Huay Xai to some Village
Amazing 48 hours - Part I
May 25, 2005
**Heads up-this travelogue is really long. So if you want to look busy at work copy it into a Word document and you'll get out of real work for about 30 minutes!!!
We woke up at 7:15 AM to begin an amazing day. We started off with a quick breakfast at our guest house and were taken down to the boat by a kid about 15 years old at 8:00 AM. We were the only foreigners on the boat and the only ones who spoke English. This began our two day journey of communicating by grunts and hand gestures. Our trip began by heading southwest down the Mekong River. We came to our first stop after traveling only fifteen minutes. A guy in the boat, who looked like a leprechaun or a lollypop gang member from the "Wizard of Oz", started asking us for something. At first I thought he was asking for money. We soon figured out he wanted our passports. He took our passports and ran up the hill to some small town. After a few minutes he came back down the hill, gave us our passports back and jumped back in the boat. This must have some sort of checkpoint.
We traveled another fifteen minutes down the river where we made another stop to pick up a Lao guy about 20 years old. We started once again. The scenery reminded me of the back waters of the Mississippi river between Iowa and the Wisconsin/Illinois where I used to go water skiing at my Uncle Dean and Aunt Cindy’s cabin. The landscape changed quickly to what looked like slabs of slate rock protruding out of the banks 20 feet high. With the ever changing landscape I decided to get out a pen and paper to jot down some notes about the trip. I wanted to remember the details so I could write them here for all of you. As I was writing a Lao girl about 4 years old nervously approached me and said the word "pen." I moved my pen towards her in a gesture of, "would you like my pen?" As she took the pen I also tore out a piece of paper for her. The biggest smile came to her face. She began to write some words and showed them to her mother. I thought I just made her day but wondered why neither the mother nor her said khawp jai (thank you), but I figured this was due to the language or culture difference. We traveled 30 minutes during this time and once again we stopped.
This time there were eight boats also stopped along the bank. We were still the only foreigners around. All the boats were picking up goods such as eggs, cement blocks and ceramic roof tiles. Our boat picked up eight bags of cement, two squat toilets, eggs and several other things I don’t remember or don’t know what they were. I wasn't sure this longtail boat could float with all this weight. A kid about 17 years old from another boat knew some English and asked us where we were from, where are we going, and what we were going to do when we got there. He kept repeating these questions. I think this was the only English he knew. Tina had to use the suam(toilet) really bad at this point. We looked up in our guide book how to say bathroom and it’s the same as in Thai, "hawng nam". Tina asked the 15 year old from our boat and he swept his arm across his body and said something in Lao. As we assumed this meant, "everywhere." When Tina got back we took a few pictures while we waited for them to load the boat.
We took off with our load and traveled down the river for 20 minutes before picking up two more passengers. Both were Lao men who both carried on the boat a basketful of junk items to sell, from watches to cellphone covers. These were the local Lao slicksters. If these guys lived in NYC, they would be selling $5 Rolex watches out of a briefcase. Just after picking up these guys we made a turn northeast and we were now on the Nam Tha river. Immediately the Nam Tha River reminded me of canoeing the Upper Iowa River near Decorah, Iowa. The river was half the width of the Mekong River and much shallower. Not long after traveling up the Nam Tha we saw oxen walking on the banks cooling themselves off in the river. Other common sites along the river were fishnets setup or being thrown out by local village people, fish traps made from bamboo, village children swimming and playing in the river, and villages themselves either nestled next to the river or sitting high up in the rolling mountainous hills. After being on the Nam Tha River for an hour we stopped at an area where they had two huts setup to sell food.
