Dec 31, 2006

No Posts for a while

Seems to be no internet up here, took a few years to log on, and this is probably the last connection, 100 Mbps whatever that means, afraid no more for a couple of weeks. Check back then, lagon,

Dec 27, 2006

Jeao Maeng Dah / Durian

Jeao Maeng Dah

Yesterday Sengthian bought some of those large water beetles at the market to make Jeao Maeng Dah. If you’ve been following this blog since November Maeng Dah is the big beetle I took a photo of next to my cell phone.

This morning while feeding the kids I ate some for breakfast. It met my criterion for eating strange foods. The taste is not objectionable. It does have a strong flavour, but it isn’t necessarily a bad flavour. The kids ate bananas, milk, and the light sausage called yaw. Both breakfasts were eaten with kow kneeow. I don’t like the maeng dah as well as I like the maen kii kwai (buffalo beetle) but it does lend itself to jeao better and I'd certainly eat it again.


The other food of this post is durian, or as the Lao say, “too-lien”. I’d never eaten it before a few weeks ago, now I can’t get enough. The smell is described as being sweet almost to the point of smelling rotten. I don’t know. When I go in the kitchen all I smell is fresh durian.

One summer I lived in Sri Racha where durian grow in abundance. I didn’t mind the smell then either, I wish I’d tried some. I’m paying about a dollar and a half per kilo at the big Dalat Si Kai out past the airport. So far that’s the only market I’ve seen that carries them, pretty steep for fruit of course, but they are imported from Thailand, probably the south. Describing the flesh part of the fruit doesn’t do it justice. It’s extremely rich, almost like heavy cream, but in a fruit.

The Shackette Takes Shape

Kien and But in Their Kitchen

This is my favourite sister in law Kien and her husband But. They are both very educated for Laos. Kien has a two year accounting degree and But a four year degree in civil engineering. They both work rice fields belonging to someone else. In the USA we used to call that share cropping. In exchange for a portion of the rice they work the fields.
It’s been a pretty good year. The price of rice is up. Still they are considered not so well to do even by Lao standards. In their trash pile I saw a lot of large snail shells. I think they mostly live on the rice they grow and whatever fish they catch. Yesterday But traded one of the pups from his dog for a 200 gram bag of MSG.
Correction.Dec 28,06. That was five large bags of MSG probably enough to last a year, a few kilos. Oh, and the dog was to be a pet, not for eating in case anyone was wondering. Lao seldom eat dog.
Store bought items are hard to come by. They also have some ducks and they sell the eggs for cash money.
Their house is made of whatever materials they could find. The land the house is on doesn’t belong to them, a kindly neighbour just allows them to live there. I'll be way happy when they move into thier new house.


This is the current state of the house. We still need walls windows and doors, as well as to string the electric wires and wire the house, brick up the bathrooms and putt in plumbing, apply a sealant to the outside walls, and who knows what else.

Kien and Namphone

Kien and But have a nine month old daughter Namphone which means rainwater. Just barely visible on the right side of the picture is a bamboo basket for babies that all Lao moms seem to have. It hangs from a rafter and is rocked back and forth to put the baby to sleep. Vientiane has pretty good healthcare as of late. Namphone has had all her immunizations on schedule, and regular check ups.

Dec 26, 2006

The Seeds of Another Trip

Tah Huah Gowleeow

This morning I began looking into going for another little trip up north.
I’ve heard that it’s possible to take a local boat up through Xayaboury Province to Luang Prabang, from there I was thinking of heading up towards the Vietnamese Chinese border.

To find the boat office I started riding my motorcycle along the Mekong headed upstream. Well the Mekong in Vientiane is a sandbar now on the Lao side and the road quickly turned to a very slow bumpy dirt alley. So I stopped and asked a couple of Tuk Tuk drivers.

They said past the airport then bear left. I said at that turn by Si Kai Market? This is turning out to be an easier explanation than they thought it was going to be. The name of the town is Gowleeow, which I happily mispronounced by asking them “Oh you mean Ban Gahlee?” Oh no they made sure I didn’t mispronounce it like that.
The place is called Tah Huah Gowleeow, and that translates to the boat landing at Gowleeow I guess. They even had a sign out on the main drag saying “Harbour”, couldn’t get much more obvious than that. Three different windows for immigration, a lot of bamboo shacks selling food and a big 3 story 35 room hotel.

A thousand Baht for the fast boat, and 180 thousand kip for the slow, that’s double priced for foreigners of course, the concept of racial discrimination doesn’t seem to have hit Laos yet. I wonder what Thai people pay, or the Lao from America. I wonder if this is the unique pathway of a socialist republic on it’s route to a capitalist market economy? Two tiered pricing.

Slow boat are Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday They leave at around 7:30 in the morning. Fast boats go all the time. Twenty of them were under cover at the landing. I’m intent on taking the slow boat Friday. I‘ve heard Phongsali province has little spoken English and a lot of bad roads, sounds good to me..

Dec 24, 2006

Headed back on the boat

After a dinner at the local restaurant, a good nights sleep, and a promise from the local tourism official to give me a return visit to the last village, I caught a sawngthaew to Xiengkok. As the truck pulled away from the stop I took a last look back and saw the local guide I’d nicknamed Rock Star getting on a truck headed elsewhere. In that brief instant he looked up and our glances crossed, we recognised each other but there wasn’t time even for a wave. I think he had his own reasons for wanting to take the trail we did.

I had mixed feelings about heading to Xiengkok. A young American English teacher from China disappeared there earlier this year under unknown circumstances and the place had an usettled feeling for me.

Link to home page of folks still looking for Ryan Chicovsky
Ryan Chicovsky

Chinese Freighter works it’s way upstream in fast water just below Xiengkok

The sawngthaew dropped me right splat in front of the government border or port office by the river. Immediately a swift boat pilot approached me and explained the costs and fees in detail. Assured that I understood the rates for a full boat and for an empty one he pointed me towards the government office and suggested I register with the authorities and I did. The rate was a little over a hundred dollars to rent the boat by myself which I had no intention of doing.
The alternative was to retrace my steps all the way back to where I had come. I could even catch a 20 hour bus at Luang Namtha for a marathon bus ride in the mountains to Vientiane in one push. Or I could wait for 3 more people to show up.

I then went down to the closest restaurant and ordered an omelette called Jeune Kai laced with fish sauce, cilantro, hot peppers, green onions, and MSG. I love them. The swift boat driver also came in and resumed his friendly banter with the girl working the place.

After breakfast I went for a walk down the towns main street to look for a guest house. If other people came around to take the boat I’d gladly abandon the hotel, if no one came with the first sawngthaew of the morning I’d retrace my route.

