Phongsali - Laos
Posted Date: 7/12/20139:45 AM

Entry into Laos is like slipping into a cool, peaceful dream draped with green in every directions.  While of tourists raced down theMekong in loud small speed boats and transport boats holding 50 people, I gathered a small group of 3 new friends (a Canadian, German, and Holland guy) and renting a 5 person leaky wooden boat we chugged our way up the swift current and occasional rapid of the Nam Thaw river (a tributary to the MeKong) towards the north of Laos.  That night we slugged our way up a muddy embankment to small native village and house built on stilts.  Sitting on the wooden floor in a circle, the Beer Lao flowed till we found fried mole crickets a delightful accompaniment to more familiar Lao Food.

After two days, engine churning through muddy water, tropical sun beating down from above, countless native village and smiling naked waving jungle babies, patches of slash and burn, subsistence agriculture, towering bamboo groves and primary forest we arrived in the small town of Nam Thaw – my new friends were off in many directions.
Now I am the only foreigner wedged in the crammed mini bus bumping and thumping over dusty curvy roads, through jungle villages, past buffalo and roosters on my way to Udom Xai , then another 9 hour trip winding my way up to a random dot I found on the map – the remote destination “Phongsali” .

At this point it’s been 3 days since I have seen a tourist.  Little children smile and wave at the unexpected sight of a foreigner girl wandering the backstreets alone.  Old women dressed in beaded and hand-stitched tribal wear cook over fires inside their houses on the dirt floors.
Chinese influence is everywhere.  Chinese business men drive expensive cars, restaurants sell Chinese food, the traditional tribal clothing is replaced with tight jeans and cell phones and trucks transport Chinese tea (grown in fields which have been carved from primary rainforest by slashing and burning) to the borders of China.
My travelers map is not to scale but stumbling awkwardly down the street and past people’s curious stares I find the local tourist “office”.  Actually I find the prosecuting Attorneys office – who directs me to the trekking office.
A trek of five college students from Bangkok will leave tomorrow and perhaps I can join.  My independent rock climber ego has issues with the idea of tagging along on a guided trek, but not being sure if I have the skill and/or nerve to face foreign jungle with the potential of tigers and cobras alone, I suck it up and join the trekking party. But not before I am invited out for delicious BBQ buffalo and Beer Lao with two prosecuting Attorneys (I think good friends to have if I encounter trouble later!)

Now we are trudging through the jungle, splashing over flowing rivers, pulling leaches off our bleeding ankles, ankle deep in mud, a green viper winds it’s way by not far from our ankle.  Some trekking partners are fast, an American girl is slower, all study culture and the photos from villages’ rival advertisements for the Peace Core.  Shy, soft eyed jungle children peaking from behind stick houses, pigs and piglets roaming with ducks and chickens, women dressed in beaded costumes uninhibitedly nursing infants, men with slingshot and homemade rifles and children riding buffalo.  We spend the night at the first village in the chief’s house. Following superstition we drink the prescribed 2 shots of Lao/Lao (rice moonshine) to purify our selves, therefore not bringing evil spirits into the village.  The fire water rushes down my throat like gasoline burning the lining of the stomach, mouth, throat.  Again.  Ahh, sleeping on the ground, hard pad under a mosquito net until the roosters crow at 4am.

Aching muscles we eat the sticky rice (rice cooked so that it sticks together more than sushi rice), jungle vegetable and jerky buffalo meat washed down with locally grown tea.  The village chef and a few men smoke home grown tobacco from a “peace pipe” in essence a 3 foot water bong made from 3″ wide bamboo.
Now we are hiking again, more jungle, more villages, more leaches and blood.  Amazing plants with huge leaves slash and burn agriculture fields.  Ethnic minority tribes people hiking 50-100 lbs of rice on their backs to market.  Children burdened with piles of firewood, women in colorful hand woven clothing.  Smoke from our night’s destination brings psychological relief to hot blistered toes and tired muscles.
Children giggle down from the branches of a large tree.  Dogs sing a welcome.  Drums beat in distant wooden huts.  Fire smoke drifts by on a faint wind.  The air is filled with glee and excitement as we approach.  Twenty children, some dressed in ripped dirty western clothes, some in beaded handmade clothes and others naked or partially naked cluster in groups around us laughing mischievously.  Drunk with laughter and Lao..Lao adults wave a hearty hello!  It is the rice harvest festival.  After the hard work of a successful harvest the village is celebrating.  Pig families rummage around, puppies chase chicks, baby children climb on buffalo the entire village is filled with a gleeful mania!

