This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.
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Slow boats are about 25 feet long and only about 5 feet wide at the most. For most of their length they have a wooden and aluminum roof for shade. They also have an engine in the back but unlike a Thai longtail, it is bolted permanently to the boat rather than being precariously balanced on a long stick with a prop at the end. There is a separate rudder in the very back, and it is controlled by a steering wheel in the very front. This magic remote control is accomplished with rickety, spliced, slack cable-wire combinations (they seem to slap together anything that will work) which wend their way 25 feet along the outside of the boat, _right_ where you want to put your hand when it is time to hold on for dear life. You have to resist the urge to grab the cables or the boat will capsize for sure.
During my slow boat journeys we were motoring upstream through very shallow water with class 1 and 2 rapids. I was totally amazed that we did not ever hit a rock or take on water; the driver instinctively knew exactly where to go for a smooth ride.
Slow boats have tiny wooden seats which are often discarded to allow enormous amounts of people to squeeze on. Today however, I chartered a slow boat with just a few other people and the trip was wonderful. During the 5 hour journey to Nong Khiao we could stand up in the roof-less parts of the boat for a panoramic view, which felt very much like skating up the river. As we approached Nong Khiao the hills on either shore got steeper and steeper, and the vegation more lush and tropical, until finally we were motoring through a region with 500 foot cliffs on either side. Every 10 minutes or so we would pass a thatch-hut village and groups of little waving kids. No village had telephone, and only a few villages had electricity, provided by these really cool minature river-powered generators. Every 2 minutes or so we'd pass one of the tiny Lao boats and see someone collecting river weed from the rocks for the Lao delicacy. Every 2 minutes we'd also spot a kid with his head underwater, spear-fishing with a cheap snorkeling mask and a rubber-band powered crossbow.
Today I was travelling with a woman named Alison who is a back-country ranger in the Sierras and normally spends 6 months out of the year by herself at 12,000 feet. I was also travelling with an old fellow named "Ollie" who came along with a full-time Lao guide whom I think he had hired in Vientiane. Ollie was some kind of long-time SE Asia veteran and had the gruff and wrinkled manner of a person scarred by war, but I could never figure out if he actually was a soldier or just did a lot of business there.
We arrived in Nong Khiao, a small town at the intersection of the Nam Ou and a "major" Lao road (read: only 1 pothole per meter). We showed up at a new guesthouse not found in the Lonely Planet, but we could not go into our rooms right away, because the guesthouse owner had invited some monks to come bless the establishment and they were set up right in front of our door. The large and jovial guesthouse owner invited us to sit in on the ceremony by pointing at the monks, the floor, us, and then giving us the thumbs up symbol as if to say "good karma dude!" There were 4 monks sitting in a circle around a small, low table with candles and other offerings. The monks ran a string between each other 3 times around the table and chanted for 20 minutes or so, then, seemingly at the request of the proprietor's husband, did a second blessing which involved shaking water off a brush to all the lay people present.
This particular ceremony was often performed when an establishment has had some major disaster like a fire, or when business is just not so good. I think it was the latter, as basically all the guesthouses in town were empty. Most tourists these days do not stay in Nong Khiao but instead travel upriver 1 more hour to another place called Meuang Ngoi. The lady seemed very happy to see us.
We walked around the small town, purchased some baguettes at the bakery that someone had inexplicably built in the middle of a barn on the edge of town, and visited a local temple. A small novice monk with almost unintelligible english pronunciation came to greet us and practice his english. He showed us his rather basic dwelling and the temple and then, I think, hit us up for money. He had memorized this boilerplate sentence which somehow involved the words "English," "Study", "Luang Prabang," "help", and then a bunch of other random prepositions and nonsense syllables. When we asked him to repeat, he did, exactly, syllable for syllable. Not very helpful. Anyway we moved on. It seems there are enough tourists here to generate the "begging" we also saw in some small Lao towns outside of Luang Prabang.
We ate at a restaurant whose owner spoke Thai, and I was able to ask if would be possible for me to visit one of these villages we see along the river. Anticipating some adventure like this, I had purchased a pack of workbooks/pens/pencils for the kids to present to a village headman in exchange for staying overnight. He said that would be good and that there were tons of villages between Nong Khiao and the next major town, so I was getting pretty psyched about booking a boat to take me to some random village.
This boat was clearly a taxi, and it stopped almost every 5 minutes, dropping off people and picking up more. Villagers would wave down the boat and negotiate a rate for passage, and on a few occasions they could actually not reach agreement and the boat left without them—perhaps there are a lot of taxis?
Meuang Ngoi is a small, roadless town with no vehicles or telephone and gas-generator electricity for just a few hours each evening, long enough for the locals to get their fix of Thai soap operas. It is quite popular with tourists, and basically all the structures along the river have been converted to simple thatch-hut guesthouses. But somehow it still retains its charm as a Lao place. Perhaps because there are no bars, roti stands, internet cafes, concrete buildings, air conditioners, or tour agencies. Perhaps because the other two thirds of the town is still Lao residences. Lao kids and livestock race around town everywhere and at the end of town, next to the open-air thatch shacks that pass for a school, there is a large, uneven soccer field and volleyball/takraw court. A trail past the field leads to a couple of caves and another village. One of the caves had a river coming out of it, and if you waded in the river a bit you could get access to a vast array of other pitch-black but dry caverns and tunnels.
At this time of year there is a huge sandbar in the Nam Ou river right next to the town, cut by slow-moving water channels fed by tributaries. The locals wash and the kids play in these channels, and the sandbar forms a vast kingdom for the occasionally clothed kids to explore and run around as relaxed farangs sit and watch from their guesthouse decks.
Meuang Ngoi has a morning market about once every 5 days, when hordes of boats arrive with goods and villagers and hill-tribe families from miles around make day-long treks to stay with friends in town so they can sell their goods that morning.
We stayed at a place called "Sai Nam Ngoi" guesthouse with 4 tiny huts and a restaurant. The best feature was the large and jovial owner named "Juum." Juum possessed little or no English skills, her rooms were very small, and there was a lot of rooster noise in the morning, but she treated her guests with such respect and good spirits that she became known as "Mama Juum" and some farangs retained rooms at two different guesthouses so that they could spend the days hanging out at her place! Mama Juum served banana pancakes to bubbling farangs in the morning and also had a large Lao food menu on her wall. Although it took me a while, I eventually realized Mama Juum was also illiterate and had simply learned the Lao and English sound of all the items on her menu. The wall was also covered with signs describing various treks and other activities that were possible in the area, which I later figured out were all written by guests who wanted to help her out in later business.
While I was staying there she decided to rename her guesthouse to something with "bungalows" in the name because she thought that sounded better. I suggested she choose a name with no Lao in it so farangs could remember it and recommend it to others, and after some voting amongst the guests and writing it big on a piece of paper, we woke up the next day to find the main sign already changed to "River View Bungalows!" We suggested she also write "Mama Juum's" small in the top left corner to give the place a really appropriate name.
