Technically this was 2013 as it happened at exactly midnight on New Year’s Eve but, given all of the End Of The World predictions, I’ve decided the fire definitely belonged to 2012!
I was staying at Green Climbers Home near Thakhek in Laos and was celebrating the New Year with a group of climbers from all over the world, along with many of the locals who were working at the resort. We were about 12 km from the nearest town, amongst a landscape of limestone karsts, caves and clean cool freshwater swimming spots. It was already going to be a memorable new year, but no one could have predicted what would happen next.
Everyone was feeling quite merry and there was a lot of table dancing and exhibitionism in the form of climbing every available object, as you would expect from a group of climbers in a celebratory mood. Then, as the end of the year was almost upon us, we gathered outside to watch some fireworks being set off, counting down cheerfully.
But then it all went wrong, very quickly. Somehow a spark from one of the fireworks hit the thatched roof of the main building. People ran for the fire extinguishers and attempted to put out the fire, but unfortunately it was dry and very windy and the fire spread rapidly. The flames easily leapt from the roof of the main building to those of the bungalows nearest to it. I could see we didn’t have long before it would reach ours. Fortunately we managed to grab one of our wallets with passport and bank cards, before it became too unsafe. Unfortunately my passport, cards and money were in the main building, and although some people were heroically running in to remove the huge extremely hazardous gas cylinders (and other less essential items) from the burning building, there was no way on earth I was going in there!
I had also, thankfully, managed to grab shoes from our bungalow as I hadn’t been wearing any, having no idea just how useful they were going to be. Everyone was very distressed, but out of immediate danger, except those that ventured perilously close to the raging fire, desperately trying to rescue their belongings from tents in the middle of the camp. There were explosions, but nothing like there would have been had the gas cylinders not been removed in time. I wasn’t taking any chances though and was eager to get as far away from the area as possible. Fear does strange things to your mind and the speed at which the flames had travelled between bungalows and the sheer scale of the fire had utterly terrified me. I was convinced that it would spread throughout the entire area and my whole body was telling me to run.
In our panic we’d made a mistake. The resort was built at the base of some very tall cliffs. Perfect for climbing. Not so perfect for making our escape. We’d been backed into a corner by the fire. The only way out, and thank god there was one, was through a rocky treacherous cave that went all the way through the mountain. This is where the shoes came in handy! It sounds like something out of an action film with a ridiculously contrived plot, but we genuinely had to wade through water in a pitch black cave that was filling up with smoke from a fire in which we’d just lost all of our belongings, with no light and having no idea of the way. There were two lovely local girls who had a torch and appeared to know where they were going though. We didn’t speak the language but my desperation was clear and they kindly waited for us to catch up and eventually, after some wrong turns and a few minor cuts and scrapes, we made it out of there.
In the distance we could see the entire mountain glowing orange, and that was when the enormity of what had happened began to sink in. The emergency services in Laos are not quite as comprehensive as they are here, and an hour or so later a truck with a hose drove in the direction of our accommodation. I doubt the most sophisticated fire engine in the world could have made much of an impact on the devastating fire by the time they reached the isolated resort. Nearly everything was made of wood and that created an incinerator like environment with temperatures hot enough to turn even metal climbing equipment to ash.
When we returned to the site the next day, slightly hoping to salvage some of our belongings, we were gobsmacked by what we saw, or rather what we didn’t see. Almost nothing remained. Where there had been a bar, restaurant and people laughing and dancing the night before, there was only ash. We walked over to where our bungalow had been. The porcelain toilet and sink were the only things that remained. Everything else had literally turned to dust. Rocks crashed down hundreds of feet from the over-heated crumbling rock of the cliff face. It was completely surreal. There were glowing embers smoking in patches across the site giving it a very eerie feel. We were reminded just how illusory this world of form really is, with apparently solid structures drastically changing state in an instant.
The ‘stuff’ had gone, and for a while, to the people involved, it seemed all had been lost. We heard how the owners had sat and watched their labour of love burn to the ground, refusing to leave, unable to believe what was happening. Having no belongings, passport or access to money my trip was dramatically cut short, and after a LOT of waiting around and bureaucracy I was able to return home on a temporary passport. But life goes on. The energy behind the Green Climbers Home had not been destroyed and they rebuilt the entire site from scratch. Donations flooded in and the dream that inspired the original project lived on.
My dream also lives on, but has taken on a new form. I had booked a one way flight out of the UK and had the intention of finding work as I travelled. Personal circumstances along with the Great Fire of 2012 soon steered me in a new direction. The fire destroyed my possessions, and temporarily broke my spirit, but the energy that gave birth to my dream of traveling the world indefinitely remains. I know I will travel again, but for now I’m pouring my heart and soul into Tess Heaven, working to create something sustainable to take with me wherever I go. Who knows where I would be or what I would be doing if that disaster hadn’t happened, but I feel like right here doing this is exactly where I’m meant to be right now.SHARE