Water water everywhere, but nowhere to pee

Trip Start Jun 25, 2011
Trip End Dec 24, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Louangphabang,
Wednesday, September 28, 2011


We trudge down the little hill to the boats for 9am, only to find that, being the only two who want a boat to Nong Khiaw, the boat men want 600,000 Kip (about 50 quid, or 75 bucks) for us to charter it. We walk away to try a new option,only to be chased up the road by a young guy ushering us back. We get it for 400,000 Kip. This price is way over the normal ticket which is 120,000 but is well worth it. And of course we think that, becuase we have paid out for the boat, it will only be us on it. How wrong we are.

We aboard the long wooden boat, that thankfully has a small roof overhead to protect us from the sun. The young guy who ushered us earlier, strips to his pants and dives under the boat to free it from the others it is bunched next to, and when the driver finally joins us, we make our way.
The first couple of hours we have to ourselves, going down the Nam Ou river, and taking in the beautiful sights. We stop to pick up a man and his harvest, who is smoking tabacco rolled up in bus tickets, and who smiles and nods at our western roll up cigarettes. Shortly afterwards we stop to pick three more guys up. None of these people seem to pay, so it seems the journey is on us!
The river changes from calm to a web of twisting small whirlpools that the driver carefully weaves through. More and more people join the boat, one guy that speaks great English and is a local school teacher, takes great interest in our Laos guide book, flicking through it and admiring the pictures. Another pickup is of a mother and child. Claire smiles at the child who instantly bursts into tears, and hides his face from Claire and Jo for the rest of the journey. We both need the toilet badly by the end, and wish that we had a 'She Pee' to hand when the boat stops for the men to get off and relieve themselves. (they think they're so cool cos they can pee with their penis's!!)

We arrive at Nong Khiaw at 2pm with very sore bums and bursting bladders. We instantly fall in love with the place, which is split into two by the river, connected with a bridge and against a back drop of huge dramatic karst mountains.

We go looking for a guesthouse, and take the second we see, a small hut on stilts with squat toilet and hammok, overlooking the river for 60,000K. The owner laughs when we say that we only want one night, gives us a big thumbs up when we say we are from England, and tells Jo that she has Laoation features.
Once we have paid we go back into the room to find that it is already occupied by a HUGE spider about the size of an outstretched hand. When asking the staff if it is dangerous, they laugh at.
After strolling and having lunch, we return to the hut in hopes that the spider is gone. It is not. So Claire plays 'bash the spider with a wet towel' which only makes Jo scream and the spider jump from bathroom to bedroom. It does eventually dissapear completely. Somewhere. Hopefully never to be seen again...

For dinner we go around the corner to a beautiful restaurant called 'Sabai Sabai' opposite the village Wat. It is, like everywhere, family run and the two sons speak the best english we have heard from a local yet, and are very welcoming. We decide to definitely return the following day, after chatting with one of the brothers, 'Homm' who chats with us about the village and helps us learn some Lao. After a brief blackout and the signs of a storm in the distance, we go to back to the hut, watching bats fly by and more naughty boys on the bridge setting off fire crackers. (Spider check = negative.)


We get up in the morning, and instantly decide to stay for another night; news to which the owner laughs and gives an 'I-told-you-so' thumbs up.
We try and find the bus station to find out about buses to Luang Prabang, but can't find it and the tourist information is closed. So, defeated, we trudge back to Sabai Sabai for lunch. Our friend Homm gives us all the information we need about Buses and once again we chat to him about Laos. We ask him about the general Lao view on tubing in Vang Vieng, as it is something we have been undecided about doing. He tells us that Vang Vieng is backed by big business that can easily pay off the police and local government officials, and that Lao people wish the kind of late night drinking/party atmosphere of the place to remain isolated to Vang Vieng. Its an activity that, in almost every way, goes against their culture.
He also tells us that the Wat opposite is the home of two novice monks; they are about 10 years old, and we see them later playing in the grounds with the local children. They are taught by 1 elder monk who lives there with them. He also tells us that in 12 or so days, there will be a big celebratory festival all over the country to mark the end of the monsoon season. This means that the monks are no longer restricted to their Wats and surrounding area to collect alms, as they are during the rainy season, now they can venture out. All locals will go to the temple with offerings of food, money and sweets and also light candles to decorate the Wat. Candles are put on banana leaves and dressed with decorations before being placed on the river as an offering to the snakes that live there and to ward away bad spirits for the coming year. He says the fire crackers being set off by the boys on the bridge last night is due to this up coming festivity.     

