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.

Temple at the Whiskey Village

Slow boat to Luang Prabang

Today's transport
Today’s transport

The following day saw us back at the bus station to catch the Red Bus that went to Chiang Khong on the Thai border. The trip took two hours and whilst there were several local people on the bus, backpackers travelling on to Laos occupied half of the seats. As is typical of many rural buses, this one also acted as a parcel service with the driver stopping outside the package’s destination and hooting his horn to alert the recipient. The brakes appeared to be faulty, which was a little unnerving, particularly when he stopped at the top of a steep hill, engaged low gear and drove down at a snail’s pace!

Given the state of the brakes, it was lucky the countryside was predominantly flat with just a few hills in the middle. Villages were scattered along the way, together with banana and rubber plantations, the trees in the latter having cups attached to their trunks to collect the sap.

Fast food at Chiang Rai bus station
Fast food at Chiang Rai bus station

We arrived at our hostel overlooking the Mekong at about 1.30pm and adjourned to the guest house next door for a restorative beer. The arrangement was casual. A guest advised us to help ourselves from the fridge although the owner appeared later to collect our money.

Feeling refreshed, I took a stroll along the riverbank where there were several guesthouses and hotels of varying standards. Fishermen were busy on the water.  There was a Thai Navy base and Chiang Khong port. Not having had enough of temples in Chiang Rai, I also stopped at the well painted and adorned Wat Luang. I have to say; it gave me a thrill to be standing on the banks of the Mekong for the first time. It was reminiscent of geography lessons many decades ago and it was exciting to be there! After two days on a slow boat this novelty would no doubt wear off.

View from my Chiang Khong hostel
View from my Chiang Khong hostel

The next morning, we caught a tuk tuk to the border where we were to meet a representative from Shompoo Cruises and the other passengers. We passed through Thai Immigration and were shepherded onto a bus to cross the Friendship Bridge to Laos Immigration at Huay Xai. Once they had issued our visas, and we had changed money, another bus took us to the teak long boat that was to be our day time home for two days.

Boarding the boat at Huay Xai
Boarding the boat at Huay Xai
Our route
Our route
The Friendship Bridge
The Friendship Bridge

The weather was not conducive to cruising in an open-sided boat. Thankfully, there were blankets on the boat as I was well under-dressed. The afternoon warmed up but the following morning mist shrouded the river and hills. The scenery was not as I expected. There were many rocky outcrops and small sandy beaches. Crops grew on the shores in some places and in others the trees came down to the waterline.

An excellent lunch was served on the first day. Shompoo cruises hires boats from 4 or 5 families and rotates between them thus distributing the income between more people. The menus are the same on each trip but the cooks vary and each one has their own recipe so the dishes may be different.

After lunch, we visited a small village also supported by the cruise company. There were few people about as they were tending their fields. The houses were all constructed from bamboo matting and on stilts, as the animals lived beneath. Huts were built specifically for storing rice. These had round disks attached to the stilts to prevent rodents climbing up and eating the grain.

The traffic on the river comprised long boats carrying people or, more often, goods which were off loaded at small villages en route. The different colours of the boats depicted the area from which they originated. Local people raced around in small water taxis. The drivers wore motorcycle helmets for no logical reason and their passengers looked most uncomfortable. There were also many small fishing boats. Bamboo poles protruded from many rocks, some of which were just one fishing line, whilst others held a large net in place. Fish appeared on most menus, alongside chicken and pork. I’m not sure how clean and tasty the fish were having emerged from the Mekong, which didn’t look too savoury in places!

We stopped overnight in the small town of Pakbeng. It was quiet but came alive in the evening when the boat passengers arrived, providing a boost to the local economy. We ate at an Indian restaurant which seemed a little incongruous in the middle of Laos countryside but it was excellent!

On the second day, we continued our leisurely trip towards Luang Prabang. The scenery gradually changed and opened out and more crops, such as peanuts, were being grown on the banks. They were all surrounded by bamboo fencing intended to keep the water buffalo out when they came to the river for water in the afternoon.

After another excellent lunch, we had two stops before reaching the city. The first was at Pak Ou Caves at the convergence of the Mekong and Pak Ou rivers. These caves were home to thousands of Buddha statues, left there by families at Laos New Year when they came to ask for good luck for family members.

The Whiskey Village, so named for the obvious reason, was our next stop. A villager demonstrated her process of rice whiskey production and gave us a taste of one that was 50% proof. Not being a whiskey drinker at the best of times, I declined any further tasting and went with Angela to stroll around village which had a multitude of handicraft stalls lining the streets. I’m sure they imported many of the cloths from China. We ran the gauntlet of the ladies desperate to sell something and returned to the boat.

We arrived in Luang Prabang at about 4pm and Sally, our trip organiser, was waiting. She is also a member of 5W and had arranged this tour for 8 members of which I was one of the ‘chosen’ ones. Sally has her own N.G.O., Laos Solidarity, and lives part of the year in Luang Prabang. Together with a local team, she educates teenage girls on puberty and menstrual hygiene. She also funds and distributes packages of re-useable sanitary pads and knickers in the rural communities. Thanks to her contacts and organisation, we had an incredible two weeks of fascinating day trips to look forward to and experience including some activities not open to tourists.