Loading up the fast boat

Each guest house I looked at seemed slightly less clean than the last, so I returned to the restaurant to get a room there. As I was checking in the boat driver came back and he didn’t seem thrilled to see me paying for a room.
“The hotel will cost you money”
“That’s ok at $3 I think it’s cheap”
“Food costs here too”
“Yes very tasty food at this restaurant”
“You don’t understand, how about 1200 baht”
I hesitated about one nano second. He was offering to take me down the river for 200 Baht over a regular single fare.
All of our conversation had been in a kind of Lao. He spoke the kind of Lao as do people from Houayxai. It is the most heavily Thai influenced Lao I’ve ever heard, almost like Isaan Lao. I assume because of Houayxai’s seeming isolation from the rest of the country and it’s close connection to Thailand that they have taken a lot of their language from across the river.
Houayxai was the town we were headed for downriver. It’s the first Lao town of any size downstream from the Chinese and Burma borders. At the river there were the other passengers waiting. Even though there were no others waiting for the full distance there were three other people headed downstream. Better some passengers than none. The fast boat below Xiengkok is allowed a maximum of four people. The water is very fast and the boat needs all the power, and as much freeboard as it can get.

I’d heard dreadful tales about the fast boat, some I found true, some not. The true ones were that is very exciting. I tried to imagine what would happen in the event of capsizing and in my minds eye it wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t sure if the crash helmets would do much good, even the life jackets fastened with fastex buckles I assumed would be ripped off.

Note the cool paint job and the straight pipes off the engine.

The boat seems designed to skim on top of the water. It’s powered by a regular automobile engine with a straight shaft to the propeller. The pilot has a handle attached to the front of the engine with a throttle. As he pushes the handle left or right, up or down, the engine that is balanced on the back of the boat and the propeller are moved around. There is no keel, the propeller has a small flat piece of metal below it that helps to act as a rudder. I think that if the driver wants some traction in the water he lays the boat slightly on it’s side and the edge where the side and the bottom meet give some purchase on the water. Basically the whole thing goes like a bat out of hell.

From the moment we left Xiengkok to when he dropped two of the passengers off half an hour downstream the ride had my undivided attention as it did of everyone else on the boat. I think the driver needs to maintain a fairly fast clip to keep most of the boat out of the water. It’s the boats ability to slide on top of the water that give it it’s advantage. A river as fast and narrow with the volume of water as the Mekong is below Xiengkok has a lot of currents, not all of them going in the same direction.

Click below for video of speed boat above Luang Prabang off YouTube
Great YouTube link click here

Normally when you go from say a current coming from your left to one coming 180 degrees opposite on your right, the boat tends to roll as the new current hits it. Not so if the boat is hardly even in the water. It was this seeming ability to ignore the normal limitations on a boat that kept my interest up. Edies, boils, standing waves, haystacks, you name it the fast boat slid sometimes forward sometimes sideways always on top of the water, never seeming to be affected by what was underneath it. Sometimes the water pushing up against rocks would raise the whole height of the river a ways in a big boil out away from the rock. The pilot would use these uphill sections of water to bank against. Again and again we would be sliding towards rocks or the bank or a Chinese freighter only to end up passing it with feet to spare.
It’s hard to gauge the speed of a boat when you are sitting five inches above the water. By the bank passing by I figured about fifty miles an hour. The freighters headed up or downstream were another major obstacle. Remember the boat can’t slow down or it loses it’s ability to ignore current. Sometimes we would take a route around an island or some rocks totally outside the route the Chinese had blasted through the rapids for a channel. Often the pilot Homphan had to slow down to cross the waves created by the freighter or his boat would have been beat apart as we slammed down onto the swell at speed.

For fifteen minutes after letting off the two passenger the river continued dangerous, at the first flat stretch after that Homphan cut the engine and took a drink of water. Neither I nor the woman who was still on board needed to ask why we stopped or even turn around. After that the river continued fast and with plenty of rocks but no longer as menacing.

After dropping of the other passenger I had the boat to myself and lay back and enjoyed the ride. The straight pipes off the engine send most of the noise behind you but even so things are loud enough to eliminate all conversation. I lay down on the floor boards and fell asleep. I woke up a couple of hours later when the engine cut out. I looked up to find Homphan fishing into his cooler for a canned coffee. He said he too was worried about falling asleep. I woke right up.

Soon many Tats or pagodas started sticking up through the trees on the Burma side of the river. “Mai-ahn-mah” the pilot shouted over the engines. Big deal thought I we’ve been riding past it the whole way. Then I saw a huge garish golden Buda and radio towers and Wats and hotels and a big resort looking thing and Homphan said Thailand. Hmm I thought the border. I guess that would explain all the statues and radio towers.

Getting "good on fuel" over on the Burma side

A couple of minutes later we pulled up to a dock on the Lao side with a gagle of boats at it, and regular steps up the bank. As I got off I noticed also the first foreigners I’d seen in a week. I offered to buy Homphan a bowl of Pho. They did have regular pho as I’m used to. Beef stock, thin noodles, lots of fresh greens on the side. After I had almost finished the broth as is my habit, the proprietress of the restaurant filled my bowl with more. Good grief I thought the boat won’t be the only thing floating away, but I just squeezed in some more lime and started slurping.
When we had finished Homphan said we needed to walk around. Can’t ride on such a full belly he explained. I think really he just wanted to let everyone who knew him to see that he was there. I had noticed that Homphan had a slight swagger to his manner. After the ride I knew why. Seeing him walk around that tourist stop on the river I realized where I’d seen the exact same attitude, “Lama pilot” I thought. Homphan does a very skilful and dangerous job, and amongst those who know such things he is respected. He is one of the few fast boat pilots to make the run to Xiengkok. He told me he’d been doing the run for ten years. He wore a hat that said “Phuket Thai restaurant” and on the back it read, “say it “poo-ket””. Most of the time he also wore a long leather jacket, and his main pastime seemed to be cutting up.

Homphan,, tae!

Our lunch stop was across the river from the place labelled the golden triangle and was an obligatory stop with all of the tour groups on busses and so forth. For a very small fee people could cross the river and for 20 Baht get a Lao visa stamp good for that town only. There were many stores selling T-shirts and whiskey bottles with snakes in them and all the knick knacks anyone could ever want.

From lunch it was a short run in to the fast boat ramp north of Houayxai. I rode on the back of a motorcycle the 2 or 3 km in to town. If the golden triangle wasn’t enough of a culture shock Houayxai certainly was. The one and only northern entry for people doing the usual loop through Laos it sees everything. I have memories of endless processions of fellow falangs panting up the boat ramp under the weight of huge backpacks.

The next day due to some kind of a mix-up that involved an over booked express boat and a Thai tour guide shouting and screaming at fifty hot fellow tourists I ended up on a fast boat again. I never did figure out what the problem was. One of the benefits of booking through a travel agency in Houayxai was that they easily and immediately backed up their ticket by sending me down the road to catch the fast boat free of charge.

