Luang Nam Tha
Luang Nam Tha is a small town located North West of Laos near a national park. It's not a particularly pleasant town but there were two main reasons for us to come here:
1 It's a good place for hiking (plenty of hill tribe treks and nice landscapes)
2 It's very close from the border with China, our next destination
One part of our first day there consisted in trying to arrange a trek. Indeed, we had a good memory of hilltribe hiking in Myanmar, and knew we could do something similar here.
The second part of our day consisted in visiting the surroundings on a hired moped. It's always good fun to ride a moped, and it takes you to places you wouldn't and couldn't reach otherwise. Three days trek across the mountains
We finally signed in a 3 days trek with a local agency putting forward that the money paid would be responsibly spread between the tribes, guides and agency. Unfortunatly, nobody would join us to share the costs, but we went anyway.
Well, it was a good decision as this has been the best time we had in Laos! Our guide was very nice and could speak good English, allowing for discussions and explanations about anything we saw.
For instance, we came across two guys pulling a young cow whose eyes had been blind folded, our guide explained to us that the cow had been bought from another village and that they covered her eyes so she couldn't escape and find her way back home.
He told us as well about the young rubber tree plantations one can see everywhere on the slopes along the road. Apparently, one family planted 500 rubber trees more than ten years ago, and started to get insanely rich for the Lao standard (1000 USD in a good month) after the trees were old enough to collect the sap. The news went round pretty fast, and everybody started to plant rubber trees at the same time (cutting and burning massive areas of forest by the way)...
Let's hope for them rubber will remain expensive in 10 years time... Crossing hilltribe villages
Our first stop was in a Hmong village. This ethnic group traditionaly lives in the mountains so their house is simply set on the ground, unlike most of the houses in the plains which are on stilts to avoid being flooded. This small village of 20 houses or so was like an big poultry yard, with chickens, pigs, dogs and cows roaming around freely all day. We were hosted in a house specially built by the villagers to receive tourists. We stayed there, and people from the village killed a chiken and cooked it for us. It was great to be instantly accepted by them so they didn't become too suspicious and kept on living normally, letting us witness a tiny bit of their lives.
The next day we walked thru jungle and it was almost bizarre to see cardamom plants and begonias growing in the wild. We've been shown a plant called "ratan" which they eat or use to make furniture, pretty versatile huh!? On our way to our second nightstay, we went thru a Lanten village, another ethnic group still wearing their traditional indigo couloured clothes. There we've been offered sugar cane, peeled and cut with the machete, you just have to chew it to get the sweet juice and then spit the fiber out: very nice indeed! Invited to a Kmu wedding
When we reached the Khmu village (yes, another ethnic group but like many other groups they have adopted western style clothes) where we would spend our second night, we could tell straight away that it was different from the Hmong village: houses were on stilts, fences were surrounding the village and we got quickly hailed by a group of man urging us to join them for a drink (Hmong don't drink alcohol).
Khmu whisky, as they call it, is a jar containing fermented rice (or something like that). They drink it thru a very thin hose and add some sort of spirit from now and then to maintain the level in the jar. So we found ourselves among already drunk men, having Khmu wiskhy or lao-lao, a far more potent rice alcohol and the main Lao spirit, doing our best to hounour our hosts, I mean pretending it was not bad tasting...That's when we were told what was going on. It was party time! A couple was getting engaged this very night... and we got invited! In fact the whole was invited.
Saoyuth was tired and prefered to stay sleeping in the guest house, but Patrick was rather excited about the invitation and went along our guide to the party. All was happening at the bride's house. Nothing formal or grandiose. No special costumes nor priest.
Just the whole village gathering in one house, sharing a meal in rounds, first the guests (me, our guide Mouaxeng and a couple of other guys I didn't know), then the groom and the bride's familly, then some other people that probably had something in comon. Then it was alcohol again! After a few rounds, loudspeakers in front of the house transformed the dusty yard into a disco, light effect were provided by a bonfire in the middle. Girls aligned themselves in an outer circle and boys formed an inner circle facing the girls... a lot of gigling and laughters as this was obviously one of those moments where they could meet chat and flirt with each other! That will remain a great souvenir. It was so cute and "bon enfant"! Of course, it didn't get long before one of the girls came and invited me for an everlasting dance around the bonfire. She looked young (hard to judge as it was dark), but I was really baffled when she announced she was...13!! Even more surprising, according to my guide, she was almost in age to get married... Whoaaa!! After all, I suppose it was probably similar in Europe a couple of centuries ago...
I managed to shamelessly escape after many rounds and got caught by the village chief who was as drunk as it gets to share some more booze! Probably not the perfect party according to my standards (no caipirinhas...) but it was good fun, and I felt privilieged to be part of it.
Mouaxeng and I managed to find our way back to the "guesthouse" despite being quite drunk.
The next morning everybody was up and about when we woke up. Our guide had a hangover but he was proud to announce that he had picked up some Khmu language. Patrick's dance partner was there too, preparing our breakfast. By daylight she definitely didn't look like 13 but rather 16-17! Cooking with a bamboo stick instead of a pan
We finally left the village by mid morning with one of the villagers who would walk with us until lunch time. The man had taken all the ingredients to make a chicken soup... but no pan! Not a problem for a real Khmu man! He just stopped on the way and chopped two pieces from a big bamboo: one to make a (very deep) pan, the other to make a big bowl to serve the soup. How to cook something in a bamboo container you ask me??? Just put it on a fire!!! You morron!!! ;-)) As weird as it may sounds, it will burn only on the outside and its content will simmer nicely...
The soup was a success, and we enjoyed it with boiled ratan, freshly boiled bamboo shoots and sticky rice that he brought with him from the village. So we had bamboo shoots, we cooked our meal in a bamboo pan, served it in a bamboo bowl and ate it with bamboo spoons, protected from the sun by a bammboo shade... I may conclude it's a very useful plant, indeed.
The last leg of our trek took us to a small village where a van was waiting for us. On our way back to Nam Tha, on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere we found a Russian guy with a big and heavy backpack, so we gave him a lift: he had been walking for 2 days and no vehicules would head in his direction! He slept rough in the forest and.... was very happy to meet us ;-) We would meet him later in China: The world is small, or rather the backpacker route is very narrow!
Time was up for us in Laos. We caught an early bus to cross the border and go until Mengla in China, but that is another story to be continued in this blog next entry!