Mama Juum's husband was a frail, wiry fellow who clearly did not wear the pants in the establishment, but took care of the accounting and reading duties. He also left early every morning to trek up into the beatiful hills of the area to chop a little wood and shoot a few birds with this quaint little Davy Crockett musket- or flint-lock- type gun, which had to be carefully packed with powder and shot. Alison, being a high altitude type, had been pining to climb ever since leaving California. She saw the hills around, maybe 1000 feet tall, and immediately asked if she could go there! Using my Thai we arranged for Alison to go with Juum's husband the next morning. They were gone from about 7am until after noon; apparently there were no trails and they were bushwhacking most of the way, but they did make it to the top! They returned with lots of scratches and sweat, but also with 4 birds which Mama Juum cooked up and which we ate, bones and all, with a delicious flavoring. Alison paid some tiny amount to them for the guiding service. Later I made Juum another sign describing this "morning trek" so that other courageous travelers may experience it too!
There was a Canadian couple staying in town who had brought their 7 year old son. There is a huge discrepancy in growth patterns of Laos/Thais and North Americans, so all the Laos thought the boy was 12 or 13. Often when he played with Lao kids his age, they would expect him to act older and he basically got steamrollered. In Meuang Ngoi, however, he met this 11 year old Lao girl named Li who, to us farangs, appeared to be about 5, and the two kids just clicked. The parents would let their son and her wander around the tiny town all day. Sometimes Li and her friends would take the boy and his parents deep into the caves, which Li knew like the back of her hand.
That afternoon Alison and I wandered past the caves to the village. Along the 30-45 minute hike we saw lots of cool fields and pastures. We saw the standard black water buffalos grazing along with a bizarre albino variety with almost transparent skin, not the prettiest sight. We arrived at the village and were immediately ransacked by little kids who had learned to say "farang pen, farang pen, farang pen" to ask for a pen and occasionally "farang kanom" to ask for a sweet. Ug, just like Chiang Mai. As we walked through the village to the single guesthouse located on the other side, we also felt like we were intruding, that our presence was tolerated but not appreciated. The village was fairly well equipped, with electricity having recently been added to some huts by stringing uninsulated wires about 8 feet off the ground on miniature telephone poles. Interestingly, the big red ants also used these wires as a major freeway. The relatively new guesthouse was built right next to a school that was under construction—perhaps as a sort of message from the village headman to the residents that the tourism revenue is worth it in order for them to get their own school (right now, residents of this and more distant villages must walk to Meang Ngoi for school. Many kids are so far away that they actually stay with in tiny huts next to the school Monday-Friday and only go home on the weekend).
The guesthouse in the village was very nice and quiet but we felt so uneasy that we decided to just stay in town.
That evening we ate at one of the handful of restaurants the locals had built for the farangs along the one dirt "road" of town. That restaurant had an interesting dessert item called the "farang roll." It turns out there was some farang who stayed for weeks in Meung Ngoi and taught them how to make this sort of "dessert sushi" dish involving a cylinder of sweet sticky rice filled with nuts, peanut butter, and other goodies, with a side dish of super-concentrated honey for dipping. Apparently these sold very well, and they were the most expensive thing on the menu ($1.20).
That evening a Lao woman was hanging out at the guesthouse. She introduced herself as Sengmanee, her English was absolutely perfect, her vocabulary was enormous, and her manner was charming and unusually outgoing for a Lao. She said she was 24, and studying to be a Lao teacher at a university in Luang Prabang. When I asked about her English she said she just got it from practicing a lot and that Lao English courses are so lame, "just A, B, C, A, B, C, that's all they ever do." She was born in Meuang Ngoi and was visiting her hometown on vacation, but was very bored with the place. Other farangs arrived at the guesthouse and she began talking with them as well, for the next several hours. She teased them and brought up a range of bizarre topics like whether she has had farang boyfriends and what she thinks of farangs of various nationalities. Although it was of course unclear, it could be concluded that she was flirting with us. Occasionally she would spew phrases in other languages like French and Hebrew. Every once and a while she would contradict something she said a few minutes before.
This is one occasion where my Thai came in very, very handy. The next day, I was sitting by the soccer field talking to the Thai-speaking Lao man who takes the 3000 kip (30 cent) admission fee to go towards the caves (the fee goes to the school). He was one of the school's teachers and spoke of how he and the other teachers get only a few dollars a month salary to teach the 200 kids in the tiny buildings, and how they need better teachers, especially in English. I mentioned that I had met one Lao person in town with impeccable English.
"Oh, you must mean Sengmanee" he quickly responded. Apparently, she is famous, or rather, infamous in Meuang Ngoi. "Kao bpen kon mai dii" ("She is a bad girl") and "Go-Hok Tuk Kam" ("every word she speaks is a lie") were his first two observations. Apparently, Sengmanee is 13 years old and is one of his grade-school students. She has never been to Luang Prabang or certainly doesn't study there, and frequently skips school. All the kids of Meuang Ngoi are expressly forbidden from hanging out at the guesthouses and Sengmanee is the poster child for why. He said her parents punish her but she keeps doing it anyway, and nobody in town seems able to control her. Juum just seemed to put up with her presence at the guesthouse; I don't think they are related but I'm not sure. Sengmanee's mother showed up at the guesthouse and screamed something about finishing her homework but she gave some flip response and ignored her. I asked the teacher why the kids can't go to the guesthouses and he responded that there were some recent thefts of farang belongings (which I later heard were related with the fact that 3 of the guesthouses were forcibly shut down, hmm) which got blamed on the kids, and that there were "other reasons" also, a typically unclear Lao/Thai answer. Perhaps if I stayed for a few weeks I'd get the real story :)
Anyway, armed with this new knowledge, I enjoyed watching Sengmanee do her thing the next day to a new group of farang men, French, Canadian, and Israeli. I had forewarned half of them and the others were left to be seduced. Sengmanee bummed several beers off of them and eventually they started playing card games. Sengmanee innocently asked them questions about the rules and what the card suits are called, but at some point it occurred to me that she probably knows the cards and games better than they do. They ended up playing cards until about 1-2 in the morning and I have no idea what happened after that...
About the only consistent thing we heard was that, in a possibly separate matter, the village headman had become frustrated with everyone and their son becoming "guides" in Meuang Ngoi, not because that reduces the average quality of service for the farangs, but because the crowd of local "guides" were frequently bypassing the normal fee local guides have to pay the headman for permission to take farangs to other villages! So the headman had basically "fired" a bunch of the guides and restricted the activities of others.
For the same vague reasons, no boat people I talked to were willing to take me to a random village along the river. So much for my plans to just show up and see if they'll let me stay. My gifts would have to wait until Phongsali.
During my days in Meuang Ngoi I lacked the language skills to find out what's really going on, but then again maybe if I was fluent in Lao I still wouldn't know.
Today and for the next few days I wanted to go inner-tubing down the river. There was one man in town who offered to _paddle_ you and some tubes upriver for in his small boat for about 1 hour and drop you in, so you could float back down to Meuang Ngoi in...about an hour! But the weather was actually getting too cold, an experience I never expected to have in southeast asia.
