I was aching with every jouncing kilometer but I knew I wasn't the only one in pain. The man who sat astride the seat of what was essentially a three-wheeled motorcycle took the brunt of what I was beginning to think had to be a portion of the Ho Chi Minh trail. When he had stopped to buy water, he flexed fingers that had been poised in a deathgrip on the tuktuk's handlebars. He grimaced a little and then smiled.
By the time we reached Huen Hin, the tuktuk had stopped several times. What was an interesting trip for me was quite possibly a livelihood-jeopardizing experience for the man who had agreed to bring me to this place. Tuktuks weren't designed for this sort of journey and people we had passed along the way had gaped at the one we rode in as though we were ambling past on an elephant. There had to be a good reason why the other vehicles on the road were motorcycles or vans, and I began to realize the selfishness of what I had asked for. At the end of our time together, I'd walk away with a story and a collection of sore muscles; the man I was with could be faced with several days of unemployment while his tuktuk was under repair. Under the circumstances, a dollar a mile didn't seem an exorbitant price for me to pay.
As we walked through a battered gateway into a tree-encircled clearing, I said, "This is a bad road and it's not good for the tuktuk. I think two thousand baht is better than fifteen hundred." The man beside me looked at me and nodded, "Two thousand baht--I'll take you to That Phone before we go back to Savannakhet--and we'll return on a better road. It's longer but it will be better."
Huen Hin was a jumbled collection of the huge square blocks of rock that the Khmer had used for building in this part of their empire. Here they found laterite that could be carved from the earth in moist slabs that would harden to rock when exposed to the open air. Before the slabs became stone, holes were poked into them, which looked as though they probably held ropes that allowed men to pull them to the building site.
At least here the site was flat, instead of the dramatic hillsides upon which many of the temples had been built. Huen Hin was supposed to have been a resthouse for travelers, not a sacred place that needed the cosmology of Mount Meru. And yet the spot upon which it had been placed was peaceful and lovely, surrounded by tall, leafy trees that almost blocked out the sky and with the Mekong River flowing past at the edge of the site. Clumps of stones dotted around the clearing indicated that once this might have been a large complex of buildings and the entrance to the surviving structure was marked by stones bearing carved naga, the seven-headed cobra.
Only one side of the building had steps that were easy for me to climb so I ignored the steeper approaches and walked toward an inner chamber. There was the man who brought me here, offering sticks of incense to a rather motley collection of mismatched Buddhas. Somehow they were more moving than any of the original statues would have been; it looked as though each had been presented to this spot by different sojourners who brought what they could afford. Quietly, so I wouldn't disturb the man who stood in front of me, I sank to the ground and offered an unvoiced thanks for my opportunity to be in this room, in this place.
We walked out to the edge of one of the steep set of rocks that jutted narrowly to serve as steps and I shrank back. "I'll go out the other way," I said but the man beside me shook his head. "You can, come on," he told me, and held out his hand.
We came down one rock at a time, and steadied by his grip, I felt not a flicker of the vertigo that usually assaults me on a downward climb. At the bottom, he went off to a pile of stones for a cigarette and I walked toward the river. I was beginning to wonder who I was with, this man who had swiftly poured some of the water from the bottle he'd purchased onto the road before he took a drink himself and who told me what to do without making my hackles rise.
I walked back to where he was and sat on a rock nearby. "This is a beautiful place," I said. "Yes, he agreed, "the trees are beautiful, the river too. There's nature here." "So much nature in Laos; it's different from Thailand," and he replied "Thailand has money. Laos has," he gestured towards the trees, 'This is good."
And as I looked at him, I knew that, given enough time, he was someone I could love. Or was it what he had made it possible for me to see that I was falling in love with? Was I in love with the long, curving boat that I saw men carving by the roadside, under a canopy, protected from the sun, shaping and hollowing the trunk of a very tall tree? Was I in love with the herds of bony cows, watched over by boys who lived in a different century from the one I inhabited? Was I in love with the houses painted in soft colors with contrasting trim, their porches encircled by a curving cement balustrade, or with the simple wooden houses with arched, shuttered windows and carved doors? Or was I falling in love with this man, not young, with a clear and steady gaze, the patience to talk to me in a language that belonged to neither of us, and the kindness to help me down a path that I was afraid of?
I muddle these things together all of the time; I often find it hard to know where my love for a place bleeds into my feelings for a man. This man? This place? I will never know but I will always wonder.