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Monday, 03 May 2010

Moments in Northern Laos: Going Back in Time

Written by Bart Drolenga
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The people of Northern Laos never hurry; the riverboat to the next town slowly fills up. When the boat finally takes off, you experience Asian life as if time stood still. It must have been this way in Thailand 50 years ago; children play in the river while women do their laundry and long tail boats fully packed with merchandise pass by. A trek over mountains through dense rainforest can lead you to tribal villages where people have lived in the same ways for centuries. Northern Laos is a paradise for the adventurous traveler who loves culture and nature.

Mark and I are standing next to the road some 20 miles outside Luang Nam Tha, a town close to the Chinese border. I met Mark while traveling in Laos; an experienced traveler, he has visited many countries. He is a 48-year-old mail deliveryman from Germany and looks impressive, weighing 330 pounds. We rent scooters to explore Luang Nam Tha’s surroundings.

The concrete road runs through the Nam Ha protected area, an enormous rainforest of unspoilt beauty where misty mountains are covered with trees and plants in all shades of green. The villages are inhabited with indigenous tribes. Tigers, leopards and bears roam the jungle.

A poor farmer with a machete hanging from his belt greets us and points to a narrow dirt road into the forest. He wants us to take him to his village. Mark and I decide to go, always ready for an adventure.

The farmer jumps onto the back of my scooter. The journey takes us eight miles on a steep path along deep ravines and through impenetrable jungle. The village lies on a mountaintop in the far distance. In my mirror I see the large shape of Mark. He is having difficulty manoeuvring his small bike on the slippery road.

There, the whole village gathers to admire and touch the two big westerners. A villager brings a scale and asks Mark to be weighed. Reluctantly, Mark steps on the scale causing chuckles and disbelief. It is an experience of a lifetime for the villagers – the average Laotian man weighs around 110 pounds.

We are invited into the home of a family. Our host, a man with silver-filled teeth and a rock & roll haircut, offers us a glass of lao lao. The strong rice whiskey makes us tipsy in no time.

Moments in Northern Laos: Going back in time, Northern Laos travel, adventure travel laos, culture and nature travel, Luang Nam Tha, Nam Ha protected area, Akha village, Akha culture, Nam Tha River, Lenten people, Nong Khiaw, Nam Ou River, riverboats, Luang Prabang, markets South East Asia, Wat Manoram temple, Wat Thammothayalan temple, That Chomsi stupa, the Mekong,  Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, Bart DrolengaThe women are eating a meal of rice, salad and a watery curry. Apart from a coif bedecked with colorful beads and buttons made of old silver coins, they are naked from the waist up. On their lower half they wear dark sarongs. Naked children watch us shyly. At least 15 people are living in this bamboo house that is built on wooden poles with a thatched roof. Cooking utensils, a few baskets, bamboo stools and heaps of clothes and blankets are the only possessions in the house.


Moments in Northern Laos: Going back in time, Northern Laos travel, adventure travel laos, culture and nature travel, Luang Nam Tha, Nam Ha protected area, Akha village, Akha culture, Nam Tha River, Lenten people, Nong Khiaw, Nam Ou River, riverboats, Luang Prabang, markets South East Asia, Wat Manoram temple, Wat Thammothayalan temple, That Chomsi stupa, the Mekong,  Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, Bart DrolengaThis is an Akha village. The tribe migrated 1500 years ago from Mongolia to South East Asia. They live according to century old traditions, a mixture of animism, spirit worship and a strong bond with nature. Good and evil spirits can influence life. A disturbance of the natural balance will cause illness, poverty or even death. Up until a few years ago twins were killed as they supposedly brought bad luck. Now, they are given for adoption.

Large extended families live together in one house, but men and women sleep separately. Next to the house I see a small bamboo hut. It is a called a “happy house.” The hut plays an important role in the Akha culture. Married couples retreat to it to make love. It is also the place where an unmarried young man chooses his wife. When he fancies a woman he sleeps with her in the happy house. When they do not connect he chooses another woman. This goes on until he finds his perfect wife.

