Clare Welham wins our weekly Just Back travel writing competition, and £250, for her tale of muddy trails, unexploded bombs - and an unknown threat - in Laos.
My friends and family seemed confused when I told them I was going to Laos.
“Is that the capital of Vietnam?” my mum asked. She was even more perplexed when I told her I was (sort of) going alone.
I met Fabrice when he flailed up to me, lost and sweaty, in Bangkok train station.
My French was rusty, his English non-existent, yet three months and three countries later we were squashed together on an antique local bus heading for Nong Khiaw.
I was so overwhelmed with joy at finally stretching my legs that it took me a few moments to notice the painting I was now immersed in.
Bright white clouds bounced off lush mountains that rose from the Nam Ou river. It resembled Willy Wonka’s chocolate stream, with guesthouses jostling for prime position on either side.
While I was still taking off my backpack and taking in the view, Fabrice hastily booked himself into a private room.
I opted for a cheaper dorm and, to his dismay, had the entire 32-person room all to myself, complete with riverside hammock.
We met the next morning to trek to the viewpoint – Fabrice worse for wear after too much local whisky.
The sign that greeted us read “Danger – Unexploded Bombs”, and the man with a toothy smile who greeted us thrust a bamboo walking stick in my face. It was an uphill struggle for an hour and a half, in humid jungle weather with twisted clay-sodden paths.
Nothing prepared me for the view that awaited us. It left me speechless then and I am wordless now. We took it all in for the most peaceful hour of my life before the weather took a turn for the worse.
The path was now a mudslide – if trekking up had been hard, trekking back down again felt like proper torture!
Fabrice laughed as I fell on my rear, trying to grab hold of anything on the way down. His laughter stopped when I was back on my feet and musing over a huge nest by my head.
“Frelon, frelon!” he shouted, sliding past me, falling headfirst in the mud.
“You know I don’t comprend you,” I said in between bursts of laughter at his clay-covered body.
Bedraggled and earthy, we toasted our trek with a fellow Canadian traveller who told me: “If there’s a day in Laos when you’re not covered in mud, you’re doing it wrong.”
Back in my hammock and the land of Wi-Fi, I remembered to Google the word frelon. I’d been about an inch away from a giant hornet’s nest.
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