Mind the Lao Lao
May 22, 2004
|Mind the Lao Lao
We've just returned from a three day trek into the Nam Ha National Biodiversity Conservation area near Luang Nam Tha Laos. The remoteness and beauty of the place was stunning. The mountainous terrain reminded me of the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Asheville North Carolina. Mile after mile of densely covered mountain rolled on throughout the park, carved out by the occasional river. The jungle so dense at points that progress along our trail required a strong arm and sharp machete. Rain was intermittent throughout are trek and as such the mountains were veiled in varying layers of cloud, alternatively revealed then cloaked. Sadly my literary skills are woefully insufficient to the task of describing our stunning, sometimes surreal walkabout through the jungles and rivers.
Roughly the outline of our trek was to cover three days and two nights. Katrina and I were to spend the next three days with three other tourists; Jean and Marie as well as a Brit named David, the five of us were escorted by Mr. Ting our head guide and his assistant Mr. Bounta. The days were to be spent hiking through the national park while the evenings were to be spent in one of two hill tribe villages.
Our first night was spent in a small village of about 100 carved out of the jungle on a hillside at an elevation of about 1000 meters or 3000 feet. After 9 hours of hiking a number of painful blisters and several mountain passes we arrived at the village. Before entering our guide Mr. Ting made the welcome suggestion that we clean up in the river just outside the village. Off came boots, muddy pants and shirts. Regrettably in my case with the boots came a good bit of skin that had turned to blister during the hiking. The cool water helped the sore feet immensely, and we were all able to clean off at least a bit of the mud we'd collected. Our entrance to the village was through a gate constructed not to keep out livestock but for the more ethereal purpose of keeping out evil spirits. This shamanistic somewhat mystical entrance was an unexpected foreshadowing of events to come.
The villagers were warm and glad to welcome us to their home, this was of course accompanied by numerous attempts to sell us jewelry and bags still this was a small price given the experiences we were to have. After depositing our bags at a large bamboo hut on stilts (our guesthouse for the coming evening ) we were ushered up to the house of the village chief. Small chairs had been set out for us on a balcony overlooking 2 or 3 other similar bamboo huts. Once we were all seated the Chief came out greeted us and was followed by a tray of shot glasses and a bottle of what we were told was Lao Lao, a homebrewed rice whisky. A brew, which would, if advertised correctly, "Make us strong". Shots were poured in the Lao tradition meaning the Chief pours one shot, shows everyone the glass then downs the whisky. A second shot is the poured and handed to the closest guest, who then shows everyone the whisky and like the Chief downs the shot. This sequence is then repeated, Chief pouring, guest showing and drinking until each guest has had an even number of drinks, in our case two. Mr. Ting our guide was kind enough to explain that drinks come in even numbers because we are blessed with two hands, two feet, two eyes etc. Now I've been privy to any number of justifications for heaping yet another beer on top of a nights worth of drinking but I have to say using the symmetry of the body as an excuse for just one (or two) more drinks is new to me. In between displays of full and empty shot glasses and the occasional photo of the Chief's wife with the evenings chicken ( both of whom were lovely - sadly though only the Chief's wife made it through the night) we told the Chief our names, ages, and where we came from. In return he fielded our questions about slash and burn agriculture and animal husbandry.
Warmed by the whisky and the graciousness of our host we returned to our guest house, a bit drunk, in the dark, in the midst of a downpour and desperately trying to keep upright on a muddy trail strewn with chickens, dogs, and the occasional pile of pig shit. Fortunately ass was not to meet teakettle and we shortly arrived at our bungalow.
Mr. Ting had coerced a few of the women to go out and find us some dinner (hard cash working well in these instances). Finding dinner being part of their daily routine they were able to meet Mr. Tings request with relative ease. Soon we were eating dinner family style, each of us feasting on a meal of young fern salad, soup of bamboo shoot, wild eggplant ragout, sticky rice and chili paste. Dinner was followed by another round of Lao Lao this time with the assistant village chief. Corporal symmetry again being honored. During this second round of Lao Lao Mr. Ting informed us that per local tradition the young girls of the village would soon be joining us to give us all massages. Uneasy, skeptical and completely intrigued we eyed the throng of young girls giggling at our door. With little time to reflect on the situation 10 or so of our masseuses filed into the room. Two of them cornered me and let me know that I was to lay face down. Upon complying with their request I was rewarded with multiple sets of hands grabbing, pushing, and pulling at various parts of my body with little or really no regard for my shy modesty. Butt, back, legs were all groped and squeezed while I lay there next to my fellow travelers, all passively accepting, albeit somewhat uncomftorabely our massages. As the girls giggled and whispered to one another I noticed a bizarre singing or chanting coming from outside our shack. After a bit of this chanting it began to feel as if we were unwitting participants in some strange animistic rite the purpose of which we were unaware. The sound of falling rain mixed with the giggling and the chanting coming from outside our hut, my only visual input was the occasional glance over my shoulder at our dimly lit room.
The massages lasted 20 minuets, after which the girls attempted to sell us even more trinkets and eventually left us to ourselves. I spent the rest of the evening alternating between sleep and awake. My dreams were of village women as seen through the auto focus of my camera, slowly going in and out of focus and back again. Its as if I were trying to get a picture of some scene but couldn't.
The morning sun on our mosquito net and call of the rosters woke me early. For breakfast we ate another meal of sticky rice and chili. The rain continued to fall, after waiting a bit we all donned rain jackets, boots and backpacks and set off toward our next village, 10 kilometers and three rivers away.