Trip Start Feb 08, 2010
7Trip End Aug 12, 2010
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(This was the second most charming thing about the town, however, the first being the local tourist police who, after I had left my knock-off Ray-Bans on a bus which quickly sped away, went to great effort to locate them and only asked in return that I recount their heroism in a guestbook and pose with them in a celebratory photograph.)
Taking the night train up to Chiang Mai, we spent several hours looking for bikes that had working brakes, and afterward spent several more pleasant hours riding around, taking in the beauty of the town. Chiang Mai is touristy but laid back enough so it doesn't feel like everyone and his grandma is trying to jump right into your wallet. Hearing that students at the School for the Blind were studying massage, we went there to sample a sight-free rubdown. I personally went in with a head full of blind master mythos, expecting an otherworldly experience from some Tommyesque zen guru and ended up getting a mediocre and supremely awkward massage from a nineteen year old girl who didn't beat me nearly hard enough and could, it turns out, see a little bit.
In Chiang Rai, we discovered that it's slash-and-burn season in Northern Thailand and Laos, meaning that the air was thick with the smoke of precious (and protected) jungle being
deforested by the hill tribes to make way for rice fields. It's a complicated situation. On the one hand, you've got impoverished farmers practicing their traditional way of life. On the other, you've got national parks being torched. But ethno-eco-political concerns aside, it does cover the landscape in a mysterious haze that looks cool when you're there but doesn't photograph so well. It was especially spooky when we visited the "White Temple," far and away the most
surreal Buddhist temple I've ever seen. As you can see in the pictures, the architecture is pretty intensely metal. What I wish I could show you, but was not allowed to photograph, was the mural on the interior wall. As though painted by a 12 year old on peyote, the whole interior
of the temple was covered in a nightmarish hellscape featuring (and I'm not kidding) Spiderman, Neo, gasoline spewing out of cackling skulls, Optimus Prime, The Silver Surfer, the world being nuked, various demons, TIE fighters, zombies, and planes flying into the Twin Towers. This was
as close as I've ever come to finding religion.
Then we said goodbye to Thailand and the twenty or so dachshunds who lived at our
guesthouse and made our way into Laos. Laos, a "People's Democratic Republic" (a one-party dictatorship, of course), is a stunningly beautiful but pretty destitute country. The vast majority of the population are live in villages, dusty collections of small bamboo houses on stilts, with every barnyward animal in the colouring book (except horses) wandering around haphazardly. Mornings are noisy--you wake up to pig belches, dog howls, goat bleats, water buffalo shuffles,
and above all, the godawful screech of that devilbird the rooster. The impossibility of sleeping in, the midnight curfew and the illegality of dancing, along with the fact that you can get a huge bottle of deliciousBeerlao for a buck and a litre of burning hooch for seventy-five cents
make Laos a terrible place to party but an excellent place to get drunk. To say that people here are laid back is an understatement. Nothing ever leaves on time--one bus, scheduled to depart at 1:00, took off at 2:45, and nobody seemed concerned in the slightest. Merchants regularily sleep on their wares. It's a different way of life.
We crossed the Mekong to Huy Xai, a border town somewhat lacking in
personality but making up for it in the friendliness of its monastery, whose head monk, after not-so-subtley asking for a small donation, gave Gwen and me string bracelets to ward off evil spirits and allowed us to sit in on their meditation.
But soon we were in the tiny town of Vieng Phoukha to make arrangements for a three-day jungle trek. Our guides were Sikham and Sipham, two Kmhu men entrusted to take use safely
across the UXO-dotted landscape. Sikham was the lead guide, a good-natured guy, surprisingly adept at making jokes with his limited English. The whole trip he was mauve-clad, and his fingers were tipped with long, fearsome nails whose clawlike appearance gave me the willies, until the third day when I was stung by a wasp and, struggling with my stubby fingers to remove the stinger, Sikham swept in and deftly plucked the venomous barb from my skin, imposing upon me the utility of his talons. The other guide, Sipham, spoke no English, but with Gwen translating from Lao he told us a lot about the forest (what plants were tasty, what plants weren't tasty, what plants would kill you, etc). He wore a Canadian Tuxedo, so I trusted him instinctively. Sikham made him do most of the manual labour and made him the butt of most of his jokes. Along with our guides a French couple named Bea and Richard traveled with us, rounding out our party to six.