The man spoke a little Thai and he told us of his youth, when he and everyone in this little village had to move into the caves, because every day, often multiple times per day, American and American-trained Hmong airplanes flew over and dropped bombs on all parts of their village, morning, noon, and night. He didn't seem bitter at me because I was American but definitely remembers how many folks had died in the bombing. The effect of our "secret campaign" are visible all along the Nam Ou river villages. In every town you will find a set of UXO (UneXploded Ordinance) posters which show the locals exactly what the bombs, cluster bombs, and land mines look like, and advise them not to play with them. Apparently, in the tiny town of Meung Ngoi alone, 15 children had died between 1975-2000 when they found unexploded cluster bombs and played with them like balls. Other posters teach the locals to carefully dig out an area and make a concrete fire pit in it before building any ground fire, because sometimes the UXO is buried and detonates from the heat of surface fires. The military came in around 2000 with metal detectors and removed 1,500 unexploded cluster bombs and 5 of the big bombs from the local area of Meung Ngoi, declaring that they had found "everything." The big bombshells now serve as planters along the main dirt road of town.
I returned from the trek to find a volleyball game in progress at the field, with a mix of farangs and teenage Laos, so I joined in. Although the net was low, the game was very challenging because the ground was exremely uneven, grass in some places, dirt in other places, and a roughly 10'x7'x7' triangular area with piles of buffalo crap in the back left corner of our side which the back row player either just left undefended, or carefully danced around with stragegic hops that only the Laos could master. The court did have a 10-foot "line," but unfortunately it was a 3-4" deep ditch into which it was very disturbing to step when you were trying to make an approach for a hit. The game went on for several hours (some of the farangs played for 7 hours!). Turns out the game was so popular because one of the guesthouses stocks a nice new volleyball for farang use, and normally the kids don't have access to that volleyball (or perhaps any volleyball) at all.
We arrived at Meung Kwaa (Meuang Keua), another town situated on a "major" road and at the confuence of two rivers. The whole town hangs off the very green, very steep banks cut by the two rivers, about 500 feet above the rivers, so that it meets the level at which the government cut the highway. The town had outgrown one hill face and so they built a giant, rickety car/motorcyle suspension bridge across the smaller river, and built the other half of the town on the other side.
There are even some houses and a road across the larger river (Nam Ou), but in order for a car to get from the highway (or the main part of town) across to that road, the car must take this giant, wooden car barge, which looks like a huge floating dance floor with an old tugboat bolted to it. Unfortunately, the tugboat by itself is no longer powerful enough to make it across the river against the current. So the car driver also needs to hire 4 slow boats, which motor directly up to and basically hit the barge (without any ropes securing them to the barge or to each other!) revving their engines at full power for about 10 minutes to hold the barge against the current. It's quite an amazing sight and quite a miracle that more cars do not get delivered to Meuang Ngoi!
This town has 2 or 3 guesthouses, but most people seem to stay at one particular place on the Nam Ou "beach". An amazingly Rube Goldberg stairway/ladder leads from the boat landing up about 300 feet to the guesthouse. The sort of Chinese/Lao seeming owner of the guesthouse shows you to the rooms and explains the hours electricity is available, etc. The town has a handful of restaurants and is pleasant to walk around.
Some people do treks out of this town to see nature and hill tribes. One particular guide has his poster plastered all over the guesthouse, with a full description of his service and with 3 pockets. The pockets contain little slips of paper with reviews from his previous customers, in English, French, and German!
I enjoyed my first hot shower in quite a while and wandered around the strange town.
Later the sun did come out and the rest of the journey was absolutely wonderful. We periodically stopped on the shore to eat or pee and rafted up with another boat. It became clear to me that I was placed on a boat chartered by a huge group of Laos. In the other boat were more family members, chickens, and a hog-tied hog. As far as I could tell none of them spoke a word of Thai and it was difficult asking anything, in addition to the fact that they were uncharacteristically not interested in finding out who I was and why I was there.
When we arrived at Hat Sa, there was a giant truck which seemed to match the Lonely Planet description of the truck to Phongsali, and further confirmed by an old man gesturing me to put my bag on and hop in, I got in. But then something happened which I have never seen before in SE Asia. Other members of the family worked together to build a little English sentence and they yelled at me "You—No Passengers—Only Wedding." Apparently this was a wedding party and even though the old man said otherwise, they had decided to kick me and my bag off the truck, even though (as I later discovered) it was going exactly the same place I was. This is the first time I have _ever_ seen people not welcoming, helping, or at least humoring the farang. I would see this uncommon pattern of privacy, unfriendliness, and exclusivity repeated in Phongsali. Many Phongsali locals with whom I spoke in Thai or English agreed that the feel was different here and attributed it to the presence of large numbers of Chinese (whose border in Yunnan province is only 40 kilometers away), or at least their cultural influence. It sort of confirmed stories I had heard from many, many travelers about differences in friendliness traveling in China vs. other asian countries.
The group turned out to be from a large village between Meang Ngoi and Meuang Kwaa and were headed up to Phongsali for a massive wedding between a Vientiane-based member of the Ministry of Finance and (I assume) a Phongsali woman. The wedding party completely occupied one of the town's few guesthouses and held a massive, multi-day feast where the hundreds of guests were wined and dined until the late hours. A separate area with a huge parachute shade tent housed the tables and presumably also the wedding ceremony. Farangs who happened to walk by were not invited. In fact, some Laos reported that many of them were not invited either—you had to "be someone" in town in order to be invited to this shindig.
Still at Hat Sa, I waited for the village headman of Hat Sa to get back so that I could take his little rickety pickup truck with a few other passengers to Phongsali. One of the other passengers turned out to be an engineer for the Lao Department of Roads, and he used his pretty good english to explain how they were "upgrading" their roads to this thin form of Asphalt which they could barely afford, but which was much worse than what they use in Thailand or America. He seemed pretty proud of it.
Phongsali is definitely the ugliest town I have ever seen in Southeast Asia. It's actually situated on one of an endless series of nice, rolling hills, however the people of the town have built houses, stores, and hotels along every possible inch of the town's few roads so that at no point do you ever actually see those beautiful hills. All you see is ugly corrugated steel buildings, dirt, and crappy road. And if you look inside those houses and buildings you will see that very few of them contain back windows, so in many cases the residents cannot see the beauty either. The Lao government has placed many tall, ugly radio towers, microwave dishes, and other guck right in the center of town amongst all the other houses to uglify things even more. There's a sports field whose edge is completely covered with garbage. There's a central collection of austere government buildings including a museum, an auditorium, a set of buildings labeled "Ministry of Industry and Handicraft," another versatile building labeled "Ministry of Communications, Post, Transport, and Construction", and my personal favorite, an enormous structure proudly labeled "Propoganda Library." I tried to go into there but they wouldn't let me.
All of these government buildings are wired up with these large, ugly loudspeaker horns which I haven't seen since M*A*S*H, and every morning and evening they blare the most horribly distorted music imaginable followed by 20 minutes or so of good news and government brainwashing in Lao.
In general I saw very few residents who smiled ever. It was as if the general attitude of fun and happiness seen in so many places in SE Asia just doesn't apply in this dusty hole.
I also eventually found that many residents spoke only Lao and Chinese or only Chinese, which made it harder to get a sense of what was going on there. Furthermore, the dialect of Lao spoken here was much less like Thai than that found in Vientiane or Luang Prabang, and many fewer people here had TVs or watched Thai TV so my Thai was much less useful.
But all that was OK because the main purpose of coming to Phongsali was to get out of there on a trek to see some nature and hill tribes. There are no professional guides in town at all. You have to just wander around and ask.
