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Irene's Adventures

Laos

LAOS | Monday, 28 December 2009 | Views [524]

Laos

We began our journey into Laos on 20 Dec.   It was kind of like crossing from Alberta to Saskatchewan; you KNOW you crossed the border without ever seeing a road sign.  The poor roads suddenly became worse, the rubbish in the streets more prevalent, and the buildings more shabby.  We were told there was a 9 am, 11 am and 1 pm bus to Luang Nam Tha; but were cautioned not to take the 9 am bus, as it was the bus that people took to go to the market – with their chickens, pigs, and other commodities.  By the time we got our exit stamps from Thailand, got our entry visas for Laos and paid the fees, we resigned ourselves to catching the 1 pm bus.  We got to the bus station at noon and there were people already sitting in the crowded mini bus in the sweltering heat – weird.  We bought our tickets, went to the toilet (it was a 5 hour bus ride), then finally clued in to why people were on the bus – to get a seat!  They managed to squash 27 people into the 20 passenger bus, not a problem, let`s just add some wicker stools for people to sit on, along with the near bursting plastic-mess sacks that several women had.  It appeared as though these sacks served as suitcases, and since the durable suitcases, rucksacks, and stove were already strapped to the roof, these flimsy ones remained inside.  Then the musical chairs began.  For some unknown reason the bus driver decided he did not like how we were all “seated”.  He pointed at Irene, then pointed to another seat.  Before she could maneuver, he pointed to another fellow to move, then to Ed, then to the old lady with the toddler, and so on and so on.  We still aren’t sure what that was all about but it certainly made for an interesting time of crawling over and around people and sacks.  Irene ended up sitting with a young Dutch lawyer and had quite a good conversation thereby shortening the journey.  The bus was certainly full, so it left at 12:20pm.

About 3 hours into the journey the bus suddenly stopped on the road, everyone piled out and found an appropriate bush.  This seems to be the usual bathroom spot on the road as there was a regular path leading into the underbrush, with mini paths leading off from the main.  The smell definitely confirmed this idea.  A few miles later, the toddler spoken of previously started to throw up.  The lady had a plastic bag and managed to capture most of it, but not without setting off a chain reaction of people hanging their heads out the windows and following suit.  Thankfully, the window where Irene sat was broken and would not open so the spray from Ed`s seatmate stayed on the outside. 

At last we arrived at Luang Nam Tha.  A group of fellow backpackers shared a tuktuk into town, as the bus stop is 10 km out.  All but one couple managed to get a room at Zuela Guest House.  That very evening we went down to Green Discovery to book a trekking expedition.  We had hoped for a 3 day trek, but the earliest 3 day was on Wednesday, and this was only Sunday.  There was a 2 day trek leaving on the Tuesday, however, so we booked that one.

The next day it was raining – lots.  We decided it might be a good idea to find a couple of rain jackets that we saw the locals wearing, plastic, down past the knees and hooded. So off we went to the local market, in the rain.  There has never been a sorrier sight than of Ed standing in the street, with his wet scarf plastered on his head, soaked to the skin in the pouring rain.  Alas, it was not captured with the camera, only Irene’s memory – but it still causes a grin.... 

The sight may not have caused such giddiness in Irene had she known the outcome.  That afternoon Ed developed a fever and a bit of a dodgy stomach.  We weren’t sure if it was the rain and wet or the lunch.  We went to bed early in hopes of a good sleep curing the ailment.  However, the dampness of the day crept into the bedding and we could never seem to be completely warm or dry.  Realize, dear reader, that these guest houses (all buildings, in fact) do not have double pane glass, insulation, or even caulking around the windows.  We often jested that mosquitoes did not even have to break flight to enter from around the windows; certainly, they did not have to bend their knees.

