Hmong Village Lao

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Asia » Laos
January 23rd 2010
Published: February 18th 2010
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We woke up at 7:00 ready to tackle the trek at 9:00, Too-soon said that we would have others join us on the trek so we would just wait for them to turn up. As we waited Poo-ma brought out his guitar and started to play. He had only been playing for two years and played quiet well. We sang along to the first and only English song he knew (Stand by me). He was reluctant to play anymore because he only knew Lao songs, we said that we would love to hear him play a Lao song and his face lit up and he played half a dozen songs for us. He liked us so much that he invited us to his brother’s wedding on the Sunday that we would be kayaking down the river. We were so excited by this opportunity and I hopped that it would all work out. The van arrived 1 ½ hours late so we were late before we even started. Four French couples hopped out of the van with an average age of 56. One of the older gentlemen was 69 and I wasn’t sure what to expect on this walk as the bike ride was not the easiest of rides and wasn’t intermediate as the brochure suggested. We all started to walk and my legs felt fine, Jacinta’s legs and knees were alright as long as she didn’t bend them too far. I was impressed by who fast the French people walked and they didn’t slow us down at all. I lead the pack the whole time and I’m not sure why but I have to be out front all the time, even after taking photos and everyone passing me I still managed to find my way back to the front again. The older gentleman was really keeping up the pace and with a quick drink break he showed me his watch that had his heart rate on it. He only spoke a little English and said that over 130 beats/min he would have to stop. I gave him words of encouragement and said that he was a very quick walker. We continued walking in the valley through rice fields terracing down the hill. I was also shocked by the massive hills around that were totally stripped off trees and every 200m or so would come across sections of freshly cut jungle and huge trees that were simply cut up for timber and the rest burnt. You could see the evidence of massive trees all around and could make out how big the jungle was at one stage, it is now just weeds and scrubby bushes.
We walked in and out of creeks the whole time and every time we crossed a creek our feet would soften and with the combination of fine sand and grit getting caught in-between our sandals it was getting very uncomfortable to walk and it felt like sandpaper rubbing against our feet. We arrived at the first village with both feet in agony and the sandals had worn my feet right through the skin and started to bleed in areas.
My first impressions of the Hmong village was incredible, it was like stepping back in time and when we arrived it was in the middle of the day and the village looked deserted and very quiet. It was only by closer inspection that you could make out pigs and chooks sleeping under the houses and chicken pens. We came across one of the larger huts and an elderly gentleman came out to greet us. He had great character to his face and looked wise, he immediately invited all of us into his house and upon entering it was so dark that I could not see where I was going. After a few seconds my eyes slowly adjusted to reveal a dirt floor and a clay fire place. The roof thatching and bamboo rafters were chard black from the constant smoke rising up and filtering out through the roof. Everything was simple and with no water or electricity it was as basic as you could get. He offered us a seat to rest our sore feet and as we got comfortable his extended family started to come in and stare at the new Falangs (A Lao term meaning white people) that had just arrived. Too-soon asked whether we would like pawpaw and pork for lunch or a local melon and pork that is grown in the village called Dow-too. The melon was the size of a rockmelon with smooth dark outer skin, it also had very hard light green flesh that had to be scraped out with a sharp spoon. Too-soon chopped up the precooked pork, added the Dow-too with some pepper, onions and spices and severed it with sticky rice. It was one of the nicest, simplest meals I have ever had and it really felt good to get some energy into us for the next 2-3 hours walking. After dinner we sat around and I was able to ask the elder man of 74years how the village life and the surroundings have changed since he was a little boy. He spoke in his native tongue for some time until Too-soon had a chance to translate. The old man said he remembers big trees and jungle all around, the air was clean and cool. He also said that he tries to explain all the animals that used to be in the jungle and the birds that used to migrate to the village from China but the younger generation could not understand or was not interested in what he was saying because they never saw the animals that he had seen. He said now the smoke fills the air and the trees and animals have all gone, the summers last longer and the rain doesn’t fall as much. I was very surprised to hear that he was almost describing global warming down to a tee. His wife asked a question to us, she had heard that the sky was falling down and that’s why the summers are hotter. We had Too-soon translate back saying that there was a hole in the sky from the burning and chemicals we use, we also said that the only way to help clean and cool the air and to also make the animals return was to plant trees on the hills that are not being used for growing food or rice. We back this up by saying that the air is always cooler and cleaner in the jungle than out on the fields. I’m sure they agreed with this but I’m not sure whether anything will ever be done about the situation as it is on such a huge scale and the Lao government really needs to step in and do something straight away. Feeling that I have at least tried to make a difference through some education in the village we had to keep trekking to the next village for our next home stay. We walk away from the village just blown away by the experience. We started heading up a steep mountain track that got steeper and steeper and the jungle that I was expecting to see got thicker and thicker. You start to know you are heading somewhere special when the track you are walking on was almost gone and covered by the jungle leaf litter and your guide was marking the track we had just been through with leaf markers just in case we get lost. It was short lived when we came across a scare in the jungle and in had been attacked by locals with chainsaws and axes. The track we were walking on was totally covered by the canopy vegetation that now lay on the ground. We had to trek over, around and under the tangled mess until we were in the lush jungle again. We carried up the steep hill and with Jacinta’s knees really giving her a hard time the rest of the group stoped more and more frequently to catch their breath and drink water. The elderly 69 year old French man that had done so well on the previous walk now struggled up the hill and with myself way up front I kept wondering what the holdup was. Even though Jacinta’s knees were hurting she kept up with me until we almost reach the top of the mountain to come out from lush jungle into a tree grave yard. It was almost like walking from inside to the outside and all we could see in was cut down trees and dead wood everywhere. It just about gave me a kick in the guts when I walked past this mess and looked out over the whole valley that was void of trees and just had scrubby weeds growing on the steep hill sides. We all rested under one tree standing by itself on the ridge of the hill that had a sign on it, I had Too-soon translate and the sign and it said do not cut down this tree conservation. Only one tree had this sign and I knew that the rest of Lao was going to follow down the path of destruction if this was their only effort for conservation, but I was also thankful that there was at least one sign and that maybe this could be a turning point for the hills around Luang Prabang.
