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Camping by the Nam Kong river

LAOS | Sunday, 26 April 2009 | Views [2811]

A tuk tuk brought us up the bank of the Nam Kong river in the morning and we walked across a fabulously rickety bamboo bridge to a Hmong village, beginning our trek. It was blisteringly hot and Tan, our guide kept the pace mercifully slow. We had also changed locations do do the easier trek given Claire's hand and my stomach. We made a large loop around the village taking in the now familiar swidden agriculture terrain with lunch and nap break in a village which had only recently been abandoned.

There wasn't much “guiding” from Tan – we had to ask questions and prompt him to tell us stuff about our surroundings or his culture (he was Hmong). At one point he asked if we'd had snake soup. I'm afraid not I said, but that bee larvae soup was very tasty. “I liiike snake soup” was his response. At one point I walked ahead and heard a rustle in the bushes to my left. I stopped and saw a black snake, fatter than my arm, slither away through the undergrowth. It was about 2m long. Tan looked terrified when I told him about it.

I asked about the political situation – did the recent influx of cheap Chinese aerials and TVs and Thai broadcasting make people wish more for democracy. “But we have democracy”, he answered in a matter-of-fact way. “People can vote for their communist party candidate.” I left it at that.

Once back at the village we took a dip in the languid river and were much to our (and Tan's) surprise, joined by practically all the children in the village. They were great fun – jumping off the bridge, having stand-up-on-shoulder fights, playing in inner tubes, fishing and generally cooling off. They all seemed to know their place too – only the older ones jumped off the bridge or played in the deeper parts of the river, the younger ones all stuck to their depth. There must have been a hundred children most of them naked and all fascinated by the beardy / blondy-brunnete super-white people who had joined them for the afternoon.

We ate dinner in one of the houses, a slightly awkward affair in which their was no attempt at communication or interpretation. This was why we wanted to camp! So with dinner out of the way we pitched our tent on the stony river bank. This completely enthralled the kids who were out hunting cicadas by torchlight. (Deep fried they make a good protein snack once you remove the legs and wings). Tan lit a campfire and the kids sat around it chatting as we played chess.

We awoke to three kids staring through the tent mesh at us, more further back. Having people camp by the river must have been an unusual newsworthy event. More arrived soon afterwards so feeling a bit like goldfish we left for breakfast back in the house. The trek this day was another easy one, heat the bigger challenge over distance or terrain. We had lunch at another village, this one larger than before but containing the same style of house – bamboo struts and roofs, pigs and chickens running about. If we had decided to do a homestay we would have stayed here. Tan told us that during the high season up to 20 foreigners would stay here. I could visualise them, buying beers and diet cokes, ignoring the locals stares, too deep in their own worlds to see where they actually are. Maybe not all of them, but I was glad we were camping.

We carried on and eventually returned to the river. A boat took us across and we had time for another swim – not so pleasant this time as the water was a bit slimy. Tan left us to it as he had to go to the market to pick up supplies. When he came back he was joined by a friend and as he introduced him, nonchalantly said he was a bit drunk – they'd been had some beer and whiskey. Good for them! I hoped he wasn't too drunk to cook.

Up the bank of the river was a “restaurant” which blared Thai music out to the river below. That was our base for the evening so once we had pitched our tents in the riverside gravel we followed the tunes up and sat down for a beer. Well we tried to – a group of cackling locals, including Tan's friend beckoned for us to join them which we did. A glass of beer was poured for me – I wanted a big bottle not just a little glass but Claire thankfully reminded me that I should really accept. The glass got refilled and passed around. This was followed by shots of potent local rice whiskey or lao-lao. I then returned the favour by buying a beer and sharing it out in this way, all the while signs, gestures and pidgin school English helped us communicate. The fact that the guys had such a head start on us – rolling-around-drunk – probably didn't help relationship development but they were very friendly and it was great fun trying to see what they were on about. Even if it was gibberish most of the time.

Tan had cooked up a fish soup for us. It was tasty but hard work with the bones. Now that he had let his guard down a bit by getting a little tipsy we were able to have a more interesting conversation – about animism.

