Published: January 31st 2010January 27th 2010
Keith and I signed up for a trial-run of a brand new trek, trek being the word used here for a long-hike through the jungle. An ‘ecolodge’ had been built in a poor, remote village in the jungle with the idea that money could be brought to this community by having tourists trek through the jungle to get to it. Tourists would pay to stay in the village, to have the villagers cook for them, as well as pay local tour guides to show them the way. We were told the trip would be two days of hiking through the jungle, with an overnight stay in a Hmong tribe village. I’d always wanted to try doing this, as there are many such treks for sale in LPB, but they usually cost $50. This one, since it was a trial, was only $9.
We met our two young Hmong guides, Wee and Frankie, in the center of Phonsavon. Wee spoke superb English and Frankie very good English. The trek began with a two hour drive down bad dirt roads, past tiny poor and dusty villages. The van dropped us off in a Hmong village with a Christian church that felt like
the end of the line and we began walking up a dirt road. Everybody in the village stopped and stared at us. The children followed us at a distance but were afraid to smile, wave or say hello. The houses were one-room, wooden with bamboo roofs. People wore modern dirty clothing. The women all wore sihns, the long, beautifully patterned and woven skirt that is traditional in Laos. All the adults were working hard and the kids were playing. The kids ran away if you came too close, so strange we looked to them.
We stopped to buy some sugar cane from women who had just cut it from the jungle. After ten minutes of walking we arrived at the center of this village and stopped to eat our sugar cane. Frankie pulled out a big knife to strip the sugar cane of its peel and handed a piece to each of us, to enjoy by gnawing the sugar-water from it. Meanwhile, Wee went to find a local man that would guide us through the forest, to our destination. He emerged five minutes later, with two local guys, who weren’t busy and were pleased to be hired to guide
For six hours we walked through the jungle, up steep mountains, and down steep mountains, upon thin, dirt jungle trails. The foliage was not dense, so we often had sweeping views of the surrounding mountains. We did not pass anymore villages as we hiked. Wee had been down this path many times, but it was Frankie‘s first time. Wee had grown up in the countryside, at a nearby village; Frankie in the city of Phonsavon. Frankie wore a blazer, a button-up, long-sleeved, collared polo shirt, suit pants and Chucks sneakers. Wee was a tad more casual in nice dark jeans, a belt and a new collared button-up, with Chucks also on his feet.
At lunch time, the guides flattened some bushes aside the trail, ripped out some banana leaves and lay them down to make a big mat. Everyone poured on to the mat what they had brought for lunch, so we could all share our food, Lao-style. We ate sticky rice, steamed bitter rat, bamboo shoot salad, beef with vegetables, century-old eggs, oranges, bananas and strawberry wafers.
One point in the walking found us on a dirt trail cut in to the side of a
mountain, the hill falling away to our right. At the edge of our local guides’ village, which amazingly stretched for hours through the jungle, before turning in to the property of the next village, where we would spend the night, the guides left us. Wee knew the rest of the way. The guides would make their way back home, hopefully before dark as it was getting late and they had no flashlights. Wee paid them 30,000 kip each for the three hours of guidance plus whatever time it took them to get back home. Although we were miles from the actual huts of their village, this jungle was considered a part of their village because they used it all, for hunting, farming, rice fields, building equipment and foraging.
Our city guides pointed out edible and non-edible fruits and vegetables, told us when to put on bug-spray because there were many leeches and showed us places where rice fields had been. Villagers must move their dry rice fields every year, a very laborious demand. We saw only one animal all day, a small red bird in a tree, so I never worried about giant tigers jumping out and biting me.
There used to be hundreds of elephants, leopards, tigers, even deer, but due to economic necessity, most of these animals have been hunted and eaten to extinction already.
Nearing the end of the day, the jungle began to look like a plain forest, not much different than the woods back home around Massachusetts. Keith also said the scenery was a bit dull and looked just like England, his birthplace. Late in the afternoon, we came upon a few separate jar sites, which was intriguing, finding them so deep in the jungle. They were one with the forest, many covered in moss or bushes or trees, in the midst of the forest and not on a cleared open plain like the other sites had been. Villagers passed us upon the trail, walking back with heavy loads of rice from their rice storage huts near their fields, the rice held in baskets upon their backs. They moved with ease and speed through the paths that we moved through slowly and laboriously.