Now we are swept into the drunken celebration, stuff stored in the chiefs house we wrap ourselves with sarongs and venture to the “community shower”; nothing more than a water hose running out from a wall.  Children gather to laugh at the foreigners shiver in freezing water and shyly wiggle their way clean.  They laugh at our attempts to wash soap on the rock slab table that cows lick clean.  A naked 6 year old leads a huge buffalo away from the shower by a nose ring.  Now we sit on the floor of the chiefs house.  An Akah woman with a beaded headpiece and smile wrinkles sits us down at a table of prepared food. A huge group of young men enter the house and drinking Lao/Lao sing and stamp on the floor (a ceremony of some type).  Diner is over, now we are laughing with children – teaching them to dance – until one of the drunk guys calls to us.  Now we are in a house, singing, dancing.  Lao/Lao is flowing and flowing.  Food is abundant.
Now we are following the drum to another house, a meal is ready, lao lao is open.  The women of the house takes two shots and then pours one shot at a time to the guests in a clock wise circle. Each guest must take the shot.  Around and around the table the shot glass circulates as my head spins more and more.  The women sit silently in the background, dressed in black with impressive bead work and a large beaded head dress draped with silver chains and hoops.  We ask if they can join us, the men give their permission and they join in.  Now we are following the drum to another house, stumbling past the cows, dogs and kittens up a ladder made of uneven saplings, being greeted by the topless women with Lao Lao.  A generator fires on, 70′s trance music is frantically changed every 1 minute, CD’s hang from the ceiling.  We dance with the boys manically changing with the beat and shots of Lao Lao.  Clapping and stamping to “chase away evil spirits”.

Until the chief’s little 14 year old daughter leads us home by the hand.  Stumbling up the steps we share our spot on the floor (a mattress with six people lying one foot from each other) with three 4″ wolf spiders.  It is only 9:30pm.  Laughing, we conspire to break our curfew but are sure 6 drunken foreigners will be noticed sneaking among the 20 houses.  Perhaps children with slingshots will shoo us back into the house as they shoo pigs and chickens off the porch with screaming whoops and catapulted projectiles.
The morning sun sees the trekkers stretching tight muscles readying for the 4 hour hike to “civilization”, and me convincing the village chief and guide to let me stay for a while. Picking up their backpacks and the dusty trail I am left alone with 3 liters of water, a few sweet snacks, no language and instructions for a guide to hike me out in a few days.
Now they are all looking at me!  What to do?  I step back inside, lay down in the bed, try to breath and relax.  Gaining courage I wander the village, one women inviting me inside to eat something between a large cucumber and honeydew melon.  Her house has dirt floors and sunlight peaks through the vertical sapling walls.  Aside for a few pans, blankets and knives everything is made from natural fiber.  Her planting basket is woven of grass, spoons carved from wood, her clothing woven and hand sewn.  One child is naked except for a tigers tooth around it’s neck, the other has a torn, dirty t-shirt with the red feather-covered skin and bill of a birds head sewn on his chest.