While wandering I met a group of 4 farangs who had just come off a 4 day trek. They, and a few other folks around town, set me straight on the guide story. There are a handful of guides in town—the high school Engilsh teacher named Mr. On Kham, and several of his students. You can go to the high school and talk to the teacher yourself, or some of the students wander around the guesthouses and seek you out. One of them Keo, trailed us this evening and gave us the hard sell on his tour ("so will you go with me tomorrow?").
You may wonder how these guides can do their business when they are supposed to be in school. Well, this is an example of what we farangs do to a place with our presence and our money. Every day, these folks make a decision of whether to go to school, or go guiding. Often they will not tell the farangs they are teachers/students, or (as happened to us) they will tell the farangs that there is a vacation from school. All this stuff I am describing now I didn't really figure out until the 11th, after my tour and after the guides had come clean.
One of the students, who had the most fluent English and best pronunciation, who called himself "Bamboo" or "Babu" instead of his real name so that the foreigners could remember it better, and with whom the 4 farangs had just gone trekking, was particularly blatant about it. "School," he said to me in his ever-so-confident tone of voice, "school is optional for me. Some days I go to school, and some days I go trekking." I asked him how he plans to go to University if he skips high school all the time since he needs to pass his examinations. "Oh," he said, "I make lots of money trekking with foreigners. If you have lots of money, you can go to University." While I don't doubt this is true in Laos (and probably USA too) I tried to explain to him that eventually he would need some actual skills (beyond English and trekking) to make his own business, such as an understanding of math or accounting, or for that matter, reading and writing English, which he is apparently very bad at. But my explanation was going nowhere. It seems that Babu will spend the rest of his life taking all the shortcuts. I think some day he will regret it a lot.
Keo, the boy trailing us now, was a classmate of Babu's who had been lured in by Babu's evident riches and insistence that trekking was more important than school. Keo was visibly uncertain about skipping school though, so maybe there is hope for him.
On the 8th, I had found two farangs who also wanted to go trekking (one of the 4 from the night before and an Isreali woman who checked in after completing a hellish 11-hour truck ride that evening). We visited the teacher, Mr. On Kham, to get his pitch. On Kham's English was pretty darn good, not as good as Babu's, but he clearly had a better understanding of the hill tribes and what about the hill tribes interests foreigners. He was clearly the best bet. Unfortunately as we arrived at the school, Keo also arrived and when it became clear we would prefer On Kham he began to rant in Lao about how he found the farang first, etc. It was all under the cover of face-saving Lao non-confrontationalism but it was still awkward.
As we visited On Kham, two American women showed up who turned out to be absolutely fluent in Lao. We had heard about these women from other travellers making their way up the Nam Ou. They had worked for various NGO's in Vientiane for 10 years and were on vacation in Phongsali visiting their old friend On Kham. They wore Lao clothing, and interestingly many travellers were put off by this, as some kind of "fake" gesture of belonging. Personally I didn't care one way or the other. Maybe the travellers would think differently if they knew the ladies lived in the country.
The more vocal American was at first very aloof and didn't even acknowledge our presence. Apparently she has seen so much of tourists that she can't even stand to talk to them anymore. When she noticed I could speak some Thai and had brought gifts for the villages I was talking about visiting though, she opened up and was quite helpful translating the more complex English details of the tour we were discussing with On Kham.
One german guy in our group, Martin, had heard of this Akha hill tribe village called Pai Chu from the french photographer guy in Luang Prabang (the one with the harem in the middle of town). Apparently Pai Chu was very distant and interesting to visit, and the frenchman advised Martin to stay there for a while if he could, and that he should "not marry the village headman's daughter, or if you do, don't look at her teeth," referring to the fact that nearly every Akha chews the red-staining beetlenut and never brushes for their whole life. So Martin was asking all the local guides about Pai Chu. Keo had never heard of it, and On Kham described how it would take 5 days walking to get there.
This was too much work for me and Shira, the Israeli woman, so in order to save face for the guides but also get On Kham for as much time as possible, we decided to take both guides to a nearer Akha village, and then Martin and On Kham would split off for a longer trek to Pai Chu. Martin's plan was this: he was going to have On Kham introduce him to the Akha headman and ask the headman if Martin could stay by himself for...two weeks! I really envy Martin's courage. This idea was so cool because normally when tourists visit hilltribes for a day or a day+night, there simply isn't enough time for the farangs or the locals to overcome the awkwardness and unfamiliarity. Martin would have time for the villagers to become used to him. Although Martin spoke no Thai or Lao or Akha, he would have time to work things out. Martin brought a heavy, fancy SLR camera and this long stay will probably also give him the time and credibility so that the villagers will be comfortable being photographed. Amazingly, Martin also decided to lug his guitar on this 6 day journey. Martin plays and sings a wide variety of pop, jazz, and german, irish, and american folk songs, something that can keep the village children mesmerized, or at least entertained, for days.
Having worked out these details in multiple meetings with On Kham (which included a delay while we waited for On Kham to return 4 hours late from the wedding party, where he no doubt participated in many rituals involving Phongsali-spiced Lao Lao whisky) we settled on $12/person/day plus $1/person/day for the village headmen (for staying overnight and for dinner and breakfast).
Back at the hotel, a Lao-looking man in a suit with a suitcase for luggage checked in. He didn't quite seem to fit in to the typical Lao profile, the typical UN/NGO "development" boon-doggler profile (since he lacked the $50,000 sport utility vehicle and pretentious attitude typically seen with that group of folks), or the typical backpacker profile. I discovered he spoke quite a bit of English. It turns out he is a Lao-American Hmong who had been living in California (I think in Stockton but I can't remember) for about the last 25 years. He lived in the Xieng Khuang area of Lao during the war and his parents were among those Hmong trained by the CIA to drop bombs on places like Meuang Ngoi and others I had visited. He too did some sort of work for the CIA, and so when our "secret war" failed in 1975, the USA flew his entire family out. On arrival in the USA, the family received a few thousand dollars and that's it. Some Christian missionaries in the US seized the opportunity to "help" the Lao refugees and now most of his family is Christian.
Anyway, he had come back after decades see what his country looked like. Needless to say, he was intentionally vague about his past with the Laos, merely explaining that he is a Lao-American and nothing more. He had chosen to visit Phongsali more or less randomly off a map because he had never been there before, and he had just gotten off a Lao Aviation flight which arrived at the new Phongsali airport, which had opened only two weeks before. The airport is a pretty big deal for this town since the only other ways to get there are 5 hours of boat travel, or 11 hours of utterly horrible road travel. There are now four flights a week, two to Luang Prabang and two to Vientiane.
I debated whether to break it to him that this town was basically a dump. I decided to let him see for himself, and in fact the next day he was saying "hmm, there's nothing here!" He had to wait 5 days to catch the next flight out of town, not sure what he did. He was thinking of renting a motorcycle and exploring out of town.
We had dinner with him that evening in the sole open restaurant, and he was both shocked and fascinated to find out about backpacker travel. The thought of a 22 year old Israeli woman traveling around his dangerous old country by herself using public transport, staying in cheap hotels, and venturing out on distant treks, blew him away. We showed him the Lonely Planet and he started to get it a little.
