Travel Journal

Villages in Northern Laos, 3/13-3/21

(Sunday 27 March 2011) by Joanne Chang
*****Up the Nam Ou River to Nong Kiew*****

From Luang Prabang we take the 9 hour slow-boat up the Nam Ou river to Nong Kiew. We don't know what's in Nong Kiew but we want to take a boat ride, and agree it's the journey we're after so no matter what the destination holds, we want to go. The boat is awesome. It's a little wooden one that holds ten people, and we sit in little wooden chairs like the ones you had in elementary school, and the ceiling is 4 feet high so you have to crouch down to get to your seat. The ride is awesome, passing massive limestone peaks and countless villages living off the rivermen, women and children panning for gold, fishing, bathing, working for their dinner. The river is their life, its resources their survival. And they are hard at it. In contrast to the mountain villages I saw on the way to Luang Prabang, these people look content, happy, at the very least determined. There is no helplessness here. The backdrop to their daily life is stunning. I wonder if they've any idea how beautiful they are.

Leaving the village, Nam Ou River
Leaving the village, Nam Ou River
We have a little boat trouble on the way due to low water levels. At one point we get stuck and 5 little kids 6-10 years old run up to help push us along. We all get out of the boat and start pushing it upstream on rocks, but we are stumbling novices next to these kids who have never spent a day of their life outside of this river. When the water becomes deep enough they bid us goodbye, clutching a 1000 kip tip the driver gave each of them for their help. Further on we begin having engine trouble and dock in a small village where families are panning for gold and kids playing in the water. They watch us cautiously, quietly, expressions bordering between curiosity and "please go away". I am curious about them and I want to interact but don't how. The cultural, societal and language gaps are as wide as the river long, and I feel awkward being there, like an unwanted visitor in their home. How to break the ice? This is a difficulty traveling through Asia; the differences between us are so extreme and the opportunities for real interaction are so limited. As our boat gets back in the water I feel happy to be on our way, dissatisfied with my inability to feel natural in this environment, and disconnected from the experience. This is the village experience I wanted to have, but when it's in front of me I have no idea what to do with it.

*****Nong Kiew and the Village Party*****

We get to Nong Kiew after dark and find a nice bungalow in the center of "town" -- one road split by a bridge, with the river below and mountains beyond. Our one full day in in Nong Kiew is an active one -- Lisa jogs in the morning while I do yoga, then we go for a bike ride - first to caves where tribes hid during the Indochina war, then to find a waterfall 2 km down the road. We pass the waterfall, not knowing it's the waterfall (term is used loosely in Laos, there is water, and it's falling, but only a few feet off the side of the road), and continue up the mountain. The road goes up, and up, and upwe take it corner by corner but it's never-ending and by late afternoon we decide it's time to ditch the waterfall idea, and we head back down the mountain and Lisa gets a flat tire. And then we have our second village experience.

Bike help near Nong Kiew
Bike help near Nong Kiew
The closest village is just off the road so we ask a group of men who have been partying all day if they can give us a ride to town. They don't understand (in any case, they've been drinking all day), and while one guy tries to pump Lisa's leaky tire, another guy offers us their home brew Lao-Lao (rice whisky). In Laos, it's considered rude to refuse this, so we hesitantly sip from the cup they've been passing around, and apparently the custom is to take two drinks so we do it again, and then get invited inside the bamboo house where music is blasting and people are playing card games and decorating a wooden table with scrap paper and colored foil, like an alter. I am led into the house by an older, serene and wise-looking man, who doesn't speak but somehow connects with mewhile another man boisterously tries to have a conversation with me and his friends are in an uproar about whatever he's sayingwhile another man sleeps in the cornerwhile another man grabs a bottle of Lao-Lao and insists that we drink more. One more round, then another. It's a real scene. It's hilarious. I am in it. I am taking it all in, I am embracing it -- the wonder, fun and awkwardness altogether. Before we get too wasted we decide it's time to go -- we leave them a few thousand kip (an offering for their alter), and I bike off to town to hitch a truck for Lisa.

*****Trekking in Luang Namtha*****

It starts raining that night and into the next day. In the morning we walk 2.5 km to the bus station, hop on a fully-packed minivan for 3 hours to Udomxai, and barely make the 5 hour connection to Luang Namtha via the locals bus. There are more passengers than seats, the stale air smells of stinky feet and I'm sitting 5-deep in the back with two Laos women and a baby on one side, and an English couple on the other. The ride is uphill through the mountains, bumpy and painfully slow, especially as we wait an hour on the side of the road for construction to ease up, but we finally make it to Namtha in the rain and find a great big room at Many Chan Guesthouse. We hardly leave the place for the next two days as the rains keep pouring down and the temperature drops to SF-in-the-winter levels. We bundle up in our warmest clothes, buy a bottle of Lion whisky, cozy up in our beds and wait it outhopeful and a little bit doubtful that we'll be able to go trekking.