The first day we hiked for several hours through rice fields then some fairly thick jungle. We stopped for lunch at a small farm on a fire-cleared hillside. The place was owned by Hmong but kept up by a shy Lahu girl--the first of many locals I frightened with my appearance. After wetting our appetites with some opium poppy that Sipham found (too delicious to waste on mere heroin, in my opinion), we sat down to a delicious lunch of chicken and plants our guides gathered in the forest. After lunch we found that the Lahu girl had pressganged four Hmong boys into helping her pound rice, so I figured I'd lend a hand. Turns our pounding rice is hard work
After hiking a few more hours we arrived at the place we were to spend the night, a Lahu village separated by a ravine from a larger Hmong village, together forming a bustling hilltop metropolis of some seventy families. Shortly after getting settled in the Lahu headman's house, Sipham asked us if we wanted to see something with spirits in the Hmong village. Never being one to turn down supernatural opportunities, we were invited into a large house to discover a small, wizened man dancing blindfolded on a table, shaking a rattle and chanting. The was the village shaman (Maw Phii, or "Ghost Doctor," in Lao). Apparently somebody was sick in the house, so he had been called in to drive away the malevolent spirits. We watched him for the better part of a hour, learning that he was in a deep trance, not speaking Lao but rather a mysterious language of the ghosts, and when he woke up he wouldn't remember his journey into the spirit world. I was struck by how casually the family was acting given the exorcism being performed in their house. They went about their day, chatting, napping and cooking, really only paying attention to the Ghost Doctor when they had to strike a gong or hold him so he didn't fall off the table. It was as though they'd called over a plumber rather than a sorcerer. When the Ghost Doctor did come to he looked pretty worn out--turns our he had been dancing for three solid hours.
An awkward moment ensued. Should we thank him? Leave? What was the protocol here? Remembering that I had brought a bottle of Lao Lao, rice moonshine that tastes like sake's abusive uncle, for just such an occasion, I offered the Ghost Doctor a post-transcendental tipple. He accepted. Just as I was about to pour him a glass, I realized I had no idea how much the Hmong customarily drank. Thinking it was better to be seen as foolish than stingy, I filled the cup to the brim. The Ghost Doctor informed me that as the guest I was to drink first. Now believing that we were to share, I toke a drink and handed him the cup, but he told me to finish it. I pounded the whole whole damn glass of fiery booze in one ferocious gulp, only to see with watering eyes the Ghost Doctor having a good chuckle at my expense. Apparently, Hmong never drink that much. So I sort of got punked by a shaman, but it was all in good fun. The family even invited us to dinner--well, then men's dinner, as women (foreign women excepted) and children eat second, getting whatever the men leave them.
Breakfasting the next morning on what I thought was pork but turned out to be some really tasty squirrel ("You, Canadian squirrel!" said Sikham, motioning to my beard), we took in a musical performance on a wacky Hmong woodwind and set off on our hike. First we skirted the mountain ridge, then pounded our way up forever on a small overgrown trail. The Muzer village we arrived at was the most remote we would visit, five hours walk from the nearest road. Taking refuge from the sun in a small bamboo house, a young boy peered through the slats and, wide-eyed, ran off screaming "FARANG! FARANG! FARANG!". When we stepped out of the house we found the whole village there, staring at us. It was obvious that they were very poor--a number of the children were malnourished. Stupidly, we had brought school supplies as gifts, but these kids didn't go to school. I left feeling sort of useless, but at least they were paid to house us for a few hours. And Sipham bought a rooster from them! We were supposed to eat it, but on the way to the next village we came across three Lahu ladies carrying another rooster, and because he had either grown attached to the first rooster or decided it possessed some virtues of roosterdom over the second rooster, Sipham elected to buy this rooster as well, decreeing that this new rooster would be our meal while the original rooster would be bred. So Rooster the First got lucky, while I was glad to see Rooster the Second being eviscerated the next morning, as it had screeched and squawked and kept us up all night.
We slept in a Lahu village a few hours away. Before bed, Gwen, Bea, Richard and I played a game of Hearts. Again the whole village gathered around, watching each hand as though it were the final putt of the PGA Championship. Playing in French, surrounded by hill tribespeople and having the occasional chicken knock over our makeshift bamboo-basket table, this was by far the weirdest card game of my life. Bea won, incidentally.
Hiking all day through the beautiful national park, we returned to Vieng Phoukha. After three days in the bush it seemed like New York. Thrilled with our trek but pretty exhausted we took the bus to the beautiful mountain valley towns of Nong Khiew and Muang Khua to cool our heels for a few days. Lazing by the river, checking out caves, indulging in herbal saunas and throwing impromptu pizza parties recharged our batteries most agreeably.