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


  1. ...wait, what's funny about Khum?

  2. the spelling.... yes... the spelling

  3. Ey Alter, was geht?
    Your smelly cat misses you! Although I'm a bit indignant that you did not mention us at all on your blog. Tststs. Big hug from Germany.

  4. " ..chicken blood soup" OMG