Monday, May 17, 2010

Right Foot, Left Foot, Repeat - Laos

After leaving my friends I decided to do a little trekking and maybe hit some hill tribe villages. After a 230km bus ride that included: a flat tire in which they had to change two tires (a long hot story for another time), two break downs, the closest I've been to an accident followed by a twenty minute discussion on who would move first, a jungle rat the size of a cat roaming the bus and a traffic jam because of an accident. Twelve hours later I was in Phongsali. Did I mention that Phongsali was only 230km.

Being this far north in Laos made it difficult to find other trekkers to go with to bring the price down on a trek (I saw only four other tourists). Instead, I managed to pilfer a terrible map of the region and decided to venture out on my own. With a short 15km hike I was in Ban Komaen, a small tea village perched on a hillside. Ban Komaen has the oldest tea trees in the world at 400 years. After wondering through the village for a while I met an old man and with a sabai di (hello) was invited to have some tea with him and smoke tobacco (yes, it was only tobacco) from his bamboo pipe. He spoke only Laos, I only English, yet we managed to "talk" somehow. After tea I picked tea leaves and then helped him disperse them on a bamboo mat to dry in the sun. With that task finished I thanked him for the tea, khup jai, and moved on. I only managed a few meters before an old lady asked me to join her. She might have actually told me to piss off but either way I sat down and sorted dry black tea leaves from the wet green ones. After wards she tried to pay me with a bag of tea but couldn't possibly accept her generous offer.

At first the children in the village were a little shy around me. This was understandable as they don't come across many falang (foreigners) in these parts. They watched me from a safe distance picking, spreading and sorting tea leaves and soon became more and more comfortable with me and very quickly tomfoolery ensued. I wanted to spend the rest of the day with the children and villagers but a three hour plus hike ahead of me swayed me to leave. I said good bye to my new friends and made my way back before dark.

Four days Later I was on a boat on my way to Muang Ngoi to do a little more trekking. This gem of a village on the Nam Ou River is just what I was looking for. With a couple days of reading, relaxing and a few games of petang (the French version of bocce) with the locals, who kicked my ass, I was ready for another trek. Even though Aoot and Khum (stop snickering) were great guides, it didn't help me with the 30km hike in the hot sticky 35 degree weather with half of the trail going up into the hills. At one point I even let out a scream halfway up a hill. After a long nine hour day we finally reached Ban Muang, a poor, simple village with thirty three families and what seemed like hundreds of children.

Being completely filthy I went to bathe in the villages only water tap. Situated in the open, I was to clean myself after two young girls washed vegetables and before a group of women took their turn. Now clean and clothed, I went back to my home stay where I was surprised with a Su Khwan Ceremony (calling of the souls). This is performed for those on a journey or the sick. The ceremony is to return any of the 32 spirits that may have wandered away from the body to restore the spiritual equilibrium. Aoot, Khum (I said stop it), myself and the fifteen family and friends of my home stay sat on the floor gathered around a table. On the table there was a bowl of sticky rice, white strings, a boiled chicken (killed in my honor), flowers and two shots of lao lao (rice whiskey). At this point everyone around the table grabbed a white string and tied it around my wrist while reciting prayers of good health and safe journeys. Very surreal having fifteen people hoovering around you chanting. Next, each person took a ball of sticky rice and a piece of chicken and placed them in my awaiting hands. After eating their offerings I was told to drink a shot of lao lao, then another. I was practically off my ass.

Everything was then taken away to be replaced by dinner which included spicy chicken, morning glory soup with pumpkin, cooked mushrooms, sticky rice and the pièce de résistance .... very spicy chicken blood soup. As an act of bonding many of my new friends would put some food on their spoon then gave it to me to eat. The whole night went on with us feeding each other, drinking lao lao and sharing stories. None of this felt forced or for "show" like it did in Chaing Mai. I really felt welcomed into the family. When the festivities were over friends left and the family and I slept in the same room on small mats and little pillows.

The following day was spent trekking back to Muang Ngoi, thankfully mostly downhill. Back at the guest house I showered and thought fondly of the last couple days.

"The village street was like most other village streets: wide for its height, silent for its size, and drowsy in the dullest degree."
Charles Dickens

Mekong, Youkong, We-All-Kong - Laos

With my new English friend Sebastian in tow, I crossed the Thai-Laos boarder to Huay Xai in Laos on the Mekong River. Since it is touted as a "once-in-a-life time journey," I put aside my hesitations of the well worn travelers path and took the two day slow boat ride down the Mekong River. With 50 tourists (up to a hundred in high season) playing cards, listening to music and drinking I was beginning to wonder when the "once-in-a-life-time" was going to begin. Soon the commotion from the innards of the boat gave way to the beauty and peacefulness of the country.

Landscapes of lush green hills, old fisherman in conical hats throwing their nets, naked children swimming in the river and small villages dotting the hillsides took over my senses. Life on the Mekong River seemed unchanged from the way it must have been one, two or even three hundred years ago. The only thing to break my transportation to the past was the occasional roar of a speed boat racing down river as it ferried people too busy to enjoy the beauty. Two days later I was in Luang Prabang and the boat was the perfect way initiate me to the Laos laid back way of life.

Luang Prabang is sandwiched between the Mekong and Khan Rivers. The city is an amalgamation of French colonial buildings and traditional Laos architecture. With immaculate streets, brick sidewalks, bistros, cafes, Laos restaurants, numerous quaint side streets to explore and a great no-pressure night market it is easy to stay here much longer than planned. It's charm is inescapable and people gracious.

If you are fortunate enough to wake up very early in the morning you will witness a tradition even the communist government could not stop, the daily walk of monks collecting alms for the day or Bindapata as it's known. Hundreds of monks from the multitude of monasteries in the city take to the streets in what seems like an orange clad army armed with silver bowls to collect food from the faithful while blessing them at the same time. Once the circuit is complete the monks disappear back into the monasteries leaving only a few gains of rice as evidence of their trek.

Luang Prabang is also know for the Kouang Si Waterfalls. At first I wasn't going to go to the falls since the last two waterfalls I'd been to were a huge disappointment. Luckily Seb convinced me otherwise and our group of eight piled in to a sawngtaew (truck). Once there we swam in the refreshing pools, swung off the rope, dove off the 5m falls and gorged on the sheer beauty of the place. The waterfalls climb back and up in a series of small falls that lead up to a 80m ultimate waterfall. Here you you are surrounded by lush greenery, tourists and locals all enjoying the day. One of the best days and most beautiful waterfalls.

I had a blast with Seb and my new Kiwi friends, you know who you are, but unfortunately as they head south to go tubing, I'm off to the north to do some trekking.