Hot springs to bathe and do the laundry, Muang Vieng Thong
I still cherish a hope that an already delayed bus would take me to the east. Luckily it arrives. The journey starts in the early afternoon and lasts until darkness. I carefully observe changing scenery. Mountains, plateaus and valleys of this vast land are all covered with lush green vegetation. There are bustling villages scattered along the road. A group of young boys skillfully pass a small ball to each other making sure it doesn’t hit the ground. Girls play on a skipping-rope and some women prepare dinner. Men perform minor repair tasks around and when there is nothing to fix, they sit by a bamboo wall, talk and as the evening sets in, it is already time to sip homemade lao-lao.
Hours pass and I can tell it without checking my watch (which I even do not have). I note the time by observing the situation around the houses in villages I pass. Numerous bonfires are located just along the road. Whole families gather around to stay together and keep warm. During the chilly dry season you can get cold even in the tropics.
Soon bonfires are moved inside, where they serve as heating stoves. Passing subsequent villages I see ever more flames through slits in bamboo walls.
I climb onto the roof of my bus, throw my backpack to the ground and as the only person in the bus I get off in a randomly chosen destination. I am in Muang Vieng Thong. It is fairly easy to find a cheap place to stay here.
In the morning I take a walk. Leaving the town I cross a bridge and follow a dirt road to the left. Several hundred yards away a Laotian girl approaches me on a scooter.
A whole family works together
“Where are you going?” – surprisingly someone eventually spoke English to me.
“No idea, I am just following the road,” which in fact is the truth – “A friend of mine has a house a bit further, I also have a small plot of peanuts there, would you like to visit me?”.
We stop at Tae friend’s house. An elderly man invites us inside. We both take off shoes and enter seemingly small, but actually specious bamboo hut. The walls are filled with posters and calendars with Asian girls in bikini suits from the past 10 years or even 15 years.
Thatched roof provides effective insulation and despite the sun at its zenith outside, the inside temperature is pleasant. A warm light fills the room through some slits in bamboo walls. We sit cross-legged on a straw mat. Sam is excited because thanks to Tae the conversation with a foreigner is possible.
The host is a good and generous man. Knowing that Tae sells peanuts to raise money and help poor children, he has sold her the land at a bargain price.
Sam seizes two dusty 5 cl glasses from behind a bamboo rack, he gently blows inside and wipes them with a handy cotton cloth. “What kind of alcohol is it?“, I ask the question seeing Sam reach a plastic bottle filled with a colored liquid.
“This is homemade lao-lao whiskey. I added some herbs and spices to get this flavor". I can easily taste a distinctive note of a semi-distilled fermented moonshine. Sam refills our shot glasses. “Come over again anytime you are around".
It is the first time I see a peanut plantation. I grab a hoe and pull a whole bunch of nuts with my left hand. Now I have find whatever is left in the ground and pull it out with a hoe again. We keep on digging in the afternoon.
Peanuts need around 3 months to ripen. However, Tae planted her seeds a bit too late, therefore peanuts have to be harvested earlier than the required three months. Some are still unripe, but as the dry season sets in, there would not be enough rain to ripen them.
Lap, a traditional Lao salad
Tae encourages me to visit hot springs outside the town. Soon I am taking a hot bath and just like people of Vieng Thong I’m doing my laundry. It’s hard to go under the water because it is truly too hot, initially even too hot to rinse your hands.
I visit Tae in the evening in her little house. As we select, soak and cook peanuts the girl introduces me to some details about two Laotian tribes.
There are dozens of ethnic minorities in Laos, but we focus on a majority tribe Lao and one of the few major dominant tribes Hmong. Differences between the two ethnic groups are vast. People differ in their physical appearance, have different lifestyles, speak different languages and eat different food.
Some of the differences are visible at a first glance. For example, all huts of Lao people are made of bamboo. It’s tight, durable and inexpensive material, besides it is obtained from locally available raw materials. Hmong tribe uses wooden planks as a basic building material instead of bamboo. It involves another manufacturing process, also gives different thermal insulation properties and it is a recognizable sign that one of the tribes is present in the area.
Other differences may be related to tradition and culture. Hmong men can have many wives until one of them gives a birth to a male child, while according to Lao tradition, the youngest child has to stay at home to take care of elderly parents. When Hmong woman loses her husband, she still has to remain on her husband’s side of the family. The only alternative is to marry her husband’s brother or what is even more interesting – the husband’s father.
The spices and roots drying in the gorgeous scenery of northern Laos
I get up at the crack of dawn. Local market is bustling with trade from as early as 4:30 until around 7.00. After seven it mysteriously fades. Yesterday Tae convinced me to join her boss and a few colleagues at a field trip to Phu Loei National Protected Area. It is remarkable, because the nature reserve is still closed for tourist traffic. We pass through a dense fog, it is freezing cold and basically nothing happens until the sun finally makes it through a thick layer of clouds.
First birds appear, red, yellow, having hooked beaks and a long tail (spider-eater). There are some large predators inflicting panic among small helpless specimens. Reportedly you may spot tigers and leopards inside the park, but we do not have that much of luck.
The team gives me a ride to the nearest village, where I join a few Lao women and a sizeable crowd of kids. Nobody knows any single English word. I share my peanuts with the new company and hope that there will be an accidental car to give me a ride.
A massive Toyota stops and a driver takes me along. On the way we come across a quite serious collision of two 4×4 off-road vehicles. A local bus tries to squeeze through the blocked road. After digging part of a cliff nearby road and several attempts in the meantime, a few more hits with picks and shovels and the road is passable again. It’s quite comical, but on the other hand it works!
Fairs, celebrations, music and fireworks take place throughout whole November full moon week
I reach Pouklao, still I have to walk about ten kilometers from here. I admire vast valleys covered with dense jungle. Winding road ends in Num Nea. Here I treat myself to a noodle and beef soup, my first meal today.
As Tae explained to me earlier, in Laos people do not distinguish so much between breakfast, lunch or dinner meals (as opposed to Europe). European breakfast would make a Lao guy hungry again just after 2 hours of work (so around 9 am already). Lao breakfast has to be hearty to give lots of energy to work.
I manage to catch a pickup truck to Phonasavan. I sit in the area outside, together with a monk dressed in orange robes. Initially both of us are looking for an optimal position, trying to avoid uncomfortable bags with potatoes at the bottom. The overloaded car is not stable at all, to that end we drive much faster than enough. I constantly struggle with centrifugal force at sharp corners. Piercing cold and gusty wind also do not help. Four hours pass and we finally arrive and get off the pickup.