Jan 27, 2011

Lost in Laos (and first white guy)

We had lost the trail a long time ago and I for one had no idea where we were going and neither did my guide. If the local guide had a clue he wasn’t sharing, so that’s two out of three at least.

We weren’t lost lost, none of us had lost our sense of direction or anything. The road from Thailand was still over there, the Mekong somewhere in front and China way in back. I’ve been getting lost since I was eight or nine in woods not so different than these. Things have been worse in this life, at least we were standing on solid ground, it was warm enough, we had water.
Crossing the Nam Fa

It was certainly no where near as bad as I’d had it a couple years before not thirty kilometers from where we now wandered. At that time we’d ended up just heading in the direction of a road. This time we were a lot further from a road, but we were not too far from the village we’d slept in.

My guide Tui who is actually the director of Tourism in the prefecture wasn’t too pleased. He figured I’d be perturbed. I wasn’t, other than the inconvenience I was ok. Long walks into untraveled areas with inexperienced guides often end up with some wrong turns along the way. Maybe I should start at the beginning.

For anyone wishing to read about the walks leading up to this day, below are links to what are the preceding stories about this walk.
Long Time Traveler Muang Long
One Day Trecks In The Vacinity of Muang Long
Lahu Night Out
The Trail To Nambo
Hmong House
Further Into The Forest
Ban Nam Hee

We’d gotten a slow start leaving Ban Nam Hee. Tui went and adjusted the antenna for the kids watching TV, no one in the village knew how to adjust the satellite TV. The school master awoke blinking in the sunlight, last night’s drinking session had taken it’s toll. I guess the teacher was a little out of control, they needed a new one. School is kind of important to a village with 100% illiteracy. Not one single person could read or write other than the schoolmaster the government had sent.

By the time we moseyed down and crossed the river it was mid day. The river was the Nam Fa, we crossed it just below the junction of the Nam Hee. There was a raft on the other side. Our local guide shed his clothes, swam over, and poled across to get us. We didn’t even take our shoes off so to save time. Photo above

Once across the river we followed the main trail for only a short way before diverging on a less traveled path. The fainter trail headed steeply uphill until we left the immediate river valley. As it gained elevation the trail became more difficult to see.

Sometimes trails get grown over due to a lack of use. That wasn’t the case here, this trail was progressively more faint. Tui remarked how when locals walk off trail in the woods they often break small seedlings pointing the broken top in the direction of travel. Then he did just that, and so did I feeling slightly silly. Eventually we were just walking in the woods. Once in a while Tui or the local guide would hack at a creeper with their long knives.

When the understory became thicker and the hill steeper slowing us down to a very slow pace, I asked Tui if we just maybe ought to call it a day. Go back to the village we knew and start anew the next day. Neither the local guide nor Tui wanted anything to do with that, big loss of face on returning to the village.

I don’t know how we ended up taking the route we had, I’d been more or less passively tagging along, I guess it was as much my fault as anyone else. I was the oldest, and though these were the woods and hills of our local guide I should have quizzed him more about where we were headed before starting out. To tell the truth I didn’t have three words in common with the young fellow. Tui was communicating using Lu I assumed, but I think our local guide’s command of the Lu language was extremely limited. The chance of him speaking any Lao or even being able to use the words in common between Lu and Lao was about zero. Heck even young American guys his age usually speak using grunts and snorts.

After discussion our local guide changed direction almost 180 degrees. Instead of heading straight back the way we’d come he was cutting sidehill towards the east.

We slid  down a hill too steep for the soil to cling, into a creek bottom, and began following that back towards the river. Large trees that had fallen formed natural bridges back and forth across the creek. Sometimes we were under them, sometimes over, and sometimes walking along the tops of the logs, it was off of one of them that I fell for the first time.

It was a slick log that had lost it’s bark, slippery from all the moisture of the stream bed, and slimy with rot.  Easy enough if one is careful to balance and not trust to the friction of your soles. The distance was very short, maybe three or at most four feet. I landed flat footed if straight legged on a rock. One second I’m on the log the next second I’m standing on a rock.

Ten minutes later I tripped on a vine and sprawled downhill face first into the rocky stream bed, again unhurt.

I decided to take a break and slow down. Getting lost is ok, getting hurt isn’t.

We continued to splash down the stream bed for a while before cutting uphill on the opposite side. Tui didn’t enjoy walking in wet tennis shoes. My boots worked pretty much the same wet or dry, and the guide had a pair of little rubber shoes. I’d also been having problems with a blister on my left foot but it seemed to stop hurting after a couple hours walking.

When we came to the worn trail again our pace picked up considerably. To this day I’ve no idea why we didn’t take it in the first place. Maybe there were fields we weren't supposed to see.
Sorry about the lack of photos on this day, I was mostly trying to keep up.
The trail cut up the same hill we’d been headed up before only at a more moderate incline. I was able to push myself as fast as possible without worry of tripping up. The afternoon was waning. As we worked our way around the south side of what must have been a large flat mountain and descended down that side Tui started a conversation first with the local guide then with me.

