Warning: this blog contains gratuitous references to diarrhoea.
Bumping through rapids in rubber kayaks is a sport that’s dear to me. It’s how Richie and I met 6 years ago, and coincidentally, how we chose to celebrate one year of life on the road together, in Laos. This time, it was brown water and not white water I feared. River kayaking is a dangerous activity at the best of times, but kayaking with diarrhoea is a sport that only the hardiest attempt!
There comes a time, whilst travelling in South East Asia, when the only thing to do is ‘man up’ and carry on with whatever activity you’ve planned for the day, in spite of cramps, nausea and the persistent need to relieve yourself.
In the lean hours of the morning, moments before sun-up on the first day of our 3-day trekking/kayaking adventure, I considered it might be prurient to give the experience a miss. Richie would be disappointed, and there was also the risk of losing our deposit to consider, but all in all, staying in and waiting for the deluge to pass seemed a wholly more attractive and sensible option.
The emergence of a packet of overexpired ‘Gastrostop’ from our first aid kit, and a growing desire to escape the guttural sound of our neighbour expectorating, brought on a bout of recklessness that propelled me out of bed. Prattling on about how short-lived I anticipated my illness would be, I assured Richie of my blithe mood for adventure and my irrepressible desire to run up hills and paddle through rapids.
A few hours later, waist deep in murky water, preparing to launch an inflatable yellow kayak into the river’s slow-moving stream, I found myself growing significantly less enthused. There was no way out. I was in the shit now!
With Richie as my one-up, I clipped on the life jacket and braced myself to paddle 20km downstream.
“At least no one will notice if you accidentally go to the loo,” Richie offered by way of encouragement, gazing down at the brown water pooling around his calfs. He was right. There was little by way of colour or consistency to distinguish the water of the river from the fluid that had been passing itself off, through my ass, as excrement.
Out on the water life was good. Ambient noises of children at play and knife blades falling on timber in the forest drifted up to greet us. The appearance of an electric blue kingfisher in the deep shade of the river’s edge distracted me from the unpleasant rippling in my gut. We narrowly avoided a mass of tumbling rocks as a digger plied a new path through the mountainside, pitching the rubble heedlessly into the water below. Hello! Work place health and safety!
After 5 hours on the water our kayak was deflating, along with my spirits. My sphincter-clenching capacity and the strength of my arms and shoulders were failing. A spillage as disastrous as the Exon Valdez was narrowly avoided by arrival in a village; the place where we’d eat dinner and bed down for the night. No dinner for me! Despite feeling utterly empty and without energy I felt safe and happy as I climbed into bed beside Richie. I cursed the noodle soup that had been my undoing, and the Gastrostop too, which was as effective as a leaky plug! and listened to the sounds of the forest.
The following day I summoned all remaining strength and joined my 5 companions and 4 guides/porters in a scramble uphill into the Luang Namtha National Park. The initial ascent was hard; hand over hand, foot over foot as we climbed a near-vertical slope of slippery red earth.
By the time we broke for lunch there was no hiding it. I was sick, tired and done in. I needed help.
“Diarrhoea, no problem,” Joy, our guide, assured me as I emptied a pack of re-hydration salts into my bottle. Disappearing into the forest he returned moments later with an unlikely looking branch in his hands. Deftly he scraped off the outermost layer of bark from the branch, dropping the green flakes into my bottle.
“It will be bitter,” he warned. Not as bitter as I was after skipping a meal of fish soup, pork with gai larn, pumpkin and bean curry and sticky rice the night before, and today, a breakfast of sticky rice, omlette and greens.
Here goes… Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Down the hatch!
The effects of the jungle remedy were almost immediate. The nausea subsided, the waves of cramps smoothed out, and for the first time in days, my bottom began to relax. Tentatively I attempted some vegetable curry and a few mouthfuls of ‘jeow’, a spicy Lao condiment, pounded by Pon in a bamboo vessel. The combination of chargrilled rattan, chilli and aubergine was delicious.
That evening, I was at the head of the column of walkers as we slipped and slid into jungle base camp. I felt livelier and more cheery than I had in days. Funny how the bum and the spirits have a direct relation, one on the other!
As Pon, Joy and our two female porters sat back on their haunches, washing and preparing vegetables for another jungle banquet, I took to the creek to splash, wash and gurgle. All around, the forest breathed its cool tangy breath, and unseen animals squawked, croaked and barked. Richie inspected the ingeniously flattened and shaped bamboo shingles on the roof of our jungle hut, and considered the probability of being able to replicate something like this back home in Queensland.
Shortly before dinner the moon appeared. Shortly after the moon appeared dinner appeared. I loaded my plate one, two, three times, heartened by the return of my appetite and the provision of this remarkable food: soft meltingly sweet pumpkin cooked in coconut milk, mounds of sticky rice, and a spicy jungle curry loaded with delicacies that our local friends had plucked from tree, fern, earth and riverbank while we walked.
By early afternoon the following day we were back in the village, toasting the good health of each member of the group and our guides in particular. Our guides had been superb, impressing us at every stage of the journey with their confidence, skill and resourcefulness – preparing food, makeshift structures, eating receptacles and roaring fires. The village people had been similarly generous, giving us the gift of hospitality and access to their source of life – the jungle and its watery byways.
If you would like to read another, less shitty, account of our trekking/kayaking experience, read Richie’s blog.
If you find yourself in Luang Nam Tha, wanting to do a trek, look no further than Forest Retreat. Good people. Ethically-minded and lots of fun!