After finally getting used to China, we had to start all over again in Laos. We had to change all our Chinese money using street traders, as the Chinese banks don't change money (seems like an easy money maker?!), 1 Y = 1200K or 1 U.S $ = 10000K, this means lots and lots of Lao money, in fact people carry their money in shopping bags. The first thing we did when crossing the border is accidentally hire a private van to the nearby town of Luang Namtha, instead of taking the public bus, there was a little mix up between Lao kips and US dollars. We ended up out 20 U.S dollars (about our daily budget).
We met a few Canadians in Luang Namtha who recommended we head to a small village called Vieng Phou Kha for some trekking instead of staying in Luang Namtha which is fairly pricey and full of tourists. We signed up for a trek in Luang Namtha anyways but the next morning when we showed up, it had been cancelled. So we ran to the hotel, picked up our bags and got to the bus station right on time to catch the bus to Vieng Phou Ka. Buses to less visited towns, are actually pick-up trucks with benches installed in the back and a small wire roof covering passengers. All the baggage is tied to the roof of the truck, and then 13 people are crammed into the back, 5 on each bench and 2 sitting on the floor, and one standing on the bumper holding on to the wire roof (designed for this). The first problem is that its really really cold, so you are definetely happy to be crunched between people on all sides, the second problem is that the road is bumpy and curvy, so people start puking, and did I mention we are all really really close to each other? The last problem is that its the dry season, so the roads are incredibly dusty, our clothes, faces, noses, eyes, ears were completely covered in dust when we finally arrived in Vieng Phou Kha 3 hours later, the Laos black hair was now a lovely shade of beige.
Vieng Phou Kha is a poor, tiny Kamu village in North West Laos. The bus station is a small shack with seemingly no attendant (until we find him sleeping on a bench later on) and it takes us a while to find the eco-tourism office. The office was set up in 2003 by the EU and the Lao government in a bid to boost the local economy. We each pay 800,000K for a three day all inclusive trek around the area. This is a huge amount of money (relatively) but we are given a breakdown of the distrubution of our money and we feel more comfortable signing on.
Our guide is a local 40 year old Kamu man, called Somhak, he shows up for the trek wearing flip flops and over-sized track pants, I think he must have weighed no more than 100 pds. He is a good English-speaker, explaining to us that all the guides were given intensive English courses, as well as courses on the local environment and customs of the various ethnic groups whose villages we would visit. He is extremely knowledgeable and stops along the trek to show us various medicinal plants and other stuff (he always managed to find "interesting" reasons to stop when he was getting out of breath on tough climbs). Every time we enter a village we hire a guide who brings us through the village and on part of the trek (each family in the village is on a rotating schedule for this job). Both nights we slept at Akha villages, an ethnic group in Laos whose villages are traditionally places at the very tops of mountains facing west. The first village is only accessible by jungle trail (about 6 hours), has no electricity or running water. In fact it doesn't even have a water source nearby and must hike over two hours for water every morning (another job traditionally done by the women). There is a small lodge built for the trekkers where we sleep and eat. Locals are hired to cook us dinner, we feast on a chicken killed right in front of us (men are the cooks in the Akha villages). The guides are taught that Westerners feel that things like washing your hands before you eat are important. Somhak brought a bar of soap along and insisted that we wash our hands before meals. This didn't seem unreasonable as we eat with our hands, communally. Of course the whole purpose of washing hands was defeated when we rinsed our hands, once in the bucket where the chicken had been skinned (blood and chicken parts still clinging to it) and once in a bucket with a dead rat floating in it. Oh well, we tried.
Children come running up to us all night but are too scared to come too close. They usually yell out "Sabadee, okay" the only Lao word they know(hello) and the only English word they know. The women keep their hair short, wear traditional clothing, the signature item a black cap on which the hang anything silver. Nowadays this includes many different silver coins (we even spotted some American ones), nail clippers and keys. Most men no longer wear traditional clothing, they are mostly in baseball caps, t-shirts and jeans. During the day, anyone of working age is in the field, this means children take care of their grandparents and baby siblings. A common sight is a small child (maybe 7 or 8 years old) carrying their sibling on their back, which they do from morning to night. It's no surprise that they become mothers as young as 13.Despite constant pressure from the government to move their villages closer to a road (and to stop the growing of opium), the villages remain completely self sufficient. They grow their own cotton and make their own clothing, they grow all their food, they even make their own guns and bullets (incredible! the bullets are made in part with bat droppings) for hunting. Apparently in the past few years, villages have been forcibly moved using police, as part of the governments plan to be off the list of least developped countries in the world. From the way our guide spoke (having come from a village that was forcibly moved), we could tell this was not a very popular decision. However, none of the children are educated and the villages are extremely poor. The village chief explained to us (over a few shots of home made rice whisky at 7:30 a.m.) that elders are reluctant to change and the younger children are desperate for some modern comforts.
After three days of trekking, including one night where we were kept up by "rats, ugggh I mean cats" as Somhak explained, we were eager to move on to a bigger town to spend Christmas Eve there. We waited on the side of the highway for a passing bus for three hours, until we were finally told it was probably too late to catch anything (it was about 5 p.m. at this point). Sunburned and dejected we spent Christmas Eve in Vieng Phou Kha its even difficult to get someone to cook you something for dinner. We had a feast of boiled greens, sticky rice and fried eggs. I washed my hair in ice ice cold water, giving me a terrible headache. At least Santa Claus filled our stockings with a can of pop each, a real luxury.For Christmas we ended up in the Chinese-Lao trade hub Oudom Xai, where we got a cheap hotel room with a much needed hot shower and a great Christmas gift: HBO movie channel and BBC News.
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