When Mark and I leave I see an old women clumping cotton. She chews on an areca nut that is wrapped in a betel leaf. It is a mild stimulant and the elderly women of Laos adore it. As we drive by a smile appears on her wrinkled face. The betel has coloured her teeth and lips a bright red.

. . .

Ta, a guide from the tourism office in Luang Nam Tha, and I are trekking though the majestic jungle. A wall of green rises along the narrow path. Snake like liana vines curl around huge tree trunks. Bamboo and lush tropical plants grow beside the trail.

“In Luang Nam Tha we are focussing on ecotourism.” Says Ta. “For small groups of tourists we organise treks in the Nam Ha protected area. We try to protect the forest and the culture of the hill tribes as much as possible. During the treks we educate the tourists on the lifestyle of the different ethnic tribes, the wildlife and on the diversity of the forest.”

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“Girl’s eyebrows are depilated from the age of 15.” Explains Ta. “It is a custom of the Lenten people. They believe in a mixture of Taoism and animism with spirits representing the natural elements and other spirits protecting the family, house and village. The Lenten live near the river so it is easy for them to cultivate their rice paddies”

It is quiet in the village. Most of the villagers are working on the land. While walking through the village a herd of giggling children follow us. An old woman is fabricating a broom from reed. Outside a house, I see an oil barrel full of bamboo pulp. The solution is used to make paper. We visit two blacksmiths who work together. They are cracking jokes. One is sharpening a machete on a wet stone. I am amazed to hear that he is blind.

In the mountainous north of Laos, there live approximately 600,000 people that belong to one of the hill tribes. With a population of 5,000, the Lenten people are one of the smallest.


Ta and I climb down a steep path. Below us lies the Nam Tha River. Children are playing on a bamboo raft. The water level is too low to cross by raft. We take off our shoes and tuck up our trouser legs. Carefully, we wade over the slippery-pebbled riverbed.  On the other side, sitting on rocks along the riverbank, we eat our lunch. Chicken fried rice and vegetable curry.

“Tourists can enjoy mountain biking, kayaking, rafting, camping and they can stay overnight in a home stay in several villages.” Ta says. “A large part of the income is used for the conservation of the forest and for poverty alleviation projects for the villagers.”

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It takes awhile before the boat fills up. It can hold a total of 23 people, and 5 fellow travelers end up on the luggage at the back.

Meanwhile, I enjoy the river life. Long tail boats come and go packed with goods. Porters, a few elderly women amongst them, climb up the steep stairs to the boat carrying bags filled with vegetables and cases of Lao beer. Small black pigs are driven up the steps. Soap lather floats by as women do their laundry upstream.

Around noon we take off. It is a fantastic seven hour journey past mountains covered with lush rainforest and limestone cliffs. I feel like I have gone back in time. Naked children play in the river. Men on small rowboats throw off their fishing nets. Buffalos and goats take a sunbath on the white sand along the river.

Near rapids, men and women scoop out water from the river, using large wooden bowls. Carefully, they let the water stream out of the bowl. They are looking for gold.

After a couple of hours the boatman stops the boat at the riverbanks near a small village. 19 people need to get off the boat, he calls out. They have to go on a bus for a few miles. Luckily, I can stay on the boat. No sooner do we take off and then hit a swirling rapid. With great craftsmanship the boatman is able to avoid the rocks in the middle of the river and keep the boat in balance.

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Then the Nam Ou River flows into the mighty Mekong. The river is 700 feet wide; the water is chocolate brown. A large barge passes by; it is a metal ship with a green two story high wooden hut. Men without shirts are smoking on the deck.


The sun goes down when we reach Luang Prabang painting the water and the mountains in the distance yellow and pink. As I climb up the steps to the city, the French colonial buildings light up in a golden glow.