The next morning Ed was not better; in fact, he seemed worse.  He told Irene to go ahead with the trek by herself.  He felt he could rest more peacefully if he were alone.  Irene left him with a good supply of water, Advil and grapefruit seed extract (excellent for stomach ailments) and even informed the innkeeper to keep an eye on him.  Off she went, feeling  somewhat guilty; but not enough to keep her from trekking J

There were 7 of us on the trek plus 2 guides.  We each carried our own small rucksacks with change of clothes, sandals for bathing in the river, towel, 3 litres of water and, in Irene’s case, the rain jacket (which never got used) and a small bag of toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and balloons for the children of the hosting village.  We took on two Sherpa-type women at the onset, who carried our first day’s lunch in large woven baskets on their backs.  They returned to the village after we ate and the baskets emptied.  However, this was about 2-3 hours into one of the most brutal trekking trails I had ever been on.  Remember it had rained all of the previous day.  The trail was mostly mud.  The incline was similar to that of a step ladder.  Thankfully, there were plenty of roots and a few rocks to secure footing.  Although our rucksacks were small and not all that heavy, they threw our balance off while maneuvering the hills.  In the end, nearly everyone slipped and fell at some point. After lunch the trail began to descend, with the same severity.  Although it was not raining that day and it was overcast and by no means hot, it was very humid and we were all sweating profusely.  By the time we got to our hosting village, we were all exhausted and soaking wet.  The guides seemed fine. While we were struggling up and down that mountain in our professional hiking boots, they seemed to skip merrily along in flip flops.  They said that the locals can run these trails.  ``We are Jungle Men``.

We all changed into dry clothes and hung our wet shirts and socks on the bamboo clothes line.  A couple of us bathed in the river, which was very clean, clear and cold.  As the sun was setting, we realized that the clothing had barely dried from the high humidity in the air.

The village has 5 huts.  They built a 6th for the tourist guests.  This particular trekking company gives 25% of the trek fees back to the village.  They are very grateful for this, for in order for them to sell what little surplus they may grow in the village they would have to pack it out on the same 6 hour trek we had just arrived on.  The first thing one notices in the village is how primitive they are.  The huts are bamboo walls with a rattan roof.  They are built on stilts and have bamboo pens beneath them for housing chickens and pigs; as well as to keep the animals (lots of dogs) away from supplies stored there.  The huts are airy and breezy, as can be attested after having slept in one.  Thoughts of the big bad wolf huffing and puffing made one feel like the little pig with the house of sticks.   But in this case it would have been a tiger.... the guides told us the next day that village has had a few tiger attacks on their cows in recent months.

 

The villagers were pounding rice in a huge mortar and pestle, to knock the husks off.  The mortar was about 60 cm high with about a 20 cm opening.  The pestle was a 1.5 metre log with a narrow part about half way, to make raising and smashing it down into the mortar of rice easier.  Irene had a go at it.  It took about 30 minutes to roughly pound the mortar.  While she did this, the young girl who just finished a mortar full, had her rice on a large woven platter and was flipping it up and over (like one does to evenly distribute butter on the popcorn) to have the breeze catch the chaff and blow it into another woven platter.  The chickens and pigs were having a feast with whatever fell to the ground. It certainly makes one appreciate why it is almost considered a sin to not eat all your rice.  It was hard work and the back, arms, shoulders and even legs felt it for a few days.  Village life is not for wusses.

One old fellow was sharpening his machete on a rock, then proceeded to cut strips of bamboo for a fire.  That machete looked as though it was 100 years old.  It had knicks and dents in it and the handle looked like it was about to be replaced yet again.  Another old fellow was slicing some sort of plant, which turned out to be home grown tobacco.  He was more than happy to show us how he rolled it in dried banana leaf and had a good smoke.  An old lady simply put the tobacco in her pipe.  The children were somewhat shy at first, but absolutely squealed with glee over the balloons.  The adults were happy for the dental items but were perplexed over bar soap.   A demonstration of washing clothes seemed to help a bit, but it is doubtful they use soap for bathing themselves.

Supper was similar to lunch, sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf, some fried vegetables, and some type of curried meat (chicken, it`s ALWAYS chicken, even if it doesn`t resemble chicken at all – which is why we are sticking to our vegetarianism lately) all served on banana leaves.  Clean up is easy, even the plates are biodegradable.  The village headman came around to offer us LaoLao, a nasty rice wine which is really moonshine.  The taste is really similar to a brandy, but apparently it has one hell of a kick and the hangover is murder.   We all tried a bit, some of the guys had a few more.  The one guide had the non-drinkers shares.  We sat around a struggling camp fire, for lack of dry wood, for a while;  then about 8pm we all laughed at ourselves for being tired enough to turn in.

