Villages and Views

Trip Start Nov 30, 2005
Trip End May 13, 2006

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Friday, February 10, 2006

I finally have the time and energy to sit down and write another story of my adventures.

We headed off early Wednesday morning...our bikes were loaded on top, our group of 8 plus 2 guides all introduced, and we took off in the back of the truck. The group was composed of a British couple- 23 years old on a around the world trip. They were really great fun and Eliza and I have been hanging out with them even after the trek. There was a Swiss man in his late 30s who was really the mountain goat always in front. Add on a 29 year old dutch adventurer, Anelisse...2 younger aussie boys who were always finding ways to make things more fun. Sprinkle in two really fun Laos Eliza and me and we had a great, great bunch. Everybody was really athletic and their were no complainers- two components that made for a really smooth trip.

So we hopped on our bikes in a tiny Hmong village and started climbing mountains. I found the biking very challenging. My bike was a bit too big, plus after two and a half months of travelling I'm not in the best shape, plus it was a hell of a hard ride. There were really steep up hills and downhills. It was all dirt roads too. But they had a truck along side us so we had plenty of water and we took breaks. We stopped in several villages along the way and our guides would tour us around and tell us a little bit about the different tribes. The two main groups in the area are the Hmong and Khamu- both speak different languages- and both are different from Laos (which we've all been trying to pick up for the last few weeks). We were able to meet people of both groups and see all the differences in cultures. Their houses look different, the people look different, and one group is highland and the other lowland. We wandered around the village-- so many curious eyes on us! Little kids followed us around, people shyly allowed us to take pictures. We were able to go see a school- and even got to check out a class in session and they sang a song for us. It was lots of fun. While biking-- we pass a small village- sometimes just several homes and when the first person is passing or is spotted-- the whole village of children dashes out to the side of the road waving their arms ferociously and screaming something that kind of resembles the word bye... (I think that is the easiest word for them) This process really seems to excite them! Sometimes the brave ones put out their hands for a high five while we pass...and we are always all smiles. It is quite a greeting. The same thing happens to a lesser extent when westerners pass on the back of the truck (tuktuk).

After sweating about 30 gallons and climbing and going down way too many hills we arrived to the village. We went about 50 or 60 km that day. First stop was straight to the river where we had a long refreshing swim and got swept up in the swift current for a nice float down. Our clothes were so soaked with sweat that we just brought them all in to try to clean them a bit.

We ate a big meal cooked by somebody in the village and begun really getting acquainted with each other. After dinner we sat around and just chatted and hung out. We were staying in some sort of house that didn't seem to belong to anybody but that I guess our tour group uses. As usual...the beds are about like sleeping on the floor and the roosters are very loud in the morning! It was up early and a breakfast of sticky rice and eggs.

We quickly hit the road and drove about 15 minutes to the trailhead. We crossed over the river and began hiking. It started off uphill...and didn't stop for about 3 hours. I am not joking- we were headed straight up...there is no concept of switchbacks in this country. It is a little easier when you have a steep bit, and then it flattens out even for just a few steps but that didn't really happen. After awhile we arrived at a village on top of a mountain. It was a Hmong village...the first we had seen and it was in the middle of nowhere. We sat in somebody's home to cool off in the shade. We walked around the village and took pictures and the animals were all freaking out. We must really give off a different vibe than what they are used to because the animals can't handle us nearly as well as the humans! One of our guides picked a chicken for us to eat that night and bought it from a family and literally carried it the next three hours (alive). Our guide also hiked this whole trail in flip flops...these people are hardcore.

The rest of the day wasn't as challenging for me-- we walked through beautiful bamboo forests and without focusing so much physically, it was easier to take in the sights around me.