No sooner had I registered my name with the official running the landing than I ran into my now friend Homphan. Because he had an extra day to wait for his rotation to go up river he’d come down to the southern landing to shoot the breeze with the pilots there. I think fast boat pilots spend three quarters of their time hanging out and fooling around.

Eventually many of the other foreigners I’d seen on the express boat arrived also. The river is much quieter except for some shallow sections and the ride took on more of a kind of “watch the bank slide by” quality. Although we were packed eight to a boat by magic I was in front and the pilot adjusted the load so I could stretch my legs. The boat took a lot longer to reach full speed and it’s proper place above the water. I also noticed the driver wagging the long tail every once in a while to be sure he had a feel for the load and the water.

Lunch was at Pakbeng where I received my only solicitation for drugs of the whole trip. I believe I exude an image of youth and adventure giving off vibes of being open to new experiences. It must be easy to mistake me for one of the twenty something round the worlders. Or maybe I just look like a drug adict. He offered “ganja” I upped the ante by asking the availability of “ya fin”, opium, which he gladly offered also. I felt guilty and stopped there as I was just playing it for laughs and he was in earnest.

If Houayxai was a taste of mass tourism Luang Prabang was a full serving. This stop I was determined to enjoy more of the town and even got a guest house that had been recommended over the internet. I spent most of the next day taking a Sawngthaew up to the Kuang Si Waterfall. In retrospect I could have made better use of my time. I’d already spent days bumping around on dusty trucks and seen many beautiful water falls in more pristine settings.

Boat full of logs at the fast boat landing below Luang Prabang

I did like all the boats tied up along the Mekong. Quite a bit of traffic stops at Luang Prabang and for now all the boats are the long traditional Lao style. I found the landing for the slow boat headed down the Mekong and it lists the price to Packlay and also Vientiane. It didn’t look too busy. I also went south of town and had a look at the fast boat stop. I’m now a fan of fast boats and fast boat drivers.

Dec 19, 2006

Going for a walk

(or how some children walked the legs off me)

Moonrise over Nambo

The proposed trek that the tourism officials suggested was no more than some names on a scrap of notebook paper and some squiggly lines between them. Their idea of a map. The parts that caught my attention were the number of hours walking, the fact that most of the walk was through old growth and that we would end up twenty kilometres down the road. OK the fact that it was way cheap didn’t hurt either.
The next morning I learned that neither Dooee the English teacher nor Sak the manager of the office would be acting as guide but rather a third party Si Phan who had just finished “English” school. "It will be great", volunteered Dooee, “he learns English and you learn Lao” Sak also wrote the names of the villages we were headed for on a piece of paper which Si Phan carefully folded and stored in his pocket.

Jim Henthorn's topo maps of SEAsia Click on the link to see the map.

Muang Long can be seen in the upper left quadrant, Vien Phou Kha as it’s spelled right centre. Many of the rest of the towns have come and gone since then. These maps are often decades out of date.

I asked and was reassured by Sak, yes we would be hiring local guides at each villiage. Sak also told Si Phan to buy a couple bottles of water, some candles, lunch, and get a knife. I offered the use of my Swiss army knife but Dooee was insistent that Si Phan get a big knife. Dooee even made Si Phan exchange the kitchen knife he got for a large machete. Great for lions, tigers, and stumbling over the odd meth lab I thought.

Although the area was until recently a major opium growing region and a lot of amphetamine travels through on it’s way from labs in Burma just across the river, all in all I felt this part of Laos to be extremely safe. It’s very rural.

Out of town we cut steeply up a hill to the East for half an hour then joined a seldom used dirt road. I asked Si Phan his age, “twenty” he said, “ever been to these villages before?” “no”. Getting more interesting all the time I’m thinking.

All our conversation is in Lao. When two people are native speakers of different languages they quickly sort out which one who speaks better and use that one to converse. Somehow the connections in the brain used to speak need to be hardwired before speech will emerge, it’s different than memorizing vocabulary or grammar. My son learns whole expressions at a time.

The first of many leeches

When we stopped I picked a nice fat leach off my foot and shook five more out of my shoe. Over the next few days I continued to pick them off me at first with haste, later with a lazy flick of the finger, and still later only if I had the energy.

The trail continued to rise steadily following the remnants of an old road cut, side hill to a large mountain, all the while a big tributary of the Nam Ma could be heard downhill and to our left. We seemed to be gaining elevation and heading south and east, kind of away from our eventual destination of Xiengkok. The trail was very good for walking, no sudden steep sections, traveled enough to keep it from being overgrown but not near enough to make it rocky. For a little while there were the double tracks of a four wheel drive, then only the tracks of a lone motorcycle with off road tires, and once in a while footprints other than our own, lots of cows. The cows are small skinny and scamper around more like goats.


At first I made an attempt to ask the names of the trees and memorize them. After a while I shut up and just tried to walk. Our pace was pretty brisk, probably well over two miles an hour, and with only a gentle grade and light packs we were eating up the miles. The trees, ferns and bamboo were larger than anything I’d seen before. The fronds from the ferns were up to eight feet long and the bamboo bushes could be thirty feet high and with their drooping stalks could encompass an area sixty feet across. I kept expecting to see a dinosaur. Once in while a large tree would rise above the canopy to heights of well over a hundred feet, fully two feet in diameter at forty five feet those trees had enough wood for a lot of fancy end tables in Japan or the USA.

After three hours we broke for ten minuets. I kept waiting for the tracks from the dirt bike to stop but they didn’t, at a couple of the stream crossings I’m sure they had to get off and manhandle the thing. The trail became much smaller once we got further than a leisurely couple hours walk away from Muang Long. I assumed we were too far for most people to bother with the walk to go shoot a squirrel.

After six hours we came to Nambo a village comprised of both Lahu and Hmong peoples. I figure by our pace and by the map it was at least 10 or 12 miles NE of Muang Long up out of the Nam Ma drainage and on the ridge looking down towards the Nam Pha river which flows south of Viongphuka and enters the Mekong somewhere below Xiengkok.

Ban Nambo

My guide Si Phan was at first hesitant to approach the headman’s house as good manners oblige us to first ask his permission to stay in the village. Of course after a brief initial confusion at seeing a falang we were very welcome and invited in.

There were also a couple other visitors perhaps from another village, and our presence only served to liven the party which had already begun. Eight or ten guys were sitting in a circle doing competitive shots of lao lao. They were already drunk. I’m kind of slow on the drinking and drugs in my late middle age, not for lack of desire, just lazy. After a few refusals and “sun saaps” I excused myself and went out to take a look around.