One of his main observations about Lao is that there's not much communist or socialist left about the economy, with competition, foreign brands, advertising, and huge discrepancies between rich and poor now common. He debated whether he wanted to take his kids to visit.
On Kham and Keo were surprisingly on time (given the late night wedding party) and we headed out. On Kham's sore throat had unsurprisingly gotten worse and we feared we might still only get the benefit of Keo's English :) On Kham was clearly hurting for the whole trip but he plowed on without complaint, in classic Lao style.
We hiked for a total of 7 hours that day. As mentioned before, the terrain here was like an egg crate, an endless series of 4200' tall hilltops about above the 1800' river-cut troughs. For some reason I never figured out, the Laos love to cut trails that go straight up each hill and straight down, rather than simply staying flat just above river level. Perhaps this was because most people taking those trails wanted to get to the slash-and-burn fields that were cut on the steep sides of many of the hills. Or perhaps they were just used to going up and down all the time and they didn't care. So anyway, we went down about 2000', then up 2000', then down again about 1600', then up a bit. At each trough we stopped at a river to rest and cool off. The terrain in the hot afternoon was almost totally exposed because the trail went by slashed fields, so it was roasting and just on the edge of my ability.
In the morning, along the way, we passed some old Akha ladies and a few kids who had started out at 4am from the village we were headed to. They were bringing heavy baskets of goods on their back to sell at the market in Phongsali, and they also sold as many goods as they could to people and villages they passed on the way. It was shocking how little they would make from all this farming and hiking work; I think the baskets they carried would be worth a few dollars at the market. Fortunately, the Akha are mostly self-sufficient and buy very little. Before we reached the village, these old ladies passed us again on their way back from Phongsali. They probably consider this to be a short walk to town. We also got passed by a man who looked about 70, doing the same thing.
We also passed a lot of men chopping wood and carrying it back to their village, and some men just sort of hanging out in the occasional shade hut, smoking. Every 300 feet or so along the trail, we would pass a discarded bamboo bong. As mentioned before, everyone in Lao smokes something, and the locals use these bongs to smoke tobacco or whatever they happen to have. The bongs were sort of group property.
When we stopped at a small river for lunch, the guides went over to the shore and uprooted several plants. One of the plants had just the right shape leaf to serve effectively as a picnic blanket, keeping the ants and sand out of the food. Another plant's leaf was perfect as little plates. A third, cilantro-like plant was good to eat. The guides of course brought much better food than us and shared it with us. We had 3 kinds of sticky rice, a bunch of hard boiled eggs, and most importantly, little packets of dry and liquid-based chili mixtures. You grabbed some of the sticky rice, or egg, and dipped it in one of the chili mixtures, for a very satisfying meal. Being farangs we brought a bunch of the deep-fried greasy stuff, which the guides avoided.
During our hot and miserable climb up I decided to kill some time by trying to learn the Lao alphabet, which is vaguely similar to Thai. I asked On Kham to help me but after a while it seemed like he kept changing the order around and leaving out the odd letter. Hmm. Perhaps it was related to the fact that he was sick.
Finally we arrived at the Akha village, a large, slanted clearing near the top of one of the hills with a beautiful, panoramic view of the other hills, and about 50 thatch huts which serve as dwellings, storerooms, and barns. At the entrance to the village was a pyrimid-shaped bamboo structure with a swing that was used for various traditional ceremonies. Although our gudes didn't tell us, it would have been Very Bad for us to touch the thing so it's good that we didn't.
The local Laos regard the Akhas as the most "primitive" of the local hill tribes. Like everyone else, they build thatch huts, but the floor of the huts is just the dirt of the ground and only the bed areas are raised above the ground. As a result, it's common to see pigs, chickens, and dogs wandering in the huts (but not in the places where they sleep). The Akha women and girls still wear their traditional clothing, very elaborate and colorful black headdresses with shiny metal discs and multicolor braided strands. They are the only people left in Phongsali province who wear traditional clothing. The Akha men and everyone else wears shorts, sarongs, and t-shirts with English writing (which always seem to be misspelled or odd lots in some way) which they purchase in Phongsali.
The village exists at an unbelievably low financial level. They grow all their own vegetables in gardens, have some slash-and-burn rice fields, and have several cows and lots of pigs and chickens. Meat is considered a rare and expensive delicacy; they would kill a chicken only when it is very old or for some very special occasion. They seem to sell the pigs. The main thing they buy is clothing. They manufacture very little. They make these small bamboo wooden stools by bending bamboo into spiral cylinders on posts all around the village, and sell the stools for almost nothing in Phongsali. They have no electricity but have a lot of crappy flashlights which they use to get around at night. They have no phone and there is no pavement or really metal or concrete building of any kind in town. There are no bathrooms at all. Villagers walk a few minutes and do their deed in the forest.
As the hours of hiking added up I continually asked myself why anyone would build a village so far out (though again I think to them this village is considered "close to the city.") We found the answer when we arrived and asked if we could get some water for bathing. Turns out there are two tiny, tiny mountain springs where water trickles out of a rock, perhaps a gallon every 10 minutes at most. They have not built anything to collect the water. It simply collects in a muddy dirt pool about 2'x3' big and 1' deep, and then seeps down the hill slope creating a massive mud slick that you have to trudge through to get to the water. The entire village lives off of this supply, for drinking, cooking, and perhaps washing as well (although perhaps they hike an hour to the nearest stream to wash?). We had this great idea of washing and so asked if we could go to the water. As we marched off we were followed by at least 20 village kids who were ever so curious to see what the foreigners were up to. I slipped on the muddy path to the water and this provided some entertainment. When we saw the actual pool we realized it was time to rethink the plan. We ended up asking for a little water pail and giving ourselves an upper body sponge bath, after first asking our guides to ask the kids to go away (which they did obediently and then hid behind bushes so they could keep watching us). Things were especially awkward for Shira who did not have a sarong; I'm guessing the kids had never seen men and women bathing together or seen anyone take a sponge bath.
When I visited a village in Chiang Mai, the locals were used to farang, even bored or annoyed by their incessant peering, and after the farangs feasted on their bland, specially prepared farang "village" food at the farang table, the village women feasted on the farangs' wallets by sacking the table with shiny baubles, purses, and necklaces which they made just for the farang (and never made before the farang started coming). The economy of these Chiang Mai villages now totally revolves around, and depends on, the several farang groups per day who visit the village. Sales of ganja, opium, and probably also heroin to irresponsible backpackers also provide a major chunk of the typical village's revenues.
This experience was the exact opposite of Chiang Mai. Many of the village children were surprised to see, and some even ran away from, the farangs. There was no special hut, table, or food for the farangs; we stayed in the headman's hut and ate the same food his family was eating. This village sees a few groups of farang per month at most. There was a small opium poppy field right in the middle of the village (they said the police "never come out this far"!) but they never offered us any drugs. Nobody ever tried to sell us anything. And I was secretly joyful to see that none of the people in the village wanted to be photographed. Martin and Shira had to put away their heavy SLR cameras and be content with taking some landscapes in the morning.
During an initial awkward period while we waited for the village headman to return from the fields to give the official permission for us to visit and take his cut, we broke the ice by joining kids in a game of takraw (basically hackeysack with a rattan ball about 6" in diameter). I was worried because I was no good at this game but was relieved to find that neither were they. Everytime we lost the ball someone had to run downhill to fetch it, and this provided even more entertainment than the game itself. We played as the sun set over the distant hills.
