Village houses

On an intrepid adventure!

Weaving loom under the house
Weaving loom under the house

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!

Our transport for the river crossing
Our transport for the river crossing

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).

Noodle lunch
Noodle lunch

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!

My hostess with her indispensible broom
My hostess with her indispensible broom

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.

Art work for sale

Leot and UXO

A temple courtyard
A temple courtyard

I stayed in Luang Prabang for two weeks after the rest of my group left. My intention was to visit Leot English language school each day and chat with students before their classes so they could practise their English. However, I only went three or four times in the two weeks. We had already visited the school as part of our group programme. The students were delighted to chat to native English speakers as the opportunities to do so were rare. In the villages, the English teachers often teach by rote from the textbook as they don’t speak the language fluently. In one of my sessions, the teacher asked me to go through a test with students who had scored badly. It proved an interesting exercise for me to explain the difference between an adjective and an adverb to non-English speakers. I don’t think they understood at the end of two hours but I’m not sure whether that was my teaching or their ability!

I enjoyed my visits as I found out more about the lives of the students. Most of them had come from rural areas to study or work in the city. They are family orientated and all of them talked about going back to their villages but the journey by bus was often too long for them to do so more than once a year. Their families all had land which they always referred to as their ‘farms’. When I went trekking, I observed first hand what they meant. The communities undertake subsistence farming and most families had land and pigs, chickens and sometimes buffalo or cows.

UXO Visitor Centre
UXO Visitor Centre

One day, between classes, I took a long walk in the midday heat to UXO Visitor Centre. This was a sobering experience. Whilst Laos was never a participant in the Vietnam war, the Americans bombed it daily between 1964 and 1973 as they tried to destroy the supply lines on the Ho Chi Minh Trail which wound through Northern Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These cluster bombs (or ‘bombies’ as they are called in Laos) fell every 8 minutes during these years and about 30% of them failed to detonate. Laos is still recovering. All provinces are affected and over 50,000 people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordinance since then. These include children who have picked up the shiny objects to play with, farmers ploughing the fields before planting crops and people using metal detectors in their hunt for metal to sell to augment their meagre income. If the ‘bombies’ kill or maim the main income earner, it affects the entire family. Medical care is not the best and, as many Laos practise animism, they are more likely to consult the local medicine man for their injuries than a doctor. Sometimes the results are not the best. They are slowly clearing the mines and making the land safe, giving priority to agricultural areas. At the current rate of progress it will take another 100 years. A visit to the museum should be mandatory for every visitor.

I enjoyed wandering around the city on my own and exploring different areas. Jenny and I had already discovered a second bamboo bridge (even more wobbly than the first) and I walked over that to get to Leot one day. It also led to the weaving/paper making village which I strolled around with Cathy, an American lady also volunteering at the school. On another occasion, I followed the river downstream as far as possible and observed local life. Some buildings were more rundown than those in the main tourist area and the shops contained some interesting products!

My chatty novice modelling a towel!
My chatty novice modelling a towel!

Luang Prabang is full of temples and I visited many of them although I have to admit to being confused by the names and which ones were which! In one, a novice approached me. He enjoyed chatting and wanted to practise his English. I was there for some time as he told me about his life and ambition to go to Bangkok to study social development and then return to spread the word about Buddha. The five Buddhist Beliefs he recited reminded me of the 10 Commandments. It was a wonderful spontaneous encounter, and I came away smiling.

Many of the temples on the peninsula are in excellent condition but I found one near the Bamboo Bridge that definitely needed some tender loving care. It was interesting to see the considerable difference, and I appreciated how much work they had undertaken to restore and maintain the other buildings. I liked the dilapidated one though.

My days weren’t all serious. I saw two films at L’Etranger, a bookshop owned by a French lady who showed films each night on a large television screen in the room above the shop. There were cushions on the floor and a few seats for the less flexible around the room. Entry was free, but they encouraged you to purchase a drink or some food. It was a convivial atmosphere and I much prefer to go somewhere novel like that than to an eight screen deluxe cinema. I also saw the ‘Green Book’ at Ock Pok Toc. It was the first of their regular movie sessions. The price included dinner, and they showed the film on a big screen in the cafe. It was a cold, windy evening (the only one of my stay), and they provided blankets for those of us who, like me, had not come prepared. I went with Sally and a group of ex-pat residents. Ock Pok Toc provided the tuk-tuk back to town. The film, food and company were all excellent!

With three days spent trekking and so many things to do, my time passed very quickly and it was soon time to leave.


 

 

Where's the food?

Wildlife and water buffalo

Our long boat was late causing Sally some consternation as we had an appointment at the Free the Bears Wildlife Sanctuary. This time, we cruised downstream in a more luxurious boat than the ones we had been on so far. The tuk-tuk ride to the Sanctuary was hairy as Sally, sitting next to the driver, urged him to go faster whilst we all clung on in the back. She need not have worried. They had forgotten we were coming! Fortunately, our guide, Nicky, was there as she could have been out on an excursion like the two members of the team who were in the north of Laos rescuing two more bears.

I saw it first!
I saw it first!

Sally had scheduled our arrival to fit with the bears’ feeding time. After an introductory talk, Nicky led us to an enclosure where the bears were locked in their cages temporarily. She gave us buckets of food and told us to hide it so the bears had to hunt for their lunch. They are very inquisitive and have a strong sense of smell. We retired to a viewing platform, and the keeper released the bears. It didn’t take them long to find the food, including some placed on a high pole. A wily bear just shook the pole!

