Published: June 25th 2012May 1st 2012
Somewhere over the Mekong
Is Huay Xai, Laos, our first stop.
Of all the countries we planned to visit, Laos was the most enigmatic. We cannot recall a single item of news or feature about Laos. Myanmar was mysterious, but no stranger to followers of UK news. Tonga is the Secret South, but they play rugby at the world cup, and Captain James Cook went there. All we knew about Laos is that it had been one of the world’s poorest countries. Even its two decade long conflict is known as the ‘Secret War’.
Northern Laos feels remote, rural and relatively undiscovered. We entered the country at the small town of Huay Xai, on the eastern bank of the Mekong River, which flows by languorously in the parched days of April. Unless you want to backtrack into Thailand, there’s no place bigger within than a two-day boat ride.
As we struggled to come to terms with another new language, we learned that some of the people we met didn’t speak it anyway. Laos, particularly the north, is awash with minority ethnic groups. Some groups are so small that they may only constitute a few villages, but they nevertheless retain their own language and customs.
One custom that permeates the
country is drinking, especially the ubiquitous Beer Lao, and the more traditional tipple, fortified rice wine, known as Lao-Lao. What the names lack in originality, the drinks make up for in potency, and perhaps more surprisingly, drinkability.
At one village where we stayed, a group of inebriated wedding guests stopped by. They engaged us in drinking beer (with ice – sacrilege!) from a communal glass, exchanged a few slurred pleasantries and stumbled back onto their sorngtau (converted van with seats at the back). Goodness knows who was driving.
Driving in Northern Laos largely involves negotiating winding and pot-holed mountainside roads. Over-taking is usually done on blind bends; the motto presumably is something along the lines of ‘why look, when you can hope’.
Minor quibbles aside, there’s no doubting the beauty of the scenery. In Lam Nam Tha, we trekked through pristine primary forest (where we saw a massive dark snake slithering away through the undergrowth. It was so big that the guide and his trainee were scared.) The layers of canopy were so dense that it was difficult to see much else. We heard birdsong though, presumably as unchanged as their forest habit for thousands of years.
Visiting the hideout caves is significantly easier nowadays
The staircase partially obscures the foreboding skull-like formation though.
Further east, we visited the villages of Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoi, where a wide river cuts through the limestone landscape, its waters leaving steep-sided cave-riddled peaks in their wake.
Some of these caves were used as dimly-lit hideouts, meeting rooms, munitions stores and even hospitals, by the anti-colonialist communist Pathet Lao guerrillas, during the ‘Secret War’ against the USA. We’ll write more on the legacy of that on a later blog.
The people in Laos have a well-deserved reputation for being relaxed and friendly, if not perhaps as helpfully entrepreneurial as their Thai cousins. The pace of life slows as one crosses the Mekong from Thailand. Laos is a country of roughly the same size as the UK, with one tenth of the population. There is space to live, breathe and farm, with little interference from other people, let alone city-dwellers.
It’s only now, with the development of roads and distribution of electricity, that many northern Laotians can see beyond the closest village. In the same village graced by the drunken wedding guests, we watched incomprehensible Thai television with a large family for whom electricity was still a novelty. They had moved their bamboo home
across a river, closer to the three-month-old road, to facilitate their connection to Thai pop videos and soap operas. Presumably they may invest in a fridge and so on too, but the TV had taken priority.
All this talk of drinking, relaxation and TV watching undoubtedly does the Laotians a disservice. As in rural Myanmar, life is tough for the many involved in subsistence farming. The days begin early and chiefly involve manual labour. Education costs money, either directly or indirectly, and many do not make it to high school and beyond.
The prevalence of subsistence farming means that the country relies upon foreign aid to help to build, maintain and staff schools. In an isolated village an hour’s boat ride north of Muang Ngoi, we saw that the school was little more than a scruffy, dusty room, standing unloved where the homes gave way to fields. It was hard to tell when a lesson had last been taught there.
Despite the problems associated with a small isolated population, rural toil and access to education, almost twenty villages from the Ou river assemble large teams of young men for the annual long-boat racing at Nong Khiaw, where
we happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The boats race each other down river in a long series of head-to-heads, paddles moving in unison, accompanied by rhythmic shouts of exertion that filled the valley. The best view was of the start, from high up on the only bridge for miles. But the finish line was around a bend in the river, leaving bridge spectators ignorant as to the winner – there are no big screens here. Later, we ventured on foot to the rowdy finish line, only to realise that even if we knew who won the race, we were still in the dark as to the bigger picture. (It transpired, after a whole day of racing, that last year’s winners triumphed again, with the local teams finishing respectably in mid-table.)
The day of boat racing heralded the start of the celebrations for Laos’ new year – ‘Pee Mai’. We had a wet taste of what was to come, with kids and teenagers throwing and spraying water and flour at each other and anyone who happened to cross their paths. As we ventured south, we began to realise that our days would
only be getting wetter.
NB: Ben guest stars with about half the photography in this blog - can you guess which ones?
There are more photos below