We saw very few women or girls at all. We theorized this is because it was around dinnertime and all the women were cooking and cleaning. One woman was standing out in the middle of the village with her shirt open, breast feeding her baby. Apparently there is no taboo there. However, in each hut, the men and women sleep on opposite sides of a barrier, even the husband and wife. On several occasions we discreetly tried to ask our guides how it is that the tribe manages to procreate but never really got an answer, other than a suggestion that things might happen in the rice fields. Nearly the whole evening, the women stayed hidden on their side of the hut, caring for the children and cooking, coming over to the larger, men's side only rarely to peer at the farangs.
Every hut in this village, like many villages in SE Asia, has a giant hammer contraption for husking rice. The hammer balances on the long lever arm and hangs over a pit in the ground where you place the rice. The village women and children operate the hammer by repeatedly stepping on the short lever arm to lift and drop the hammer on the rice. They then scoop the rice and husks from the pit and separate the two by shaking them through a disk-shaped, wicker, 3 foot diameter sieve which lets through only the husks. They cook the rice for themselves, and they cook the husks (along with shaved cross sectional disks of bamboo tree) for pig food. I still don't understand how the rice gets from the field to the state we see it in the squisher contraption, but maybe someday someone will explain this for me.
The ladies cook dinner over a wood fire built right on the floor of the hut, and a concrete charcoal stove next to it. A few feet above the fire pit was a fire-blackened wooden structure of some sort which served as a place to hang garlic but also had some spiritual role I didn't quite understand.
At dinner, the men (and Shira!) sat around a small wicker table on even smaller wooden stools. Each of us got a little bowl of rice and shared 4 vegetable dishes on the table. There was some boiled morning glory with other veggies, there was some boiled yam, and another spicy dish which maybe had some riverweed. This is basically what they eat for every meal. The women and kids ate separately on their side of the house.
After dinner, Martin asked us a rather important question—whether or not he should get out the guitar and play some western songs. It depends on whether we want to retain as much of an Akha experience as possible, or share other culture with them. After some thought we decided to poison them with western music and got out the guitar. Martin played and Martin and Shira sung the lyrics they could remember to several Lennon, Pink Floyd, and other tunes. It was just really strange hearing Bob Dylan tunes sung with a german accent. But nomatter what they sung it was _really_ strange to the hutfull of Akha adults and kids who immediately appeared in the headman's house to see what was going on. Whenever Martin's voice raised up a little bit, the kids would all laugh and the villagers would knit their brow at each other as they had never heard such an odd thing. The tunes which seemed to resonate most with the crowd were the Irish folk songs, which I suppose more closely resembled their songs. Or perhaps they liked them better because the folks songs were quieter! We clapped for Martin after each song, but the villagers did not have this tradition and also looked confused. At a certain point, one particularly bold village man signaled for the guitar. After peering at the strange, shiny wood and string materials that he's never seen before, he proceeded to start strumming random chords on the instrument and mocking Martin's strained voice amazingly well, to the amusement of all present.
All night, the locals in the headman's hut were smoking tobacco with one of the bamboo bongs. They have some special technique where they eject the burnt tobacco leaves at the very end with just the right application of breath. Martin tried it but could not get the tobacco to pop out!
After about 30 minutes of guitar playing we asked the guides to ask the Akhas to sing or play their instruments or something. The guides asked and said the Akhas didn't want to. Our guides claimed that the Akhas didn't have music of their own but I couldn't believe this as I heard several kids singing that afternoon. That was too bad, I was looking forward to seeing what they would sing. I suppose we should have pressed more; maybe they were shy.
Another pattern I noticed a lot in Lao, and especially here, was absolutely incessant spitting. I had heard that if you spit a lot, your mouth becomes used to it and you want to spit all the time. That was in evidence here. Everyone spit at least once every 5 minutes, on the ground, nomatter where they happened to be—outside, in a hut, in a boat, whatever. The spitting didn't seem to correlate with dust in the air; people just wanted to spit. It would be a Singaporean's worst nightmare. One kid watching the music had a cold and so he sniffed and spit about every 20 seconds. Naturally he was standing right next to me and aimed his phlegm right in the vicinity of my shoes. It didn't seem like a very healthy habit but they've been doing it for centuries. I imagine the floors of their huts developed some special properties from all the saliva.
When it came time for us to find a place to sleep, they interestingly put all three of us together on the men's side. I guess they have become used to the farang's "strange" customs. We slept on a bamboo platform about 2 feet off the ground, on a rather ratty blanket which I had to share with Shira (Martin had brought a sleeping bag). There were also the two guides and the headman. The headman's children slept in a series of smaller raised beds along the other wall of the hut.
As soon as we settled down for a nights' rest about 9pm, we were exposed to a soundscape that was new to me. Laying in your hut you can hear a muffled version of activity going on outside and in other huts. In addition to the odd kid screaming and rooster flapping his wings 4 times and crowing because he thought a flashlight was the sun, you can hear the rhythmic thump of the rice squishers from every distance and direction. Apparently the villagers do not all keep the same schedule for dinner. Some of the squishers were thumping until well after midnight. I did not get much sleep as the blanket was too small and it was cold. This made it extra fun to hike the next day.
As we hiked back through the mountains in the morning, dense, low fog cooled our way and the beams of light generated by the shadows of trees were breathtaking.
Then the fog burned off and we were back to hiking in fully exposed areas in 80 degree heat with little or no wind, sloshing our way up muddy, steep paths, then passing more slashed fields. At one point the trail turned into this huge, flat, truck-wide gorgeous dirt road, and then turned into a trail again. Most odd. Apparently this was just one part of an aborted, or at least suspended, "development" project to build another road from Phongsali through the villages all the way to China..there are marooned stretches of such road all over the hills.
After about 4 hours we reached one Puu Noi village (a different minority than the Akha) and, realizing that we had another 3 hours of midday sun, and that I was way out of my league physically and that the trip had at this point dipped below the "fun" threshhold, I decided to flake out and change my trip into a 3 day 2 night trip. Shira wanted to continue because she was in shape and wanted to get out of Phongsali to meet someone, so we had Keo hire a Puu Noi village kid to take Shira back to Phongsali, and Keo stayed with me. If I had had my wits about me I would have done it the other way around since then Keo would be around for school the next morning (assuming he didn't find any other trekking customers), oh well.
The Puu Noi village was quite a step up "development" wise. Although there were still no toilets, the Thai government had constructed several wells which constantly pumped up fresh water which the locals used for drinking, cooking, and bathing. They had constructed a large concrete platform so the water could be used without standing in mud, including a spigot where you could actually take a shower! What luxury! In general the deal with bathing in Laos is the modest standard: women bathe while always surrounded in a sarong, and men bathe while always wearing their underwear. This I think makes life much easier for the men.
The huts were much larger and some even had tin roofs. The floors of the huts were all raised above the ground. Only pigs and chickens and the odd kid shuffled around below the floors. The locals had built retaining walls all over the place and there was slightly more level ground than in the Akha village. The village had about the same number of huts but had a lot more cows and pigs. The cows wandered around the hills right outside the village, however there was a french-funded "development" project in progress where they were buiding a corral to keep the cows in a confined space, not sure why. There are no roads that go to this village, but the hike to the nearest road is only a few hours.