The welcoming inhabitants, French colonial architecture, fine restaurants and hotels and richly ornamented Buddhist temples make Luang Prabang the most popular tourist destination of Laos.  Luang Prabang is a Unesco world heritage site and large vehicles are banned from the city centre, this way preserving the town’s authenticity and tranquil atmosphere.

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There is a lot to explore nearby. There is swimming in the turquoise pools of the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, visiting the caves in limestone cliffs, partying on a riverboat and buying handicrafts in one of the many ethnic villages.

Spirituality is felt everywhere in Luang Prabang. Religion is deeply rooted in the soul of the Laotian. Most of the population is Buddhist but animism is always around the corner. Many times Buddhism and spirit worship are mixed. In front of every house you see spirit houses which are small roofed altars where the family spirits live. Often you see people praying, burning incense and giving offerings to the spirits.

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I am walking through the fog that hangs over the city. A group of monks appears. Devotees kneel down, holding the food above their heads. They receive a blessing from the monks who walk by, the orange of their robes slowly disappearing in the mist.

 

When I walk back I pass a colorful market. Lumps of red meat lay next to fat brown sausages, thick slices of tofu and bamboo leaves filled with sticky rice. Black fish with white dotted skin swim in tubs of water. Fruit stall vendors sell mangos, papayas, bananas, oranges, apples and watermelons. A woman is cooking larb, a salad of minced meat, in a blackened pan.

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Laos is a developing country, everywhere I go I see poverty. The country gained independence from the French in 1953. After a long lasting guerrilla struggle the communistic Pathet Lao party took power in 1975 and still rules the country, but much has changed since then. The government has opened ideologically and supports commerce and entrepreneurship.

Income from tourism is encouraged. 50% of the tourists that visit Laos come from neighbouring countries. They are seeking nostalgia, the South East Asia of 50 years ago. The western tourists are mainly backpackers looking for adventure, culture and nature though upmarket tourism is on the rise. The construction of new roads is opening up Laos and the number of organized tours increases each year.

Many times monks strike up conversations with me. They want to practice their English language skills. Noi is a 16-year old monk who stays at the Wat Thammothayalan temple. His head is shaven bald; under his arm he carries a stack of books.

“My parents are poor.” He says. “They live in a village in the mountains. There is only a primary school there and my father decided to have me initiated as a monk so I can attend the high school in the temple. ”

For many village children from poor families going to the temple school is the only opportunity to get an education. The high school is often far away and difficult to reach. Most young monks leave the temple after they have finished school. They look for a job or start a business. The lucky ones can attend university.

Wat Thammothayalan is a tall white building. Four pillars beautifully ornamented with golden decorations support the dark red tiled roof. Intricate woodcarvings in the large doors portray angels that protect the building.

A steep flight of stairs behind the temple leads to Phu Si, a 320 feet high hill that towers above Luang Prabang. On top of the hill stands the impressive golden That Chomsi Moments in Northern Laos: Going back in time, Northern Laos travel, adventure travel laos, culture and nature travel, Luang Nam Tha, Nam Ha protected area, Akha village, Akha culture, Nam Tha River, Lenten people, Nong Khiaw, Nam Ou River, riverboats, Luang Prabang, markets South East Asia, Wat Manoram temple, Wat Thammothayalan temple, That Chomsi stupa, the Mekong,  Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, Bart Drolengastupa. Halfway up I reach several large Buddha sculptures. The sparkling gold of an entrancing sleeping Buddha is contrasting sharply with the black of the rock wall and the dark green of the jungle.

There is a small sign pointing towards a Buddha footprint. It is not easy to find. I end up in a dark cave filled with Buddha images and relics. Outside the cave I find the footpath that leads to the footprint. In the dim light of the cavern I see a ten foot long shape that resembles a foot. Gold leaf is pasted on the imprint. According to legend this is one place where Buddha touched the ground when he reached enlightenment.

