OYOP: Magical Days in Luang Prabang, Laos
Admittedly, I knew nothing about the country of Laos before we visited except that it was part of the worn backpacker trail in Southeast Asia. I didn’t know about its laid back culture, its breathtaking landscapes, its village tribes, or even the impact of the US on its war-torn history.
When we first arrived, I immediately picked up on the laid-back culture of Laos. On the two-day slow boat ride, a relaxed form of transport in itself, we passed many hills topped with small villages. Locals walked slowly along the riverbanks, and school-age children floated by in canoes with large fishing nets. Even when we arrived in Luang Prabang, the most visited city in Laos, the relaxed culture was a refreshing contrast from the last few weeks in Thailand, where even the charmed Chiang Mai felt stressfully rushed and packed. Upon arriving in Luang Prabang, local women were casually setting up tents and blankets on the streets for the nightly market, and the air was quiet, slow-paced and pleasant. Colorful French colonial style buildings line the streets, built when Laos was a French colony in the early 1900s. At times strolling around, it was easy to forget that I was in Southeast Asia and not a quaint European town.
Though it is difficult to tell in Luang Prabang today, Laos was majorly impacted in its recent history during the Vietnam War era. Although Laos was declared a neutral country, both Vietnam and US forces did not abide by its neutrality. Soon after, the US targeted Laos in its air strike efforts. By the end of the war, the US had dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country in the war. Even worse, an estimated one third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving unexploded ordinances a major danger to Lao residents for decades to come, a threat even today.
After spending a few days in Luang Prabang, eating baguettes and crepes, another remnant of the French colonization, and watching sunsets on the Mekong River, we decided to leave the town for a 2-day trek north to get lost in the serenity of the mountains and spend one night in a hilltop village with the Khmu tribe people.
We embarked early in the morning with two Lao guides, both originally from northern Lao villages themselves, and with a couple from Canada, and set off into the jungle. Though we climbed slightly up in altitude, the hike itself was the easiest we’d been on yet, though also the hottest, muddiest, and most humid, which presented its own set of challenges. We were mostly on a not-so-worn path through forests of teak trees, climbing over fallen logs and ducking under low hanging branches. We passed small villages with bamboo hut homes, and villagers who planted rice and corn and raised livestock of chickens, pigs, and cattle. We watched as women worked 12-14 hour days in the rice fields, and saw men go out for a hunt. Our guides, Man and Leng, spoke English, Lao, Lao dialects from their hometowns, and the languages of the Khmu and Hmong people, the two tribes whose villages we’d pass through over the next two days.
After roughly 6 hours of hiking the first day, we arrived at the Khmu villagez of our homestay. The village had 48 families and about 250 residents. Children ran around, playing in the dirt. Pigs, ducks, and chicken roamed aimlessly around homes and underneath buildings. We were led to our hut for the evening to put down our bags, and we were shown to one of the few outdoor water stations, where water constantly flows through a pipe directly from a nearby steam. Residents collect their water and bathe outdoors at the few shared water stations. We poured buckets of cold stream water on our arms and legs to rinse off from the day’s hike, a relief though certainly not the shower we are used to after a day full of sweat, rain, sunscreen and bugspray.
I was looking forward to what would follow for the evening. My expectation was something to the effect of being greeted by a local family, perhaps learning how to weave from one of the elder village ladies, and being surrounded by the young village children. All followed by a dinner together around the fire, some stories translated by our guides, and after feeling like part of the family, a quiet night’s sleep underneath the stars.
The reality, of course, was quite different. Women worked late in the fields in the evening. The children weren’t too curious about us. Nowadays, they see one or two hikers passing through each week to spend a night in the village. They were shy, and though we attempted to say a few phrases we’d learned in the local dialect, there was little in the way of communication. Men were scarce, either out for days hunting or working in the city and sending back money to their family members in the village. And for dinner, each family had a small fire cooking in their own home, while we ate in our own hut as well. We were observers, seeing and learning a little, but the hard-working lives of the villagers could not stop because we had come to stay. The quiet night under the stars was in actuality quite a loud night of dogs barking and fighting, roosters crowing, the Canadians snoring, and me staring wide-eyed all night at the inside of bamboo hut from my mosquito-net bedding.
The next morning, we had a quick breakfast, thanked and said goodbye to the village chief, and hiked another 5 hours. It rained all day, and the steep downhill through rocks and mud was slippery and brutal. Each of us slid at least once, despite our attempts to go slowly and cautiously with each step. Luckily, we didn’t encounter any of the leeches other travelers told us were such a nuisance in the jungle. Just as the scenery was getting monotonous and our stomachs were growling for lunch, we arrived at the river and could see the truck across the river waiting to take us back to Luang Prabang. The only problem was that the wooden bridge we were to cross for our final few steps had been swept away by the high rushing river rapids only 20 minutes before.
The bamboo or wooden bridges across the Mekong and Khan Rivers are swept away each year during wet season and rebuilt again in the dry season. It is early in the wet season, and ours was to be one of the last hikes of the year on this trail. We now know for sure it will be the last hike since the bridge is gone. Man and Leng seemed flustered to say the least, and after half an hour, as we were staring into the rushing river rapids, Man had come up with a solution- we would wade across the river. We had already watched as one young, strong local struggled his way across, and ended up swept a bit downriver before catching his foothold again. Man tried the same, and though his feet could touch the bottom for two-thirds of the way, he too was swept away until he could catch onto the riverbank a bit further down. We searched for rope and tried to formulate a plan, while the Canadians panicked because, they said, they were not scared but had reservations over their bags getting wet. Let’s be honest, we were all terrified. These very same rapids had just swept away an entire wooden bridge and we were to walk across? It was daunting.
Just as I started to untie my shoes, a couple of local women stopped our guides and asked us to follow them to another bridge they knew about further downriver. I was surprised at the skepticism of our guides, who felt they knew the area well enough to doubt the existence of a bridge of which they’d never seen. After much debate, we followed the women on a little path through tall fields of grass. The 20 minutes downriver we followed the locals was the best scenery and easiest path we’d been on all day, and sure enough, a still-in-tact bridge was right around the corner. We carefully crossed one at a time, and we all made it easily across the river safely to the truck. Though the Canadians still went on about the possibility of their bags getting wet, the rest of us bonded joyfully over the help of the locals and our extended adventure before parting ways in Luang Prabang.