It seems that a month has gone by since our last post with all that we have done. Computer labs are just one of the many things that aren’t worth keeping open when there’s a giant party going on!
Our last post was when we reached Luang Prabang and were just seeing a sneak preview of the Laos New Year celebrations. For the three and a half days we were in Luang Prabang, we wore our bathing suits the entire time. With nothing else to defend myself, I kept the plastic cup that my fruit shake came in. It was perfectly deceiving! Random buckets and large tubs filled with water lined the sidewalks and served as base camps for armies, so I filled my cup and we walked. People thought I just had drinking water until they tried to get me wet and got it first! Sometimes I would scoop water right out of the bowl full that was about to be dumped on me, or race around and steal from their source. Often this surprised them enough that I got away free! The best ones were the people that were standing on the curb with a bucket full and paying attention to an upcoming car without noticing us walking up from the sidewalk, in which case I would sneak up and tip the bucket right back on them. But no matter what we couldn’t avoid being drenched constantly! Water guns and buckets were everywhere. Buckets were dumped on us from passing trucks, from behind fences and over walls, from innocent looking bystanders and tiny children… you get the point. It was nice to see that people of all ages participated equally, accepted all as fair, and took everything with a smile.
Outside our hotel on the second day the owners and their family supplied the water and buckets. They were one large group you couldn’t get away from, so we joined them! Bryan went all out, especially taking aim for the unfortunate drivers with their windows down! Vehicles stalled from water intake and some just quit altogether. We met Tina, now a US citizen but originally from Laos and cousin to the owner, who informed us about the meanings to it all and told us her own story. The water symbolizes washing away the old and welcoming the new (they must have a lot to wash away). The little birds in cages and small live fish in buckets that we saw being sold everywhere were similarly symbolic in releasing the old and welcoming the new (they were all released). Tina also told us about how she escaped Laos in 1978 with some relatives after finishing college due to communist oppression. Once they made it out of Loas they were kidnapped in Thailand where they starved and (pause, we drink offered beer, continue) begged for three days that they could get money from her cousin in the states. For six weeks (pause, buckets poured on us, continue) the men came with guns to find out if the money had arrived yet. If they were not able to get money, (pause, Tina runs in the street to get pay back, continue) she claims she would have been sold to the sex slave just as another cousin of hers was. But they got the money and made it safely to the states. She told us in multiple ways she is so grateful to the U.S., and stated her hopes that Laos will become a nation she can be proud of but, although it has come a long ways (pause, admire and laugh at the free spirit teens dancing in the back of a passing truck, continue) since then, she is very unsure about its future.
After Luang Prabang we took a bus to Luang Namtha where we decided to spend a few days doing nothing and saving money. This town is far North, not far from China, and is close to Nam Ha National Protected Area. The town itself is small and was especially quiet because most the locals were still out of town celebrating the New Year. We had a hotel with a nice patio that was surrounded by tropical plants, perfect for sitting and doing nothing. On the fourth day we set out to see what trouble we might find on a three day trek into Nam Ha, which is said to be some of the thickest jungle in Laos and still has some larger wild animals. The trek was a really fantastic experience, and as of yet our best paid “tour”. The food was carried and made by locals and was fantastic! Our first lunch consisted of sticky rice, spicy eggplant, pork, and cooked vegetables, spread out over banana leaves and eaten with our hands at a bamboo hut. After a few hours of hilly hiking we reached our first camp of a large bamboo shelter for sleeping, one for cooking, and a small one holding a “western toilet” (I feel for the person who had to carry it up there). There was a really cool spider in that last hut, not far from your face if you used the toilet. In the photo album there is a picture with Bryan’s hand by it for scale.
Our second day we had to work those legs pretty hard, but well worth it. We spotted a large, very poisonous centipede that was shedding its skin and, partially immobile, being attacked by large ants. Our guide saved it. We also saw a couple very large spiders up in trees. One was approximately the length of my hand!
At the end of the second day we came to the first of two secluded villages where we were given the option to buy some things from the women and children like bracelets and woven bags that they made. It was a weird but humbling feeling to be sitting there with half of the children surrounding you being naked and staring blankly at you, and with a group of men in their underwear walking by to go fishing.
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That night we stayed in the neighboring village next to a small river. It was beautiful. Pigs, dogs, and chickens roamed around us and children played in the water. The people from these two villages have to walk the same trail that we took on the third day for any supplies, to refil the Beer Laos stock, or for medical needs. It was about a four hour trek up a small mountain and then back down to reach the highway. That was the only day where we could get much of a panorama view because of the denseness of the forest. One thing to note is that we saw a whole lot of evidence of “slash and burn” farming that is taking root with all the people in Northern Laos, including these remote villages. Much of it is for Chinese exports. We passed by several areas that were freshly burnt and still burning. One must understand that these people are trying to make a living, so some of it is to be expected, but we were seeing really large areas, and far too many areas, of slash and burn everywhere. Unfortunately the forests aren’t going to win because the Chinese have a hold on Northern Laos (it was pointed out to us that Chinese own much of the property and many of the businesses in town) and the government is too corrupt. When we asked our guide how many tigers still live in the area, he answered “1 or 2”.
In other news, we made it this morning back to Vientiane after 24 hours on a bus and one break down. Nothing big, just no headlights or other electrical. But they fixed it! We will be here for a total of 12 hours and then will be on a night bus to Savannakhet in the South. Wish us luck!