Savannakhet, Lao Peoples Dem Rep
Happy New Year! My 2009 is of to a brilliant start, and I hope yours is too. Things sounded a little sketchy re: new years eve when I last signed off, but it couldn’t have turned out better in the end. Funny how life works. My “cry day” (one of those “What the heck am I doing?” days) turned around when I got on my bike and headed out of town. Riding a bike in Tha Khaek is a delicate exercise that demands tremendous precision and coordination – not because there’s anyone else on the roads (see photo), but because I have to try to keep the bike upright while simultaneously smiling, waving and “sabai dee” ing all the female-tourist-on-her-own / hair gawkers. It’s genuine fun. One of the travel books I read before I left counselled that if you find yourself not knowing what to do one day, start walking. Keep walking, even if it’s right out of town, and guaranteed at some point something interesting will happen. They were right (except I was on a bike). There wasn’t much doing on the dusty road I was on (I’ll stop using that adjective – they’re ALL dusty). I meandered past modest homes, a few odd shops (and I do mean odd – these little holes-in-the-wall sell everything from scooter parts to shampoo), and lots of wandering cows and goats. Suddenly something caught the corner of my eye and I flipped the bike back ’round. Here was a hut with one pan, one open flame, a cutting board, a few scattered ingredients, and two tables. Lunch! I hand-signalled to find out if she would feed me, and she hand-signalled for me to sit down. I figured out she made soup. I pointed to one of the chickens running around her feet and a few thwacks of her cleaver later (no, she had some already-dead chicken, thankfully), I had some boiled chicken wings (bones and all) in the bowl. Unfortunately she also chucked in some kind of spongy organ meat – I’m guessing pig’s liver – which I ate so that she wouldn’t lose face (a fate almost certainly worse than death in Laos and other SEA countries). Honestly it was all quite delicious (except the bones). It set me back a whopping 5,000 kip (about 60 cents), and I couldn’t finish it all (which pleased her to no end). And just like that – through being a little bit adventurous and acting on a whim – my mood was lifted. I arrived back at the guest house to find out that 2 other women had signed up for the New Year’s Eve trek – one from France, and one from Australia. Game on! The scenery was rather unspectacular on the first day (except for a cool cave), but it was nice to be out and about. Lunch was served in the wild, on a “table” of leaves spread on the ground: whole fish cooked over the fire, assorted vegetables (some not so good…feh) and of course, pounds of sticky rice. We arrived in our host village (population 98; total homes, 15…you do the math) in the late afternoon. Not the type of girls to sit around, we offered to pitch in for the meal preparation. I thought I’d give the women a break from hauling water while at the same time amazing them with my strength and agility while wearing a yoke. I’ll just say I ate some humble pie and leave it at that. I went to play with the baby piglets ( I know that’s a redundancy but they were really tiny!) instead, with mobs of village kids following / climbing on me. I was awed by the whole “village life” thing. These were not actors; this was no tourist village (not one handicraft for sale, thankfully). This was a group of people, as my trek coordinator stated, “who don’t really care what day of the year it is; they just worry about what they’re going to eat tomorrow.” There was a sedate, measured and yet industrious rhythm to it all. The filthy (sorry but they really were filthy) kids kept themselves (and us) busy, the women worked like dogs and the men were nowhere to be seen (seriously). They live their lives by the sun: up around sunrise; prepare food, clean and cook all day; tucked into their huts just after sundown). They don’t need a clock to tell them when to get up, eat or go to sleep. They just live. It’s custom to bathe before dinner, and this was my first experience with having to bathe with no running water. Basically you just scoop well water out of a trough and pour it over yourself, soap up, and rinse in the same way. Refreshing! We feasted on the floor an a totally delicious and way-too-big meal, the ingredients of which, our guide carried in to the village with him: chicken soup, greens (better this time), mashed eggplant (made with eggplants I stemmed and chopped with my own two hands!) and of course, 80 pounds of sticky rice. After dinner our plates were whisked away as the Baasii ceremony began. While a village elder chants, white or orange strings are tied around the wrists of visitors (us) to restore equilibrium to each person’s 32 spirits and ensure the traveller a safe journey, good health, good fortune etc. The ceremony gave way to games of cards and dominoes with the villagers, and not only a little bit of lao-lao (home-made potent rice whiskey that I believe is also used to de-ice locks, re-grow thinning hair and fuel space shuttles.) While Sophie gave the locals a run for their money at cards and whiskey-drinking, Jane and I sneaked off early and tucked in to our hut with a bottle of red wine she’d lugged in in her backpack. As we lied on our mats on the floor and sipped and chatted, I mused about how different this new year’s was to any other before it, to which Jane replied, “And there’s no place I’d rather be.” Well said. Morning comes early in the village: apparently around 4 am if you’re a rooster, an hour later if you’re a cow, and at sunrise for we humans. After a breakfast of very garlicky noodle soup and instant coffee (they have 3-in-1’s even in Laos!), we said our goodbyes and set off for day 2 of our trek. After another huge lunch in another village (do they think that all westerners eat this much?), our next stop was Khoun Kong Heng or “Evening Gong Lake”. The impossibly blue-green waters spring from a subterranean river that filters through the surrounding limestone mountains, making it crystal clear and giving it its surreal colour (think Morraine Lake in Banff, Alberta). WE flipped on our swimsuits and dove in (with all of the village children looking on and laughing). This is when “the moment” occurred: floating on my back in the perfect sea of turquoise, looking up at the electric blue sky, its jagged edges defined by the mountains all around, I said, “Ladies, it’s going to be an incredible year for all of us.” What a place to be on the first day of 2009. I felt weightless in body and in mind. I held myself under water for a few seconds. When I came up, a new and more peaceful version of me emerged. The lake washed away the old me, swallowing it in its 70-metre depths. It bathed my spirit. I smiled. It was a different person who walked the last few kilometres of the trek that day.