House in Khmu village

Trekking on intrepidly

School time
School time

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.

Ai cooking our lunch
Ai cooking our lunch

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!

Time for a haircut
Time for a haircut

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.

My hostess in her dark kitchen
My hostess in her dark kitchen

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.

School field in the early morning
School field in the early morning
Climbing up through bamboo
Climbing up through bamboo

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!

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.

Hmong skirts at T.E.A.C.

Traditional crafts and paper making

Tools of the batik artist
Tools of the batik artist

Local crafts were another feature of our programme. For the Hmong and Khmu, the two main local tribes, textiles are an important part of their tradition.

Over three days, we visited different places to learn how to do batik, weaving and dyeing, Hmong embroidery and paper making. Our visit to Ock Pop Tok Living Crafts Centre on the edge of town took a whole day. On arrival, they gave us an introductory talk before leading us off to the class we had each chosen for the morning. The options had been batik, weaving and dyeing.

Hmong lady demonstrating batik
Hmong lady demonstrating batik

Together with Angela and Pam, I had decided on batik and we spent the morning under the tutelage of an elderly Hmong lady who was the last person left in Luang Prabang with this skill. The aim of Ock Pop Tok is to keep the knowledge alive. Young Hmong people are not keen to learn. We also had a guide/translator keen to speak English as fast as I did!

The craft itself looked easier than it was. We were all given a piece of hemp, an instrument that resembled a pen and we shared a pot of ink and beeswax. This mixture was heated over charcoal. We dipped the pen into it and drew the traditional pattern we had chosen onto the fabric, freehand. The skill was to use the ink when it was at the correct temperature. It was placed on the burner and we had to take it off but replace it when we judged it was too cool to draw. It was a morning of intense concentration! Angela finished and all her lines were drawn with Germanic precision. My lines had a tendency to converge when they should have been parallel. Nevertheless, I felt self satisfied. We left them to be dyed indigo overnight, and they delivered them to our guest house the next day.

My not so perfect batik
My not so perfect batik

We stopped for yet another delicious lunch between classes. The others had been dyeing all morning and their hands were an assortment of colours! Lunch was served in the restaurant overlooking the Mekong and was most enjoyable apart from when a huge gust of wind blew and the bamboo pole holding up the canopy over the tables collapsed knocking one poor lady on the head.

How many can we get in the tuk-tuk?
How many can we get in the tuk-tuk?

I spent the afternoon weaving. We chose a pattern and silk thread for a small table mat. The looms were already set up with the designs. We each had our personal tutor and a guide/translator hovered. My loom overlooked the river and my personal assistant was patient. It was a therapeutic afternoon. I was delighted with my masterpiece, which was more successful than the batik but, having chosen a colour I liked but have nowhere in my house, I suspect it will spend a long time in a drawer!

On another morning, we visited the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (T.A.E.C.). Here we had a brief tour of the exhibits in the centre before starting our lesson in Hmong embroidery. Several Hmong ladies were there to help us. They use specific patterns and gave us a choice of three. We each selected a design and the coloured thread we wanted to use and commenced.

Ready to teach Hmong embroidery
Ready to teach Hmong embroidery

It was a convivial and friendly atmosphere as is often the case when a group of women sit around and sew. I had, however, contravened the unwritten dress code, and they quietly gave me a cloth to put over my knees as I sat on a low stool. Knees and shoulders should be covered in temples and official public buildings and whilst knee length, my dress was still too short for their comfort. None of us finished our embroidery, which was like cross stitch, and they gave us all sufficient thread to finish it at home. (No, I haven’t completed it yet!)

Learning Hmong embroidery
Learning Hmong embroidery

Our final craft experience was papermaking. For this, we took a tuk tuk to Ban Xieng Lek, the paper village where Nankon talked to us about his life and demonstrated his craft which he had learnt in Thailand. They made the paper from rice, mulberry bark or elephant dung, the latter being an interesting ingredient! We used mulberry bark that day. It had already been boiled in water and drained. We spread the concoction evenly into trays and decorated it with leaves and petals. The mixture resembled wallpaper paste. When completed to our satisfaction, we placed the trays in the sun to dry where they remained for several hours. The resulting poster size sheets of paper were beautiful.

