Houei Xai, Lao Peoples Dem Rep
The final chapter should capture the essence of all that’s gone before. This one is no different.
We worked our way north through the bustle of Vietnam until hecticness gave way to localness and we were in the hill tribe communities which border China. Local costumes of bright patterns and colours surrounded us, and we filled a few days with the exotic markets trading in produce and crafts.
A last affectionate embrace with Vietnam (a place you have to love even though it is exhausting) – we rode a long Honda Om (remember a ‘hug’ is a motorbike taxi) through the mountains to the Laos border. We had opted to tackle a route we knew little about, with only the assurances of the Laos embassy that we would get through. The reward was to topple in to Laos in a place which sees very few tourists. The border is new (so new that the Vietnamese have only a couple of bamboo huts to complete immigration formalities) and only a few hundred travellers had passed this way ahead of us. It’s a far cry from the more usual airport-capital city introduction to a country.
So we slid over the abyss into the nothingness of Laos. Where a 50km journey takes at least 2 hours. Where it is polite to stop and chat to everyone you pass. Where nothing happens quickly.
Laos is an enigma. Even its name is mysterious. It’s easier to understand if you consider Laos rhymes with Cow, not Chaos.
We opted to skip many of the ‘sights’ (what few there are) and simply drift westwards for 2 weeks through tiny villages and past subsistence farms. There is no transport system to speak of. For a day we hitched with a Chinese medicine trader, buying produce from local people. Fascinating, but very, very slow.
Someone asks for a lift. ‘Sure’ says the driver. ‘I’ll just go pack my bag’ says the local, and disappears for 15 minutes, leaving us (as ever) waiting.
Our nearest brush with the real world was Luang Prabang. Its Lao’s second biggest city but it has a peculiar charm. Even the main street is hard to make out as you are surrounded by trees. There’s little traffic – not even many motorbikes, but the occasional tractor. And by 11pm everyone – including the backpackers – is heading for bed. I’ve never experienced anywhere as intrinsically un-urban as Laos.
What could be a better end to such a long journey as ours?
Everywhere there’s lots of piggies living piggy lives
Our final adventure was a 3 day trek in a protected area of NW Laos called Nam Ha. It was great to finish with something so special and so well managed. The aim is to dissipate the damaging impact so often associated with tourism.
We stayed in ‘guesthouses’ in local villages. The local people take it in turns to earn money cooking our meals. They even take it in turns to have an opportunity to sell us handcrafts. None of the all too usual cries of ‘mister mister, buy one please’. All tourism should be like this.
We ended off in an Akha community village, where a totem Spirit Gate still guards the entrance, and a ceremonial swing, used only 3 days a year, has pride of place in the village centre. The women wear headdresses decorated with old coins. Pigs, chickens and puppies eat from the same trough. Even the livestock here seems to manage a unique calm and harmony! Kids pull ‘sledges’ made of old oil containers down the steep hillside.
Bizarrely, we got an Akha massage – consisting of 6 tourists being pummelled by 12 Akha girls – every one of our 120 fingers and toes were thoroughly cracked. Then, once we were submissive, they took the opportunity to sell us bracelets!
And the very cold evenings were warmed by ‘lao lao’ rice wine.
I don’t feel in the mood today for my usual rant about war (its hard to find the energy to rant in Laos). But I have to say it seems ridiculous that this sleepy country was once defined to be the single greatest threat to ‘civilisation’. Over a 7 year interval from 1968 received over 3 million bombing missions with more ordinance dropped on one country than was dropped on the entire planet during the Second World War. Whatever these people deserve, it wasn’t that.
Live through this
With all that is human in me I promise
– When you let me wander your wildernesses I will cherish their purity and leave no trace of my presence to spoil it for others. Even when you do not, or cannot, respect your own environment I will try to set an example.
– When you show me your holy places I will treat them with the respect I would show my own grandparents’ house. I will try to ensure my conduct does nothing to diminish their sanctity to you.
– In my negotiations with you I will always try to be fair, considering what is right and honest for both of us. Neither of us should be exploited.
– When you welcome me into your community I will appreciate the intimacy you are sharing with me. I will not abuse your hospitality. I will try to behave to the highest standards of both your culture and my own.
(Inspired by everyone I’ve ever met, especially the Amazonian people of Peru, and the Mountain people of Vietnam and Laos).
Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space
So we are now in the twilight between this world and the world at home – waiting to return to Bangkok to catch a flight. Re-entry will be strange. But as the moment approaches our thoughts turn home.
We land in London on Sunday 19th, and will return to our flat, briefly, before Christmas. We look forward to catching up with many of you soon.
Our address book is buried deep in packed boxes – and may never surface. Please could you email us your address and phone number so we can get in touch. When we have a phone number of our own, we’ll let you know.