Last year I read a book about the Hmong people (not knowing my near future would include me encountering them in Laos). When I read the book, i was so struck by how different this culture is, and how ancient it traditional. I had read that the women have their babies alone in their house and they bury their placenta under the house and about all the spirits that are so important to them and about the chief and the shaman and all that stuff and it seemed so crazy and different. To be in these villages after having read all of that was really something else. I was in amongst it. The way the people out in these villlages live is unbelievable. They utilize everything. Their life is about survival...they cut bamboo and trees and all come together to build their houses. They eat vegetables and sticky rice for every meal every day and twice a week they eat meat, the animals they raise themselves. The things we do with our days, the jobs we have, the things we think about...they have no relevance out here. It's just....unbelievable.

We arrived to the village that we were staying in which was really a Hmong village and Kamu village right next to each other. We stayed in the house of the chief on the kamu village. We arrived and as usual the crowd gathered around us to stare and we usually ask if we can take pictures at that point because it seems to break the ice to be able to take pictures and then show all the people on the camera-- it is at least interaction on some level. But it is all very overwhelming. These snotty nosed, dirty ratty clothed, half naked children all around and older people with rotting teeth, and babies on the backs of everybody including 4 year olds. It is pretty overwhelming.

We still had some daylight left so our guide took us on a hike out to a cave. We passed through the Hmong village along the way. We passed the soccer field where there were tons of kids and as we passed all the kids began following...people started coming out of their houses and following us. When we turned around there was literally at least 100 people behind us. They tapered off as we got further and further away until we just had 7 young boys with us to the cave. This village was the one where only 5 groups of westerners have come before so we are really really new to these ones. The other village we stayed has lots of groups come through but the trekking portion is totally new and only included on this one that explains some of the staring!

The cave was pretty far and we were all sort of separated on the way coming home. Just when we were starting to enter the village- the downpour began. We started running for awhile at first but then just accepted the rain...accepted being soaked and slipping around on the mud. We got back to our house for the night and dried off. We played cards and ate dinner. Because of the rain we couldn't have a campfire that night, but we managed to get some beer lao and a group of kids assembled next to us. We began trading songs. I brought out my harmonica and blew on it and let the kids blow on it a bit. We sang all sorts of songs...from old mcdonald, nursery rhymes, beatles songs, don mclean, camp songs, repeat after me songs, national anthems. We sat around for hours singing back and forth. The crowd got bigger and bigger as the night went on. More kids kept coming and the older kids and adults gathered around too. They were pouring us round after round of lao lao (a sort of whiskey) and it was all going to our heads. It was a really great evening and so nice to have such amazing interaction with the community. The 8 of us had to sleep pretty squished that night...but we were exhausted and slept well.

The next day was more trekking. We had to do some more uphill and over the pass and then a big downhill to the river. It was the least physically challenging day I thought but it wasn't a piece of cake. The views were amazing on that day... and the group was closer. the downhill was very very long and again no switchbacks didn't help matters. I was very thankful to have good shoes. We finally got to the river- crossed it and our truck was waiting for us. We got in- went down the road 20 minutes and got some lunch in a village. We then put our kayaks in the water and began down the river! The river is low at the moment but we still got some good rapids and Eliza and I were the only ones who managed to stay in our boats the whole time.

We arrived back in Luang Prabang about 6 oclock and after a long search for a guesthouse Eliza and I finally found one with a room. The whole group met up for dinner at 8 and took out our guides. We then said our goodbyes and went to bed!

Yesterday Eliza and I managed to do pretty much nothing. We wandered around a little. Sat in cafes and had long slow meals and wrote in our journals. We met up with Russ and Caroline and saw the sunset and went to dinner.

Today Eliza and I rented mountain bikes and did another big ride. We road about 30-35 km out to this waterfall. The ride wasn't nearly as hard as the one on our trip. The waterfall was absolutely amazing- we can't believe we almost missed it and didn't go. Beautiful blue pools spilling onto the next one. They were awesome waterfalls and you could swim and jump off the top of some of them. The area around was very tropical and jungly. Eliza and I really liked it. Then it was all the way home-- we were pretty over it by the end of the day. We are tired now but glad we went.

We head out of town tomorrow and back toward Vientiane. We are trying to squeeze one more day of kayaking in and maybe another trek.

This is a novel-- my wrists are sore....hope you got through it alright.
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