That afternoon we stroll to the nearby cave where the people of the village hid during the US bombing of the country. We pass people washing at the side of the road (women in sarongs) from bamboo pipes that direct fresh water from the mountains and little patches of farm land as we go down the country lanes. After about 40 minites of walking, we come to the cave. However, the bridge that gets you across the stream to it, has recently been washed away. Instead the locals have felled a tree that now crosses the fast running stream in the bridge place. We decide against the idea especially as there are lots of locals bathing ready to laugh at us if we fall in.

That evening we go back to Homm's restaurant to have a 'herbal steam bath.' Wearing a sarong we sit inside. Wow. It is a small, dark, wooden room, underneath is a fire heating a boiling pot of water and herbs including, eucalyptus, basil, mint and cloves. We bath in the steam for as long as possible, having to come out every 5 minites to breath! It is well worth it though, and after we drink clove tea and feel wonderful. We pass on the Lao massage as Claire doesn't like being touched... except by Jo when she is given permission to do so (a weeks notice in writing of course).
We have dinner once we catch our breaths, and Homm once again sits with us. We chat for hours and have a real in depth discussion about Buddhism and Karma. It turns out that Homm was once a monk for 3 years*, and he opens up to us telling us how he is at the moment battling between being a good buddhist and a business man at the same time. We discuss enlightenment and the effect that the religion has on its society. He then tells us a traditional story, that I will try and repeat here:
* As opposed to the 2 weeks, we are later told, that many Lao men become monks for simply to please their mothers.
There was once a young prince who became famous in the land for being very wise and knowledgeable. His fame soon reached as far as the gods who became interested in the Prince's knowledge. Soon the most powerful god came to the earth to test it. He challenged the Prince to a task; he was to ask him one question and if he answered correctly then he could slay the god by chopping off his head, but if he got it wrong then the god would kill the Prince. The Prince accepted and the question was asked: "Where is the most beautiful place on the human body in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening?" The god gave the Prince seven days, after which he would come to collect the answer.
The Prince traveled all across the land in these days, trying to find the answer, but without luck. On the last day he walked through a forest and lay down under a tree to rest, exhausted. Two hawks soon perched on the tree branch above him. One asks the other where their next meal would come from, the other (not knowing that the Prince is nearby listening, and of course speaks hawk)) replies that they will eat the Prince because he cannot answer the question and will shortly be killed by the god. The other hawk asks why, and the first explains the situation with the god's task. The other hawk is confused and so asks, "What is the answer?". The first hawk gives the answer: "In the morning it is the head because it is the first thing that the human washes, in the afternoon it is the chest because it is washed to keep cool in the sun's heat, and in the evening it is the feet as they are washed before bed". 
And so, the Prince is ready with the answer when the god returns. The god calls his daughters down to earth and tells them that when his head is chopped off they must not let it touch the ground as it will cause a great fire, it cannot touch the water as it will cause a great flood, and it cannot touch the air becuase it will cause a hurricane. The daughters, therefore, must take the head on a tray to a cave and every year come and wash it.

During the story, (which is told much better and more animated than our rendidtion here) Claire and Jo turn into children asking, "then what?" and "what was the answer?" "how can the Prince talk hawk?!" Homm then says that for the Buddhist new year, in Luang Prabang there is a beauty contest held every year. It is seen as symbolic in that the winner is picked as the daughter of the god to wash his slayed head. A replica of the head on the tray is carried by the winner each year.

After we eat, Homm invites us next door to his cousin's house who has given birth that day. We are a tad nervous to go in, as we are sure that someone who just gave birth doesn't want some complete strangers sticking their noses in, but are pleasantly surprised. The atmosphere is amazing, Homm tells us that for 14 days family and friends surround the mother and new born baby, and that during the day for these two weeks the mother must sit with her back to a fire, in order to help the healing of her body. The small room is crammed with people playing cards, drinking Lao Lao and smoking. The mother is sitting with baby and her other daughters (ranging from 6-22 years old) with the TV blaring out some Thai soap opera. We feel so welcomed and not stared at, as we sit down with everyone. Mother shows off her beautiful baby, while the father hands us shots of Lao Lao. Amazing. We both decide that this was an experience that will be hard to beat. After an hour or so, we say thank you and good night, in broken Lao, and stroll through the pitch black village, elated.

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