Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas in a rain-soaked jungle

I've essentially skipped over Christmas the last two winters.  Last year, I left Vientiane for Nong Khai Thailand where I took a solitary yet life-changing 8 day yoga course on the banks of the Mekong, and then flew to Southern Thailand to meet my two oldest friends on a beach.  I knew my winter break this year was going to be very different.  This year I knew I wanted to spend my precious break in Lao, using my language, and exploring the North.  

Northern Lao is mountainous, green, quiet, and dotted with villages.  It's a different world.  I contend that Lao itself is just one big village, with the capital city itself no more than a sprawling, dusty little town, but northern Lao itself encapsulates a sort of landscape and rhythm I didn't know existed anymore.  Leaving the town of Luang Prabang, it takes no more than 5 minutes of travel before you are suddenly firmly in village life; vehicles dodging chickens, young women carrying woven baskets of firewood on their backs, grandfathers carrying newborns in brightly colored slings over their chests, families sitting in front of their homes on mats enjoying sticky rice for lunch, groups of schoolchildren biking to the nearest school riding two per bicycle, and in the background always miles of rice fields and mountains beyond.  

I wanted to insert myself firmly into this sort of rhythm for my winter break, and so a very vague plan formed in my head.  The first stop: spending a night with my friend Kham and his family in their mountain village.  So on my first day of break, I headed to the northern bus station and jumped into a crammed tuk tuk headed (also very vaguely) towards Kham's village a few hours north.  Lao is cold right now...and I'd go so far as to call that day bitterly cold.  In the back of the truck, I sat between many others- many Khmu people heading back to their villages for the Khmu new year.  On the way, as we whizzed north, the young woman next to me inched closer and closer until I found that we were properly cuddling, me feeling thankful as my newly purchased winter clothes were not proving their worth.  On the way, our vehicle broke down---
I reached the nearest little town to Kham's village, and waited for his older brother to pick me up on his motorcycle to drive me the remaining few hours up the mountains to reach his village.  Their village being so remote that it was hours even from a place where a vehicle can reach... Kham's brother was an excellent motorcyclist and managed to lug me with my backpack up a bumpy, steep road for more than an hour as we climbed higher and higher into the cold, blue mountains.  

We reached their village, a small Khmu settlement quite literally on the top of a mountain, with a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape.  And so began some of the coldest 20 hours I have ever spent...of course, the temperatures not even close to being as cold as MN in the winter, but without any of the comforts of indoor heating, proper winter clothes.  We went straight into Kham's family home where I was greeted by many curious faces and stuffed filled with sticky rice and vegetable soup (one of many meals that day!).  
It was Khmu near year, so I spent the day walking around with Kham to different homes where we would have to drink traditional Khmu rice alcohol (Lao Hai) and eat more sticky rice and other newly harvested vegetables to celebrate.  As a foreign visitor, I was especially urged to drink as much Lao Hai as I could...and luckily I found it wasn't nearly as strong as Lao whiskey.  

Along our war path of sticky rice and rice alcohol and new year celebrations, we also walked farther away to see the natural surroundings of the area...mountain after mountain, all covered by dense jungle.  

The views in the early morning, although not including a sunrise like Kham hoped due to cloudiness, were unreal.  My friend Kham, he lives in a village above the clouds...