The paper shop not only employs people in the workshop but also provides much needed work for outworkers, particularly women, who live in rural areas. They are taught how to paint pictures, some in sand, on the hand made paper and the materials are provided for them to work from home.

Painting a sand Tree of Life on hand made paper
Painting a sand Tree of Life on hand made paper

The shop proved irresistible, and I browsed for a while before joining the others who had walked to the weaving and cloth shops further down the road.

These were wonderful opportunities to learn about aspects of the local cultures and to interact with the ladies.

Sewing requires concentration!

A visit to Pakzeng Community Centre

Sally is the Founder and President of Laos Solidarity and has her base in the library at Luang Prabang. She works with a local team to provide an outreach programme which educates teachers and the communities on hygiene and well being. She also fully supports trained staff and activities at Pakzeng Community Learning Centre. The town is about two hours drive north of Luang Prabang and she had arranged for us to visit. It was a special day for everyone involved.

Sewing purses
Sewing purses

We left early and wound our way through villages, following the river. Sally had told us that a visit by a group of ‘falangs’ or foreigners was a major event in the community’s life and big preparations were underway.

The children were all waiting when we arrived. After the official greeting and various stomachs had settled after the windy road, we split into groups with pairs of us conducting activities with the children, an interesting exercise given the lack of a common language. Angela and I taught our group how to sew a felt purse. We had come prepared with supplies brought from home as there was nothing available in Laos. Pieces of felt, needles, thread, buttons and scissors had all found a place in my suitcase. I was expecting to teach the children from scratch but all of them knew how to stitch, including one very serious small boy with a broken arm. Skills varied though! Several girls (and the boy) made two purses and Sally told me later that the girls had taught all the other children at the community centre how to make them so every child was in proud possession of a purse. Lucky I had taken extra supplies!

Sewing requires concentration!
Sewing requires concentration!

After the activities, we had lunch. Sally had brought us sandwiches and the children all had noodle soup which she assured us we wouldn’t like (too much chilli!). Usually, they went home for sticky rice at lunch time but we had paid for their lunch as it was a special occasion.

There was high excitement afterwards as the children dressed in their traditional, mostly Hmong, costumes to entertain us with dancing. The noise levels escalated as the mothers (and the odd privileged ‘falang’) did their daughters’ hair and all important makeup whilst the boys ran wild. At last the show began!

A boy and girl compered and after each dance commented on how good the dancing was. As usual, there were one or two smaller children who stole the show. They encouraged us to join them in one dance. Dancing is not my forte, and I felt very wooden and ungraceful as I attempted to get arms and legs co-ordinated.

Waiting for the dancing to begin
Waiting for the dancing to begin

Before we left, we took part in a baci ceremony. The modern shaman arrived late on his motorbike and then had a conversation on his mobile phone. There was obviously no urgency! A large percentage of the population practices animism and the baci is a blessing ceremony in which they make offerings of food to the gods. Long strands of cotton string are tied around the wrists of the people being blessed.

This meant all of us had two wrists full of string at the end as every woman and child went around the room tying them on to us. They told us to wear them for three days after which time we could remove them (but not by cutting as this was bad luck).

Weaving loom outside a house
Weaving loom outside a house
The offerings were distributed amongst everyone once the ceremony finished. Hard-boiled eggs seemed to be popular and I’m sure the additives in the commercial packets left the children high! Once the ceremony had finished, we took our leave and headed back to Luang Prabang.

On the way, we detoured to a weaving village. Each house had a loom outside but, as it was Saturday, nobody was working. However, once we arrived, and they knew we wanted to buy cloths, ladies emerged with their wares and several of us went home with our bags full.

A big thunderstorm was underway in Luang Prabang as we drove in. We completed the day with dinner and a beer at a local cafe dubbed No Name Cafe (for obvious reasons). It was a fitting end to an excellent day.