Naked Pirates of the Nam Ou

Two nights and three days of trekking and kayaking among hill tribes in the Lao countryside was a highlight of our trip. There are many minority ethnic groups in Laos, including the Khmu (of the same origin as Khmer) and Hmong hill tribes we encountered on our trek.  Each speaks a distinct language, so even the handful of Lao words we had learned were not particularly useful.  Despite our inability to communicate with the locals, we got an inside glimpse into a very different lifestyle. Our guide, Mung, was fabulous, and tirelessly led us through the mountains all the while answering our thousands of questions about life in Laos. And he just about always had a smile on his face. That man was a laughing machine, and we truly enjoyed it. Our group was a great size too – we had two other trekkers join us (Matthias from Germany and Jolene from Quebec), which was perfect as we could share the experience and meet new and interesting people without having to stop every five minutes for someone to tie his shoelaces.

The trek began about an hour’s drive outside of Luang Prabang, and we hiked a very hot couple of hours before arriving at the first village for lunch. We were surprised to learn that tour companies do not necessarily plan in advance where we’ll go or stay, but simply show up and ask (and pay, of course, but Mung claims you will always find someone willing to host you and/or feed you). We adored this hospitable aspect of Lao culture.

While the food was not the most gourmet that we ate in Laos, it was probably the most authentic. And by authentic I mean we were served enough sticky rice for a small army with every meal. Every single meal. If there’s one thing we learned about Lao food, it’s sticky rice. Sticky rice with chicken. Sticky rice with pork. Sticky rice with fish, and salad. Sticky rice with cabbage. And sticky rice with your omelets in the morning, which actually functions quite well as a toast substitute. I’m pretty sure Mung claimed that Laotians eat on average a couple kilos of sticky rice a day. And these are not large people! The highlight of the food was probably the crispy, salty riverweed with sesame seeds and the buffalo meat with rice noodles (the Lao take on spaghetti Bolognese?). One cute anecdote that Mung shared with us – he claims Lao people are lazy, and this is why they eat with their fingers: one less utensil to wash! He added also that Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) actually stands for People Don’t Rush and joked that one Lao worker is equivalent to three Vietnamese.

I have to say, it is a whole lot easier to eat Lao food with your fingers than Indian. The sticky rice makes all the difference, it’s practically a magnetic spoon.

The children were a major highlight of our trek. We remember thinking on our Cambodia trip a few years ago that Cambodian children seem like the happiest in the world. Well, the Lao kids might have them beat. There is constant, I mean literally constant, laughter. And not just little giggles, but riotous laughter, like they’re having the most fun they’ve ever had. And it looks like they are! We even witnessed a Lao food fight and Alan and Matthias joined in on their soccer/volleyball-esque juggling game (played with a bamboo ball a bit larger than a softball). Even bath/washing time was a cause for celebration. The kids run around and jump in and out of the water like gleeful little maniacs. They sure are cute.

After another strenuous stretch of hiking we arrived at our home for the night. We had been briefed on proper etiquette: no touching heads, wear clothes, do not hang underwear or bathing suits above head level. Easy enough.

This village is still fairly remote, but already signs of development are cropping up: there were a handful of homes built from concrete and satellite dishes were affixed to nearly all the bamboo homes. That said, you still feel pretty far removed from the Western world, watching the children, adults and farm animals buzz about, the scenery framed in the background by a beautiful rock mountain that reminded us of Sri Lanka’s Sigiriya.

We stayed in what is essentially a bamboo shed, with a raised bamboo platform on one side where there were mats and blankets laid out for us to sleep. While it wasn’t the most comfortable night of sleep we’d ever had, it was certainly an experience. The beds and pillow are so hard you have to roll over every twenty minutes when an ear, arm or leg falls asleep. We woke feeling like rotisserie chickens that’d been spinning all night. And don’t expect the peace and quiet you get on a camping trip – it’s almost as if the villages get louder at night. Kids laughing, kids crying (I swear they only cry at night here. Too busy having fun with their friends during the day I suppose!), roosters crowing (I thought they were only supposed to do this as the sun comes up!)…

We’re both very proud of Jenni’s minimal freak-out in response to a hairy, jointed spider spotted near the “shower.”

And this place is the clear winner of the award for strangest experience brushing our teeth. The running water comes from a spout out behind the house. If I had any plumbing skills I would have installed a knob for them so the water flow could be turned on or off by a method other than sticking a round, wooden stick into the opening. Anyway, while brushing our teeth here we were accompanied by a local village boy, a puppy, a pig, and a duck drinking the runoff water.