Women carrying baskets behind them with straps over their foreheads head for the fields, men drink lao lao, smoke water pipes or take up a gun and head out for the hunt.  Occasionally the explosion of gun powder is heard echoing off the surrounding hills. Or a  hysterical cry is heard from a band of young boys running to shoot slingshots at some unidentifiable animal.  7-10 year old girls tote snotty nosed babies on their backs.  Grandmothers watch from their doorways.  Smoke lazily curls it’s way through the air and the menagerie of animals and children play with little supervision.  No one seems to take notice as I cringe watching a little naked baby crawling it’s way through the dust towards a fresh pile of buffalo dung and a slumbering buffalo, the four year old naked boy torturing a standing buffalo bull with a whip made of jungle vine, or the 5 boys who are climbing up to the bull buffalos back by stepping on his ear, pulling his tail, etc.   No one seems to care that the infant mortality rate is over 50%.  Women have 9-12 children and death is expected.
The chef’s wife invites me to dinner.  Her chopsticks pick something unfamiliar from her fire blackened wok. Something with eight legs is offered to me.  With hesitation I take it, then being polite I try to crunch both the tasty squishy body and difficult to chew legs down.  Huddled around the table with the chief and his sons (the women eat later, and the children after that) I pick at the insects – spiders?  I am not sure.  The women is perhaps offended that her offer is not received better then realized I do not know what I am eating.  She makes the signs for bee or wasp.  I pretend I feel better and pick among the bodies for something that looks edible.  The chief rips the legs off before crunching into the exoskeleton.  Humm, I follow and find it easier to swallow without legs involved.  (A delicacy I am told later).  Now I wash the legs and sticky rice down with more Lao/Lao.  The fiery gasoline is growing on me, it seems to burn away any life that may be left in the insects.

A few days pass, laughing children teach me Akah language through drawn pictures.  I teach them to whoop like we though Indians did when we were children.  Soon I have a 30 word dictionary, they can say “goodbye” and the ABC’s to D.  I take my showers at night, but the children have found me and now we have delightfully manic water fights. A 14 year old taught me to properly wash clothes on the rock. I taught a 21 year old to use my $600 camera and he loves to take it for an hour coming back with funny shots and drained batteries.  The cow still licks the soap after my shower, but I barely notice. Nobody is serving me insects anymore.  The neighbor has killed a wild pig, Much to the village’s surprise I have ridden on a muddy buffalo and I have agreed to pay for medication for a young man with new born who probably has walking pneumonia.
My small hotel bar of soap has been shredded on the rock slab trying to keep buffalo dirt off my now torn and worn traveler pants.  My last sweet bar has been consumed and hard candy piece sucked.  Even though I would like to stay, six days without a shampoo, a frighteningly hard bed, and fear of eating more insects and bringing too much outside culture sends me trudging back to “civilization” – in tow my guide – the sweet young man (21) with walking pneumonia who continually sings the ABC’s stumbling over E, alternating with 1-10 repeatedly stumbling over 4. On occasion, I trade a Hindu chant for a traditional Akah song. And we trudge through incredible primary forest with 80ft canopies, tree ferns, streams and pass another green viper he quickly sweeps well out of the way.

Now we are making our way though dikes separating rice paddies.  Umbrellas keep the hot sun at bay.  Despite his cough he laughs and is very happy to see other Akahs but  seems shy around those who treat him as the ethnic minority that he is, his ripped faded t-shirt, and proudly displayed colorful ethnic bag a dead give-away.  As we encounter other Lao the maniacal joy of the village retreats.  The pharmacist beams appreciation to me as I pay the 30 cents he can not afford for penicillin (that he has walked 8 hours to receive).
Now I draw a picture of a bus and shrug towards him to imply “where is it?”.  He smiles and in Lao writes “Phongsali” above the bus motioning that I can show it to locals till I find the bus, but then takes me directly to the bus.  Sadness as two new friends depart, a piece of my heart left in the jungle with a bumpy road and jam packed mini-van to Phongsali between us.  The memory carried with me as I doge branches from atop luggage strapped to yet another jam packed mini bus rocking and rolling along the bumpy dusty path north to Hat Sa and float two days and 12 hours down the Nam Ou river (another tributary to the MeKong River) to meet my parents in Mung Noi (A small backpacker jungle village).  A night of beer lao and buffalo to celebrate the boat ceremony and some great cave exploration.

Now after a few days of shopping, and a very near brush with the law (this story you must ask me to tell you in person) I am heading south to the border of Cambodia for more adventure!!!

Source: Kathy’s blog –

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