12.09.2012 - 25.09.2012
All we had heard about Laos and its people instantly turned out to be true. As soon as we crossed the border from Vietnam no more tuk tuks chased after us, people smiled peacefully and greeted us with polite "Sabaidee!" as we walked along, and some vendors even had to be woken up from their naps to buy anything from them.
Our first night we spent by the river in Muang Khua meeting up for meals with some friends we had met along the way. Ashley and Bo were a pleasure to spend time with, their friendly energy infectious, and we ended up traveling for a couple of days with them and trying new foods out together. So off we all set on the same river boat cruise to Nong Khiaw, and delighted in the scenes of lush green mountains bordering the calm river, the many children running along the banks and diving into the water playfully, the buffalo grazing on bright green grass, the pigs running around, the thatched huts with woven bamboo walls.
Our destination was just as beautiful, with tall rocky hills dressed in low forest overlooking the wide river that splits the town, its edges dotted here and there with women in sarongs, men in underwear and children naked for their afternoon bath. In northern Laos people dress conservatively, women wearing skirts reaching below the knees and tops always having sleeves and no cleavage; men never walk around shirtless and there are signs in some tourist places requesting that visitors follow the same code. But then there's the contrasting bathing time, where anyone, regardless of age or gender, will walk out to the river or a public water fountain or even to a faucet just outside their home by the road to bathe, and then nudity and partial nudity are absolutely natural and acceptable.
We had our own turn at it a few days later, when in Luang Nam Tha we booked a tour to the national park nearby. It was meant to be a two day trek into the dense jungles of Nam Ha, and while our intention was to have a chance of finding wildlife, our experience turned out to be a wonderful cultural exchange. Our guide Bouket first took us around the corner from our hotel to the local market for some supplies. Just as Juan and I were wondering why he hadn't taken care of that earlier so that we could start with our tour on time, we started noticing some peculiar sights amongst the stands: buffalo fetus, farmed piranha, live frogs tied by their legs ready to fry... We decided to skip all that and stick with the vegetables, which looked much more appetizing.
Our trek started several miles from there, at the edge of a small town where huts dried corn by hanging it from the leaves to the bottom of their raised wooden homes and men laboriously fabricated knives on small fires with artisan appliances. At one edge of the village, wide fields of rice stretched out into the sun, at the other, mild hills begun to show the forest we were to journey into. Bouket is a middle-aged man who grew up in this area. He used to venture these forests for hunting, and is now one of the many poachers-turned-guides who earn an income by taking visitors on nature observation expeditions rather than exploiting the forest in the previous, more destructive way. However he only is called in about once every two months for these tours, so to make ends meet he tends to his small farm. We soon found out though that he could easily make a living as a cook! During our hike he cut off a couple of bamboo shoots, collected some forest ferns and chopped a few leaves off of a spiny palm; soon he had that along with some sticky rice cooking up over the fire, and before we knew it we were enjoying the most delicious meal we had had in Laos yet! It was all served on wild banana leaves spread out on the ground, seasoned with some chiles and other vegetables purchased earlier in the market, and we each had our own clump of sticky rice, which we would grab to scoot the different foods up and eat up with our hands. At the end of the fantastic meal that my mouth is watering over as I write, Bouket and Cham (the second guide we picked up in town) would recollect the remaining rice from each of our clumps and stack it back together for the next meal! Whatever, everyone was clean enough and we didn't mind =).
We spent the night in a thatched wooden hut, where Bouket graciously set up a couple of long cushions and blankets for us to sleep, but before that, it was bath time! Yes, with company! Down we all walked to the river, and while I was wondering to myself whether it would be impolite to show as much skin as a bikini does, Bouket stripped down to his worn-out briefs and pranced happily into the water. Then I knew we were all right =). He was like a little boy, laughing, walking down the river in his underwear, carrying a small net over his head and throwing it enthusiastically into the water. He yelled out with joy when he caught the tiniest fish, and throughout the two days would always share with great interest any little insect he'd encounter. You could tell he was having a good time just as much as we were, and actually most of our enjoyment was thanks to him! We soon realized that we would not see much wildlife on our trail, as the tour took us only to secondary forest, which is sadly hunted out without a second thought in rural south east Asia. But Bouket's genuine giving personality, his spontaneous laughs and smiles and childlike occurrences made us feel fortunate we had had the luck of ending up on a tour with him. At the end of our two days we said our goodbyes with many hugs and smiles and thanks, and as he left us he yelled out warmly: "I will remember you for a very long time!"
Luang Prabang was a larger town, but with all the charm in the world! With many attractions around it like brilliant waterfalls, elephant training workshops, trekking and ancient temples, one of the main ones in town is the night market. Every single night of the year one long street in the city center is closed off for hundreds of vendors to set out their merchandise. There are gorgeous crafts, antiques, beautiful hand made clothes, paintings and delicious food set up in the most orderly manner. We of course wanted to buy from everyone! The good news is that it was easy to save on food at the 10,000 kip (1.2 USD) buffets of noodles, salads, stir fries, and all kinds of vegetables. Delicious!
Our last stop was Vientiane, the capital from which we were to catch a train to Bangkok, Thailand. For a capital Vientiane is surprisingly slow-moving, with few vehicles even on the main streets. We did visit a couple of beautiful temples, the Buddah Park and the night market, but probably our favorite thing here was to indulge in the food. Vientiane has great options for both traditional and international cuisine, including several french-style bakeries and the most delicious non-profit restaurant/training school we've ever been to: Makphet. Managed by Friends International (www.friends-international.org), this restaurant focuses on helping economically disadvantaged youth from the area to develop knowledge and skills useful to become more self-sufficient. In Makphet these people receive training in hospitality, high-end cooking and even craftsmanship for a better future. And I can safely say I have never in my life tried a more delicious eggplant dish than there!
We left Laos very happy with our experience there, wishing we had more time to explore it. Beautiful country, wonderful people!