First he confirmed with me that I thought Ban Jakune was on the other side of the Nam Fa. (Jakune town on other side of Fa River) I thought it strange to state the obvious. Without even conscious thought there was a little map in my head as there must have been in Tui’s. We’d already crossed over the Nam Fa above where it curved to the south and up ahead somewhere we’d have to recross and climb the long hill to Jakune. I’d been to Jakune twice and Tui had been there probably three or four times. We were both in a part of the countryside we’d never been in before but we both knew the general lay of the land.

What was perplexing to Tui was that according to our local guide we’d be soon starting up another hill and towards the top of that would be Jakune, without re crossing the Nam Fa. Myself I had no problem with this seeming bit of illogic. No matter to me if Jakune had been moved lock stock and barrel miles over the river and plonked down on the wrong side, if they had a place for me to sleep I was fine. Tui continued to push and prod at the idea like a sore tooth that he just couldn’t leave alone. He knew something wasn’t right but for the moment we were just walking along a trail in the forest, and the only thing to do is keep walking.

Triple canopy forest is always half in twilight, to take a photo I’m always having to slow the shutter way down or bump up the ASA on my small sensor camera. When evening comes it comes quickly and it comes completely. Full night is darker than the inside of a cow’s belly, not even the tiniest bit of starlight can enter. Thankfully as dark began to come on in earnest we entered the outskirts of the village. With the vague outlines of houses visible our local guide made a beeline to the house of the headman. Tui whispered one more time, “this isn’t Jakune”.

After the how dee doos we were invited to stay the night. Setting his pack inside Tui and the local guide took off to try to buy a chicken or other food and I sat inside with the headman and some other old fellows. To break the silence I volunteered that we’d come from Ban Nam Hee that morning. Someone asked how many hours the walk had taken us, probably wondering why we were arriving so late from a half day’s walk. At least a couple of these guys could speak Lao.

I asked if this was Jakune, and they said yes. I’d been absolutely clear and asked about Jakune Mai or “New Jakune” as I know Jakune old town had been abandoned. So I told them I’d come to their town two years ago, to which the headman responded that that would have been impossible, my current visit was the first time a “falang” had ever come to their village. Falang means Caucasian.

I was both very amused and confused at the same time. Confused because the town is named Jakune yet it’s not Jakune of the world I inhabit. Amused because of “the first white guy” thing.

Amongst tourists looking to leave the beaten path, going where no other traveler has gone is the holly grail. In the larger scheme of things it’s unimportant whether some other foreigner has been to a village or not. One is as able to immerse oneself in the rhythms and flavor of local culture in a soi off Sukumvit in Bangkok just as well. The experience has more to do with the tourist than the setting. It’s all too common that an expat living in a country for years never learns to eat the food or speak the language.

When Tui returned with the local guide it was also with a request to pay off the local guide. The young guy was interested in sharing a chicken and some white liquor with new found friends in the village.

I told Tui, “they say this is Jakune but it’s not”. Tui reminded me that he had been saying the same for half the day. Over dinner and talking we pieced together the puzzle.

For unknown reasons Jakune Gao (old Jakune) which is now an abandoned village halfway down the side of Phou Mon Lem had split in two. Most of the families had established the Jakune Mai (new Jakune) we knew of, which was still a long day’s walk away. A large number of families had moved to the village we were now at. People call it new Jakune as it is inhabited by people from old Jakune but more correctly it is known as Ban Huay Poong in Lu language. I think huay means creek or stream or something. Someone is bound to read this and correct me.

Another day passed, somewhere in the watershed of the Nam Fa.
Breakfast with Naiban Ban Huay Poong, local guide on right, note the traditional jackets worn by the local guide (embroidery on sleeve) and the Naiban.

Jan 23, 2011

Martin Stuart Fox on Recent Politics in Laos

I was pretty surprised to see anything written about the recent sudden change of prime ministers in Laos. Usually discussions of politics is limited to pre Lan Xan kingdoms for fear of controversy.

Here's the link with a hat tip to Lao FAB

Family Problems

Former PM Bouasone Bouphavanh

I couldn't always keep all the names straight when trying to make heads or tales of the article. Eventually I began to understand the whole dustup is likely between competing corrupt factions fighting over who is going to make off with the spoils.

One part that had me thinking was the reference to pressure on the Lao Army to stop cutting and selling forests. Another interesting part was that most of the players are "southerners". When I hear the Lao Army and logging spoken in the same paragraph I think General Cheng, who must be somewhere in his 70s by now if not older.

Must be quite the scramble to see who can sell Laos to the Chinese the quickest. You can only sell a country once, and once it's sold there will be no more to resell.

Jan 8, 2011

General Vang Pao passes

Not much to say, I hadn't heard until this morning.

General Vang Pao one of the major players in the Indochina warn in Laos passed away due to heart failure a couple of days ago.

A national hero to the Hmong diaspora and a friend to America, his adopted country, not so well liked by his old adversaries. I hope he is resting peacefully tonight.