Day 1 trek, approaching the Akha village
Day 1 trek, approaching the Akha village
...then Yay, finally on day 3 it starts to clear and we book an overnight trek for our last couple days in Laos. Our trekking group ends up being 7 people in total -- a couple from France, a guy from Spain, and an English/Canadian couple living in New Zealand. Coincidentally we are all unemployed and traveling (or living abroad in Lisa's case) for a year, making us quite possibly the most spoiled group of 7 people hanging out in Laos together, and the vibe is great -- we are a happy, healthy bunch. Day 1 is challenging, many (many) rounds of steep up and down through muddy terrain, slipping all over the place, crossing rivers on logs and hoping I don't seriously injure myself. I experience a few accidents in a row which demonstrate how, ironically, more pain can bring more balance...the bruise on my shin hurts less after I pull my hamstring, which hurts less after I slip in the river. But I'm in good spirits, happy to be on this adventure, enjoying the way my body hurts and the satisfaction of working for each step closer to rest. Our guide is great too, showing us how tribes live off the forest with bamboo, rattan, galanga, cardamom, rubber trees, broom grass, malaria medicine, bird traps, hand-made rifles, mushroom harvesting, rice. A lot of their stuff is exported to China. Only 6.5 million people live in Laos!

Love nests!  Akha village, Laos
Love nests! Akha village, Laos

We make it to the village before sunset. Approaching, we see three young girls with baskets full of water bottles strapped to their backs, heading up the mountain to the village. They have to go down to the river to fetch water every day which is quite a haul, and here I am struggling just to get my body up this mountain. Humbling. The village is of the Akha tribe, with 600 people (quite large), and relatively speaking they are well-off. They still live in bamboo huts and don't have running water but they have pigs, goats, and plenty of resources in the forest to live off and sell in Luang Namtha. The village is full of kids and dotted with love nests -- love nests are tiny treehouses on stilts, only big enough for a couple of young teenagers to shack up in and start having babies, before marriage. They marry after the girl gets pregnant and have on average 7-8 kids, and keep it all within their village. It's amazing in Laos, there are 40-some distinct ethnic groups making up 80% of the entire population with their own language, culture, customsonly 20% are actually Laos people! It's completely wild to me, these hill-tribes, hundreds sometimes thousands of years old, living off the land, never exploring life outside the village, only able to communicate with the tiny population they've been born into. It feels like I'm in a different time.


Little cuties, making my day
Little cuties, making my day
Akha kids playing with sawdust
Akha kids playing with sawdust
After we drop our bags off I want to go exploring. It's a little awkward, the village people watch us curiously and warily, but I want to make something of this. A few of us head off together and I break off down the hill alone, walking slowly, heart and mind open for something to catch me. A bunch of kids run up the hill lugging bags of sawdust, playing with it like it's magic, sharing it and sprinkling it, laughing loudly, shrieking like it's the most wonderful thing in the world. They're happy, genuinely happy. I watch. They watch me watch. A little boy smiles at me and starts making funny faces, makes antler-ears out of his hands and sticks out his tongue. I do the same. We laugh. The kids disburse back down the hill and I follow. I don't feel comfortable photographing them but I take a couple photos of the village, and suddenly there's a group of them behind me, peering at the digital image, curious about this device I'm using. I ask if they want a picture, and there begins one of the most smile-filled moments of my life. I take a picture, show it to them, and watch them bend over laughing, squealing with joy, shouting gregariously and running in circles. I take another one. And another one. More kids crowd around, everyone wants their picture taken, they pose and I shoot, then encircle me to see the magic of their smiling faces on the little screen and start another round of shouting and laughing and pointing at each other. It's hil-ar-i-ous. This lasts almost an entire hour and I'm stokedthese kids are pure. The moms stand back and watch, cautiouslyI'm not sure how they're receiving it until one of them brings her little boy over to see the photos, to cheer him up. Then I know it's ok. We keep playing until the sun goes down and I head off for dinner. Big, big, smiles. Yay. I will treasure these photos forever.

The next day we trek back and have our last night in Laos with the group. Our last BeerLao, our last Lao Lao, our last sticky rice. Lisa and I take off in the morning for the Thai border, then split ways. Chiang Mai to meet Judy for me, Bangkok for her. Hard to believe it's over so soon. Good times, good lessons, eye-opening experiences. I am humbled by it all.

Thank you, Lisa. Sabaidee, Laos.

 


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