My short visit to this magical, mountain-top village was accented by endless servings of delicious fresh sticky rice and vegetables and Lao Hai, curious little faces, and the kindness of Kham and his family.  And maybe most of all, the two miraculous motorcycle rides leading me to and from the village, where I sat, captivated by blue mountains, and barely balanced, as we flew up and down bumpy dirt roads.  After meeting the village chiefs and being forcibly given several bags of leftovers (sticky rice and vegetables), I was off on the second leg of the adventurous motorcycle ride journey down the mountains.  Kham's friend kindly drove me this time to a little town where I could catch some form of transport to my next destination: Nong Khiaw.  My transport this time was even more special than before, as in a normal sized tuk tuk truck which fits maybe 10 people comfortably, we had no less than 30 humans in the back of the truck bed.  We shared sticky rice together and cuddled.  
Nong Khiaw is a tiny, quiet river-side town nestled between beautiful and severe outcroppings of limestone cliffs.  Nong Khiaw was thankfully warmer than Kham's village, so I could spend my days walking around comfortably.  The other part of my time I spent making friends with the workers at the hotel, reading (for pleasure!), exploring, speaking Lao with anyone and everyone, and staring at the river.  I had another very lao incident in Nong Khiaw where a night intended to be quiet, eating an early dinner and watching the sunset, ended up with me singing karaoke at a bar until midnight thanks to making an unexpected friend of a lao tour guide passing through.  This is Nong Khiaw at different angles and hours:

Sated by several days alone, I was ready to venture up further north to Luang Namtha to meet with my friend Irini to go on a 3 day jungle trek for Christmas.  Luang Namtha is a great little town near the Chinese and Thai border, smaller than Luang Prabang and fringed by mountains and dense rain forest.  When Irini and I met up, we spent a full day in Luang Namtha exploring, eating, and going on a long bike ride through temples, rice paddies, and villages.  We made some friends and spent Christmas Eve eating pizza with them.  

Then, the next morning it was off into the jungle!  Irini and I had chosen a moderate-difficult 3-day option through a hiking company that her friend recently started.  We were with two other foreigners and had an awesome Lao guide in addition to two 'local guides' that lived in the Khmu village where we started.  The hike started brutally, with a 3 hour initial descent up a mountain into the deep protected rainforest.  At lunch, we reached a lovely overlook point:

After another few hours, we reached our jungle camp, and began to set up camp.  It started pouring around this time, and so our first night was spent under a homemade jungle shelter, freezing, and eating a wet Christmas dinner together that our guides made out of nothing more than a small fire, hollow bamboo shoots that they used to cook the food in, and using whatever they could forage to help.  Unfortunately, most of our things got wet, so we tried to dry them over night over a fire.  

Christmas dinner in the rain:

 Making the shelter:

The next day I woke up feeling sick and very off, but nonetheless we embarked on the hardest day yet, 9 hours of very challenging and now slippery terrain, up and down and up and down  mountains.  My shoes were normal walking shoes and had no traction, so I fell repeatedly all day, and during the last 2 hours which was a steep muddy path down the final mountain, I basically had to be majestically carried by the really kind local guide because my knees were so tired from all the tension of slipping and recovering and steep ascents and descents.  We reached the Khmu village where we were staying right as the sun came down (several hours later than we thought), and emerged out of the jungle in a state of delirium and exhaustion.  Our adventure wasn't quite over, because in order to reach the village, we had to literally forge two small rivers in all of our gear.  When we reached the homestay in the village, we collapsed immediately.  I haven't been that tired from hiking for at least 10 years, when I was camping in Utah.  Then, we enjoyed another meal of sticky rice and vegetables (we had been eating the same throughout), a few restorative sips of Lao whiskey, and passed out.  

The hardest day:

The next day we woke up to have breakfast and leave for our final stretch.  The last day was the easiest, as we only hiked about 3 hours on easy terrain.  Overall the trek was awesome; challenging, peaceful, beautiful, and with good company.  Actually, I spent most of my time speaking to the local guides in Lao, and was lucky enough to receive an offer from the older local guide to be his second wife.  Amazing.  

Yesterday I said goodbye to Irini and set back on a day-long journey to Luang Prabang, whizzing through an endless backdrop of villages, mountains, and forest, until we finally reached the familiar surroundings of my home.  

I'm back now, and my legs are still tired.  I'm happy to have more free days before I start teaching again, and I'm planning to spend them seeing friends, celebrating new years, and enjoying the slow pace of life here, because even here in the 'town' it's a lovely, slow, one with the occasional rollicking beat:)


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