Si Phan soon joined me outside and we took a walk over to the Hmong side of the village. When we returned the party had moved on and gotten louder. I noticed too that the smell was still there.

At first I thought maybe the smell was of too many sweating drunks in too close a proximity, now I had other ideas. Our host Allii was touching a piece of pork fat on the inside of a dry hot wok. He was then removing the hair. Supper was the outside inch of a pig, the part with all the fat and gristle, and skin. Allii would rub the hairy side against the very hot wok then pull tufts of hair out. I thought the smell was of singed pig hair.

Later I changed my mind again and thought it might be some kind of unusual spice. You might well imagine if I first thought the smell was from drunks, and then burnt pig hair, that I was having a hard time warming to this spice.


There were a whole lot of pigs running around the village. The people looked pretty well fed, no skinny children here. I saw other families carrying their own pieces of pig skin away from the house across the way. I think someone kills a pig and the village shares it until it’s gone, then they kill another. I had a bowl of rice served up by Nangpen, Allii’s wife, and I put a lot of salt on it to help me retain water. I also drank as much boiled water as I could hold and went to sleep covered in the blanket supplied by Nangpen.

Later I was woken by terrible shouting and cursing from the house next door, followed by the sound of falling and bumping. Big drunken brawl with all the lao lao drinkers.

Nangpen's kitchen

I woke up again around five in the morning to the sound of Nangpen resuscitating the fire from the coals and putting the kettle on. I too got up as is my habit to rise early. I borrowed some hot water and made instant coffee that I had brought with me.

As soon as it was light I went out to take a look around, as usual it was the children who were least shy and most curious. After a while adults also started to ask me questions using very limited Lao. There was a school in the village but very few people seemed able to speak Lao. I think Thai Lu was the lingua franca of the neighbourhood and although similar to Lao it is often impossible for a lowland Lao person to understand. And remember, Thai Lu took a distant third place in importance with these folks to Lahu or Hmong.
I don’t know if there was a cultural taboo about telling someone your name. I spoke most with Allii and Nangpen’s eldest son but he seemed reluctant to tell me his own name. Perhaps he realized I would splash it across the web. I showed him how to take pictures and he took this portrait of yours truly.

Ugly unshaven falang tourist.

I in turn took this picture of him and his eldest son.

Eldest son and eldest son.

I’m not sure of the status of women in Lahu society. After dishing into my bowl of rice at dinner, and after all the other men had eaten the pork and rice and soup, then Nangpen, and the other women, and the children ate. I at once felt very sheepish not to have noticed that they hadn’t eaten yet. I felt very glad that there was plenty of meat and rice in the village. In our society it is usually women and children first.
I do know that women marry very early. Probably soon after reaching puberty as in most of the world. I didn’t see any women who looked over the age of 15 that didn’t have children.

Young Proud Mom

Immediately the trail became very different. Whereas yesterday we had been on a gently uphill sloping path that saw enough travel to keep the brush cleared well back, today’s trail after we passed the pig and cow barriers was quite over grown. Being the slowest I went in front, I call it the snake catcher position. I couldn’t see anything underfoot as the grass and weeds had so over grown the trail. Often I couldn’t see the trail either and followed it as much by guesswork as anything else.

After an hour or two we passed the distance that most hunters were willing to walk and our local guide went in front and hacked at the bamboo or creepers so that we could easily pass and so he too could come back this way. Side hill seemed especially treacherous as the path was just steps kicked in the dirt and they often gave way or were sloughed off already. The hills were often the steepest thing on which I’ve ever seen dirt and plants growing, and any rocks we kicked loose kept on rolling until fetched up by a bush or tree.

Local Guide

I liked the local guide for the fact that he was a hunter. He was good at communicating with a look or a nod while walking and we walked fairly quietly through the old growth jungle. Both guides walked without talking and I appreciated it. I don’t know why but many of us first worlders can’t stand to not talk for a few minutes or hours. At this point I was still wearing a sandal type thing popular in the US right now and Si Phan’s new very expensive running shoes were getting plenty dirty. I noticed our local guide was wearing a very nice pair of European casual dress shoes with a rubberized sole and lightweight leather upper. Great for walking.

I was impressed with the quality of a lot of the clothes worn by people and after seeing the piles of second hand jackets, pants, shirts and shoes sold by the Chinese traders I knew where things came from. Donated second hand clothing.

The guide was also carrying a long barrelled rifle, or to be more precise a gun as I doubt the barrel had rifling in it. It had some sort of homemade spring and hammer. I thought he stuck a small flint in the mechanism to strike the spark. After the powder he slid a piece of metal into the barrel and let it slide down hard a couple of times to tamp the powder down, then he slid an oblong bullet tapered at both ends and about the size of a 22 down the barrel and that was that. The bullet rattled as it slid down the barrel, not such a tight fit.

Gun (note the cool bag made out of a plastic rice sack to carry stuff in)

I would assume they don’t shoot at anything much over sixty feet away, it seemed that in the thick jungle the only animals we would flush were very close. The one time the hunter thought he had a shot at a bird he held the gun at full arm extension and sighted down the barrel. I think he was shy of catching the flash from the powder in the face. The but of the rifle is fairly short.

We seemed to be vaguely following a ridge line. Sometimes up sometimes down, often across as the trail tried to maintain elevation. Towards the early afternoon we came upon a real trail and then abruptly we descended into a the clearing of a village. It was silent and empty except for a couple of guys with a campfire in the shade of a partially fallen down house. I noticed our guide stashed his gun under some bushes so as not to walk up on the strangers armed. The trail in the other direction led to Muang Long five hours away.

Abandoned Jakun

Most of the town, I call it Old Jakun, had been left to rot back into the forest. Usually when a village moves they take the houses with them. They leave the roofing and bamboo but take all the beams. Hill tribe houses are post and beam construction without the benefits of up and down saws let alone a sawmill to cut boards. Everything is flattened using broadaxes. Very nice work too, it must take many hours of careful labour. I don’t think they know about the adze, or maybe they do such careful work with what they have they feel they don’t need it. Many of the posts and beams look like they have been used for different functions in the houses other incarnations. I just assumed that much of the wood had made it through a few generations of moving as it is very dark from smoke.

I was told that much of the village had moved to Muang Long, and the other part had moved to what I call for lack of a better name Jakun. The abandoned town had been our original destination and called Jakun, I’m not sure if that was the name of the town we ended up in.

After a short break our guide left to return to Nambo and we started downhill, the trail led quickly down and then some more and some more still. At first we tried to jog trot as we had been periodically with the guide when conditions allowed it. The downhill never let up though and eventually we would have to slow to regain our muscles. The trail continued in very good condition, no doubt the most common destination of the villagers was to head to Muang Long. Probably relatives and old friends from the abandoned village keeping in touch or people headed in to sell or buy.