I asked what he thought about it – he said he didn't want to believe in it but had to. When he was in his early twenties he had a terrible problem with his back. Western doctors and medicine treated it but his condition deteriorated so much that he could barely walk. As a last resort his father and brothers carried him to the village shaman. A ceremony was performed, something (not sure what) was removed from his back and Tan walked back to his house unaided afterwards. My rational mind thinks it could be psychosomosis but who knows really. It worked for Tan and that's all that matters.

We would swap trekking for kayaking on the final day. The put-in was right by where our tents had been pitched. It was approaching the end of the dry season so we weren't expecting any fast flowing water - we didn't get any. Maybe three grade zero rapids in the morning. We got stuck on rocks a few times. It was a very pleasant journey though, passing picture perfect landscapes and villages for which the river seems to be the lifeline. Everyone is there, men fishing, kids playing, women washing clothes, everyone smiling and laughing. I think development breeds depression sometimes – these people seemed to enjoy life.

It was seriously hot though – the sun beat down and burnt our knees and made us drink water like it was going out of fashion. We hauled in the kayaks for a noodle soup lunch in a village. When we returned to them we discovered that someone had stolen all our water for the afternoon leg of the trip. Pretty nasty to steal anyone's water on such a hot day, especially when you're doing something active like kayaking. In the poorest country we had visited it seems as though many of the people see tourists as opportunities to steal or make a quick buck. I hope they learn that we can contribute much more. I accept though that many tourists deserve little more. Would I recommend anyone to go on this trip? No ... it was ok, but only ok. We did manage to get a new mode of transport back from the river to the town centre. I would have said it was a tuk tuk but Tan told us that it was a jumbo – a cross between a tuk tuk and a sawngthauw – benches on each side so it can hold a good few people but powered by the front half of a motorbike. MOT 36 in the bag.

The priority when we got back to Louang Phabang was the passports. Would we get them back, would they have the right visa? Mr Noy did have them and although we have no way to verify the visas, they look official enough. We got another room at the Sok dee guesthouse Mr Noy gave us a “special price” of 80k – what we had originally been promised, this time no TV and a dodgy fan. We had been planning 2 things since we left for the trek: a curry and a massage. Nazim restaurant do great indian style curries so we gorged ourselves there (there is a novelty about having an actual choice in what you eat after a trek sometimes).

For the massage we went for a 2 hour traditional Lao massage in a place called Lotus. It was nice enough but a hell of a lot rougher than a Thai massage. At one point my masseur was walking up and down my back and jumping up and down. It was a bit like paying a stranger to beat you up. Claire had an impressive collection of bruises afterwards. Tired, satiated and battered in a traditional Lao style we called it a night.

Phu Si hill, topped with a golden Buddhist stupa dominates the historic centre on the peninsula of Louang Phabang by the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Kong rivers. It's a steep walk up but if a breeze clears the near permanent haze you will be rewarded with fabulous views over the river, the city and the surroundings. On our last morning we made a point of visiting it and spent an hour or 2 admiring the views. It was also good to climb some stairs to clear the stiffness that had been left after being beaten up Lao style the night before.

We tried to visit the Lao National Musuem but it was closed for lunch so we headed over to Wat Xiang Thong, built in the 16th century. It was a hive of activity compared to most Wats we had visited – Songkran still seemed to be in full swing. There was a marquee with an ornate buddha image on display with a large wooden driptray-like wooden structure around it. People poured in their bottles of Saffron water and the water eventually made it way down to cleanse the image. In another marquee where hundreds of sun loungers, each filled to the brim with practical items such as rice, a steamer, a brush, robes and sandals, each loungeer we assume for a new novice joining the monastery. The Wat itself was beautifully decorated but not over-restored as so many of the temples in Thailand. You could tell it was 400 years old by looking at the paintwork.

After another unsuccessful attempt to visit the musuem we called it quits on a day of culture and went for pizza. I had had my eye on a beautiful chess set since the day we arrived when I saw it in a bar so despite so recently having sent home quite large boxes, managed to buy another impractical heavy thing to carry around with me. It is lovely though and we have been playing a lot of chess on the little plastic one acquired for $2 in Greymouth, NZ. It'll have to be a very big coffee table to fit all the stuff we're karting back!

Tags: animism, chess, kayak, mot, river, trekking, visa


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