Friday, May 2, 2014

One Night in a Village Somewhere in Laos

Day 8 (Jan. 31): Off the beaten track
I left off last time with scenes from the Mekong slow boat. It's been almost two months since I've written about my trip to Thailand and Laos (and over three months since I actually went). But this weekend, I'm going to see Greg, the American expat teacher I first met in Laos, so I thought it appropriate to write a bit about the circumstances of our acquaintanceship. In a nutshell, we got to know each other well when he convinced me to get off of the boat half a day early and spend the night in a small village in the Laotian jungle, which I absolutely did not regret!

So this was on day two of the Mekong boat trip; the boat left Pakbeng at 9:00am and was scheduled to arrive in Luang Prabang after eight hours. I passed the morning reading, playing Boggle, and chatting with Corine and Ian. Time passed fairly quickly. Around 3:00pm, Greg, who had explained his situation to the captain, pointed out the bend in the river where he knew this village to be and signalled for the boat to stop.
Somewhere in Laos... (taken by Corine as the boat pulled away)

We pulled up close to a huge stack of driftwood on an otherwise nondescript sandy bank and hopped off. Everyone on the boat was staring at us, for obvious reasons. What on earth would two clearly non-local guys be doing disembarking the boat in the middle of nowhere? I didn't really know, myself. I was just tagging along. Greg, on the other hand, knew exactly what he was doing.

As it turns out, he has been visiting this village regularly, about once every couple of years, since 1999. He's friends with one of the families in the village, a single mother, P, who has five children. Actually, in some ways he's a surrogate dad to them, or maybe like Santa Claus, because he's close with the children and brings them snacks and chocolate milk, photos he's taken on pevious visits, and useful items like medicine, candles, and batteries from the city. I was amazed at the precious relationship he's built with this family over the years. He knows so much about them and fits right in, even though there's a slight language barrier. All the other villagers joke that he should just marry his friend and come to live there permanently, but I think his plan for the future is to open a hostel or small tourism agency in Thailand or Laos and continue supporting and visiting the family a few times a year. Already I have tons of respect for his generosity and heart for people whom he met almost on accident fifteen years ago.
A heart as big as the adorable baby he's holding.
I was honored, then, that Greg invited me to visit the village and see what it was like for myself. His family there enjoys having guests, and they were very generous. I talked with them, took a tour of the village to see its buildings, farms, and infrastructure (e.g. generators powered by several nearby streams), and took tons of photos. We met a group of the village men who weren't working but simply sitting around drinking a very strong liquor they called "Whiskey Lao". It was disgusting, but I smiled through the burning taste and chatted in my very limited Lao. (Basically, "Hello", "How old are you", and "I'm from America".)
The farms are by the river, but the banks change every year as flooding patterns change, so the farms change accordingly.
A hydro-powered generator for the village's limited electricity. They do have TVs!
One of their school's classrooms. Elementary education is provided here, but for middle school and beyond, students must travel to another village downriver.
Machete-made machine gun!
Dinner that evening was an interesting experience. P killed one of their farm's chicken and made a stew with it, accompanied with traditional sticky rice and lettuce. The interesting part of it was actually that we ate by candlelight because the house had no electricity and it got dark very quickly in the mountainous jungle. It was very quiet and peaceful; I don't know if Lao people generally don't talk during meals or if silence was just the modus operandi when Greg came to visit. It seemed like Greg could communicate a lot without saying very much.

After dinner, I broke out the pack of Oreos I'd brought along as a snack and showed the kids how to dunk their Oreos into the milk Greg had brought. I also showed them all the photos of Thailand I'd taken on my camera, let them play with my camera, and tried to teach them how to hand whistle, with limited success. More exciting was thumb-wrestling and Korean-style rock-paper-scissors. I had a great time with the kids! I'm so glad that language is no obstacle when it comes to simply having fun.

Save for the stars, it was pitch black by the time we went to sleep. It was blacker than black, actually. The windows were closed and the lamp was blown out by 10pm. When I lay down and looked up at the ceiling, I couldn't tell if my eyes were open or shut. It was almost scary, because I can't remember ever being in such complete darkness. But it definitely had a soporiferous effect, and I was out soon enough.

And that is how I spent the Lunar New Year of 2014. Happy Year of the Horse!
I may have eaten this angry-looking guy.
Selfies by candlelight!
Day 9 (Feb. 1): At long last, Luang Prabang!
The next morning, I woke up still in completely blackness and was a bit disoriented. At 7:30am, Greg, P, and I left the village and took a local boat -- really a canoe with a motor attached -- down the river toward Luang Prabang. Our skiff stopped at a larger bank where other people were waiting for a larger boat. As it turns out, the Mekong is an avenue, the main channel of transportation for the hundreds of villages that run its length. Small skiffs are like tuk-tuks that take you short distances, and larger boats are like buses. Many people take these river buses to work or to the marketplaces in the city every single day. It was fascinating.
Boat #1. I was really scared I'd topple out of it and into the river.
Boat #2 was like a bus! It was twice as full by the time we reached our destination.
We were packed in a narrow boat that Greg told me was what the Mekong slow boats used to be way back before tourists and backpackers began traveling up- and downriver in huge hordes. I watched a huge variety of people -- ethnic Lao, Burmese, Hmong, and more -- go about their daily morning routine. It was impossible not to bump elbows with P's friends, who happily fed me sticky rice and fried noodles on leaves. They began to joke that I could get a Lao wife from one of their villages for a month's salary, and I politely declined the offer.

By 11am, we had arrived at Luang Prabang -- and in the city proper, not the scammy pier that the slow boat had stopped at. Luang Prabang is charming and lively, almost shockingly so after one night in a small village. I wondered what P's opinion of "city life" was. But it seems that she comes into town fairly often. It's only three hours and two boats away, after all.
Luang Prabang's river pier! The boats are so colorful, and the monks fit right in.
Because of the holiday, the city was overflowing with tourists. It wouldn't have been easy for me to find a guesthouse had I not been with Greg, who knew of a good place with a few open rooms. 80,000kip for a single room and shared bathroom for one night was probably a good price for this season. It was actually really nice to have space completely to myself after a week of close quarters.

I cleaned up, ate lunch, and then set out for a day adventure in the World Heritage City! Next time: temples and tourists, sunsets and splurging on food!
I'd like to see these kids again one day. I wonder how likely that is to haapen?

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