The following morning I was up early. It was only then I realised a heavily pregnant woman had been sleeping in a room off mine from which there was no other exit. Guilt set in, particularly as I had suspicions I had displaced some family members in the enormous room. Ai had slept ‘outside’ and assured me this was not the case.
I had coffee and watched the children get ready for school. The two cheeky boys I had noticed were my host’s grandsons. They each went off clutching a handful of sticky rice. Once the kitchen was free, Ai cooked our breakfast whilst the old lady went back to sweeping the leaves. She obviously liked a tidy compound as she had spent most of the afternoon sweeping and burning the day before. Breakfast was omelette and toast with the toast cooked over the fire on a grill made of bamboo sticks. Afterwards, Ai went to find food for lunch. I had visions of him knocking on people’s doors to see if they had any spare food but he went to the shop!
Once he returned we set off. Walking out of the village we passed several houses under construction. These belonged to Khmu. The Government had decreed that people from the next village had to move to this one as there was insufficient water and useable farm land in their own. It provided land, but the villagers had to build their own houses. It was interesting to see the different styles. We passed through their village and it appeared poor by comparison. Ai stopped again in search of food. He bought eggs from the headman’s wife and carried them in his pack until lunch. I was astonished he didn’t break them! Whilst we were chatting to the lady, he spotted a large black scorpion in the road. She became very excited and rushed to get a container to catch it. Its destiny was death by drowning in her whiskey bottle! It gave the imbiber strength (apparently!).
Having started chilly, the day became hotter and hotter. At one point, Ai gave me a choice of routes. There was the easy way on a track up a steep hill in full sun, or the hard way, climbing up rocks and in the shade. When have I ever taken the easy way?
We continued on over said rocks and climbed up the side of a waterfall. At the top he let me have a rest. It was easier after that. I was relieved when he said we would stop at a hut for lunch. The ‘hut’ was a shady platform with a rural view and refreshing breeze. On the way, Ai had collected a hollow bamboo stick and some water. He stuffed the ends of the stick with leaves put the eggs and water in the middle and built a fire to boil the eggs. Very ingenious! Once the eggs were cooked, he placed strips of buffalo skin (minus stiff hair) in the ash to cook. The lunch menu comprised hard-boiled eggs, the ubiquitous sticky rice, crispy pig skin, which was like fatty hollow pork scratchings and chewy buffalo skin which was a challenge to the teeth. It wasn’t as bad as I expected from its appearance though. Afterwards, Ai suggested having a nap. I think he was more tired than I was as the cockerels and people talking into the night had kept him awake! I didn’t object as it was a lovely place to stay and rest.
It was only 20 minutes to our next homestay village, but the route was uphill. The house was more substantial than last night’s. Our room was upstairs, and we shared with the family, which comprised Mum, Dad and two small boys. They slept in one corner of the large room and Ai and I had separate mattresses and mosquito nets in another part. They could accommodate a number of people, judging by the pile of mattresses and blankets. The bathroom had a dividing wall for the squat toilet (non flushing), toilet paper and a bucket for its disposal. I deemed this the height of luxury given the environment! There was a concrete water tank and a shelf for storing food. They also used the room for washing dishes.
We took a walk around the village which was much larger than the previous day’s. It had a population of 1,000 people, comprising both Hmong and Khmu. There was a large grassy area in the middle where girls were playing skipping games and the men petanque, watched by their sons. According to Ai, women have too much work to do to play and the girls don’t want to! This information could not pass without comment and I was almost diplomatic in my response but I suspect not enough!
Animals roamed freely but a few large cows were tied up. These were the fighting animals. Gambling is popular in Laos and everywhere they keep prized cockerels in bamboo cages. I hadn’t realised they used cows too. A house was being built at the far end of the village and several men were on the roof whilst others watched from below giving advice. Everyone was getting involved in the project. Many children were having showers under the communal taps, it being washing time. There was also a collection of small shops that almost constituted a shopping centre!
Back at the house, I watched the boys (aged 6 and 8) playing whilst I waited for dinner. Earlier they had been wielding a large knife, and I now realised they were modifying a crossbow. They spent hours shooting into the bank below the road and making adjustments to the weapon. The dog, intent on chasing the piglets, and anyone who passed on the road risked being shot. Meanwhile our host sat on a stool having a haircut by someone who had arrived on a motorbike.
Ai was relieved of cooking duties tonight as our hostess prepared our food. When it was ready, we sat on low stools around the communal pots of sticky rice, cabbage soup and more buffalo skin, this time cooked in a stew. It wasn’t any more tender though! The conversation was in Laos so I didn’t understand it. It was dark in the room, with minimal light coming from the cooking fire and a single bulb charged by solar power.
Afterwards, the family sat around a small laptop and watched a film. I went to bed and read on my Kindle for a while. Everyone was tucked up on their mattresses by 7.30pm. It’s a long time since I’ve had such early nights!
The following morning, our hostess was up before 5am lighting the fire and preparing for the day before she went to work in her fields. We arose early as Ai wanted to do the bulk of the hike before it got too hot. Like the previous day, it was cool first thing. We had an omelette and toast for breakfast before we left. Ai had mentioned that eggs from the market were expensive and produced in battery farms. I felt guilty that I was eating them whilst the children just had sticky rice. He had also expressed surprise that a) eggs were nutritious for children and b) he could use the eggs from the chickens he had at home. I wasn’t sure if this was nationwide ignorance or just his.
Our walk this morning was uphill through a bamboo forest to a hilltop village empty of people but full of cows, pigs and chickens and the odd turkey. Ai was searching for food for our lunch but there were only one or two ladies about and no shop. I watched and waited whilst he chatted. After the village we descended steeply towards the river and the village where we were due to meet the driver. Unfortunately, the bridge had been damaged in a recent storm so we couldn’t cross. Ai attracted the attention of a boatman on the other side and he ferried us across, one by one, in a leaky boat. The village had suffered extensive damage with roofs being blown off and one house had collapsed completely.
Whilst I sat and waited for our driver I was the object of some interest to the children returning from school and two or three came to stand in front of me and stare shyly. Talking English to them met with bursts of giggles!
On our trip back to Luang Prabang, we stopped at a noodle soup shop for lunch. It was tastier than buffalo skin but took me a while to eat with chopsticks so Ai and the driver had to wait. They dropped me back in town and I walked back to my guesthouse.
The trek was a personal challenge for me. I knew the heat would be a problem, but I was also anxious about the homestays. I needn’t have worried. They were basic but much as I expected. The fact I didn’t stress whilst I was there was a big achievement and I was glad I had stepped out of my comfort zone. I felt like a real intrepid traveller!