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

Feb 11-14: House of Pain

LAOS | Wednesday, 14 February 2007 | Views [1401]

February 11-14, 2007

A House of Pain

The next day Leslie returned on the afternoon boat bearing me thoughtful Valentine's Day gifts. I sheepishly didn't even know the4 date much less remember the holiday. We decided to plan a trek to some of the villages in the area for the next few days. We had been given a hand-drawn map of the area and villages nearby and decided to hike to them and stay in their guesthouses.

The first village was only an hour away, passing some great caves we had explored a few days previous. The path wound through dry rice paddies and through herds of cattle and water buffalo munching contentedly on dry grasses. At the end of the open paddy fields we reached the first village of Ban Na. There are two guesthouses in the village of Ban Na and we chose the one on the far end as recommended by a young Laotian working at our guesthouse. The reed-walled, stilted bungalow was simply furnished with a mattress on the floor and a mosquito net. The bungalows made a loose circle around the dining area and the view of the rice fields and mountains was spectacular. There was a deep feeling of peace and tranquility underlying the scene that relaxation was felt immediately. We spent time in the hammocks soaking in the pastoral stetting.

We were soon hungry by mid afternoon and tried to order from the menu. It went something like this.

'Hi. Can we order some food?'

'Yes' responded the pleasant smile of Kat, the proprietor.

We both had decided, as usual, on the same thing. 'We'd like two orders of fried noodles with chicken, please.'

'Oh, sorry. No chicken.'

'No chicken?'

'No. No chicken. Later. Chicken still walking.' She made a walking motion with her fingers.

I wanted to ask if it was crossing a road and why, but refrained myself. We ordered the noodles, no chicken.

As the afternoon wore on we met the other visitors to the village, all French. Now it is a common known fact among backpackers that France breeds the most unfriendly of travellers. This is not to be confused with the stereotype of Israelis, winning the award for being the most arrogant and aggressively intolerant people. In fact, there are many places now that won't even allow Israelis to stay in their guesthouses because of so many bad experiences. But while I have met some Israelis that did not fit this stereotype, I have yet to meet a Frenchie from whom I did not get something of a snub. We found no exception here. We had brief conversation, but none of the warmth that we get from other travellers. As a side note, I have met one person that I thought had finally broken my experience with the French. A nice, warm friendly woman with a heavy French accent. It turns out she was from Quebec.

For dinner we had all agreed that it was time for the chicken to stop walking and I was surprised that instead of ordering from the menu, we were served dinner family style. We all sat with anticipation around one table while they brought out bowls of sticky rice, cabbage soup, and chicken that had been hacked into small bony pieces and boiled. Each couple shared a bowl of each dish. What little meat we could find amongst the splinters of bone was tough and chewy. I wondered if the chicken had finally stopped walking from old age.

There was a wonderful conversation during dinner, all in French. This was insultingly marginalizing as they all spoke fluent English. I bought a bottle of rice whiskey called lao lao and tried to open the conversation by sharing it around. It might have worked had I spoken French.

After dinner the hostess made a campfire and we all sat under the stars watching the fire while the French drank my lao lao and refused to speak English. We knew it was time for bed when I asked for a touch more of my lao lao and they lied and said it was all gone. I'm not bitter. Nope.

The next morning we packed up and thanked our hostess, Kat, for the horrible overpriced dinner but otherwise very pleasant stay, except for company of the French that is, and were on our way to the next village for lunch. Kat recommended we stay at this next village as the one further up was not as nice for accommodation.

We saw many village people on the three hour walk to the village of Hoy Sen. They laughed at our shoes as we repeatedly stopped to take them off for the dozen or so river crossing. At the village we took a long lunch and realized that villages really aren't that interesting. They consist of a bunch of poor people living in dirty shacks with dirty animals wandering about. Perhaps the culture would have been more interesting before the atrocities of the wars. In fact, we saw very few older people in Laos at all. Maybe they couldn't find the pharmacies either (see Vientiane blog), or I assume that many were killed during the bombing years. Ten percent of all Hmong tribesman and women were killed during the war, and many of the others fled to Thailand.

Though the restaurant owner hoped we would stay in his bungalows, after a long lunch we decided to make the hour and a half (so our map said) hike up to the village of Kew Khan. Our lunch host reported that the next village was up, up, up. We boldly strode forth and walked through the village, completely missing our turn for the path to Kew Khan and went, unknowingly, the complete wrong direction through fields and paddies, across streams and over hedges.