Young Akha hunter with bird traps and long gun

We ended up going downhill for almost 3 hours without let up. We were headed down into the drainage of the Nam Pha. Even though the temperatures were always cool under the thick trees the ground seemed to attract the water in the air and plants and even the ground was constantly wet. Once I started to walk the sweat kept me constantly soaked. 100% humidity.

Jakun was an Akha village. Known for being one of the most marginalized of the hill tribes I found the small “ban” as it’s called in Laos to be fairly prosperous and organised. The women all still wore traditional head dresses but they always do. Being so far from town probably not many villagers have been in to any of the valley towns that are connected to the road system and the rest of the world. It must be seven hours even for them. The town had no noticeable trash or plastic. Most things were made of wood.

Banana Flower

Dogs barked and were driven off by owners. We asked for and got directions to the headman, Lapao’s house. By the time we got there we had attracted the attention of most people in the village and perhaps twenty or more crowded around as we presented ourselves at his steps. We were invited up on to the porch and given cool water. A woman came up and I recognised the words sep dah. Her eyes stung, the same words my son uses when soap is in his eyes. The middle aged woman thought that because I was a westerner that I would have medicine to cure her. I told her I had none, nor any knowledge, and suggested she walk to the hospital in Muang Long.

I wonder if she will go blind from some untreated disease. If I had to generalize I’d have to say this town was more prosperous than Nambo even. Everyone well fed that I could see. The houses were bigger and more solid. There were many separate small houses for animals and all the houses had fences to keep animals out or in. There was no school. No one could read or write. A few people could speak some Lao.

Some one had started cooking as soon as we arrived and we were invited in to eat. I think this was mostly for hospitalities sake as we were the only ones eating. The food was very tender pieces of pig fat cooked in peppers, and an excellent Som Pak without the sesame seeds but plenty of ginger. Very quickly Si Phan my guide from town asked if I were full and we thanked the headman for the food and began talking about the route for the next day.

Smoke from the cooking fire making it’s way out of the thatched roof. The houses have no chimneys and cooking is done using wood for fuel. The split bamboo floors, walls, and thatched ceilings allow plenty of ventilation and the houses don’t seem unduly smoky.

It seems there were many river crossings of the Nam Pha that Si Phan didn’t want to do. The descriptions of the waters depth rose from waist deep to shoulder height to over the head. That night Si Phan asked me if I knew how to swim. I’m not sure what the aversion to the trail by the Nam Pha was. I suspect the local guide, whom I nicknamed Rock Star because he dressed like a crooner from the Lao music videos, didn’t want to go there. The headman Lapao and the other older men seemed unconcerned about the route.

Perhaps the route was dangerous. It’s hard to tell when you are trying to eavesdrop in a language that you barely can ask directions in.

It was interesting to watch the interaction of the people within the house. There were perhaps 15 or 18 people living in that one large house. The sons all seemed to look alike and ranged in ages from 25 down to 8 or 9. There were two married women and a couple three unmarried girls. The teenage girls were very timid of looking at me and would peek from outside the door, hiding if I looked in that direction. Seems my reputation had preceded me. People seemed very kind and courteous in their interactions, with everyone pitching in to help with the children and the cooking. I was happy to see all ate at the same time.

I made little effort to look around the village concentrating instead on drinking as much hot water as I could. I was worried about leg cramps that I often get from too much exercise and not enough water. Sure enough after I had been off my feet for an hour or so one came. They are very painful. Si Phan tried to rub it out and then went to take a shower. I tried to lie still and wait for it to go. After a while people returned and Si Phan asked me if I’d like a massage from the women.

I wish I could tell you I got a massage from the young teenage girls but actually it was the headman’s wife and the oldest son’s wife. Many years of chopping wood and carrying water were obvious when they attempted to separate my muscles from each other and my bones. The massage was often painful but I realized that what they were doing might well avert another cramp and also give me the best chance of regaining strength for the next days walk.

I had a difficult time asking Si Phan at first how many other westerners had visited these villages. He kept on repeating the word “tou-ah” which sounded strange instead of the word for people or Caucasians. Eventually I figured out he meant there had been three other tours. There you have it! I thought with a smile, I go on a tour, I am now an official tourist as apposed to all those travelers in the tourist versus traveler argument.

Jakun in the early morning mist.

The other groups, two of two people, and one of three people had all come when the abandoned villages were still there, and therefore the walking would have been shorter. By the look of the trails and the state of decay in the villages it must have been at least a year ago that anyone had trekked in the area, more likely a couple years or more.
The rock star local guide came by and invited Si Phan to “pai lin” or go play. There was drinking of lao lao going on in one of the houses close by. The drinking this evening also seemed to be of the competitive shot downing variety but by a much younger age group, teens and young twenties of both sexes. I could hear the girls “whooo whooo” ing as one or the other would take a shot.
Most of the people of the household stayed home and talked about things with the mom seeming to lead the discussion. The headman sat furthest from the fire and seldom took part as his thoughts seemed elsewhere. A lot of responsibility making decisions that affect the very lives of the over 200 people that you have known all your life. Even if mortality rates are only normal that’s four deaths per year at 2%. I saw posters from the government on safe methods for drinking water, and waste disposal, as well as mosquito nets in every house. The headman told me that currently there was no malaria in the village.
What of his decision not to move to town yet I thought. I’d heard that the villages were accepting the governments offers too quickly and there wasn’t enough infrastructure to accommodate them. On the other hand the hill tribes were being compensated for half the price of the new village, and they actually were building them using free labour and locally available materials from the forest. The extra cash could be used to buy electric fixtures and lighting and other manufactured goods. The new towns were on the electric grid. The children could go to school and there would be some sort of medical care available.

The flip side of the equation was that often the move was very disruptive. Annual mortality rates were said to rise as high as four or five percent outpacing live births. Would there be enough land left for them to grow the intensively cultivated sticky rice that requires a controlled water supply and flat land. What of the loss of their cash crop, the opium? I’d hear the government official talk of crop substitution but the crop he was talking about was ginger sold to Chinese wholesalers at twenty cents a kilo. The current price for opium seems to vary from $200 to $500 dollars and is accepted as cash everywhere.

I have no idea what route to the modern world is best for the hill tribes. I do predict that whatever they do it is going to be disruptive to their society. The contrast between this village and the Akha villages I had biked and walked to around Muang Sing couldn’t have been more striking. Here people were friendly and welcoming, seemingly at ease with their place in the world. In Muang Sing the children had their hands out for money and the adults gave silent often suspicious looks.

The province of Luang Namtha has been the target of opium eradication efforts and there are many NGOs and other organisations with their own agendas at work in Luang Namtha, Muang Sing, and to a lesser degree the Muang Long valley. I hope they are giving their actions as much considered thought as the headman Lapao of Jakun.

