Return to Ban Pa Le

The third day we arrived at Ban Pale. The headman, Mr. Bun Ma, greeted me as though I were a long-lost friend returning from the edge of the world. And indeed, given the isolation of the village, our travels to the Vietnamese border and back might have been just that. We settled into the headman’s hut, sprawled out on the wooden floor, and fell asleep. We were exhausted from hiking for two days through the mountains. For me it was a deep and dreamless sleep. I awoke at dinnertime. A Lao music video was playing on an antiquated television set, the music, full of twangs from an instrument that I had never heard before, striking me as both foreign-sounding and familiar at the same time: it was a comforting sound, and listening to it I felt at home. A group of villagers was sitting in a circle, chatting, laughing, eating, passing around a bowl of homemade rice wine. They made room for me in the circle and I joined them. I felt at that moment more light-hearted than I had in a long time. For dinner we ate rice, vegetable shoots, and crickets: never have I had a more welcome meal. After two hours of drinking and eating one of the men invited me outside to smoke the long traditional Katu pipe. He must have remembered my fondness for Katu tobacco from my previous visit. Indeed, I have come to believe that authentic Katu tobacco is one of the greatest of life’s small pleasures: it is something I savor every time I have the opportunity to visit these mountain people. We sat in the dark passing the pipe, watching the smoke rise blue against the black of the night, not speaking, occasionally laughing for no reason, listening to the sounds of voices and music mixing with the plaintive calling of frogs from the jungle beyond. And I thought again how much I would miss this place, these people, and what an indelible mark they had made upon me.

I thought all this and more as I sat in the dark with the pipe and the man who seemed almost like family but whose name I didn’t know. Just then one of the young Katu girls came out of the hut and skipped down the stairs. She was singing softly to herself and when she saw us she stopped and laughed. One side of her face was lit by the orange light spilling from the doorway: her brown skin glowed fiery bronze and her teeth shone moon-white. She froze, still laughing her simple laugh, and then was gone, disappearing into the hot-humid night. I sat smoking for a long time, replaying the scene over and over in my mind. Why was it so beautiful?

Ban Pa Le
Ban Pa Le
Hills over Ban Pa Le
The hills over Ban Pa Le

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