck in a death choke. Yes, it got this specific. And yes it involved, once again, me winding up in the South China Sea.
Help me, I cried, to John as I regained my footing. The actual likelihood of a dunking much less a slightly premature death faded as quickly as the time it took to call out but, as for the fear, it lurked around for a bit. Quite a long bit. A bridge length bit.
We’re nearly there, John said, again. And let me tell you, here and now, stretching the truth as in lying about the awfulness of a situation never, ever helps.
We are not! I declared, mad as anything with him for minimising my predicament.
Although, it’s true I may have had my eyes closed and refused to look at this particular moment. You have to hold my hand, I cried. I may or may not have added, I’m going to die! (Which is the truth after all, sooner or later.) I know I thought it. And I know I yelled, I’m going to fall in.
You wont fall in, replied John, as patient as ever.
And so we inched forward one half step at a time. John not so much holding my hand as extending his so I could clutch it and pretend we were both the safer for it.
When at long last I stepped off the bridge on to the security of the sandy river bank the two ticket women and their children stepped out of their shelter.
Do we have to pay again? I wondered. For taking too long to get across, perhaps – that would be understandable. For discouraging other customers – there was substance to that claim, for sure. To condemn me as a coward – well, there was nothing new in that. I took a deep breath and smiled bravely. Once safe I’ve found that bravery comes quite naturally to me.
They were smiling. The biggest broadest smiles I’d seen in a long time. At me. As I walked past they cheered, applauded, and high fived me. It was like running through the finishing chute of a marathon.
Instead of feeling the fool, instead of feeling like a soft westerner, I thought maybe I had been rather brave, after all. Best of all, it was as if those women, their children (and John too, of course) were teamed up with me against that all too common foe: fear.
There’s a codicil to this story which it is only fair to you, my dear reader, that I reveal.
The following evening John and I were sitting in a restaurant with a fine view of the bridge. I watched some children playing about in a boat a little upstream. Their chatter wafted up to us as they paddled back and forth between the banks of the river. On one of their trips they paused mid-stream, rocking the boat so that it lurched dangerously, all of them laughing and laughing until they fell into the water. Oh, no, what now, I thought, convinced of course they’d be swept downstream and out into the mighty Mekong.
And then they stood up. Yes indeedy, the waters of the Nam Khan, were very, very deep. Waist deep. On children. And very, very swift. So swift, during the dry season children can stand in it, laughing.