I had come prepared to go for a trek in the countryside. Given the heat, I had had second thoughts but knew I would regret it if I didn’t go. I booked a group tour with Tiger Trails and arrived at their bus depot early one morning. It became a private tour when the two other participants re-scheduled because they were sick. I was dubious about being the sole trekker but, with hindsight, I think my experience was enhanced.
My guide introduced himself as Ai and we set off with our driver to a village en route to Pakxeng. The road looked familiar. At one point, we had to wait as there had been a slip. I assumed the people on the road ahead were workers but when they removed the barrier a little while later, everyone piled back into the tuk-tuk in front of us. They were all still trying to squeeze in as we drove past!
On arrival at Pakkens, we walked down to the river past houses which had looms set up outside. As it was so dry, the cloth must have been full of dust before they even finished weaving it. A boatman took us across the river past two men who were fishing. They held a net between them, both wore dive masks and took it in turns to submerge to check for any fish in the net. It was an intriguing method!
We walked up from the river and proceeded through farmland where animals, mainly buffalo, wandered loose. There were few people about but we chatted to one man who was stripping bamboo in preparation for making a basket. Hmong traditionally carry their baskets on their backs like our backpacks, whilst the Khmu use a head strap attached to their baskets that wraps around their forehead. As this places a severe strain on their necks they are gradually changing to the Hmong way of transporting their goods.
We stopped for brief rests here and there and for lunch in a river bed. In the rainy season it would have held a raging torrent but for now there were just dry rocks. It was early for lunch but Laos still adheres to French timings and lunch begins at 11.30am come what may! Ai presented me with an enormous pile of noodles wrapped in a banana leaf. I couldn’t eat it all and saved some for later (although later never came and he gave them to our host’s pigs the next morning).
We meandered along following the course of the river for the rest of the afternoon. It was so hot that Ai cut large palm leaves for us to hold over our heads for shade. It was a relief to approach rice fields as this meant we were nearing the village that was our destination for the night. There was no rice planted as it was too dry. In the hills, there is only one crop per year as, without irrigation, there is insufficient water. It can therefore only be planted in the rainy season. The approach to the village was up a steep hill. My back pack had surely got heavier! There were two fish ponds beside the track. These were well fenced and privately owned. They certainly did not welcome trespassers!
In the village, Ai had a long discussion with an elderly lady (or maybe she just looked old) who showed us a large room in which I was to sleep. A mattress was placed on the floor for me. It didn’t look inviting, but I wanted the homestay experience and that was what I was getting. The bathroom contained a large concrete tank of cold water and a non flushing, knee challenging squat toilet. If I wanted a shower, I could do so in the bathroom by throwing bowls full of cold water over myself or I could stand under the tap outside that served the surrounding four or five houses. I opted for the former.
I ‘showered’ and wrote my diary and read whilst Ai went in search of a pumpkin for dinner. Some small boys came to scrutinise me closely and more passed by on their way home from school.
A little later Ai accompanied me on a tour round the village which was larger than I thought. Most of the houses were made of wood rather than the bamboo I had seen elsewhere. One house was very incongruous. It was constructed of stone and appeared unoccupied. Ai was scathing. Why would anyone spend so much money ($30,000 U.S. in his estimation) to build a house in a village without electricity and a dirt road most of the way to Luang Prabang? Whilst there was no electricity, houses displayed satellite dishes which puzzled me until I discovered that many, including my homestay, had solar power. There was no switch in my room though. It was outside somewhere and controlled by my elderly hostess. I discovered later that 7.30pm was lights out!
We walked through the village and up to the schools. These covered all ages from pre-school to secondary. Several students were playing soccer on the playing fields. It was a beautiful setting surrounded by hills. There were several dormitory huts next to the schools. Parents build these for children who have to go to another village to continue their education. Usually this is at secondary school age but sometimes much younger children are sent away. They have to cook and look after themselves when staying in the huts so become independent at a young age.
When we returned to our homestay, I had free time to wander as Ai cooked our dinner over the open fire in the room that served as the kitchen. Pumpkin soup (not as I know it), cabbage and sticky rice was on the menu. Meanwhile, I sat and watched the comings and goings of the village and took a stroll to watch the children playing in the mud on the banks of a murky looking pond. It was the perfect place to play with plastic diggers, trucks and stones. One boy climbed to the top of a jackfruit tree and proclaimed there were no ripe fruit whilst another wielded a large knife to whittle a stick. I learnt that the boys are required to make brooms each week to take to school to use for cleaning. They are given marks on their accomplishment. The girls do embroidery. One poor lady, with a baby strapped to her back, and an assortment of other children, ground rice, using her foot to operate the contraption we had used at Mr Lee’s. I knew how hard that was and felt sorry for her. She looked weary. There was no husband in evidence and he was probably working in the fields with other men (and women). There were few around.
It was almost dark by the time dinner was ready. It was plain but good. By that time, I was starving! Whilst we were eating, Ai told me the population of the village was 240 comprising 44 families of which four were Khmu and the rest Hmong. Families all lived together and one house was home to 15 people.
It was straight to bed after dinner. I read by torchlight and listened to the night sounds. There was lots of chatter and the cockerels could compete with those I had experienced in Rarotonga. My room was next to the bathroom from which interesting noises emanated! My night was disturbed.