When moving slowly, the lines on a map take on a new, more granular reality. The real Zomia comes into being between the cities and the sights, along the hazy sections of hot dusty road that most motorists snooze through. The friction here, though, is real for so many people. In many places we visited, it will be tough to get to medical attention in the rainy season. Daohu’s ambitions to teach English are in jeopardy – will his family have enough resources to send him all the way down the hill to study? What will the boat-driving family do after the imminent Nam Ou dams dissect their route? Trying to comprehend these realities, to find some morsel of shared empathy and understanding in another’s human experience – together, feeling the friction – seems like reason enough to be out here.
This expedition was supported by the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant program. Kyle Hemes and Will Stauffer-Norris would like to thank their friends and families, Stew Motta, Simone Phillips, and their generous sponsors—Trek, Bontrager, Eagles Nest Outfitters, Maui Jim, Dali Bar, and Mountain Gear—for making this expedition and series possible.