We finally arrived in the village around 5, exhausted and hungry. We saw about 4 women, 2 men and 40 small children, the kids running around playing together but
stopping to stare at us. They had so little exposure to white people they were afraid of us, and at first wouldn’t say hello, wouldn’t wave and ran away if we got too close. The kids were playing a game where they threw one of their plastic sandals at a pile of rubber bands, trying to be the first to separate the pile. There were pigs and piglets everywhere, as well as chickens, some dogs, buffalo and a few cows. Manure covered the muddy, dirt ground. It was a picturesque scene, the thirty or so bamboo huts set amidst softly rolling hills, surrounded by tall steep mountains. The village was called Ban Phakeo.
But it was an awkward feeling, our arrival. The villagers were busy so there was no “Oh, hello” or welcome of any kind when we arrived. The locals seemed to be like, “Oh. Some weird people are here. How strange.” After thirty minutes peeking around town, and standing around, awkwardly staring at the locals, we were ushered in to the eco-lodge, as it was getting dark. The lodge was really just a basic hut-style barn, made of wood with a bamboo roof, with many open spaces
between the boards, and an open door on each end. There is no warmth in these villages.
There were no fires, no signs of relaxation in the surrounding huts. We heard continued work from the villagers, much crying of the many small kids, pigs squealing, chickens squeaking. There we sat in darkness, exhausted, hungry, thirsty and cold. Likely, experiencing the everyday life of the villagers. There was a long table in the lodge, with wooden benches, as well as a raised wide bench, which the chief came in and laid with thin mattresses, pillows and blankets from big bags at one end of the raised bench.
Wee asked what we’d like to eat for dinner and we said chicken. (Actually, I said vegetables, knowing an animal would be killed if we said meat, but everyone else said chicken.) So Wee went to buy a chicken from a family in town, for $4, and delivered it to the designated cooking women to prepare for us. These women were paid to cook a meal for us. It was then 6 PM and they had just gotten in from working in the rice fields. They were probably happy to make some
money but I’m sure they were exhausted and less than enthusiastic to work more after a long hard day in the fields.
Keith assigned Frankie to go buy a bottle of lao-lao, the locally made rice-whiskey, produced by most every family in the country. For $1.25, Frankie came back with a liter soda bottle full of the gasoline-tasting stuff. Keith made a good time. With lao-lao, everyone must drink, and out of a single small shot-glass that the host passes around. After an hour, the chief and assistant chief came in, sat and drank with us, and Wee took our questions and translated them to the chief. This was rather fascinating.
To survive, each family in this town grows rice and vegetables and raises livestock to sell and to eat. They sell vegetables when they have extra by walking a few hours to the next town, which has a market. We learned that each family must grow enough rice in the few rice growing months to last for the entire year. If a family cannot, due to weather problems or because a member of the family is sick and can’t help, the extended family will help them and
ensure they get enough rice. Families with buffalos or cows sell these animals only once or twice a year. All the villagers get together to make big decisions , deciding things as a community, like whether to move the village closer to a road, as many villages have done. (They decided not to.)
There are 176 people in the village, with an average of 7 kids per family. The older women in town, who are considered experienced, help the younger women give birth. Nobody goes all the way to the hospital. Once or twice a year, someone in the village is so ill that they must be carried hours to the next town, hammock-style, where they can get a ride to the hospital, thirty minutes away in Phonsavon. People are able to build their homes in one day by getting all the materials beforehand, maybe over a period of years, saving up for them, and then calling on all their neighbors to help out for day of building. The two elders in town are 70, which is considered quite old. The chiefs were in their fifties, and took turns being chief and assistant chief. They did not appear to
enjoy a different standard of living than the other villagers.