The next morning I again awoke to the sound of conversation around the fire, and also of course the sound of the large foot powered coke and saht used to break the covering from the outside of the rice. I went out on the large porch and took some photos of Jakun in the thick fog that seems to hang on the mountains every morning.

Soon we were up and away at my urging. I had no idea how long or where we were going but I knew that I wasn’t the only one figuratively in the dark. I guess the decision had been made not to go down to the Nam Pha and The Rock Star carried my pack and we made as quick a time as we could back up hill the three hours we had come down the afternoon before. Because of my lack of a pack and the nights sleep I was well rested, we made almost as good a time going up as we had coming down. We got back to the abandoned town at a little after noon.

At the trail junction where one route heads back to Muang Long the Rock Star left us. Immediately we were back on an unused trail. The route in front of us led to the west along the side of the hill below a peak and eventually up and over the ridge. We no longer had the shade of old growth as this area had been cultivated by the abandoned village and the vegetation had only regrown to a height of a few feet. The trail was overgrown yet not as bad as the day before.
I seemed to tire quickly and had to take rests often, the hard walking of the past couple days as well as the steep hike of the morning had taken their toll. After a few more hours we topped out on the ridge and I took a last look back into the drainage of the Nam Pha.

Looking back at the Nam Pha

Here we found another abandoned town but they had moved close enough to take most of the houses with them. Cows had been grazing at the site of the old village and the trail seemed to lose itself amongst the meandering cow tracks. This is when we got lost.

Second Abandoned Village up on the ridge

We continued in the same direction we had been headed on through the village and tried to pick up the trail on the other side. All the trails on the far side of the village seemed to be cow tracks that ended quickly after wandering a bit. I dropped my pack with Si Phan and started working my way back and forth across the hill hoping to pick up the old trail. No luck. We went back to the abandoned village.
The time was three thirty, the choices weren’t that great. Go back to the Jakun at least six hours perhaps seven, go back to the trail junction leading to Muang Long, and head downhill to Muang Long at least eight hours. Either way we were going to be spending the night outside. We had no blankets but the nights weren’t that cold.
Not being a party to the discussions of how to go where I had no idea where the next town of Pon Sampan was supposed to be, only that it was one days walk from Xiengkok and that we could have gotten to it by crossing the drainage of the Nam Pha a few times.
We could see a piece of the road to Xiengkok in the distance and Si Phan wanted to walk to the road. I agreed although I knew walking off trail in these thick jungles would be difficult going. Getting lost wasn’t much of a worry, we were already lost, and actually the whole hillside sloped towards the road. I was as happy sleeping out on this hill as any other.
We took off steeply downhill following a cow path. The path was very steep and muddy but didn’t stop and start or meander as cows do. It was a people path. After half an hour we came to a small shack with a
woman, a baby, and four dogs going nuts. We said hi and wandered on, it must be scary to be alone on a hill and have two strange men appear. After another half hour we could see some kids cutting wood down in a cleared section. We walked to them and stopping on the trail above them stopped to talk. We asked where does the trail lead, answer, no where. Where is the trail to Muang Long? A vague waive of the hand back up the hill. Si Phan was all for starting the eight hour plus hike back to Muang Long, I said lets go to their house and see if we can buy a chicken and a place on the floor. Much rather sleep on bamboo than on the ground, also these kids seemed to know what they were about. Besides it was long past time for me to stop walking, the three long hard days were catching up with me. My but was getting seriously kicked.
The kid grabbed up my pack and a long piece of log and walked away. His sister picked up a pack basket with 35 lbs of wood.
Their house had two women which Si Phan identified as Mwee, more kids but no men. We sat a ways from the house and I played peek a boo, with the smallest kids and showed them my pull of my finger trick and my take out my eyeball and put it in my mouth trick. Everyone can relate to someone who likes kids. I then took out my digital camera and showed them the snaps of my two kids that I have on the memory card.
Si Phan was trying to negotiate with the boy to take us to a town. He seemed stuck at three dollars and the boy seemed uninterested. I don’t think he was holding out for more but reluctant to wander down the mountain. I broke the deadlock by offering five dollars plus a room for the night at the hotel and dinner. The boy said he was reluctant to go alone, I suggested he bring someone with him. Without any more discussion we were off.

The boy took my pack and his little brother without shoes came along too. I set as fast a pace as I could. Stopping only when I had to for a couple seconds breathing hard the entire time. I was the slowest and it was 2 hours by the boys reconing to a town with a road. We passed through the steep hills the family had been growing rice on using the slash and burn method. The rice was just in and stacked in large bags inside small rat proof houses, and the stalks were also out of reach of cows.
After going steep uphill to leave their little valley the trail took off smooth and downhill. We jogged. Sunset became twilight and as we reached the foot of the hills we came upon a fifty person road crew finishing their work for the day. They were carving out a track wide enough for those small one cylinder tractors they have, using the shortened wide hoes to cut into the hill, and large poles to lever out rocks.
We splashed across what I believed to be a tributary of the Nam None, in the now deepening dark we crossed and re crossed this same stream six or seven times. The water never exceeded mid thigh. By the time we hit the rice fields it was now well and truly dark. The moon that had risen two days before at dark was nowhere to be seen. I guess it gets later every day, we were also in the shadow of the mountain we had walked down.
In a while we passed a darkened house that had a stereo playing rock very loud but still no lights. Then quickly a couple houses with bare bulbs burning. The sawngthaew was seven dollars which I thought excessive until we did the drive and I found out just how far from Muang Long we were. The kids were uninterested in Muang Long but were headed back up the hill that night. I paid the eldest the agreed five dollars and another five dollars to his brother telling him to buy some flip flops, and then added in the cost of the room they would have had in Muang Long, and dinner and breakfast then took this picture with the flash.

My local guides

Construction Begins

The cuting tenons in the wooden posts

Construction has finally begun on our deluxe shack-et. Four small apartments each with a porch in front and a couple communal baths and a kitchen beside the house The started while we were still in the US. (incase you are confused "The" is my brother in law)The whole thing is up off the ground nine feet so. Later, if desired, people can brick in their section and have another two large rooms below.
Sengthian has been handling all aspects of the job including, contractors, materials, and dealing with the four competing interests of brother and sisters. We found we save a lot of money if we buy the materials ourselves. The suppliers have been fairly similar to construction suppliers back home. They are very busy and have little time for negotiations, they sell a good product at what is already a competitive price. They’ve also been helpful in pointing us towards value. We don’t want to spend too much on a place we are probably never going to live in, but don’t want to sacrifice quality to save a dime.
So far the well and septic have been dug, concrete posts set, beams, joists and wooden posts placed on upper floor, and for all I know roof rafters and ceiling joists set. I think they are waiting on the tin roofing, electric cable, concrete culverts for well and septic, bamboo sheeting, windows and doors.
I’ve been accused of building hippy communal housing for my extended family in a Peoples Democratic Republic. I’ll plead guilty as charged.
Here’s a photo of Sengthian in the midst of negotiations over access to electricity. By law they have to let us hook up to the pole. To bring our own electric in would be cost prohibitive with thick cables and concrete posts. The neighbour knows this and is trying to gouge us for the use of “his” pole. It’s not for nothing they called her little giant in high school. Looks like she’s about ready to wack someone up side the head.

