Laos Part 1

LAOS – PART 1

Touring Laos requires great fortitude; a capacity for instantaneous shifts to plan B and the ability to comprehend that life will get better. Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia. The mighty Mekong River has long been a major source of transportation and commerce. Laos is the size of Great Britain with a population of 6 million of which 70% are Laotian Buddhists.The rest are a mix of  tribal units that follow animistic beliefs.

The per capita income is $700/year but the majority of the people are subsistence farmers and rice is the principal crop. Since 1975 Laos has been independent and communist run. Often the Lao flag flies next to the hammer and sickle. This is one of the poorest countries in the world today.

Laos is hot and steamy which means temperatures of at least 95o, the humidity that exceeds 100%. The goal is to wear the minimum amount of light clothing. We arrive mid-September, at the end of rainy season and before the October tourist season begins. We have private guides and air-conditioned vans.

Our entrance to Laos is from northeast Thailand. In a motorized longboat, we make our first journey across the mighty, muddy Mekong River. There are no fancy tour groups here just young backpackers and us. All Lao tourists, regardless of nationality are known as Falang which means foreigner. Upon landing, we meet our guide Thon. He helps us complete entry papers and moves us through the communist bureaucracy. The visa cost is usually $35 U.S. but on the week-ends, each traveler pays $1 more.

We have a four hour drive ahead and Thon tells us about Laos. Marriage can occur at age 15 so child-bearing begins early. Thon had 17 siblings but three died. His father recognized that he was bright and sent him off for a good education.

We stop and walk through some friendly Hmong villages; our first introduction to Laos houses on stilts. In the countryside, babysitters seem to begin around age six where young girls carry month old babies on their backs. When a child walks, this toddler joins older children in unsupervised play that occurs between the chickens, dogs, and rivers. Although 50% of the adult population is illiterate, more primary schools seem to be starting.

The Hmong played an important role in the Vietnam War because they rebelled against the earliest communist takeover in Laos. In 1960, American forces were already in Vietnam. The U.S. thinking was, “Better Dead than Red.” Through a series of clandestine maneuvers much like the Afghanistan story in “Charlie Wilson’s War”, Hmong rebels were convinced that aiding the U.S. fight in Vietnam could lead to a non-communist Laos. In the end Laos remained communist and more than 20,000 Hmong died. Even today, the government attacks and often kills Hmong who live in the northern jungles where foreigners are forbidden to go.

Thon leaves us at the Boat Landing Eco-lodge, a remarkable place with a real ecological sensitivity that includes solar heaters and recycled plastic bottles. Food is good and dinner ran us a huge $14 U.S aka $110,000 Kip.

For vegetarian Falang, sticky rice and vegetables are common fare although rice can be replaced with noodles. In Laos rice is the dominant food item and annual per capita consumption is rumored to be 500 lbs./person.

Next morning we begin a three day jungle trek. With our English speaking-guide Pitt, we drive to a Khmu village, right off the road. Aside from the stilt houses, everyone is in western garb. The “old” people look ancient when they reach 50.

There are numerous river crossings and often I cross in (not on) the water since the so-called bridge appears unstable or non-existent. Trails can be the width of two female feet or smaller. This trek is not for the faint of heart or foot. We are the oldest people Pitt has ever guided.

Thanks to Pitt’s wilderness knowledge, the jungle becomes a  fascinating place. For all the local people, the jungle is super-market, pharmacy, and Home Depot all in one place. The bamboo and rattan serve to create houses. Rattan sprouts can be cooked as can banana flowers. The most amazing are the mushrooms which the local people can easily distinguish as edible or not. When in doubt, boil a single ‘shroom with some rice and if the water colors don’t eat the mushroom. One plant gives dyes for monk’s robes. There’s cardamom (with an enormous flower), ginger, and bananas. The butterflies are glorious and yellow moths hang out in clusters at the stream crossings. Cicadas create a symphony which sounds like bells ringing. American house plants grow to enormous proportions in their own jungle environment.