Aside from this interaction, we felt like odd strangers in a strange land, in our own hut, with our own bathroom, set outside in a separate outhouse. But it was a worthwhile experience to feel what village life was like. Many people like to idealize this quaint life but once one sees it firsthand, they see how damn hard it is. Sure these people might be happy, might have their simple pleasures, but undoubtedly, their lives are much harder than they need be in this modern world. But of course along with modern eases come modern problems, as people love to say.
Dinner was served around 9. A pumpkin soup, composed of water and pumpkin, chopped up boiled chicken, boiled greens and large bowls of fluffy rice to round out the meal. The flavors was shockingly simple compared to the complex spicy, sweet and sour of Lao food. But I was very hungry and satiated myself with mounds of warm, fresh rice and bits of greens and pumpkin. Curiously, our two guides raved about the pumpkin soup, saying how much they missed Hmong pumpkin soup when they were
away from their homes. I wished I had some creamy nutmeg-y pumpkin soup from home to have them try. The chiefs dined with us, enjoying the tastiest chicken morsels, the head, the clawed feet, the wings, which we happily bestowed upon them.
After an evening of talking and drinking, we all hit our communal bed around eleven, where I fell in to a deep sleep exhausted by the long hike. The other seven trekkers seemed to think it was not a particularly difficult hike, a bit embarrassing for me. So tired was I, I slept until 7:30, through hours and hours of roosters crowing, villagers washing at the nearby communal tap, and going about their morning chores. People in the village wake up around 4 or 5.
I enjoyed watching the women bathe together at the town’s one water tap, covered with their cotton sinhs, using tiny plastic packets of shampoo and soap. It was a social scene, the village meeting place, and after the bathing, it was used for the washing, and then the larger animals were led to it, to drink. It was left running all morning, although it was never really not in use, because
its supply is endless, the water piped from a nearby river. They’ve only had the tap for two years, since Engineers without Borders came from Colorado and spent ten days creating the system to bring the water in. It is winter, and the water coming out of the tap is cold, but before the tap, it was the river and so they’ve never known water any different than cold. It’s no wonder all the little kids are filthy, the probably run away when their moms try to bathe them in the cold weather, and their moms have little time to waste running after them.
That day we hiked for about eight hours, with fewer steep inclines than the previous day but still a lot of up and down. We walked by many rice fields, as well as grazing buffalo, and villagers walking by to do work in different parts of the forest. At one point we ran in to a few villagers sitting in the forest with a small pony. I wasn’t sure what they were up to, but I hadn’t seen any ponies in the village so maybe they had found him somewhere that day. He was bridled
for riding or for carrying goods. We stopped for lunch at the bottom of a beautiful hundred-foot tall waterfall. Upon banana leaves, we ate big bags of rice, pickled greens and chopped up boiled chicken, packed for us by someone in the village.
We hiked upon a fabulous path chopped in to the stones beneath the waterfall, criss-crossing the falls multiple times during our ascent. The locals had actually designed a trail that went right through the waterfall, at one point even boasting ladder-like steps that carved right up through the roots of a tree. Arriving at the top of the falls, after a steep climb of about twenty minutes, I was absolutely nackered, as the Brits like to say. Luckily, the end was near, and a short walk further found us in the rear of a truck, heading back to “town”.
The town we came upon was Wee’s town, also called Bomb Town, for the number of bombs that have been found in the area and for the number of spent bomb casings that have been used in constructing various items around town. There were multiple bomb-shell flowerbeds, bomb-shell foundations, bomb-shell fences, even bomb-shell doors. Wee also
showed us two massive bomb-craters, each about the size of a swimming pool, and not unique around town. Two years ago, Wee lost three cousins in the area to UXO. Yet incredibly, neither he, nor anyone else we met in that town harbored any resentment towards Americans. All the villagers were stoked to see us, waving, saying hello and watching us walk around town. And this town, being just off a driveable road, felt much nicer and neater, and less foreign, than the town we'd just spent the night in. Although this town, despite having electricity, does not have a single tap for water, and the villagers must walk to the nearby river each time they need it.
There are more photos below