The villages are full of animals, as the locals farm the land and the livestock for subsistence. Cows, big fat pigs and cute little piglets. Jenni tried her hardest to touch a piglet, to no avail. But we did witness a rather impressive cow brawl. Allegedly there are monkeys in the hills, but you don’t see any in the villages. Mung says this is because in Laos they eat everything that moves, and if monkeys came to village they’d end up in the frying pan. Of course, Jenni spent a good amount of time cuddling with puppies. Lao puppies have the most adorable little folded ears. Can you even resist? Although the puppy that belonged to the family we stayed with the second night was definitely psycho. He liked to bite (playfully, but still), and he spent about 20 minutes hurling himself into our mosquito net again and again in an attempt to bite  – err, play with – Alan.

The house construction styles differ by tribe, but are all built primarily with bamboo, which requires rebuilding every so many years.

The trekking itself was a bit tougher than we’d anticipated (or is it just all that food we ate in Chiang Mai and Penang slowing us down 😉 ), including some areas with difficult footing, steep passes, and muddy areas that required the assistance of bamboo poles both underfoot to keep us from sinking and used as walking sticks. Not to mention it is HOT in the sun. It was impressively beautiful though. Up high you get fantastic views of the lush mountains continuing forever, and down through the valleys you pass through both a bamboo forest and a banana forest at one point.

After lunch on our second day, an older Lao villager joined up with our group and walked behind us, whistling and chanting a bit as we went. He spoke no English, but communicated with Mung at each of our rest stops. And then at one stop he pulled out a hand-fashioned bamboo bong from behind the tree and proceeded to rip bingers (tobacco, take it easy) out of it. We were intrigued to say the least. Apparently this is a communal bong, and there are several along the walking paths that villagers use at their leisure.

Our second night we stayed in a more traditional homestay, sleeping in the ground floor living area of a local family’s home while they slept upstairs. This brick structure was more substantial than many others we saw. The family had a television (on which they watched Thai soaps) and a refrigerator, but the kitchen is still basically a wood fire outside. And the bathroom is a stone hole in the ground enclosed in bamboo (with a door that neither locks nor shuts completely. Privacy was lacking here, and I still don’t understand how women “shower” as they aren’t allowed to be naked outside and the running water is not enclosed at all). The family did not sit outside to eat dinner with us, but Alan dropped in while they were eating their meal and tried some of the buffalo blood with peanuts and buffalo meat. They were very friendly. In fact, the father used to be the chief of the village, which is a government salaried position in which you are essentially the mayor of a small town, and must know the goings-on of all the folks in your village. Mung also brought out a water bottle filled with Lao-Lao (rice whiskey) that the men tried. It tasted like a mix of sake and jet fuel. Jenni and Jolene took their word for it.

While the first night’s village was in the mountains, this second one was along the road and next to the Nam Ou river. A refreshing dip and mild body washing was most welcome after the sweaty haul to get here.

The last day Alan and the others went kayaking. Jenni, upon hearing the words “Class II rapids” had flashbacks to this rafting trip, and decided to opt out.

Alan’s kayak experience: This was a delightful way to spend several hours, and one of the interactions with Lao kids was a real highlight of this whole journey.  The Nam Ou river is an attractive blue/green, unlike the brown Mekong.  The scenery was beautiful with green mountains and dense jungle.  There were multiple stretches of rapids, but none was more than Class I or II so it was barely exciting, let alone frightening.  Midway through we stopped for swimming and lunch on a beach on the non-road side of the river.

Each time we passed a village, several naked kids would run to the riverbank, wave frantically and shout out some combination of sabaidee (hello in Lao), goodbye and I love you.  Not to harp on it, but the kids here really are extraordinarily friendly and happy.  We also observed some men fishing by laying out a circular net and then slapping the water with a bamboo pole to scare the fish into the net where they get stuck.

The climax, for sure, was when Matthias and I decided to paddle closer to shore to interact a bit with a particularly energetic group of youngsters.  One kept doing back flips into a shallow water belly flop, it was hilarious.  As we approached, several swam out and decided to climb aboard our little ship…naked, of course.  A couple began walking along the edge of the kayak and pretty soon we capsized.  I will savor a long time these moments of pure, innocent joy.  Note that I am hoping to get some video from Mathias of the kids to embed here, but he hasn’t been able to send it yet as he is currently in Myanmar.

