Rat Hunting in the Laotian Jungle

The following is an account of perhaps one of my most incredible escapades. While it’s an entertaining story, what I most want to share with you are the lessons I learned from this experience. So click here if you want to skip directly to those lessons, but I encourage you to read the whole story to take the journey with me that led to these discoveries.

 

Yon and I spent New Year’s Day driving (a bit hungover) through the rural countryside of Laos. We planned to drive 200km that day and arrive at the city of Phonsavan. But life had different plans for us.

 

The first 40km took about two hours because we continually stopped to gawk at the natural beauty of the lush, rolling mountains. We passed through numerous villages situated in the middle of these mountains, waving and smiling at the people along the way, until we came upon the most picturesque one yet. Whereupon we mutually decided to spend more time here; little did we know that we were in for our biggest adventure yet, and it lasted three days.

Day 1:

 

After driving through the village without seeing any recognizable sign denoting a guesthouse, we asked (with gestures, not words) a lady for a place to sleep. She immediately called for her 10-year old son, who hopped on a motorbike and led us 5km back through the mountains to a plot of land with no more than 10 buildings. One of those buildings turned out to be our living quarters. After settling in and taking a short nap to cure our pounding heads, Yon went back to the village to fix a chain on his bike, and I explored.

 

Not even 300 meters away from our guesthouse roared the most beautiful undiscovered waterfall I’d ever seen; upon seeing it I decided to climb to the top. Once I got to the top, I continued on to a remote rice paddy where I stopped by a nearby river to play my ukulele and soak in the nature.

 

Later that evening, Yon and I reconvened. He spent the afternoon meeting with the villagers, passing balloons out to the children, and drinking a LOT of whiskey with the locals. Our hosts, Tompang and Bua, then sat us down to a dinner of sticky rice, spicy dip, and…rat. Tompang explained what we were eating with rat-like gestures and facial expressions, further explaining that he caught the rats with a homemade crossbow.

 

After Yon’s eager pleading, he took us outside and let us practice shooting the crossbow; which we thoroughly enjoyed. But the night was not over yet.

 

We spent the next two hours trekking through the dark jungle with our two new friends. They led us up and down near-vertical hills on unseen paths which they could practically navigate with their eyes closed. Though we searched and searched with headlights in the trees for rats, we couldn’t find a single one.

 

But we were then led to a homemade booby trap on the ground, under which lay two dead rats. As gruesome as it seemed, this is how the villagers survived. They truly lived off the land and demonstrated ingenious ways of surviving and thriving in harmony with nature.

 

Before returning home for a much-needed night of sleep, our host led us to the top of the waterfall, across the rice paddies, and to the spot I’d discovered earlier that day. We spent the remainder of the night listening to the rush of water and enjoying each other’s company.

Day 2:

Anyone who’s met me knows that I am a morning person. I woke up before my companion on the second day and joined my hosts around the fire, which they kept burning 24/7 as their only heat source. After another breakfast of sticky rice, I cleaned our mud-caked motorbikes with a hose and helped one man clean his car. During this process, I noticed two teenage boys chopping wood at the house next door; I helped them chop for the next hour, exchanging smiles and laughter all the while.

 

Yon and I explored the jungle more that day, interacted with many others, and returned to the fire in the evening. We passed the ukulele back and forth, sharing what little we could with our generous hosts. After dinner, we wandered over to a nearby party, where a group of youth was drinking BeerLao and singing karaoke. We joined in their festivities for the rest of the night before returning to bed around 1am.

Day 3:

The next day we met a new face around the morning fire. He appeared to be 80 years old and exhausted. To the best of my understanding, he had traveled in sandals for 4 days up and down innumerable mountains with nothing but a small rucksack and machete. Tompang ran into him and offered his home as a place for respite. They were complete strangers but treated each other as intimate friends.

Our wonderful hosts sitting by the fire

Three days with the Laotian villagers taught me more about the human condition than all my years of school ever could have. Here are a few takeaways I’d like to share:

 

Show unconditional kindness to everyone.

The Laotians continually astounded me with their beautiful hearts. Our hosts owned very little, didn’t know me, Yon, or the elderly gentleman, but they gave us everything they could without expecting anything in return. Yes, Yon and I paid for the rooms, but they’re never going to remember the money. What I hope they do remember are the small kindnesses we showed to them in return.

 

You don’t need money or things to be happy.

Many of us have become numb to this lesson, as we’ve heard it countless times. But it bears repeating, because the majority of us never truly embrace this fact of life. Again, the villagers barely had any money. But what they lacked in money, they made up for in passion for life. They traded for anything they could ever need, be it fruit, rice, lumber, or time. While many of us in the “developed world” may not have this option, we can still take the lesson to heart and live simply, kindly, and happily.

 

Time is the most valuable resource we possess.

You can accomplish literally anything with enough time. Just think about that. Perform a little thought exercise: pick a goal you’ve always seen as unattainable and give yourself a 50-year time limit with zero money to get there. With a little bit of creativity, patience, and time, we can do whatever we want. The villagers understand how truly special time is; they spend all theirs in the company of loved ones rather than sitting in an office, or in traffic, or on the couch wasting the most precious resource of all.

 

Language is a formality.

At our core, we are all humans. You don’t need language to communicate. A mere 7% of communication is manifested through words, the other 93% is body language and tone. Those three days hit me hard with this lesson, as Yon and I had absolutely no problem communicating with the villagers. Sure, we couldn’t discuss the intricacies of fiscal policy or ask who their favorite philosopher was, but none of that mattered. We could communicate what was necessary, and still learn from one another.

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