We wandered around the various levels of the village and watched lots of kids having tons of fun playing with things that cost nothing at all. It will be too bad when they get TV and suddenly want Power Rangers. At the edge of town there was a primary and secondary school which serves many villages around (as in Meuang Ngoi, there was a small hut where some particularly remote kids stay during the week). I wanted to see if I could get the kids to help me learn the Lao alphabet but none of them seemed to know it. Hmm.
The village headman's hut was all full with corral construction workers so we stayed in the #2 man's hut. As in the Akha village, they cooked on a fire inside the hut, but in this case there was a concrete fire pit built into the bamboo floor. But there was the same mysterious wooden platform right above the fire pit with the same garlic and other cooking goodies hanging from it. Several tree branches hauled in from the forest radiated out from the center of the pit, and they would push the branches towards the center as the ends burned away. The smoke from the fire swirled around in every direction depending on the wind and eventually found its way out the open eaves of the hut.
The #2 man and his wife were very quiet and deliberate people. They rarely looked at us, or each other for that matter; they mostly just went about their daily business of preparing food, chopping up these weird-looking cone-shaped bits of bamboo tree and other stuff. Come to think of it, the man, his wife, his 2 remaining sons, their wife, and their kids, who all lived in the hut, rarely said anything at all. One of the smallest girls was afraid of the farang and clung to, and hit behind, her mother. The other kids just bopped in and out at will until they were commanded to go to sleep (and complied, but maybe an hour later).
At a certain point, of course without asking, they decided to kill a chicken for the evening's meal (which then meant they would be expecting perhaps $1.50 more payment for the meal). The old man came in with the recently stunned chicken, bled it, dunked it in boiling water for a bit, and then brought it outside to his raised deck to de-feather it. Keo was not satisfied with the de-feathering job so he took over and removed every last brush, as well as completing the rest of the preparation (gutting, de-beaking, de-clawing, etc.), which I had never seen before. As he removed the various undesirable organs he just tossed them through the (frequently missing) slats of the deck for the pigs to chew on. When he wanted to clean the deck he just poured water on the chicken, and all the fluids and gunk went down to pig level too. Around then it occurred to me that you just don't want to be walking down there ever.
The cone-shaped bamboo things turned out to be one of the entrees. I think these are maybe the young tops of bamboo trees, white with a slight purple tint at the edges. After boiling in a broth, they are soft enough to eat. The thin end takes the flavor of the broth and the thick end is a little bit bitter. They boiled the chicken for a while and used the broth for all the dishes, including a replay of the morning-glory type vegetable dish I had had in the Akha village. They chopped up the chicken meat (bones and all) into small chunks which they also served in broth.
After the meal, they just kept the fire going and everyone just sort of sat around and stared at it, which was actually pretty cool and a welcome change from the sort of Californian custom that you have to keep the small talk going non-stop. I'm pretty sure this is what they do every night. Every five minutes one of them might ask another some short question, and then back into silence. At a certain point Keo decided it was payment time, so we put together 35,000 kip ($3.50) which Keo said should be great, and he handed it to the #2 man and his wife. The man just continued to stare off in the distance as if nothing had happened and his wife had the most odd expression, subtly puckering her lips and rolling her head back ever so slightly, looking only at Keo or off to the distance. To this day I have no idea whatsoever what she was trying to express. Her reaction was so buried in southeast-asian subtlety and non-confrontationalism that it could have meant anything. It's like trying to read a street sign in the fog, through a kaleidescope.
My first impression was that she thought the amount was insultingly low but Keo insists they were happy with it. The Akha village headman seemed happy with $1/person. After her reaction Keo said something to them about a chicken being worth $1.50 at the market, something which brought the conversation to maybe 10 words total so thus ended the conversation, so I'm guessing that I was right. Keo, as well as the other Phongsali guides, frequently haul out and show the villagers this official piece of paperwork from the Lao government which authorizes them to guide and lays down the rules, and, surprisingly, the prices for village stays. It says $1/person/night for the right to sleep and a dinner and breakfast. I wonder if the prices used to be a lot higher and if the villagers are feeling ripped off. I'll probably never know.
Other than that one little blip it was a most pleasant evening. Keo and I slept on some mattresses right next to the fire and watched the fire slowly burn out. Since we were leaving early the next morning (to avoid sun), Keo asked if they could steam us some rice in the morning. As before, we had only one blanket for two people and I got to choose whether to freeze outside the blanket or sit on the uncomfortable crack between mattresses. So again not much sleep, but more than last time. I could hear in the distance that a few households had battery-powered radios, so in some sense the attack of modernity was already well underway.
Keo and I packed the rice into our bags and rolled out of the village around 6am, along with a group of 6 or 7 villagers with goods for the Phongsali market, who of course immediately sped ahead of us. I could barely see the trail so turned on my flashlight, but of course they confidently stepped on by the light of dawn.
Ecstatic that I had not tried to do this the afternoon before, we plowed up mile after mile of steep, exposed trail, fording two rivers with broken bamboo bridges. We passed through a second, even more "developed" Puu Noi village.
On the way up I decided to ask Keo about his schoolwork. Keo had a reasonable amount of Thai and between that and his English I was able to figure out that he studies Lao, Geography (just Lao Geography, with particular emphasis on the confluences of Lao rivers and roads), Math (currently Algebra and Geometry), and a particularly interesting subject which he translated as Slogans. Basically, for this major subject, you are presented with large numbers of short passages written by well-known Lao authors or by the government and your job is to memorize them. For the exam you're required to reproduce them verbatim on paper or out loud. One of the slogans roughly translates as "In the hills and mountains of Lao there is gold and silver, but the stones in the river are gems just as valuable," an ecological sentiment written by some Lao who was bitter about the way a multitude of European countries came in and raped the country of its valuable minerals, leaving behind mine tailings. Other slogans were political, such as "Laos and Vietnam share rivers and beautiful hills, and they walk together." There were many slogans to the effect that Vietnam is a great friend, and it would never abandon Laos as some other unnamed countries had.
I also made another attempt at convincing Keo that he would need to actually figure out some of this algebra and other stuff if he wanted to run his own business later, unlike Babu. Around this point Keo revealed to me that in fact he did have school that day, and actually started to worry about the amount of school he'd be missing (another promising sign!). I told him I wanted to go with him to the school and apologize to his teacher for keeping him on a schoolday, but Keo refused. This was partially because he didn't want me to do something face-losing, but also, more significantly, because his classmates had most likely already fabricated some lie as to how Keo was sick, or had a dying relative, etc. as they often do when he doesn't show up.
As it turns out, we returned around 10am, and another kid along the trail told him that the teachers were having some kind of meeting and so there was no school. So perhaps he lucked out this time.
I was now basically out of cash except some Baht. Keo always asked for payment in dollars because he realises the value of keeping his cash in that currency. He uses dollars as a sort of interest-bearing "bank account," and he tries to save them up for the expenses he will have at University. So I told Keo I'd meet him later with the dollars and headed off to the bank.
