We are spending the night in a little village a few hours south of Luang Nam Tha on the Nam Tha river. We are headed for a place called Pak Tha. They tell us we can pick up another boat from there, and then another from there and eventually make our way to Luang Prabang. Three or four days. No one is entirely sure. It is not very important.
I say “we” advisedly. Actually this is someone else’s trip, and I am just a hitchhiker who is helping out with the gas. Which doesn’t make it any the less interesting, but does mean it was rather easier to organise. I prefer that kind of tourism in my present state of mind.
The guidebook (I think that there is nowhere Lonely Planet does not have a book for – I understand there are even books on the Arctic and Antarctic) says that 85% of Laotians live in villages. Like this one I guess.
So much to say. The houses are wooden, often thatched with straw (although some have rusty iron, and there is one stone building), and raised off the ground on stilts (the space underneath serves as a storage shed, a spot for the loom, a spot for the toilet, and as a hunting ground for chickens, dogs and the odd pig). Sufficient for shelter from the rain, I guess, there are big gaps between boards in the floors and walls, no windows, and the whole place shakes when people walk around.
Our house seems to be something a little special. Right beside the communal pump (even close enough to run a pipe into the ground floor to fill water containers for washing and cooking – the predecessor to indoor plumbing?), it commands a view of most of the rest of the houses and the monastery that forms the furthest extent of the village around 30 yards away.
This is not a big place. Maybe 50 people, about 60% of whom appear to be beautiful children. Perched on the sloping bank of the river, with everything flowing down to the docks, such as they are. Mud steps, marked with some rocks, get washed away when the river rises and left out to dry when the river falls.
Once we have ensconced ourselves in the front room that serves as our living room, dining room and bedroom (quilts rolled out on the floor, Central Asian style, mosquito nets hung from handy hooks), children arrive. Every age from just old enough to walk up the stairs to fiveteen, dressed in denim and too cool to speak (although not too cool to blush endearingly when spoken to). Lots and lots of little brown girls with dark hair and dark eyes, most of them clothed in deep-coloured sarongs that serve as a dress when pulled up to under the arms, and a skirt if left to fall to the waist. Maybe they need safety pins. They don’t seem to need underwear.
The children share the same obsessions as children anywhere – checking out the strangers, playing with the fire of the candle lantern till they burn themselves, and shining headlamps in their eyes and acting surprised when it hurts. I berate myself again for not bringing a store of knick-knacks to give away. Pens are popular. They are not afraid to ask for gifts.
The patriach of the house (a wizened old guy with tattoos on his legs to just below his knees) is extremely pleased with the binoculars one of travelling companions takes out to show him. Everyone has a turn. But they end up with the strap around his neck.
Explaining focus seems to be a bridge too far. Explaining that they were never meant to be a gift is something better left for the morning, it seems.
And women selling fabrics that they make on the looms under their houses come too. Beautiful, understated patterns. I could probably even buy some now, since my bag is emptier and I shall soon be taking it home.
There aren’t really any streets here, just mud tracks between the houses. Everyone washes their feet a lot and leaves their shoes at the door, wiping them on the wet doormat.
No electricity either, it seems. Or English (except for the sign “you are welcome” on the wall in a shaky hand). Except for one helpful man who comes by to check how we are doing from time to time and sell us Beer Lao (bereft of which we would, of course, be desolate), and water (who needs the necessaries of life when one can have the luxuries?). And he does not speak much. He knows how to bargain about prices though, even if he does not understand bulk discounts, bundling together products, or how to set a realistic opening price when your visitors already know what things cost. He doesn’t know yet, I should say. Are we sleeping on the floor of what will be the first guesthouse in this village?
Dusk brings out the crickets and the frogs to sing, and the people (mostly children) from their houses to get water from the pump. Two buckets each, carried over one shoulder on a wooden rail with a little hook at each end. Except for that little girl there, who is too small even to carry one full bucket and has to make lots of trips. Is it cruel for me to sit her and watch the determination and patience she shows in her struggles rather than to wander downstairs and help her out? Ah the complex ethics of voyeristic tourism.
Food is simple but abundant. Eggs, two-minute noodles (Kraft is everywhere), that green Chinese vegetable that I can never quite remember the name of, and very sticky rice. All brought in on a little round table when ready, and taken away on the table when done. Hot water is available, but tea and coffee seem a bridge too far.
We stopped on the way today to pick up a lizard from a tree. Well, our captain and pilot did. Not sure how they spotted it from the shore, but they caught it adeptly enough with a rod of bamboo and some string, and stored it in the bottom of the boat for later. We kind of expected it to make its way to our dinner plates (it would be rude to turn up empty handed with five guests), but no, it has not.
The last light calls people to the monastery. The somewhat unearthly sounds of chanting are a relaxing way to end the day. After that, what else is there to do but go to bed? It must be almost nine o’clock, after all. Laos really does move to a different beat, it seems