Without question, these past two days have left me with my favorite memories of Laos. Which I was not expecting as I climbed into the van with my guide Song yesterday morning – heading to a remote village about which I knew little. I hadn’t really done my homework this time – researching the region and learning about where we were headed (north perhaps?) so I really had no idea what was in store. I’m learning that this MO works for me.
We drove for almost four hours up and around scenic mountains on the ubiquitous rutted roads I’m getting to know all too well. Then we arrived in Nong Kiew – a tiny town nestled on the Ou river dotted with bamboo thatched bungalows popular with the backpacker set. Song led me down a steep path toward a waiting boat – explaining that we were about to embark on a 1 1/2 boat hour trip down the river to our home stay…well past Muang Ngoi – another somewhat well-traveled backpacker destination. You see – we were headed to an even more remote village where most tourists don’t travel – no less spend the night. I only realized this after Song explained that I would be their first western overnight visitor in some time. I could hardly wait.
We arrived to find a few local women bathing in the calm river. After crawling out of the boat, we climbed a sandy hill and the small village finally came into view. Consisting of about 50 families, Sop Jaim has one main “road” (more of a wide swath of hardened dirt) lined by a scattering of sturdy bamboo houses covered by corrugated tin roofs. Most families have an “outhouse” with a squat toilet. Some don’t. Electricity hasn’t made its way to this part of the world yet. They power things (like the boom box that played obscenely loud Lao house music for a long hour in the late afternoon) using batteries charged by hydro-power from the river. A small school squats on a low hill on the outskirts of town next to a path that leads to the next village. No English is spoken here.
Perhaps my favorite part of this quiet spot in the world was the tiny beings buzzing all about. Small children sporting mismatched t-shirts and muddy shorts were everywhere – boys pushing sticks after small wheels and girls huddled together holding hands – giggling as I wandered by calling out “Sabaidee!” (Hello in Lao).
And everywhere I looked – babies. Not human babies… Groups of chicks skittering around on toothpick legs, and tiny yellow and brown, just-hatched ducklings racing after their fat waddling mothers. And a lone, rotund puppy, racing under a house, which I nearly started to follow on all fours until I came upon a full litter of six minuscule pups lazing about on a slab of dirty cement. I think I visited that gang of warm puppies eight or ten times over the next 18 hours (the too brief duration of our stay)… letting them suckle my fingers, piling three at a time into my now dirt-filled lap, rubbing their bald, warm bellies and trying to stop them from gnawing on my sandals. And then the kids came to play with us. And at one point the kids and the puppies and the ducklings were all cavorting together. I could hardly stand it.
There was also the lone, black cat who assertively approached me as I sat on another low slab of cement listening to Song chat, uncomprehendingly, with the locals. The thin feline crawled into my lap and when the clouds gathered I grabbed her warm body and hurried over to the protection of the tin roof covering the narrow balcony outside my simple room – the black cat nestling back down in my lap as the skies opened and the rain poured down – rivulets of water steaming from a few holes in the roof on either side of us. I sat there on a hard wooden chair for over an hour just gazing about, listening to the pouring rain and then the shrieks of the kids as they emerged from their homes to inspect the puddles. I was mesmerized by the simplicity of the place.
This simplicity – this purity – was mirrored in our evening meal. I got to sit with the village “chief” and his wife and mother (the kids were still playing throughout the darkened paths surrounding their beautiful two-story hut). We ate squares of delectable crunchy river weed (a Lao specialty made of a local seaweed-like substance, covered in a smattering of sesame seeds and lightly fried) and bowlfuls of fragrant soup brimming with of slivers of chicken and even more chicken bones along with handfuls of fresh herbs I could not identify that I had helped the mother clean and trim an hour earlier. Bowls of boy-choy-but-not-bok-choy swimming in salty, ginger-laced broth were surrounded by smaller bowls full of soy and garlic and ubiquitous sliced chilies (the Lao people like their food SPICY). We ate all of this with small clumps of warm sticky rice picked out of bamboo baskets – rarely using utensils and often dabbing our sodden fingers on tiny homemade cloths weaved by the village women.
The men drank rice wine…the conversations becoming more animated as the sky darkened. There was talk of government corruption and education and farming – my guide chattering away and then leaning over and explaining the foreign words to me. My favorite topic, however, came at the end of the evening… Once again Song leaned toward me to translate what the cluster of men had been discussing. “Gays!” he exclaimed – going on to explain, “We talk about why no gays in village – only in city. Think chemicals – here in village they eat all natural – only organic. In city – chemicals! Gays!!” I was speechless for a moment. He hadn’t seemed critical in his explanation … more curious in a way. I tried to offer that perhaps there were some gay people in some villages – that maybe they don’t know about them or that these “gays” aren’t comfortable … and I struggled with the words “coming out” because I just knew it wouldn’t translate. And then I stopped talking. And I looked across the table at Song’s blank stare. And I decided to just smile and nod because I just couldn’t imagine this conversation going anywhere… And it was a beautiful evening and debate was not on the menu.
The next morning, after being awakened from my mozzie-net covered, thin, firm mattress by unbelievably loud roosters at 4:30am, I wandered the village as it came to life…watching a little girl feed her ducklings and a woman return from the river with buckets full of water draped on a bamboo pole over her neck and a man chopping slivers of wood for kindling with a huge, thick knife.
After a simple breakfast of fresh eggs and greens and more sticky rice it was time to say goodbye – much too soon. After asking Song to translate my deep gratitude to our hosts (my simple “kop jai” <thank you> seemed wholly inadequate), I followed him down to our awaiting boat. Which had a dead battery. So we got to travel back on a local boat – narrow and low to the water and slow … the perfect vehicle from which I could gaze at the towering trees dripping with garlands of thick vines in every shade of green Crayola makes. The river was a mossy jade color – still as a glassy lake. Our boat driver navigated the river over the next hour – at one point narrowly missing a herd of water buffalo out for a morning swim.
I was sad to leave the children and the chief and the puppies and the serenity that greeted me when I visited Sop Jaim. But I am hopeful that this tiny village will remain small and sleepy and slow – and that I might just visit it again some day.
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End note… This experience is one of the many reasons I am eternally grateful to Buffalo Tours – the agency that helped me plan much of my Asia travels. Their ability to work with local communities and develop extraordinary and unique outings has helped make this journey unforgettable. If you’re interested in experiencing this kind of Asia – let me know and I’d be more than happy to help make connections.