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Meditations around the world My 8-month Trip to Southeast Asia.

Feb 5: On Safe Sex and Village Life

LAOS | Monday, 5 February 2007 | Views [4800] | Comments [1]

February 5-17, 2007

On Safe Sex and Village Life

Having had enough of urban living we took a bus north and east to the small village of Nong Kiaw. The most impressive aspect of this little village was the enormous concrete bridge that spans the Nam Ou River, rising hundreds of feet above the water during the current dry season. We enjoyed an evening beer standing on this quarter-kilometer long bridge and took pictures of the sunset. Or at least what little we could see of it through the constant ambient smoke from the slash and burn culture for which Laos is known. We also watched a very mangy and timid dog eat a pile of vomited rice from the road. It seemed a bit surreal to be there.

Two stories emerge when I think of our one night in Nong Kiaw. The night's accommodations and our visit to the caves. I'll start with the night.

We had settled for the first accommodation we saw. We were not picky as it was only for one night, had its own bathroom (nothing near as nice as what you are picturing -whatever that may be) and it was only $3 a night. Our hostess was a nice chubby old lady and we just couldn't say no. We later wished we had. The rooms were all lined in a row and the top of the connecting walls were open for ventilation. The walls were terribly thin and the open tops made all talking necessitate a whisper. Or so it would for a decent person. The room next door, late in the evening as we were settling down for a quiet night's read, became occupied by two Laotian men. They were loud and boisterous and soon we found out why. They had hired a prostitute for the night to share between them. The laughing and all the other noises that eventually came unmuffled into our room was what you would imagine. We finally fell asleep (simply because THEY finally fell asleep) and were again awaken to the mountain chill of the pre-dawn hours by happy singing and sounds of spanking and laughter and unnecessary banter. A yell in no amiable terms to the point of please be quiet escaped my grouchy morning mouth. Surprisingly they did quiet down a bit. We were glad to know that they practised safe sex but extremely unhappy to find this out by discovering later that they had tossed their used condom through the partition and sloppily onto our floor.

Story number two. Before taking off the next day for a boat ride to a village north of Nong Kiaw, we made a 45 minute walk to a series of caves that sounded interesting. For a dollar between the two of us we hired a guide of 15 years to show us the caves. He spoke little to no English but this, with a little help from the guidebook, is basically what we came to understand.

Between the years of 1964 and 1973, the USA's CIA turned the country of Laos into an undesignated battlefield, against the stipulation of the Geneva Accord of '62 which recognized the neutrality of Laos and forbade our military presence. North Vietnam did the same. The war in Laos was completely secret and there was not even a name for the operations and was referred to as the 'other theater' and air force and CIA agents were turned civilian to pretend to be legally present. The US had trained the Hmong villagers to fight the communist influence and the North Vietnamese were determined to destroy their centers of power. There were no rules of engagement as were found in Vietnam, so we could indeed bomb indiscriminately. In the nine years we were carrying on this secret war, we flew over half a million sorties, one and a half times the number in Vietnam. We dropped an average of one plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years at the cost to the US taxpayers of $2 million a day! By the end of the war, for every inhabitant in Laos we had dropped over a half-ton of ordinance . This does not even include all the herbicides and Agent Orange dumped on the country. Given all this information, Laotians remain the most relaxed, friendly and smiling people in all of Southeast Asia.

Heading to the caves we crossed a rickety bamboo footbridge and a few dry rice paddies. The first thing our guide pointed out was the craters left over from the bombing raids thirty years ago. We climbed up a long flight of wooden stairs and entered the mouth of the cave. This cave had been a safehouse for the Vietnamese during the war and it had areas labelled hospital and radio room. We were shocked to find out that at its peak this small cave housed 7,500 Vietnamese.

After walking and climbing through this cave, our guide took us on a seven or eight minute walk to another cave and we almost laughed when we saw the sign for the Luang Probang Bank. During the war the bank had moved its operations to this cave of deep and narrow passages, and going through it we tried to picture the working day of the bankers as we squeezed through the tight passes to rooms with signs denoting 'accountants office' and 'loan officer'. Imagine coming to a dirty bat-filled cave to make you daily deposit! (of course, there probably would not have been any bats at the time as the Laotians seem to have a large appetite for eating them!)

On the walk back we encountered several dozen school children laughing and talking as they walked down the road on some sort of unchapparoned field trip. What struck us as a little disconcerting was that every one of the children was wielding a long handled, long bladed knife -what passes for the local machete. I laughed as I thought how these boys probably got in trouble if they DIDN'T bring their knives to school. A big difference from our public schooling! A few of the boys stopped to ask for pens which we unfortunately could not produce. The boys skipped away and I was tempted to yell after them not to run with those knives.

A few hours later we and our bags were boarding a narrow longtail boat and heading up the river towards the unmotorized village of Mueng Noi Nua.

The river opened up to the most gorgeous scenery with hazy mountains surrounding the river and empty sand beaches lining the shore. Every now and then we would pass herds of grazing water buffalo that seemed indifferent to our presence. We passed several small thatched-roof villages and laughed while small naked children jumped from rocks into the river. At one point the river became swift with rapids and the boat pulled onto a beach. We walked up the shore a kilometer so that the unladen boat would not scrape the shallow rocks.

Mueng Noi itself was over a high bank up from the river ascending a very long flight of cement stairs. I found out later that in the rainy season the river is so high that the stars are completely covered. The village consists of one dirt street, a dozen or so guest houses, vendor stands, a few quiet restaurants and plenty of ducks and chickens. At one end of the village was a unobtrusively placed monastery, near the other end was a large football field. We saw a sign immediately at the top of the steps for a bungalow with use of hot water. Knowing this a rare commodity, we checked it out. The water was solar heated, best used in late afternoon and there were three simple bungalows and a restaurant with a large balconied patio on the bank looking down over the river. They had electricity but only between six and ten at night. We settled in for $2 a night and took a walk around the town.

For a few days we stayed quiet, reading books and enjoying the view from the restaurant. We had left our passports in Luang Probang to get an extension on our visas so Leslie, needing to take care of some business over the internet, took an overnight trip to the city while I continued practicing the recline position.

As soon as Leslie's boat got around the bend in the river, she reports that it started taking on water and sinking. They pulled to the shore and bailed the water out, but mutiny arose and the passengers refused to get back on the boat and demanded another. The driver refused and told them if they didn't want to go, they could walk back and pay again for the next day's ride. This was obviously not an option as there was no path through the dense jungle and the swim back across would be long and with swift current. Also, given Leslie's uncomfortability with water, it looked like getting back on the boat was the only option. It is a 45 minute journey down river back to Nong Kiaw. It took them more than five hours. They missed the connecting shuttle bus to Luang Probang. They all refused the seven hour boat trip continuing down to the city, so they piled into the back of an 8-person tuk tuk and, along with luggage and a floor full of rice sacks, they took off for the 4 hour journey back to the city. I think she said there were 19 people total in that tuk tuk. I was so thankful that I had not gone!

Tags: adventures, caves, laos, longtail boat, luang probang, mueng noi, nam ou, nong kiaw




good input. i'm planning to visit the area around Nong Kiaw for a few days over Spring Festival this year ('o8), always good to here a descriptive first hand account.

  casey rich Jan 15, 2008 6:29 PM

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