The family members of the boat bought some food and Tina and I relieved ourselves in the bushes. I bought a bag full lyches (local fruit) for 5000 Kip. ($0.50) We started once again and began to eat the lyches. After 20 minutes we stopped again. I was sitting in the boat eating my lyches when the driver of the boat pointed to his mouth to let us know it was lunch time. We got out of the boat and I started looking around for a comfortable place to continue eating our fruit and maybe some granola bars we brought. Before we could find a place to sit the driver waved us over to eat. They already had begun eating. Tina tried saying, "khawy kin tae phak" (I only eat vegetables). They seemed to finish her statement as she stammered through it, but I’m not sure if they really know what she said. They had sticky rice in a couple of containers, noodles in another, ground up green chilies in a small bowl, and some type of meat on a bone soaking in a broth. I grabbed a small handful of sticky rice wadded it up in a ball and began to eat it. I noticed they would dip their ball of sticky rice in the green chilies, I did the same. Next, I watched them grab the noodles with their hands, tilt their heads back and drop the noodles in their mouth. I did the same. The noodles were spicier than the green chilies which suprised me. Tina stuck to just having a little sticky rice. I offered our lyches as a contribution to the meal. Lunch took 10 minutes and we were back on the boat heading up the river.
The slicksters were gone but two more men, a women and her newborn were now on the boat. We didn't make anymore stops for next six hours. Tina and I enjoyed the scenery while constantly rearranging our butts. We sat on a paper thin mat on the floor of the boat the entire trip. We generously applied sunblock to our pale skin as the locals laughed at us. We still got fried.
Trouble began in the late afternoon as the river became more shallow. The 15 year old and the leprechaun were standing single file in the from of the boat using eight foot bamboo rods to help direct this long, narrow boat through the shallow waters. The teamwork between these two guys and the driver of the boat was amazing. There were many times I thought we would hit a rock or not make it through a narrow passage. Most of the time we made through with ease. The water was getting too shallow and they were getting out to push the boat, eventually I got out to help and soon after so did Tina. The two other Laos men passengers just watched us push the boat. The 20 year old we picked up at the beginning of the days was at the back of the boat help pushed also, but the other two men just sat there. It was 5:00 pm at this time and we wondered how much longer are we going to be on the river today. Today was suppose to be eight hours and we had already been on the river for 9 hours. We thought a few delays today but it should be sometime soon.
We dropped of one man, his wife and baby at 5:45 pm. We dropped the other guy off at 6:15 pm. It was beginning to get dark, we should be stopping soon or so we thought. We kept going and it kept getting darker. Just before it was completely dark we pulled over to a village. Tina and I wondered if this was our stop or did we just pull over? Kids from the village came up to the boat to see what was going on. The family and the driver started unloading the boat, including the eight bags of cement. They unloaded our bags, I started digging around for our flashlight, I found our headlamp instead. The family was laughing and we were pretty sure this was not the family's village.
The men continued to unload the boat while the mother led us up the hill through the pigs, roosters, oxen, and children surrounding us. I had the headlamp pointed towards the ground to avoid the piles of poop from who knows what animals. We walked twenty yards and came across a bamboo fence. An A-Frame shaped ladder was attached to the fence. The mother still leading us was carrying a huge bag, she climbed up the ladder and over the fence with ease. I went next and took my time since I was carrying my fully loaded backpack on my back on our daypack in my hand. Now on the other side of the fence, I turned around to shine the light for Tina. Not having the appropriate shoes she took her time getting over the fence.
We both turned around to follow the mother. She was nowhere to be found. It was completely dark, the only light was coming from our headlamp and the entire villiage was starting to crowd around us. We could see some huts on stilts and we sheepishly walked towards them with both of us saying, "Where did she go?" We slowly walked towards the huts as our crowd continued to grow. At this point we knew for sure this was not suppose to be our stopping point. The mother came back and found us, she directed us under a hut where we sat our bags down. I was holding the only light on in the entire village. I could see a fire going in a nearby hut. Tina and I looked at each other and said, "Now what?" I turned off the headlamp hoping this would not make us the center of attention anymore. Wrong. The villagers stared at us like we were were aliens. If we walked towards them they would frighteningly move away. The were intrigued enough to stare but scared to touch us. Unconsciously I kept asking Tina, "What do we do?" I know she didn't have an answer and she was probably tired of me saying it, but this was all I could do in this awkward situation.
The mother took us up to the hut which were standing under. We think this was the chief's hut because the crowd did not follow us up. We sat down our bags and felt relieved not to be the center of attention anymore. At this point Tina said, "I have to go to the bathroom really bad!" We didn't know how we would be able to do this. As soon as we get down the stairs the crowd will follow us wherever we go. Then, Tina had a great idea, we still had a half a bag of lyches leftover.