There is food here somewhere!
There is food here somewhere!

They are all moon bears in the Sanctuary. Many have been rescued from bile farms or been kept as pets in small cages. Some had been caught in traps set by poachers. Conditions in bile farms are appalling and the manner in which they extract the bile is cruel with a catheter often being inserted straight into the bear’s gall bladder. However, whilst the Chinese prize the bile for traditional medicines and there is a trade in exotic wildlife species, poaching will continue. Drug companies also use it in the manufacture of drugs such as ibuprofen. The bears have all suffered severe trauma by the time they are rescued and some remain traumatised. They will not be released back into the wild because of this and the danger of recapture. In the future, they intend to breed the bears and release them but this will not occur whilst consumer demand for them exists.

Kuang Si Waterfalls
Kuang Si Waterfalls

Nicky showed us around all the enclosures including areas not usually open to the public. The number of bears rescued keeps increasing and more enclosures are being built. It was a fascinating tour.

Afterwards, we walked up the different levels of the Kuang Si waterfalls which were an incredible turquoise colour. We didn’t have time to walk to the top of the last one though as it was lunch time and we were due at the Carpe Diem restaurant, a short walk away. Here we enjoyed a French influenced Laos lunch overlooking their pools which were in the same river as the waterfalls. When we had finished eating, some of us braved the cool waters for a quick dip. It was refreshing!

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting the Water Buffalo Dairy farm. Two couples had set this up, intending to produce cheese and ice cream from water buffalo milk. Dairy food is not part of the Laos diet and the couples knew nothing about producing it. Rachael, our owner guide, was a chef and determined to learn. The farm has since evolved. They now produce cheese for local restaurants and unusual flavoured ice cream for the tourists. (My sample was basil.)

A healthy pig
A healthy pig

The story does not end there though. They also work with the government and local Laos people to improve the stock of water buffalo. Traditionally, the animals have been left to roam with their owners not sighting them for weeks at a time. Over the last decades, the size of the water buffalo has decreased because of in breeding and inadequate care. This farm now rents the pregnant animals from the local farmers before she is due to deliver the calf. They care for the beasts, vaccinate them and return them when the calves are about six months old. During that time, they milk the mothers and use the milk for the cheese and ice cream. The animals are in better condition when they are returned and Rachael and her colleagues educate the Laos farmers in how to better care for their animals.

There are also pigs and rabbits kept at the farm, not only to amuse young visitors but also to demonstrate how they can be housed in good clean hygienic conditions. They also hope rabbits will become an additional protein source for Laos. Rachael gave us a very enthusiastic tour which included getting up close and personal with a large water buffalo. We all took turns bathing him and there was much petting (although not by me!)

Our action packed and interesting day culminated in a sunset cruise back to Luang Prabang.

Cruising back to Luang Prabang
Cruising back to Luang Prabang
At MandaLao
At MandaLao

Our second wildlife experience was at MandaLao Elephant Conservation. Here we learnt about and walked with the elephants but first we had lunch!

Looking across the river to the Elephant Sanctuary
Looking across the river to the Elephant Sanctuary

After our meal, the project director, Prasop Tipprasert, who has had extensive experience with elephants in Thailand, gave us an informative talk before we met the elephants. There used to be thousands in Laos where they played an important part in the logging industry. It is estimated about 800 remain. The project provides the best environment for those elephants it has rescued, educates the public and contributes to the conservation of the remaining wild ones.

At present, 10 elephants have over 30 hectares of fenced land in which to roam. They have a set routine. In the morning, they have a ‘buffet’ breakfast by the river after which two of them walk with the tourists whilst the rest are free to wander in the enclosed jungle until the evening. They return to a fenced enclosure, which is 4km from the river, for the night. In the past, visitors could also bathe in the river with them but this stopped after a tourist threw sand at an elephant who then developed infections in his eyes and ears. There is no riding of the elephants at this Sanctuary.

Each elephant eats 250kg of food a day, some of which the Centre provides and the rest they forage. They only retain 40% of the food so it is a massive job keeping up with their required intake! To aid their digestion, they also have to walk 12km a day.

The tour itself began with us donning some fetching footwear and making banana ‘sandwiches’. These comprised a split banana which we filled with sticky rice (even elephants eat rice!), tamarind and a pinch of salt. Yum! (The elephants thought so too!) We then walked down to the river for a five minute boat ride across it. Health and safety kicked in, and we had to add life jackets to our already glamorous apparel.

Feeding the elephants banana sandwiches
Feeding the elephants banana sandwiches
Walking in the jungle
Walking in the jungle

Our two elephants, Mae Tou (aged 42) and Mae Boua Nhen (35) awaited us. They became our best friends when they realised we had banana sandwiches. Sugar cane was of no interest. It didn’t take them long to devour the large basketful we had assembled. They were then ready to walk. They followed behind us with their mahouts, stopping here and there to graze. I had been nervous beforehand about this experience. Elephants are very large! It was a magical experience though, and I was sorry when it was time for the mahouts to lead them to the night enclosure. There was something very calming and spiritual about having these majestic animals so close and be able to touch them. I would do it again any day. After another short boat ride, we returned to the cafe from where our minivan delivered us back to town.

Our visits to all these places was very enlightening, and it was reassuring to learn there are so many efforts being made in conservation and improving conditions for these animals.