The breezy, airy hut was supplied with thin mats, lots of blankets and mosquito net.  As our clothing barely dried due to the humidity, the bedding was equally damp.  Ahh, there is nothing like sleeping in damp bedding in the open air to refresh oneself.  Needless to say, we all slept fully clothed – jackets, socks and all.....  During the night we all thought it had started to rain, as we could hear dripping water from our rattan roof.  A few of us had to go to the toilet in the night and realized it was not raining at all.  It was merely the humidity again.  The trees and roof were dripping wet, which seemed like rain.

It could have been the exhaustion or possibly the fresh air, but the next morning we were all quite surprised at how well we slept.  We had a nice breakfast of scrambled eggs with 2 sows that came looking for scraps (yes, real pigs) next to the campfire.  Then we were given our boiled water for the return trek.  When we saw the water we were shocked.  We were told to hang on to our empty water bottled as they would be refilled with boiled water.  This water was absolutely brown!  The guide assured us the water was indeed boiled the night before, but they added a herb to it that is good for stomach upsets and diarrhea.  Apparently, they found this to be a good preventative for trekkers as they discovered that trekkers with belly aches and shits is not fun for them either.  We all said we would finish our previous day`s water in hopes of not needing this awful looking stuff.  However, this day being not much easier than the previous, we all had to drink it eventually.  Amazingly, it was quite good.  It was basically tea and had a bit of a camphor taste, but actually refreshing.  Go Figure!!  The Jungle Boys knew what they were doing!!

On this second day they showed us and had us sample tree bark that is also good for belly aches.  They also pointed out other plants that are used for various medicinal purposes.  We trekked along the river for quite a way and about every few minutes had to stop for a leach check.  The little buggers stand straight up and latch onto your boot, then inch their way up until they find skin.  The guide got a couple and one other fellow got one as well.  The rest of us were unscathed, but not without finding loads on our boots.

The trek back took us through 2 other villages, both having a school.  They go to school from 8:30 – 11:30 each day.  Kids will walk from neighbouring villages for about a half hour to attend school.  Therefore, these schools are positioned in villages that are more central in proportion to other villages.  They only study the basic 3 R`s and not mucked up with things like social studies and science.  Social studies is a matter of working together as a community for the common good and science is knowing which plant is good for which ailment.  There were about 15 kids at one school and about 10 at the other.  The teacher had a black board and some books.  The kids had no books, pencils or even slate boards.  The teacher wrote the lessons on the blackboard and the children recited them.  No problems seem to arise due to cell phones, i-pods or chewing gum in class.  After school they walk their ­­­half hour home and work to provide the night meal. 

At the end of our trek we had to cross a river to catch a truck ride back to Luang Nam Tha.  We got to the river and expected young men to man the almost canoe looking boats across the swift running river.  There was the river, there were the boats, but where were the guys to take us across.  There were just some young boys, around 8 years old.  These young fellows manned those boats like expert boatmen.  They got us across by standing at the bow and maneuvering the boat with long poles.  Then when we got close to the opposite shore, they jumped out of the boat into chest deep water and pushed the boat close enough for us to step onto the sand.

 

Upon the return to town Irene found Ed better, but by no means well.  We decided to leave for Nong Khiaw the next day, in hopes of drier weather, or at least a bit warmer.  A Begium family that was on the trek with Irene were also leaving the next day for the same town, so we decided to hire a private minivan rather than do the stuffed public bus again.  It amounted to about $5 more per person.  We decided to break the bank and splurge as the private van was a 4 hour ride, the public minibus a 6 hour and the bigger bus longer (not sure how long, but that was the answer).

The ride to Nong Khiaw is a story in itself.

Jansom House - Chiang Rai

Zuela Guest House - LuangNamTha

 

Love

Irene & Ed

 

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