Laos: Resolution #3 and a boat race festival

The other day, Dean told me that there was a French colonist’s saying in these parts along the lines of, ‘the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodian’s watch it grow, and the Lao people listen to it grow.’ I can’t say for sure about their rice growing efforts, but the people of Laos are indeed incredibly laid back. They seem to spend a huge amount of time doing nothing; indeed I wouldn’t say I’ve seen anyone during the week we’ve been here that you would consider ‘hard at work’! But, more so than some other countries, they also seem to be generally very easy-going, smiley people too.

We spent Saturday to Thursday on an island called Don Det which is part of the 4000 islands (Si Phan Don). It was a true test of my resolution #3: to just chill out like the Lao people! We stayed in one of a row of little wooden bungalows on stilts with two hammocks outside and a multitude of cockerel alarm clocks. The ‘bathroom’, a short walk away, had only cold water and no flushing toilets (as is pretty normal in public toilets here, you have to chuck bowls of water down before you leave – least it was a ‘Western’ish toilet though!) and was quite the wildlife spotting zone!

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There wasn’t a whole lot to do (it’s very popular with people who like to spend their time eating ‘happy’ cookies and drinking ‘happy’ shakes) so we hadn’t intended on staying so long. But the weather had other ideas: on Sunday it rained all night, all day Monday and all the next night – torrential and relentless. I’ve never seen anything like it! It turned the one dirt track around the island into a thick muddy river so we had no choice but to stay in.

For anyone who’s interested, as with many of our evenings, we spent most of our time on the island reading, writing (I’m writing a daily journal, Dean is trying his hand at fiction – what I’ve seen is very good), researching the next stages of our trip, watching dowloaded TV episodes on my tablet and learning how to play a complicated backpacker card game which it turns out is quite good!

Only one day was really spent out and about, visiting the nearby island of Don Khon which we reached after a nice countryside (mainly rice fields) walk to the southern tip of our island where a bridge joins the two. En route we passed pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, dragonflies, butterflies, fish, water buffalo, crickets and a huge grasshopper. We did see a big frog but it was dead and grasped, bulging in the left hand of a four year old girl. Her other hand held a large meat cleaver with which she was about to behead the poor beast! I didn’t watch! Here are some sights from our wanderings:

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The kids we’ve seen on our trip are so different to kids in England. They rarely cry or misbehave and are left largely to their own devices it seems, especially in more rural areas. They don’t have toys. Instead they contentedly race homemade wooden boats, draw marble games on the ground, catch lizards, or even organise beer can skittles to fell with flip flops! We’ve seen children who look as young as two or three brandishing cleavers or hammering nails with more accuracy than I’m sure I could, but when you watch them you realise these have probably always been their ‘toys’.

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Anyway, the rest of the walk was fairly uneventful except that, feeling a little peckish, we stopped at a very local restaurant and ordered some cold drinks and a portion of delicious uncooked vegetable spring rolls. Six big rolls, all freshly picked ingredients, wrapped in rice paper and accompanied by a slightly spicy peanut dipping sauce and only one or two ants! Mmmm.

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So the days passed on the island then we embarked on a fairly unenjoyable 24 hour journey from Don Det to Vang Vieng involving boat, minivan, overnight bus (10 harrowing hours), sawngthaew, another minivan then a walk. Phew! The most exciting thing about arriving was that we could have hot showers and actually feel clean for the first time in days!

Vang Vieng is something of a backpacker mecca where you can go tubing down the Nam Song river, stopping for Beer Lao and rope-swinging along the way. We had planned to do that today but found ourselves in the midst of the annual boat racing festival called Bun Nam which celebrates the end of the three months of rain during October’s full moon.

We happened to be staying a few streets away from the main tourist area, right by the river so all day there was an amazing atmosphere of celebration and community. The locals (who all contibute financially to the festivities) lined the banks of the Nam Song cheering on their favourite teams. The spectators and rowers were brightly coloured like the long, wooden boats which were generally rowed by 8-12 people – men and women. Occasionally there were races for individual and paired kayakers. Each race was followed by at least one motorised boat holding an official with a stopwatch.

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We spent an hour or so watching and photographing from a restaurant before crossing a questionable bridge and then wading through part of the river to reach the largely un-touristed epicentre of the festival. Lines of tarpaulins sheltered the identically dressed teams of rowers and their high-spirited supporters from the sweltering sun. At the finish line, a row of officials sat in front of a variety of trophies whilst a very excitable, chuckling man commentated over the loud speakers.

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Behind were rows of stalls selling food: meatballs, papaya salad, grilled fish and chicken feet!
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We sampled these dumpling things:

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Wandering vendors offered polystyrene trays of deep fried crickets, dried fish on sticks and helium filled balloons (mainly elephants and Psy of Gangnam fame!). Children – an alarming number sporting Psy or Angry Birds clothing – roamed freely, often clutching a little wad of money in one hand and one of the aforementioned delicacies in the other, or else a plastic gun! To acquire a drink, the most interesting way was to pop three balloons with a dart!

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So with all this to look at, plus some very ominous dark clouds, we decided to postpone tubing for a day. Instead we ambled about some more, finding different places to people-watch from then retreated to our guesthouse just as the rain arrived.

Once the sun had set, we headed down to the river again to watch the other part of the festival. Whole families, couples and friends bring amazing intricate arrangements of leaves with orange, purple and pink flowers down to the water’s edge. They light candles on them, wade out into the river to release them and make a wish as they watch them float away downstream. (Photographs by Dean)

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It was a remarkably peaceful atmosphere given the number of people coming and going as we watched. However, for me, it was quite difficult to relax seeing small children carelessly teetering about with candles, lighters, small fireworks and sparklers! (No gloves, no buckets of water or sand, no parental guidance; I just kept thinking of the horrific firework safety posters displayed back home!) Most families also had a 6 foot long firework which they seemed to give to the tiniest child to hold as it sent jets up into the sky (or water or ground depending on how well supervised they were!) For all my worries, the hospital did seem very quiet as we passed it later!

I conclude and concur that the Lao people really are very relaxed and happy sorts. Maybe it’s just because we were fortunate enough to be here for a festival, but I think it probably does run deeper than that. I think its possible that their attitude to life is rubbing off on me since resolution #3 is slowly becoming almost second nature!

Anyway, I’m sure I’ve rambled on quite long enough. Tubing awaits!

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2 thoughts on “Laos: Resolution #3 and a boat race festival

  1. Amazing! It seems to me that this is what childhood should be all about – as you say children in our society are constantly pampered and spoilt and you are witnessing true childhood – without all the baggage! Em likes the PsY balloons! How random! The spring rolls look particularly tasty too! Xxxxxx

  2. Those chicken feet take me back to a restaurant in Singapore where everyone around us seemed to be eating chicken feet soup!

    Beautiful photos x

    P.s psy balloons ha ha!

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