On the top of the hill I have a fantastic view on Luang Prabang and the Mekong. The 79 feet high stupa glitters above me against a deep blue sky.


I walk over the road that runs along the Mekong. I pass by large French colonial mansions that have been converted to luxury hotels and restaurants, galleries, guesthouses and shops. The villas have balconies and verandas. They are painted in soft colors. Wooden shutters cover the windows. It reminds me of New Orleans and the Mississippi.

In the first half of the 20the century Luang Prabang was a retreat for French colonials who wanted to escape the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and Saigon. In my imagination I see the decadent colonial life. Women in colorful silk dresses and men in white tropical suits are parading on the streets. Traditionally dressed Laotians praise their merchandise. Old-timer cars honk when they overtake buffalo carts. The voice of Edith Piaf sounds from the copper horn of a gramophone. A steamboat arrives and porters carry heavy trunks full of luggage up the steps to the city.

I have my lunch in a trendy restaurant. I choose from an extensive selection of French breads, western and Laotian dishes, desserts and pastries. After, I jump on one of the many sãwngthãew, which are small open mini busses. They depart for the Tat Kuang Si waterfalls. It is a 20-mile long journey along rice fields and forested hills. The sãwngthãew slows down when it has to cross a wooden bridge.

We arrive at a trail that leads through the jungle; it passes turquoise pools that are being fed by small surrounding waterfalls. Tourists swim in the pools and some daredevils swing themselves from a long rope into the deep water. I continue and suddenly see the waterfall; milky white water falling down over limestone cliffs for 300 feet. I climb through Moments in Northern Laos: Going back in time, Northern Laos travel, adventure travel laos, culture and nature travel, Luang Nam Tha, Nam Ha protected area, Akha village, Akha culture, Nam Tha River, Lenten people, Nong Khiaw, Nam Ou River, riverboats, Luang Prabang, markets South East Asia, Wat Manoram temple, Wat Thammothayalan temple, That Chomsi stupa, the Mekong,  Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, Bart Drolengalush rainforest over a steep path to the top where a basin feeds the waterfall. Small water drops hang like mist in the air. Colorful damselflies hover above the water. In the distance I see green rice paddies and dark blue mountains.

On the way back I decide to swim in a pool, the water is cool and refreshing and I feel a benevolent quiet. I swim to one of the tree roots that stick out of the water and climb on it. With my feet in the water I enjoy the warming sun and the bright blue color that surrounds me.

Moments in Northern Laos: Going back in time, Northern Laos travel, adventure travel laos, culture and nature travel, Luang Nam Tha, Nam Ha protected area, Akha village, Akha culture, Nam Tha River, Lenten people, Nong Khiaw, Nam Ou River, riverboats, Luang Prabang, markets South East Asia, Wat Manoram temple, Wat Thammothayalan temple, That Chomsi stupa, the Mekong,  Tat Kuang Si waterfalls, Bart DrolengaIn the evening I dine at one of the many open-air restaurants along the Mekong. It is busy with Laotian families. In a hole in the table burns a charcoal fire. The waiter brings a plate with thin sliced pork and beef and a plastic basket filled with vegetables, white noodles and eggs.

He puts a round aluminium pot on the fire. It has a small expansion in the middle. The waiter pours water in the pot and places pieces of lard on the expansion. The white noodles and the vegetables are put in the water that quickly begins to boil. He breaks an egg and mixes the white and yellow substance with the noodles and the vegetables. Pieces of meat are placed on the expansion and chopped garlic is stirred in a dark red sweet chilli sauce.

In no time the waiter had prepared a fantastic meal of noodle soup and barbequed meat. Putting new pieces of meat on the lard and noodles and vegetables in the soup I take my time eating my dinner. Slowly it gets quiet on the water. One after another the lights on the boats turn off and at ten o’clock, and it is practically dark on the river.

©Bart Drolenga

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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