The weather is torrid and we sweat profusely while taking numerous salt pills. The first day is a 6 hour trek covering 5.5 miles. The Khmu camp is a house on stilts with one large room for sleeping and two small ones for cooking. There’s no village. We are exhausted and eat dinner before crawling under our mosquito netting. Every meal is accompanied by sticky rice which the Laos people roll into a ball and dip in chili paste. We master the technique but skip the chili paste. The food is good and the mushrooms are my favorite. Everyone sleeps together in one large room sectioned off by mosquito netting. Mark is ready to end the trip but there’s no short-cut except forward.

The next day is the longest and hardest we’ve ever done. On some back pack trips I’ve climbed 13,000 foot mountains with over forty pounds on my back ─ yet this was more difficult. The slick water buffalo trails are the worst. In Nepal, Sherpas cut steps in ice and here Pitt uses his machete to make steps in the muddy clay. We trekked 8 hours and covered 7 miles.

Exhausted, we finally reach the Akha camp which needs a good health inspection ─ cleanliness is not their strong suit. The barbequed fish is tasty but at night the roof leaks when the rain begins. The good news is that there’s a big Akha village tomorrow with a mere three hours of hiking.

As we walk along we notice all the rubber trees in the middle of the rice planting. The sap from these is sold to China for tire manufacture. The Chinese are a major trade group with Laos. China is also building its fourth casino here. The only benefit to Laos is to the government officials who took payola for the casino permits. The Lao will gain nothing from this and all profits go to China.

Just outside the Akha village is a giant swing. A large looped rope is suspended from a high, secure, triangular structure. Several young children are swinging and they laugh hysterically when Mark takes a turn.

As we enter the village, Pitt shows us the “love nests”, small one room huts decorated with vines. Here a young man and woman who are attracted to one another will spend an evening. Around the village there are also young teen-age women nursing babies.

Like so many villages, there is trash everywhere. People here always knew that they could throw food on the ground and it would biodegrade. Somehow they never understood that wrappers, foil, and plastic do not follow the same process. Even in the larger towns, garbage disposal means trash into plastic bags to be tossed away and maybe burned.

In the main house of the Akha village, no one is thinking about garbage. The party is in full-swing. We remove shoes and enter. Men in western garb are seated at round tables. The four older women in the room wear full Akha dress meaning black skirts, high socks with colorful wool trim, and elaborate headdresses. Each has a large kerchief tied around their hair and in the front a half helmet of metal from which numerous multi-colored tassels. We pay homage to the village chief with a “Namaste” style bow. We also donate to the school in a huge padlocked wooden box complete with ledger.

The food is a challenge and we ignore the pig’s blood, pork tidbits, some other unknown innards and focus on the rice, bamboo shoots and banana flowerets. Rice wine is passed around and we join in a few toasts, “Sabbato!” as tiny cups get refilled. Meanwhile little children come in and out, nursing mothers direct the fathers and finally it is time for music and dancing. Two women enter dressed in full Akha garb and proceed to pound three rocks with large staffs. Three men accompany by playing gongs. There’s a great rhythmic noise from all this and the wine and beer flow as we depart.

The Akha are an animistic people that hold with great superstition and evil omens. When twins are born, dire consequences follow and the mother is exiled from the village for a period of time to exorcise the evil spirit.

In the morning Thon appears and we begin our journey to the cultural and spiritual center of Laos, Luang Probang. This long driving day includes a stop by police officers who demand to see our drivers’ papers. The driver than asks Thon for money that the officers will pocket. The two jobs that read to Laos riches are police officer and tax collector. A toll is also collected on an incomplete road which the Chinese are supposedly planning to build – someday.

We stop at Oudomaxay, a busy commerce center for Laos and China.. We climb a hill with a large stuppa and a golden Buddha who stands 150 feet and overlooks this green valley where the rice fields meet the mountains that touch the clouds. There are seven positions of the Buddha ─ one for each day of the week. Many temples have newer stuppas and the cremation remains of wealthy individuals are placed in these structures creating a cemetery.

At breakfast we are struck by the sheer beauty of this country in a rainbow of greens. The lush rice fields are a bright lime jewel, enhanced by green shade trees and bushes. All of this is framed by the dark jade mountains that end in the clouds.

Further along we stop to see rice hooch being made. The rice is steamed and fermented for a week. The mixture goes in a large vat heated with a robust fire and distilled into 20 liter jugs. Each day 6 jugs can be produced to yield $120/day. For a country with a per capita income of $700/year, this is really the Big Bucks!

Moving ever southward…

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