Well, we’ve had a busy few days since my last post. We travelled North to a lovely UNESCO town called Luang Prabang (the old capital of Laos) and spent a couple of days wandering around it and visiting some waterfalls (which you can swim in) and a bear sanctuary about 30km away.
The following pictures are a sawngthaew, an evening in the grounds of a wat and the first of MANY tests of resolution #2 I have had since I last wrote!
Then we took a long, perilously windy bus ride further into the hills to Luang Nam Tha where we did a three day trip (a present from Alastair and Hannah Ronaldson, Sue and Andy Ronaldson, Tamuka Muwengwa, Matt Ovens and Sarah Brett – thank you!) consisting of two days and a night in the forest then a village homestay and a day of kayaking! So I’ll try to summarise a few highlights here!
To celebrate one month of being married, not only did we splash out a full £7 on a room for a few nights in Luang Prabang, but we also decided to sample a Lao fondue. The restaurant was across the Nam Khan river and the journey was a bit treacherous due to the combination of the dark, the fast-flowing river, the shallowness of the boat and the uneven, muddy steps on either side! But it was most definitely worth it.
First a gloved waiter brings a bucket of fire to your table (you’re sitting on the floor on cushions so this is at chest height), removes one of the ceramic tiles on the surface and places the fire under the table. On top they put a metal cooking pot consisting of a moat and a mound in the middle. Into the moat, a metal kettle of coconut water is poured which begins to simmer. You add an egg (pierced top to bottom with a chopstick so the contents can be dribbled around the moat), followed by noodles and vegetables (mushrooms, cauliflower, various greens, carrots and so on). Then on the mound, using chopsticks, you rub a piece of fat then lay on thin strips of your chosen meat (we had pork) which sizzle away. Once the soup is bubbling and the meat is cooked, you serve yourself a portion into a small bowl and eat in the traditional way of chopsticks in one hand and a small metal ladle in the other, season with chilli and garlic and dig in! Nutritious and delicious!
So to our adventure. At around 9am on Friday we arrived at the office of Nature Life to meet our guide, Si. We were part of a lovely group, all of similar ages to us: an Israeli couple, an Australian couple with their super cute 20 month old son and another couple where the wife was Spanish, the husband Romanian, they lived in Belgium and conversed mainly in French!
Our first stop was Luang Nam Tha’s market where the driver bought food for the evening meal while we wandered around looking at an array of raw meat including dead squirrels, an alive but expensive bamboo rat, not quite dead enough fish, fruits, herbs, vegetables and the gelatinous stuff used for making noodles.
After this we travelled via minivan about 40 minutes along fairly bumpy terrain to a village. Here we met two ‘local’ village guides who would accompany us as we embarked upon a trek through the ‘jungle’ which was really more like a forest. The first thing we had to do was, one by one, cross this rather suspect bridge!
For the duration of the trek, most of my concentration was taken by deciding where to place each foot (factoring in the support offered by a bamboo stick) to avoid slipping in the mud and falling off the generally very narrow path, down the long, steep drop below!
About half way, we stopped in a clearing for a unique lunch experience. While we washed our hands in the river, one of the local guides disappeared and returned a few minutes later with an armful of giant banana tree leaves. These were laid out on the floor in the manner of a long table and benches. Si then unwrapped and tipped out various foods along the length of the ‘table’ and laid places for each of us marked by a banana and banana leaf full of sticky rice. There were stir fried vegetables, bamboo with rice noodles, omelette, tofu, aubergine with pork and green beans. Of course, all were immediately seasoned by a plethora of flies, ants and spiders!
We continued our trek, learning about rubber trees, bamboo, rattan, Chinese exports, edible bugs and seeds and various other things along the way, until we arrived at ‘camp’. This consisted of a stilted wooden hut in a small clearing with what probably used to be a sheltered seating area in front of it. Whilst the guides set about making fires, cooking rice and chopping chicken and vegetables, we all wandered down to the river (Nam Ha) for a wash. There was obviously no bathroom and the squat toilet hut was filthy and thus less appealing than just using the forest (don’t pretend you weren’t wondering!).
Four hours later, or there abouts, long after the sun had gone down, we sat down inside the hut to eat by the light of headtorches. More sticky rice, banana flower soup cooked inside bamboo, tofu and fire-roasted chicken were on the menu. It really makes you appreciate all the modern conveniences we take for granted in the kitchen when you realise how much time and effort goes into cooking without them!
Afterwards, we (well, the men of course) tried, with varying degrees of success, to keep our camp fire going with what little dry wood and leaves that could be found. Huddled around it for warmth, we chatted for a couple of hours and admired the clear starry sky. Then we headed inside to our beds. These were very thin mats on the floor and thick, coarse blankets under mosquito nets suspended from the hut’s rafters. It was way too cold!