Eventually we found someone to ask if we were on the right track, because there was no 'up, up, up' going on here. The Laotian, speaking no English and not humored that we were there, pointed to our left up to the mountains. Still ignorant to our trail, we trudged that direction through heavy brush and climbed up the side of a mountain, occasionally finding a winding trail to follow. We eventually found a large path and I felt secure that we had it now. We followed this for a bit, then the path seemed to split and I chose the more scenic route, thinking that would soon reconvene with the other path. When we reached the other side of the mountain and the trail disappeared into an old, overgrown slash and burn farmland surrounding us on the entire side of the mountain, I realized I had once again taken a more adventurous route. I then decided that, instead of backtracking, we would smash our way through the brambles and ascend the next mountain, where we were sure to come across the misplaced trail.

An hour later, dirty, hot and scratched, We finally gave up. We backtracked, walked fifteen minutes up the correct trail and I realized that we were now only about 200 feet above where I had given up hope and turned around. Leslie was, as usual, a good sport about the whole thing and we laughed about it and continued up, up, up.

Our one and a half hour journey ended up taking us about four hours as we finally hobbled, exhausted and grimy, into the village of Kew Khan. The village was located at the top of one of the smaller mountains and surrounded by the other taller ones, all dense with jungle.

Our first introduction to village life was in watching two little girls of maybe seven and nine practicing Karate Kid style flying jump kicks on some of the village cattle. Little piglets ran from us as we approached the village fence. Over the fence, we looked about the village. Dirty little children were everywhere. Kittens, puppies, down fluffed yellow chicks, but no grown ups of any species to be seen. I felt like I was in a Lord of the Flies epic.

Eventually, a youth of about fifteen strode forward beneath the setting sun and asked if we would like accommodation for the night. We smiled and nodded in assent and followed him to one of the stilted houses in the middle of the village. We realized, as he invited us into a residence, that there were no guesthouses in this village and we would be having the good fortune of what is known as a 'home stay'. I looked in the home and, once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, realized I was staring at a grandmother sitting in her bra. I smiled awkwardly and the boy motioned me in.

We were soon relaxing on reed mats as night darkened around us. Leslie went off for a shower, which was a community water pump and entertained a lot of curious onlookers. She modestly kept herself covered as the village men looked on with toothless grins. She became quite popular as she dispensed shampoo to all the other women having their nightly wash. The villagers, we found out, use laundry soap to wash with because they can not afford shampoo and body soap. An evening with real shampoo was a luxury for them. I followed Leslie's return with a cold wash of my own in the last bits of twilight and then collapsed back into our host's house. I was completely exhausted. Much more than I should have been for what we had done that day.

Dinner was prepared and served for us and I struggled to stay seated upright and eat it down, being overwhelmed with fatigue. Boiled greens, fried eggs and sticky rice made up our dinner. I never did grow fond of the sticky rice. It is a special type of rice, a bit denser in grain than steamed rice, and is eaten by taking a large pinch from the basket and rolling into a ball with your palms, and dipping it into whatever juicy food you are eating. I guess part of my hesitation was that I never really felt like my hands were clean.

Half way through dinner I had to take a break and rest. I wasn't feeling well at all. Within an hour I had a full blown fever and, bed mats rolled out, went directly to bed to spend a night in the delirium of a high fever, constantly woken by barking dogs and a house of roosters directly behind us. I felt very fortunate that I was not getting sick with dysentery as the toilet was down the ladder, around the other side of the house and past a fairly ferocious dog.

We were up early in the morning (not that we had a choice with all the roosters and other noisy pre-dawn village goings-on) and decided to cut the trip short, given my ailing condition. Looking at our rudimentary map, we were an hour and a half walk from the village of Hah-sah-pey on the river, from which we could get a boat ride back to our bungalow in Hmong Noi.

We left by seven, refusing offers of breakfast. We had a few oranges left over and figured we could eat those and in a few hours, when we were back at our bungalow, we would indulge in a good breakfast.