I saw that the bank was open. I considered showering first to improve my chances of getting service, but I had grown so afeared of the bank closing again on me (as they do at completely random hours in this country for no reason) that I went in and changed some traveler's checks right there. I asked the man behind the desk, in Thai, for $50 in kip and $100 in US dollars for my $150 in travelers checks, knowing full well that he probably would not want to give me any dollars. Lao banks always say they are out of dollars because they want the "interest" from them too. When he turned to the deputy branch manager behind him and they concluded I could not have dollars, I then confused them by asking in Thai if I could buy dollars instead. By pure luck, this turned out to be exactly the right thing to say. The deputy manager quickly said "yes," and with that one word, the teller and the deputy manager had unintentionally locked themselves into a face-saving imperative to figure out what the hell it means for me to buy dollars.
They literally spent an hour at their respective desks playing with the numbers, looking at charts, entering huge decimals into their calculators. Dammit, there must be some way he can buy dollars. I'm guessing that they were trying to apply the dollar sell rate to my travelers checks and then the dollar buy rate to the resulting kip, which would result in them giving me more money than my travelers' checks were worth! I couldn't help but to suspect that one or both of them had bought their way through University to this job, just like Babu, and had no idea how to solve basic math problems with fractions. The deputy manager consulted policy slips which he had diligently placed under his clear plastic desktop. Eventually, he walked over to the phone and consulted some other remote, unknown bureaucratic entity for assistance. They repeated calculation after calculation, adding more and more decimal places.
While they pontificated, I had a long boilerplate conversation in Thai with the other teller about where I had learned Thai, how there are a bunch of Laos in California, how the Lao language is just like Thai, etc. etc. Eventually the first teller proudly announced that the transaction was complete and gave me a little plastic token to take to the cash window. During another 30 minutes of waiting, I watched my paperwork go from the teller's desk, to the deputy manager's desk, to another mystery lady's desk, to the money counter's desk, to the money hander outer's desk, at each stage receiving an all-important signature, stamp, or both. Finally, they handed me my kip and $98 in cash. The kip was calculated so precisely that it even included a 50 kip note, worth a whopping half a cent, worthless even as toilet paper (not very absorbent).
Now loaded, I sprung for the $5 hot shower bathroom-inside room and got cleaned up. I met with Keo and gave him his $36 cash plus $2 for some Kip that he lent me for the chicken at the Puu Noi vilage (I did some money exchange through the bank of Keo). I also made another English sign for Keo but made him promise that he would rewrite it in his own handwriting so it doesn't look exactly the same as On Kham's.
That afternoon I had the first opportunity to basically do anything in Phongsali, because now it was a weekday and some things were open. I went to immigration and tried to ask the officer in Thai about these rumored Transit Visas which would allow me to briefly pass through China on my way to Luang Nam Tha in Lao, and thus avoid a hellish Lao overland route. However he was not in a very helpful mood and just said that farangs cannot go to China at all. This is a typical case where your SE Asia plans literally hinge on the person on duty and their mood.
I visited the tiny museum in the center of town. I think I was pretty lucky: other farangs in town had reported trying to visit the museum, but when they showed up, nobody could find the key to the door, and so they were turned away. The most amusing thing about the museum was the Lao-English sign posted with the rules outside of it, including "NO MADMAN OR DRUNKARD ALLOWED IN MUSEUM," and the ever so confident last rule, "WE HOPE THE RULES ABOVE WILL BE FOLLOWED." The museum was a one-room affair which displays the traditional clothing no longer warn by 20 or 30 different local hill tribes, some of whom are extinct. There was also a huge painting the government had commissioned, a portrait of 20 or 30 different tribespeople posing together in their traditional clothes, proudly declaring how this demonstrates the amazing "unity" of the Lao people despite their tribal identities. Hm. There were some artifacts of some of the tribes, and a few of the artifacts were for sale. There were some maps showing the locations of various tribes and some Lao charts showing population, which I tried to help the lady translate into English.
Then a teenager showed up who was much better qualified than me to translate the population chart and we finished a little cheat sheet so the lady could explain the chart to later farangs.
As I struck up more conversation with the teenager, wouldn't you know it, he turned out to be a trekking guide too! This one, another classmate of Keo and Babu, was the only one who could actually speak one of the tribal languages (the others faked their way with the Lao that the village headmen knew) as he grew up in a Puu Noi village. He also said he is not available during the weekdays. Although it was too late for guiding he told me he would be performing in some kind of dance event going on that evening at the auditorium at the center of town. Wow, amazing, something happening in Phongsali!
That evening a record number of farangs arrived in town, perhaps as many as 7. I had dinner at the other restaurant and then went with some of them to the dance event. Two of the farangs were looking for a guide and I told them that the dancer guy would be there so maybe they could do business too.
We paid our 1000 kip ($0.10) admission and entered the busy lobby. Inexplicably, although the audience was kids and no beverages were on sale, the lobby smelled of beer, and on the lobby floor next to the stairway to the auditorium there was a little Jackson Pollack art piece consisting of a broken wooden sign on top of a pile of vomit that had been covered with sawdust. What the hell? Why didn't anyone clean this up before the show?
As we entered the nearly full auditorium from the back, we sent waves of distraction through the audience as hundreds of heads turned to follow our descent to the only open seats near the front row. We arrived 20 minutes late; a band offstage was playing some Lao music, but the show hadn't started yet. We squeezed our blobby farang butts into the minature seats and were soon joined by a gang of spiky haired high-school-aged students. After a minute or two one of them switched seats with the Lao next to me and rung up a quick conversation with smooth English. The conversation started innocently enough but quickly got to the subject of guiding, and I soon realized I was talking to none other than Babu himself!
I wonder if he had come to the show just to drum up some more business. After another seat change to put him between the 2 customers, Babu arranged a complete 2 day 3 night tour with them, on 2 schooldays, all while the first dance number took place. His classmates alternated between watching the stage and watching his sales technique in amazement. It's hard to imagine how any high school student can resist the allure of Babu's "coolness" and his farang money.
Since this was basically a school dance show, I was expecting the performances to be horrible, but swooned over by an audience of doting parents. But I was pleasantly surprised. The audience was mostly students, and there were several numbers with traditional dance from many different local minorities (many more than the token showing at the Luang Prabang museum show!). Some of the dances were really cool! There were also some singing numbers where groups of nervous 3rd-5th graders would get on stage and make very understated (very Lao) moves while singing traditional Lao songs into a very overamplified microphone.
One number was particularly entertaining. The whole stage was clear, and out walked this tiny, tiny kid, maybe 8 years old. The whole audience exploded in cheer before he even started. They handed him a microphone and the music began, and he belted out an amazingly good rendition of a popular Lao folk song, dancing to it as well as his tiny limbs would allow. As in many other numbers, the dance teachers walked on stage as he sung and hung flower garlands around his neck to show their appreciation, only in his case after a few garlands you could no longer see his face!
There were also some comedy skit numbers we didn't understand, and a number where the "honored soldiers" seated in the very front row were invited to come to the stage and join in the dance. At this point we were getting tired and getting very afraid of being invited to the stage ourselves so we shoved off.
The next day I would embark on the hellish overland route out of Phongsali which I had heard of from many other travellers, on my way to other towns in the north of Lao...
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