by Edward Wilkinson-Latham

The Laotian jungle was humid and the relentless heat made hiking an exhausting endeavor. By now I had walked for hours, over hills and through dense swathes of vegetation, flaying at leaves and mosquitoes with my machete left and right. I had lost the track, found another and my mind had done the same. I trudged on in the middle of nowhere looking for a remote village somewhere near the Chinese border.

This was my third field trip in a week out of Muang Sing, a small trading post town for the many ethnic minorities in the rugged highlands of Northern Laos. I had been contracted, as a photojournalist to document the lives of ethnic minorities in the northern regions of Laos and this was the first time I had explored so far away from town. A large boya tree made a welcome stop and I sat listening to nature in the jungle, taking my mind off the fact I was nearly out of water and there were only a few hours of daylight remaining.

I heard the sound of snapping twigs coming from the jungle. I stopped breathing and listened heard the faint mutterings of a man talking. I got up and walked toward the sound. As I got up to investigate a gaunt faced tribesman pulling a mule came from behind a tree. He looked startled to see him and I gave the same reaction but slightly more friendly. My smile fell as I saw he was carrying an old rifle slung over his shoulder. I looked at the mule weighed down with two big bags of what I presumed was opium. He reached for his gun and pointed it at me. I obliged, raising my hands for a moment before trying to explain with a careful charade that I was looking for a village. This made no sense to him and made him even more nervous.

I then tried the Asian ‘friendship maker’ and slowly produced a fresh pack of American 555 cigarettes from my bag. Taking one out and lighting it, I then tossed the pack over. I took my small backpack off and sat down, emphasizing a stretch and a big yawn to make him think that I stare down the barrel of a gun everyday. He lowered his weapon and tied the rope on the mule’s mussel against a tree. He eagerly smoked three cigarettes back to back and made me join him. He became relaxed and chatted away while I became nauseas and in need of water.

After some minutes and seeing that I didn’t look as healthy as when we first met, he pointed up the track and raised three fingers. He then made the shape of a house with his fingers, or what I thought was house and with that he grabbed his rifle and mule and was gone.

I walked for another couple of hours before dusk. I then wandered around for a while in the dark before amazingly I saw a light. I tenderly approached and saw I had come to the edge of the jungle, out onto a gravel road. The light seemed to be coming from two green huts and as I approached I saw a red and white pole across the road. I had stumbled on the Chinese border and had emerged on mistakenly the Chinese side.

I approached cautiously and heard the sound of a radio and chinking glasses coming from the huts. Through a dirty window I spied three Chinese border guards drinking a bottle of whisky. Worried as to what to do I thought for a moment and plucked up the courage to knock on the door. The first thing the border guard saw was a carton of 555 cigarettes held aloft in offering. With a lack of Chinese vocabulary on my behalf and no English except the words “David Beckham” on the theirs, it was the whiskey, cigarettes and soccer that bonded us in friendship that night and saved me from addressing the question, of what was I doing prowling around at night on the Chinese border?

I woke up next morning to find everyone still asleep. I put my boots on, grabbed my belongings and walked back to Muang Sing. On my way back I found a village but when I looked in my bag I found all the film I had that day was missing.

Edward Wilkinson Latham

© 2005