"What? Are you pii bah? You talkin dollars or kip"

Dec 18, 2006

Link to Jo's trip to an Akha Village

A very interesting trip to an Akha village outside of Muang Sing by Jo an occupational therapist living and working in Laos.Jo'sblog

Dec 17, 2006

Milk Fruit (Mac Nam Num)

Mac Nam Num
I guess the name fits. When cut open it immediately pours out a milky looking liquid. Hard to describe the taste except to say it’s wet sweet and juicy. Trickiest part is getting them down from the tree without dropping. Never have seen these for sale at the market. Am told there are other varieties.

Link to eco tour story in NYT

"met residents, participated in a traditional dance, hiked through the rain forests and explored the nearby coral reefs on scuba-diving expeditions. "

link to NYT granola cruncher eco tour story

Still very cynical of anything labelled eco-tourism or sustainable travel.

Dec 16, 2006

Muang Sing and Muang Long

Road to the New Market in Muang Sing
Muang Sing was a bit of a let down as it had seemed busier last time through. Partly this might have been simply a reflection of the closed airport in Luang Namtha but I blame it on moving the market and bus station.
All the guidebooks say “in it’s time the largest opium market, blah, blah, blah”. That was a long time before anyone I know ever saw it. Say in the late 1960s. I do know it was a nice old market and right on the main street. Bus station is a relative term, place for sawngthaews to park is more like it. Anyway I guess the congestion from the people going to the market and sawngthaews pulling in and waiting slowed the local officials from going to and fro. Congestion is also relative, I mean we are talking Muang Sing, say 10 or twenty vehicles in the same section of street and twenty or thirty pedestrians.

This is the new Market Muang Sing
The new market does have concrete floor so the water off everything doesn’t fall onto the dirt cum mud. Still taking a 50 year old market in a nice old historic town and moving it to a big open field doesn’t seem like such a great idea to me. Takes a 15 minute walk on a dusty gravel road each way just to buy something.
I stayed in the same guest house as I had before, the aptly named Muang Sing Guest House. The owners a nice elderly couple also run the Thai Lu café on the opposite sides of the street. The restaurant has the largest dining room in town, seats twenty!, and it draws the largest number of tourists. I’m not a huge fan of the food but I patronise the place to give them the business and because for tourists, that means me, it’s the place to be.

The balcony above the Thai Lu Restaurant
I call the owners Lung and Pa, uncle and auntie. Lung has a many year battle raging with the bracelet ladies. The bracelet ladies are the Akha and Thai Dam hill tribe women that constantly hassle people to buy cheap homemade bracelets and drugs. They are harmless unless someone shows a scintilla of interest, in which case you are surrounded by them each hoping to be the one with whom you choose to spend a couple dollars on a bauble. The unwritten rules are that they stay off the patio and definitely out of the restaurant. Problems arise when Lung goes to the market or up the street to see a buddy, the bracelet ladies venture ever further into forbidden territory and caught up in a potential selling frenzy forget to keep watch for the return of Lung. Even when he has been spotted and most of the women scurry away like so many chickens from under the wheels of a tuk tuk, someone is bound to be caught up in the excitement of showing someone a bracelet and miss making the getaway. Lung grabs a beer mug of hot tea water and threatens to soak the bracelet lady with lots of Thai Lu curses being returned for their counterparts in Akha, Thai Dam, Lahu or whatever language the women curse in. Bear in mind this has been going on daily for years and is the major form of entertainment for all concerned, bracelet ladies, Lung, and horrified tourists. Not much to do in Muang Sing.

Entry to Muang Sing Guest House
I also stopped by the office of the government tourism authority where they guide treks. Business seemed busy with six to eight trekkers per day. I think the figure I was quoted was 150 trekker days in the month of November. Unfortunately for me all this experience meant that the guides had figured out a successful formula of a small hike, village stay for photos, and home again home again jiggety jog. I had come with more ambitious plans to go for a long hike. I knew without asking that there was zero chance of getting someone to give up their time tested and lucrative formula to go for a long strenuous walk. After a while I also began to understand that there were few places to stay. Most of the hill tribes up on the ridgelines where I wanted to go have been relocated to the Muang Sing Valley as part of the coordinated Lao American crop substitution opium eradication effort.
An interesting tidbit to come out of talks with an independent guide was (and remember this is all idle gossip slander insinuation and innuendo that made it’s way across a café table in imperfect English and even worse Lao so take it for what it’s worth which is about as much as the old 5o kip notes) that four foreigners had died of drugs in Muang Sing, two of whom were buried in back of the hospital, and the other two were somehow kept on ice for removal. Now it gets weird. The reasons the foreigners over dosed was they either counted how much of the drug they were taking or they drank lime juice at the same time. The lime might have some relation to science but the counting seems a little far fetched to me. Or maybe I was just misunderstanding. Mostly I was just interested in hearing from the guide that he had no idea how to get from the high point of the road to Luang Namtha down the ridge 60 or 80 km to Viengphuka and knew of no one else who did.

Muang Long and the Nam Ma
From Muang Sing I headed down to Muang Long which is part way to Xiangkok. Both towns are on the road to the Mekong albeit a very small often dirt road. Xiangkok has the distinction of being the last town in Laos along the Mekong that has a road to it.
I immediately liked Muang Long. As far as I could tell there were two English speakers in the town. One worked for Contra la Faime and the other was the local English teacher. Both worked for the tourism authority also. Of the guest houses and restaurants my Lao was by far better than their English, and that aint sayin much.

Maen Kii Kwai with green onions, garlic, and hot peppers.
On my first full day in town I stopped by the local tourism office where Sak the local Lao official for Contra la Faime was eating Maen kii kwai and Tome Makune for breakfast. At his invitiation I dug into the beetles and they were delicious. The first bug I’ve really taken a liking to. Meaty but not gamey. I’d hate to say what their name means, suffice it to say the last word is buffalo, the dish has another name in Vientiane that I don’t remember. The Tome Mac Kune had enough kapi to sink a ship, I passed on that.
I then went for a walk, first down to the bottom of town, then up the valley, it was a Sunday. I walked for a while with three young guys headed out fishing complete with homemade crossbow spear guns and face masks to see underwater. I crossed a long foot suspension bridge over the Nam Ma, then back across on a steel girder bridge wide enough for a vehicle and rated to 19 tons. When I got back I went to talk to the guys at the tourism office again to firm up plans.