It worked great. We got to the bottom of the stairs, Tina handed off the bag of lyches , they nervously took them, it kept their attention as we made a dash back over the A-Frame ladder. I had the headlamp, I turned it on, Tina said, "Watch out for the poop." Moments later she said, "Ahhh, I just stepped in pig shit." She wiped off her foot in the dirt and we found a place to go, five feet from three little piglets sleeping. We finished and as we were walking back towards the huts Tina said, "If my Mom could see me now."
Back in the center of the village a single light bulb was hanging next to a chalkboard. Several adults were sitting with pen and paper listening to the teacher as he repeated the words on the board and tapped the board with the his stick for each syllable. We stopped to watch the teaching and we're soon crowded by the people of the village. The teacher seemed upset by our presence distracting the class. We still had no idea what to do. Nobody speaks English and we know two Lao words, sabadii (hello) and khawp jai (thank you). We also have no idea where the family from our boat is at.
I felt like we should be singing, dancing, or performing a magic trick for our crowd. It was really strange being stared at by faced you couldn't see in the dark. Tina went to put something in the pocket of her rain jacket when the zipper handle fell off. I turned on the headlamp, shined it on her jacket so she could fix it. The crowd moved to stare at her pocket. I don't know if they thought she was going to pull something ouy or if they just wanted to watch ever move we made. Tina fixed the zipper, I turned off the headlamp, Tina said, "Ta da!" The whole crowd laughed. Easy to please audience.
Not knowing how else to entertain our audience, we decided to find the boat family. We found them cooking dinner in the hut next to hut where are bags were stored. They motioned for us to come up the ladder into the hut. We sat down and watched them cook in a small pot over a little fire. We sat by the light of a single candle and the fire used for cooking. We wondered what would they cook us and would it have meat in it. They served us ramen noodles of all things, sticky rice and two hard boiled eggs. We are pretty sure the noodles were cooked with a beef broth, but Tina sucked it up and ate the noodles. The water to cook the noodles I'm sure was from the Nam Tha River, but at least the water had to be boiled to cook the noodles.
We sat off to the side as the Lao people ate sticky rice with canned sardines and something else. The 15 year old came from outside with some newly picked root of some kind. They grilled the roots over the fire, cut off the sides and showed us how to eat them. I think we ate some of the wrong parts, it was bitter and the laughed at us. They corrected us on what part to eat, it sill didn't taste good, but we finished it to be nice. Tina mentioned that it reminded her of her friend Angie's Ralphie(from the Simpson's) impression "It tastes like burning!" Tina and I sat there whispering about our food and what a amazing experience we were in the middle of experiencing. I said, "Why are we whispering to each other, they can't understand us anyway?" We still whispered just in case they knew more English then they let on.
After dinner we found out the hut we were in was attached to the hut with our bags. This was good news. We didn't have to face the crowd again. We were escorted to the hut with our bags and shown our sleeping area. This consisted of two 4 inch mattresses side by side on the floor with a rolled up blanket as a pillow for both of us to use. The driver of our boat and the 20 year old pulled up paper thin mats to sleep on next to us. We offered the driver our Yoga mat we purchased int Chiang Mai and he happily accepted.
An old man, who we think was the chief stayed up talking by the light of a small oil lantern with the boat driver. The chief chain smoked what I think was tobacco, who knows were are in the middle of the Golden Triangle (opium country). The boat driver laid down, the chief blew out the lantern and slipped under a mosquito net to his sectioned off area. The two men talked some more once the light was out, but soon went to sleep.
I just laid there in the dark thinking, "Wow, this is one of the most amazing things I have ever done." Tourist in Chiang Mai pay to do this and the tribes see foreigners every day. These people were in such awe to see us tonight. After forty-five minutes of laying there thinking what an incredible day, Tina leans over and whispers in my ear, "Are you still awake." "Yes", I whisper back. She ask to me to guess the time. "10:15", she says. For the next half hour we whispered and giggled like little kids at Christmas about what an experience today has been.
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