Dinner with the locals

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
Trip End Jun 15, 2007

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

A mini-bus ride takes us from Chiang Mai to the border town of Chiang Khong, Thailand which sits across the Mekong river from Laos. Instead of eating at our guesthouse, where they're aggressively trying to entrap us into choosing from a limited dinner menu, we sneak away with a co-conspirator from Holland and find ourselves drawn to a neighborhood cook-your-own-BBQ joint. The restaurant staff speaks no English, which makes for a fun game of charades as we try to figure out what goes on the "grill", what goes in the "soup", and which sauce goes with what. It's delicious and accompanied by our first Beer Lao!
In the morning, we cross the Mekong and into Laos on a longtail boat then hustle to the bus station for the eight hour ride north to Luang Namtha. The bus ride is hilarious. Every nook and cranny is jam packed with people, sacks of rice and vegetables, luggage, even live fish swimming around in bags of water! Once everyone is finally packed into place and we're heading down the road, suddenly they stop and haul a refrigerator in, strap it down, and off we go again.
The bus must be at least 50 years old, the seats are ripped and barely attached to the floor, and every inch is covered in dirt and grime. I'm struck by the incredible tolerance these people have for discomfort. Their foot may be jammed between two 100-pound bags of rice, two men may be squeezed together into a space big enough for one, and kids may be asked to sit on the floor, and no one says a word or complains.
The ride is easy for about an hour as we climb steadily upward around curvy mountain highway. Suddenly the pavement gives way to deeply rutted dirt road and the air fills with dust. The next seven hours are straight out of an Indiana Jones flick - this huge passenger bus, packed full of people and animals, is careening across 4-wheel-drive dirt road, flying over drop-offs like a roller coaster, and plowing through freshly graded soil. The Laos government is working on major reconstruction of this road, and during the trip we see hundreds of construction trucks, plows, backhoes, and graders, and the terraces they've carved into the mountains to make space for the road stretch hundreds of feet up the hillsides. It's an engineering feat that makes a project like Mt. Rushmore look puny in comparison. At one point, the climb becomes so steep that the bus lacks enough power to continue. We stop, everyone exits the bus, and we all hike to the top of the incline where the bus, relieved from the weight of its human cargo, is able to groan its way to the top and pick us up again! The dust in the air is so thick you can see beams of light cutting horizontally through it. On occasion, a passenger loudly clears their throat, spits onto the floor, then squishes it with their shoe or flip-flop. We were ecstatic to finally arrive safely in Luang Namtha!
Today we explored the area by bike. Tall palm-covered mountains ring the broad valley, and in the rice paddies that cover the valley floor, families were out working to finish their dry-season harvesting, which they do by hand. Some are fortunate enough to have access to cooperatively owned mechanical threshers, but we've seen many women beating the rice by hand. It's also not unusual to see young children out in the fields working alongside their parents from sunup to sundown.
After riding into the mountains outside of town, we arrived at Ban Nam Di, a tucked away village populated by a people called Lao Huay (Lenten), where we visited the nearby waterfall and hoped to see how the people craft paper out of bamboo pulp. We befriended a man and his family through a spontaneous back-and-forth exchange of English and Lao language tips, and Todd and I were shocked when the man's door swung open and he invited us into his home for a meal.
The house was one story, windowless, constructed of wooden beams and walls of woven bamboo strips, and had a hard packed dirt floor. He seated us on small wooden stools that stood just inches off the ground. We sat at a low woven bamboo table which was set with individual bowls of rice, chopsticks and a spoon for each person, a communal bowl of green-vegetable soup, and a plate with several bite-size pieces of meat. He began the meal with a traditional round of shots of home-brewed lao lao (rice whiskey). Todd was offered a shot and I was relieved to see him slurp it down without to much trouble before it was passed to me! It was only after we'd left that Todd asked me if I'd noticed that the bottle of whiskey had three chicken feet floating in the bottle!!! The dim interior made things a bit nerve wracking, as we were clueless about what we were eating until it was on its way to our mouth, especially the meat, which I think was beef and was quite smoky and tasty!
This meal was so indescribably generous. Here we were, two outsiders from one of the richest countries in the world, receiving the gift of a meal from a very poor man who had only just met us. We were sad not to have a gift to give in return and decided to purchase a small handcrafted satchel made by his wife as a small gesture of thanks. Such incredibly open generosity despite such poverty is beyond conception. Today was pure magic.
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