Some kind of pagoda with patchwork from slash and burn in the background.

Dec 13, 2006

Further North

Junction with road to Boten and China

By the time I waited for the bank to open and again went out to the Northern Bus Station I’d missed the early bus to Oudomxai, and therefore the connection to Luang Namtha. Oh well one mustn’t be in a hurry when traveling in Laos must one?
I now realize why Pak Mong is an important junction, it connects with the road headed over to Muang Ngoi and also a small but close crossing point into Vietnam open only to locals. Of course we got a flat an hour out of Oudomxai. And of course the spare couldn’t be removed without a hacksaw, which we didn’t have. We got into Oudomxai well after dark. Oudomxai is another town that I should look around a little more. There are now a couple of guesthouses catering to foreigners that aren’t Chinese.
Luckily there were still restaurants open at the bus station. Of course the choices are limited, barbequed meat or noodle soup. I went for the meat option with sticky rice. Couldn’t see too well in the dark. I took a pass on the squirrel but ended up with pig liver anyway.
Luang Namtha was my first opportunity for a real break. A friend I made from the last time in Laos has just opened up a new guest house that had very large and clean rooms. Luang Namtha itself seems to be experiencing more economic growth that is sure to turn to a mini boomlet once the airport is reopened and the new all weather highway connecting Chang Rai Thailand with Jihong China is completed.
For now there was a lot of business with NGOers and trekkers. Green Discovery has an office as does Action Contra La Faim. .

Public wash basin and towel at Lao Restaurant

Much of Laos remains Lao even in the face of tourism. In the midst of the centre of the tourist street in Luang Namtha I was happy to see the same han ahan I had last time. Serving up a pho with a heavenly broth, lots of greens and of course the local specialty kow soi. It’s very popular with the folks at the provincial building across the street and sees no need for an English menu, fried rice or any other of the usual dumbing down of Lao food.

Yawt Wai

I also took time to go look at the market, I’d never stayed a full day in Namtha before. I found the market to be great entertainment and well stocked, even with the high priced fruits from China. I loved the tiny mandarin oranges for ninety cents a kilo. I also found a new food to eat called naw "Yaw Wai". It’s the inside rattan, that stuff all the furniture is made of. The inside is white and starchy and wet and pretty tasty when mixed with a very few not strong ingredients. The taste is mild and so the spices seemed to also be mild so as not to overcome the subtle flavour.

There is a similar stick called naw nyea which doesn’t have the points on the stick and is bitter tasting that I have yet to try.

Jeao Yawt Wai... Sun Saap!

Dec 12, 2006

First Trip North

Another Abandoned Village

I’ve been gone for a couple weeks taking a brief meander through the northwest where Laos bumps up against China, Burma, and Thailand.

I kind of got off to a slow start. When I went to register for a hotel my first night in Vang Vien I realized I’d taken my wife’s passport instead of my own. Back to Vientiane I went, and then back up to Vang Vien for a second night.

Both nights I took the very first room I looked at, a pattern that was to repeat itself throughout my trip. At Luang Namtha and also Luang Prabang I paid five dollars. All the rest of the rooms were cheaper. All with private bath, many with hot water.

Old Airstrip out by the highway Vang Vien

Vang Vien has changed quite a bit since I first went with my wife and her mom to hide out for a while in 1996 and not all of the changes for the better, but most of them I believe are. The centre of town seems unrecognizable but in general the whole surrounding area is much more prosperous. For once there are choices besides becoming a subsistence farmer or immigrating to the city.

I have yet to figure out just what the heck sustainable tourism is supposed to mean. Of course tourism is sustainable, just look at Koh Samui. Eco-tourism? Tourism with vegetarian menus at the English speaking cafes?


It was with just that sort of sour attitude that I headed for Luang Prabang, a hotbed of trendy South East Asian tourism. Already “done” Angkor Wat? Then you simply must see the monks on their morning alms rounds in LPB. Make way backpackers, Conde Nast is coming through.
I’ve been to Luang Prabang twice before, once while my wife and I were on our way to China in 01 when we stayed a couple of days looking at the wats and again in 03 when I stayed long enough to sleep and grab the bus in the morning. Even in 01 the centre of Luang Prabang was primarily a tourist town.

My preconceived expectations seemed to be fulfilling themselves the next morning when I left my guest house at about 6:30, no sooner had I passed the front gate than I was approached by a hawker selling bits of food for me to give to the monks. “Buy food, give monk” Wrapped up in banana leaves who knows what it was.

I usually get up early and go for a walk around a little after six. Lao towns are cool in temperature then and it’s a nice time for walking. The streets aren’t busy and the markets seem to reach a peak at around six thirty or a quarter to seven. In general people are quiet at this time of day, still sleepy and most of them headed to the market for that days supply of food. On this day I was headed for the northern bus station.

Luang Prabang Early Morning

Every day in every town middle aged women wait at the edge of the road to give food and even money to the monks. I don’t know much about the whole thing not being a Buddhist but I do know that it provides some kind of a connection between the general population and the monks. Buddhism survives and even thrives with the support of the whole society. I have no idea why it seems to be mostly middle aged and older women who give the food.

Foisted upon this ageless procession is modern twenty first century tourism complete with high tech digital cameras, and the competitive one upsmanship that seems to permeate our society even in observing what is for us a foreign religion.

With relief I crossed the main street with all of it’s tour groups complete with guide to shepard them to the right spot to get the obligatory saffron robed monk photo. Four blocks away I stopped at a restaurant, the same kind you see everywhere up and down the Mekong Valley. Kow piak and anything else made with hot water. Cofee two of them, and yes I’ll have some of the Kow piak. I heard her talking to her friend, “so does he want rice or noodles?”, “noodles” I answered. Smiles all around, “chicken or pork” she asks. While in the back cooking she asks me with her back turned, “so you have a Lao wife don’t you” Middle aged women, they don’t miss much.

Two Tats and a Wat

Luckily as I walked a few more blocks I noticed I only had ten dollars in Lao Kip on me, wanting to have plenty of small money on me for a long series of bus and sawngthaew rides I headed back to find a money change booth. I took a secondary road along the Khan River.

As I walked along I noticed that many of the houses were actually fairly old and well preserved. Once you look past the plate glass windows of the trendy cafes and look beyond the herbal massage signs there is still an old Mekong River town. I resolved then and there to give Luang Prabang a second look, and I’m glad I did. More on Luang Prabang on the way back.