I don't know about the plans of mice, but my plans quickly did go awry. Leslie had the forethought, against my insistence, of buying two liter-bottles of water for the trip. I thought we didn't need that much but she insisted. We were told to make sure we took the left trail when the path splits. The left one goes down, the right one goes up, we were reminded as we left. We gave the thumbs up, said our thanks, and marched our way right past the start of the trail. The boy ran after us to redirect our steps. We waved and were off again.

Twenty minutes later Leslie said, "I think this may be the left trail we should take." I did not agree. It wasn't really a fork, the right trail was going down as well, and there was a large stick across the trail usually meaning wrong way. We continued on. We found a fork, left path going down, the right going up. Through my fever I beamed with superiority and gave Leslie the 'told ya so' look. She shrugged her shoulders and as always, good naturedly walked on. And on and on.

The trail went down to a gully about an hour later, was steep and eroded, making for a very tedious and difficult descent. We crossed a stream and continued back up and around the mountain until we came to a woven reed symbol on the path with a sort of effigy burned underneath it. Think of the Blair Witch Project and you will understand what we saw. We had been warned of this sign. It means 'no trespassing' or we will boil and eat you. Or something like that. I sat down and hung my feverish head. We decided, either courageously or stupidly, to continue through anyway. We could see between the mountains to the valley where we needed to be. We continued skirting around the mountain through slash and burn farm land, all the while watching the valley far below us. Finally, hot, hungry and rationing water, we realized we couldn't get there from here. Leslie's path far back must have been the right way. She didn't gloat a bit, though she had earned the right.

We backtracked to that trail (mysteriously the dissuading stick was now gone) and eventually came to the bottom of the valley, where the trail seemed to end at a stream. I sat down to rest. Looking down the stream I noticed that a path skirted the bank a few meters and then plugged back into the stream. I got up and followed this. The trail emerged again farther up. I called to Leslie and we splashed downstream for half an hour. Leslie had a bad feeling. This didn't feel right, she said. We should have looked more carefully for the trail when we got to the river. Given my feverish condition and acquiescing to her previous navagatorial victory, I agreed to go back and look for a more seemingly appropriate path. We returned. We looked. There was no other alternative. Wading downstream was the only option. Back down we went, on and on, for hours. Now and again the trail would pick up out of the water and cross overland before plunging back it the stream. Hours later we got on land and stayed on dry trail.

We passed through an orchard and saw a man tending to the land. We made sign language to ask how far to Hah-sah-pey. Thirty minutes he told us. Great. The end is near, my pain nearly over. We finished the last of our rationed water under the hot afternoon sun. Half an hour. We trekked on. Fifteen minutes later we saw a shack near to the path. Leslie went to ask the residents if they had bottled water and how far we were from the village. No water... and thirty minutes. I hung may head and determined that Hah-sah-pey (now pronounced 'house of pain') was a geographical oddity and was half an hour from everywhere. Except Kew Khan of course. It is only an hour and a half from there.

At this point, due to fever, hunger and dehydration I lost track of time. We eventually came to the village. Our hour and half quick journey had taken us nine hours and not only had we missed breakfast, but we had missed lunch as well and it was nearing dinner time. Had we reversed our previous two day's walk it would only have taken us five hours.

We sought out a vendor and, finding one open in the busy school yard, we bought sodas and fruit drinks. They had no bottled water. Sitting on a bench in front of the vendor stand, we were surrounded by twenty or so tribal children staring at us with awe and curiosity. Leslie looked at the bottom of her pants. Having been wet from the long stream wade, they picked up a mass of dirt and debris half way up her calves. "I'm so dirty" she remarked through her exhaustion. I looked up at the children surrounding us, the filthiest little bodies I have ever seen in my life, and bust out in delirious laughter for about five minutes.

We got an hour longboat ride back down to Mueng Noi. Even through my exhaustion and illness I was impressed and amazed by the scenery of the river. The mountains with their jagged kirsks loomed over us in impenetrable might. Huge rock formations and mysterious caves remained half hidden by brush and water, tempting the daring to explore.

We passed canoes of village youth who tried unsuccessfully to keep up with our motorized longboat. A cold rain began to fall. I crouched into a ball to preserve my body heat. Eventually we were climbing the long stairs back to our bungalow and I immediately flopped onto the bed asleep.

My fever continued for the next few days as we rested and recovered. Feeling better but not in full recovery, we decided it was time to move on. We had one last place that we were excited to see before we journeyed back to Thailand.

Tags: Lost!

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