Unaware to me Too-soon had been carrying the older gentleman’s bag and know was totally stuffed, I was also in bad shape as my feet were still bleeding from several sores from the rubbing of my sandals. I still felt fine apart from my feet so I grabbed the old man’s bag off Too-soon and walked bare footed up the rest of the hill and down to the village 2km away. The old French guy was very grateful and kept saying “you are my son you are my son.” I guess that was his way of saying that he was more than grateful.
We arrived at the Hmong village late and there looked to be confusion on Too-soon’s face, this was confirmed by him needing to find somewhere to stay and some food for us to eat. I latter found out that Too-soon had not been prepared for this three day tour and only found out he was going when the our original guide gave his bike to Too-soon on our first day cycling at the elephant. I thought that was a bit harsh considering he didn’t have any change of clothes, toothbrush or equipment. At least he had a mobile to call his family letting them know that he was going to home for three days. The house we were staying at only had a pregnant lady at home and the head chief so to speak and family were all out tending to his rice fields. Too-soon had to go and find them first before we were allowed to get settled and have a well deserved wash in the creek. When a Lao person say’s just wait here I won’t be long, just allow an hour of waiting. The sun started to disappear over the hill, the temperature dropped and I started to have second thoughts about having a wash. Finally the chief turned up and I introduced myself to him. His name was Pa chai he was only a small man as so many Lao people are, Too-soon said to follow him and he will take us to the creek to have a wash. We followed him walking some 300m before arriving at the dried up stream, there were around 20 villages all washing and having a bath, the water was diverted by hollowing out bamboo and some PVC tubing, the water flowed out the end like a tap and it was enough to fill some buckets and join in with the locals for a wash. Some off the French lady’s came down to have a wash but chickened out. I jumped in and had a wash in the cold fresh water and it rejuvenated the batteries straight away. We entered into Pa-chai house to put our bags down and look inside, the house was so dark inside and you could not see anything. I had to get my video camera and turn the light on just to make out where we were going, I put my bag down and went outside again just so I called see again. Pa Chai came out with two note books and opened them to reveal hundreds of home stay traveller’s giving thanks to Pa-chai and his family. We wrote our own thanks and I drew a picture of the world and indicated where we had come from. It started to get dark outside but the children still played as hard in the dark as they did in the light. We moved back inside to sit around a candle lit table and watch Pa-chai's family cook and talk amongst themselves. I had my own troubles to attend to as the infected sore on my knee had swelled and became very red and sore, I was concerned more so know as there was no medical aid anywhere and I couldn't believe we had left the first aid kit back at the tour office. Armed with a Swiss army knife, clean water, our toilet paper rations and a bottle of hand gel I proceeded to take off the pussey scab revealing just how deep the infection had set in. The infection was halfway to my kneecap and getting bigger every day. I washed the rest of the blood and dried the wound, now came the worst part as I opened the bottle and put a good dob of alcoholic hand sanitizer gel straight into the red flesh and speared it around. There was a 2sec delay before the unbearable sting set in and it felt like someone was inserting a bamboo skewer right into my knee and out the other side. This attracted the attention of the French as all this was performed by torch light. I concentrated on my breathing until the pain subsided and the older French man came over with some heavy duty bandaids and some betadine. I was very thankful for this as I knew with a good covering over the wound it would have a good chance to heal and stay clean.
Dinner was served and Too-soon managed to find some dried fish and cooked up a soup with Bunya flowers and coconut juice served with rice. The meal was full off bones and we tried to dissect the meal under candle light with little success. I felt as if I was 6 years old trying to hide the horrible vegetables that I just did not want to eat luckily I had very shy cat that lurked in the darkness that managed to get a good portion of my meal and the rest of the meal was spread out in the bowl to make it look like we had eaten more than we really had. We were not along as the French people struggles with dinner as well, Too-soon realised that there were too many bones when he inspected our plated and apologised for the meal. I felt bad and didn’t want to be rude by not eating everything but Too-soon also served out a simple cabbage that was devoured in seconds.
It was 7:30 and time for bed as we climbed the invisible latter in the dark you had to feel with you feet and upon reaching the top all night vision was gone and I now had no idea what was in front of me. I managed to get Jacinta’s camera out as my video camera now had a flat battery and know way to charge it. I took a photo and use the flash for light and by this time the French team decided to go to bed as well and shined a little light on the subject. All tucked in on our hard stuffed hessian matt we tried to sleep. We all slept in the same room as the rest of the family and there was a young couple that were obviously just married because they whispered, giggled and sniggered half the night. At one stage they seemed to be having a little too much fun and I wondered if they were up to something more. Even though I couldn’t speak Lao, the language of love was unmistakable and I think most people just pretended it wasn’t happening.

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