April 27, 2012
We have completed our first week in the country of Laos. We are spending more time in this country than any other during our five weeks in Southeast Asia. This is a remote area and by taking it slow we are hoping for “off the beaten path” cultural experiences. Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia and getting around is not easy. Until the 1990s there were very few roads and thus rivers were the only way for moving about. So it was no surprise that we entered the northern portion of Laos from Thailand by actually crossing the Mekong River in a boat.
The terrain of Northern Laos is a series of rolling hills and mountain ranges. The roads here are very basic. It is said that an average driving speed of 20 miles an hour is a good pace. We traveled about 300 miles in three days from the Thai border to the remote northern city of Phongsali (population 6,000 elevation 4,600 feet / 1,400 meters) and it was indeed slow going. The last day alone we spent about 65 miles (100 kilometers) traveling ever so gradually on rocky dirt roads. Couple the slow speeds with the heat, humidity and the “natural” air conditioning that the vehicles have and you will appreciate that traveling even just 300 miles in three days was tiring.
Phongsali is indeed a remote place, being only about 50 miles from both the Chinese and Vietnamese borders. The limited infrastructure made getting food a challenge. There were virtually no restaurants, and although we kept a supply of snacks close at hand, the variety diminished as we moved further north.
This area was the site of our first Asian trek. Our plan was to learn more about the ethnic people by trekking from village to village and participating in home stays. After we finally arrived in Phongsali, we met with our local guide, named Sang, to discuss logistics for the next day. He was concerned about the weather for the first day of our trek. The dry season here extends until the end of May, but the conditions looked threatening. During the wet season in Northern Laos transportation grinds to a halt, due to the condition of the roads, and trekking trails can be impassible.
In the middle of that night we woke to the sound of heavy rain. It went on for about 15 minutes and then stopped. When Sang arrived at 8:30 am to begin our trek he expressed some concern about the rainfall but felt that we could continue our hike as planned. We spent the first hour trekking on a wide dirt road to a small village. Unfortunately, almost everyone was already in the fields so it was deserted.
We then turned on a very steep track leading down the hillside. Leaves and mud covered the path and made it very slick. After slipping a couple of times we got a feel for the terrain and made some progress down. It was very hot and humid. After another hour we took a short break to eat and then ended up on a ridge about halfway down the hillside. It was then that we could hear the sound of ominous thunder. We quickened our pace but it was clear that we couldn’t outrun the storm. When it came it poured. We had rain jackets and our packs were lined with plastic but we were still soaked from head to toe.
After the rain passed 20 minutes later, the trail became even more treacherous and hundreds of leeches appeared. Both of these things made our progress excruciatingly slow. We continued to slide and fall and were continually picking leeches off our boots. We made it to the halfway point of the hike, at the Nam Long River, and took a break to eat some food and ensure that the last of the leeches were gone. Final score: leeches 3 for Darren and 1 for Sandy.
It was mid-afternoon now and we had to climb hundreds of feet up a steep hill on the other side to get to the village where we were scheduled to spend the night. We started up but again made little progress due to the nature of the trail. At least the leeches had abated. After about 30 minutes we stopped to discuss our situation with Sang. At this rate we would not reach the village before dark. The next day’s hike was supposed to be even longer and steeper than this one. It was then that we decided to look for an alternative village location for that night.
Sang suggested an ethnic Phunoi village called Ban Khounnounlaoung that was still a climb but on a less steep trail. This group of people emigrated long ago from Burma to Laos. Choosing this alternative would mean that we could not keep to our trekking plan, as there would be no way to include the other planned villages on the schedule. We felt that it was best to not continue with the original plan, as the trail was not conducive to multi-day hiking. Since we had both already fallen several times we did not want to get hurt and perhaps jeopardize our future planned treks.
So we reversed course and within three hours were walking on the outskirts of the Phunoi village. It was quite large, with 39 families and 178 inhabitants. As we approached the village we saw beautiful tea bushes growing on the hill. Off to the side of the trail the village shaman was cooking up a brew with native ingredients to cure an ailing person. Several excited boys ran up to us and we tried an interesting piece of fruit, called a rambutan, right from the tree. It was a nice welcome after our 10 mile (16 kilometer) hike.
Trekkers are always welcome in the chief’s home and we made our way there. The houses are thatched bamboo on stilts with a ladder up to the main living area. This consists of three rooms: the kitchen, powered by an indoor wood burning fire, a living room and a bedroom. There is electricity but no indoor plumbing. Underneath the stilts is used for storage and the chief kept two horses and chickens there. As we relaxed with some harvested hot tea, we had a perfect view of the entire main street of the village. We watched the man across the road hacking the inside of a banana tree as food for his pigs. We saw a little girl dart in and out of her front door, shy about seeing us. Boys went running up and down the street pushing a tire with a stick. Dogs, pigs, ducks and chickens wandered up and down the village path.
As people saw us some came to visit. Sandy showed them pictures of our family and used our pictorial translation card to communicate. The chief and Sandy taught each other the numbers from 1 to 10 in English and Lao. Soon it was time for dinner and we enjoyed a nice meal of fish, fowl, sticky rice, scrambled eggs and more fresh hot tea. After dark, mattresses and blankets were set up on the floor of the living room and we slept well after such a long day.
As soon as it was light the next morning at about 5am, the village came to life. Looking out of the chief’s house, we could see clouds covering the valley below. It was a peaceful scene. After breakfast we bid the chief and his wife farewell. We had received permission to speak about our journey at the village school. It was a basic building open on the sides with a dirt floor. Inside were a few tables and a chalkboard.
Sandy spoke, using our inflatable globe, while Sang translated. The kids and the teacher seemed fascinated by our talk and Sang was clearly excited. When he suggested that we could spend the day visiting other schools in the area, we immediately agreed. Sang arranged motorbikes to transport us to several other villages. All the teachers and students enjoyed hearing about our journey and learning a little more about geography. We also learned how the students loved art and played basketball and volleyball. One small school told us that they wished that they could teach English but didn’t have an English teacher.
In the afternoon we visited a private school and even got into the act with helping with their gardening activities. The next day we also spoke in the English class of the secondary school back in Phongsali and explored the town. This also gave us some time to nurse some bruises and slight injuries from the trek.
So even though we did not experience Lao culture by trekking from village to village, as we had initially planned, we learned so much more by being able to not only spend the night in the Phunoi village but meet with children and teachers from six schools to share our enthusiasm for geography and the world.
Next we are moving south on a three-day river longboat that will take us about 200 miles down the Nam Ou and Mekong Rivers to Luang Prabang. While we are on the river we hope to observe more local culture along these traditional transportation byways of the country, as we continue searching for life, Lao style.