While Alan was off having adventures with the Nam Ou Naked Pirates, Jenni had an unexpected adventure of her own. When the rest of the group hit the river, I joined Phoo, a guide-in-training and student with very basic English skills, and Sing, our driver who spoke no English whatsoever, and we all hung out in a local villager’s house with a young married couple and their one and a half year old baby. Now remember what we said earlier about how happy the Lao kids are? Not this one, at least not with me. Her face turned angry every time she looked at me. Everyone laughed and talked in Lao about how the baby would giggle and then when she looked at me she stopped and got very stern-faced. With nothing else to do for the next several hours, Phoo stepped out and returned with a case of maybe 18 large Beerlaos, and a water bottle full of Lao-Lao. I was unable to communicate verbally with anyone but Phoo, and even communicating with him was a stretch, especially as his Beerlao consumption increased. People kept coming over to hang out and drink with us. They taught me how to open the bottles with another bottle, and to drink the “Lao” way – in a glass, with ice, and a big “sip” at a time (a small glass each time). In other words, you don’t sip, you guzzle shots. We taught each other how to say such important words as cheers (“tom” in Lao), papaya and sticky rice. And we clinked glasses, cheers-ed and tom-ed for a lot of rounds. The couple living there brought out tons of food and encouraged me continuously to eat everything again and again, regularly asking “is it delicious?” (in Lao, Phoo translated). The fried bamboo shoots, yes. Very delicious (and especially with sticky rice). The buffalo skin – I must have had more Beerlao than I realized, because I can’t believe I tried that. I wholeheartedly advise against ever trying buffalo skin. It was so chewy, I seriously gnawed on it for like 20 minutes, trying to smile and figure out if I could somehow discreetly spit it out (I couldn’t). They also provided rice crackers, beef with a spicy chive sauce, and papaya salad that was impressively spicy.

I got another glimpse into a couple of fascinating cultural differences in Laos. First, kids are trusted to be so independent from a young age. The little girl was literally one and a half years old and she would pick up sunflower seeds, crack the shell off herself and eat them. How many American parents can you imagine giving their children sunflower seeds that haven’t been de-shelled? But even though she could do it on her own, Sing started cracking them for her, which solidified our earlier observations that people tend to work like a team here. Though Sing had just met this family today, he was welcomed with open arms and reciprocated by contributing to the communal efforts.

We did not see a single other tourist during our three day trip, and it was fascinating to learn about Lao culture. While each tribe is culturally independent and speaks a different language, one might find a Khmu village just a few minutes’ walk from a Hmong village. It is now acceptable to marry between tribes, and the Khmu enclave where we ate lunch the first day shares a school with the nearby Hmong people.

Many of the villages have no mainline electricity and instead use generators or car batteries that charge by hydro rig. This appears to be rapidly changing as power lines and concrete buildings existed in both villages where we stayed. Still, it feels like remote village life for sure. I’d like to see an episode of Wife Swap where a New York or Los Angeles woman swaps places with a Lao villager. The ensuing culture shock (on both sides) is hard to fathom, as was reinforced when Mung told us his own story. He grew up in a small mountain village and was shocked and scared when he first saw Luang Prabang at 20 years old. Imagine how he would have felt dropped into midtown Manhattan.

We were impressed by the emphasis on hygiene, given the lack of convenient running water in each home. It felt like each time we looked we saw people washing themselves or something else, and kids even scrub their feet and sandals, no adult supervision required. We were also struck by the seemingly admirable distribution of workload among men and women. Everyone shares in the task of caring for children, including the older kids and the men. And above all, Laos is a happy, smiley nation. For this, it is impossible not to love.

Practical Info

Which Operator + Costs: We considered White Elephant, Tiger Travel and Green Discovery before settling on Green Discovery.  Each of these companies has an office within about a block on Sisavangvong Road in Luang Prabang, and each gets pretty good reviews.  White Elephant seemed a little less flexible in terms of departure dates so we ruled them out.  It was a tough choice between the remaining two, but Green Discovery’s operation/office presented as slightly more polished.  I believe the cost for a similar package (i.e. two nights, with two days of trekking and one kayaking) at White Elephant or Tiger Travel was ~$150/person.  When we signed up with Green Discovery, they said it would cost $161/person for just the two of us, but they would put up a sidewalk display advertising our trek and if others joined the price would drop.  Thankfully, Matthias and Jolene joined us, which meant great company and a greatly reduced price of $118/person.  Green Discovery takes credit cards with a 3.1% surcharge.

We found the operation to be quite professional.  Mung was a great guide, and for the kayaking they provided nice double Tri-Yaks, life jackets, helmets, dry bags and a brief lecture on safety/instructions.

Packing: Since of course you will not get a neatly presented packing list when you book your trek in this developing country, we figured some recommendations might be helpful.  Here is what we would bring:

Day pack, headlamp, toothbrush and paste, medication, bathing suit (not a bikini), sunglasses, sun block, insect repellant (though we were pleasantly surprised by the relative lack of bugs), hat, soap, towel of some sort, hiking shoes/boots and socks, flip flops, a dry bag if you have a lightweight one (better to double-protect, only necessary if kayaking), a fleece/jacket for late at night and early in the morning, zip-off pants would be ideal though all of us wore long pants the whole time despite the heat, maybe a rain jacket, hand sanitizer if you’re into that…

February 4-6, 2014 (Tuesday-Thursday)

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