I must have woken at around 5am when the guides got up to start the fires for cooking breakfast and lunch. Eventually the smoke from the burning rattan leaves drifting into the hut made it impossible to stay in bed any longer. Another very long wait brought us to breakfast of, as you may have guessed, more sticky rice, this time with omelette and a tomato-based sauce.
After another day of trekking and another sticky rice based meal, we arrived in a Khmu tribe village and soon experienced the effect a tiny blonde child (often innocently wielding a stick or broom) has on Laos people!
Piling into the minivan, we travelled a few kilometres to the village of Nam Lue, home to 235 Lanten tribespeople, where Si, Dean and I would be spending the night. We took a stroll, amongst the pigs, chickens and puppies, looking at what the villagers were doing, not feeling particularly welcome it has to be said, while the raggedy children crowded round the little Australian in awe.
Si directed Dean and I back to a house we had already visited whilst he dispatched the rest of the group off back to Luang Nam Tha. There we met our host, Lao Li (pictured below in his traditional dress), who didn’t speak any English at all but managed to suggest to us that we go and take showers. More private than others we’d spotted around the village, this was basically a tap shielded from the path (but not the pig sty though fortunately they showed very little interest!) by a low roof and two walls made of woven bamboo. A pair of ducks were drinking from the pool of water below the tap and there was a plank to stand on. As it is shared by several families and is not very private, men wash wearing their underwear and women wear a kind of sarong sewn closed. This is how everyone washes in the river too. It was harder than I imagined, especially getting dry at the end whilst wearing a soaking sarong! Quite the experience!
Every family grows their own rice, herbs and vegetables and farms their own animals. They also grow cotton and use it to make their traditional clothing which is coloured indigo with plant dye. Each woman has a loom and must make her family’s clothes (two sets of clothes per person per year I think). They help each other to sow, harvest and build houses but each family is ultimately self-sufficient so there is very little in the way of trade.
Lao Li’s wooden house was raised off the ground by about 2.5m and this area was used to store goods and vehicles and as a sheltered space in which to work. I’d estimate the main storey of the house to have been approximately a rectangle of 12m x 6m. At one end was a hearth with room for two fires and everything in the way of pots, pans, knives and food required for cooking. The opposite end housed the tv and stereo (!) as well as an area for offerings to the spirits since, like most tribal groups in Lao, the Lantens practise animism. Built into two thirds of one of the long walls were four bedrooms, and then there was another (Lao Li’s) tacked (literally it seemed!) onto the outside of the main house next to the balcony/porch area.
Given the fairly frosty welcome to the village, we weren’t sure what to expect from the family but they were absolutely lovely and, although none had any English and didn’t seem to even know Lao, they were very smiley and seemed to appreciate us learning ‘thank you’ in their tribe’s language: oh my baa! Lao-Li is 70 and has been the village shaman for 50 years. He (unusually) had two wives because the first couldn’t have children; she chose the second so she would get along with her. Both have now died so he lives with his two children, their spouses and three grandchildren.
We sat around on tiny stools by the hearth and I asked Si loads of questions about the family, the village and the culture; far too much to write here. The females of the family (despite the daughter in law having been out since 5am in the rice fields) cooked us dinner and laid the table with banana leaves. It was (non-sticky) rice (the family ate 3 or 4 bowls full each!), green beans, cabbage soup and another soup with a tiny amount of chicken in. Lao Li sat with us and, via Si’s amazing translation skills, asked us lots of questions about our lives and about England. He really seemed genuinely interested and told us how pleased he was to have us there as life is often boring as he does the same things every day.
At about 8pm he, along with most of the rest of the family, turned in for the night. We were sleeping, alongside Si, on mats at the TV end of the room and, anticipating the family’s early start (about 5am) the next day, we decided we should do the same!
Over breakfast at around 9am, we chatted more with the sparkly eyed Lao Li, particularly about his role as shaman which was very interesting (google them!) and he told us he chose to start studying at the age of 9 so he could become one. As bizarre as many of the beliefs, magic, remedies and rituals sound, the requirement that a shaman be a good person, as without fault as possible, is one that I sensed Lao Li has nailed. He seems a very dear old man, and, as we were waiting to be collected, he even sat and told us a traditional story, a lot like a Shakespearian tragedy, about the first woman to go to school and the end of arranged marriages!
Lao Li insisted on a photo of him on his bike!
Sunday was spent kayaking down the river Nam Ha which was tiring but lots of fun. We stopped at a couple of villages to take a look around and, of course, stopped for some sticky rice lunch by which point I felt it best for my insides to stick largely to Oreos and bananas! After taking on rather too much water in one early set of rapids, Team Patrick eventually got the hang of it and managed the whole day without capsizing!
Overall, a great three days… just don’t make me eat sticky rice again any time soon!
We’re back in Luang Prabang now and today is our last in Laos as we have a flight to Vietnam (Hanoi) this evening. Looking forward to seeing a new country! Missing everyone back home so keep us updated with your news!