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Feasts and Friendship in Khmu Villages

We’ve been talking about how to write about this ever since last month. Because it was probably the most memorable and humbling experience we have had this year, we decided we’d just write a short summary and let the pictures speak for themselves. We’d love to tell you all about it when we see you again, but at least for now, words simply fall short.

Bus station map

 

We met Jena, another fellow traveler, back in Pai. We knew she was heading over to Laos soon and thought we might meet up with her at some point. One morning while we were eating breakfast in Luang Prabang, Jena just happened to walk by. She stopped to talk for a bit and told us about a monk that she befriended when she was traveling through Laos last year. We were soon invited to join both of them to visit his families in their Khmu villages for the next four days. We said yes.

 

Overloaded tuk-tuk at Luang Prabang bus station

Another monk joined us, and after a three hour bus ride and a three hour hike on a dirt road through the mountains, we found ourselves at the monk’s mother’s village. The following morning was another two hour hike and half an hour boat ride to his father’s village. At both villages, we were overwhelmed by welcome and generosity.

We were fed mounds of sticky rice and many versions of untranslatable vegetable mixtures that the monk simply called “jungle salad.” Between our arrival and the new year celebrations, the local animal population dropped slightly. A few young chickens were boiled, an entire goat was roasted (with no part wasted), and a cow’s brains made it into our soup. Our bad luck was erased and our good luck was ensured with multiple baci ceremonies. With great insistence from our hosts, our bellies were warmed with Lao Lao (home made rice whiskey) from the time we woke up until our evening bath in the Ou river. 

Jena, Tony, Monk K beginning the hike

Mountain scenery

The newly-bulldozed road

arriving in Monk K's mother's village

Village kids playing on a bike

Little boy using a large knife to carve a toy rifle

Little girls in a straw mat fort

Monk K's mother's village, Ban Pha Yong

The mother's house

Monk K translating

Village chief leads the baci ceremony

Monk K and his mother during the string tying

The baci table

Tony, Alicia and Jena during the baci ceremony

Tony, Alicia and Jena ceremonially

The baci ceremony for Monk K and his family

Ceremony spectators

Boiled chicken, two

Sticky rice steamed in banana leaves, coconut sticky rice, sweet potatoes

Jena in the morning

Village school

Learning about trees - village school

Boy looking out the window of his classroom

One of the classrooms

Monk K and Monk P

Village baby

Monk K's sister holding a baby

Same baby after a costume change

Woman weaving a bamboo mat

Monks cooking our breakfast

Breakfast of omelette, steamed bamboo shoots, boiled greens

Huge basket of sticky rice

Starting the hike to Monk K's father's village

Hike to Monk K's father's village

A village along the way

Nam Ou - the Ou River

Monk K and Monk P on the boat

D's (Monk K's dad) boat

D's house

Lunch: fish soup and another

View from D's front porch

Getting the boat ready in the morning

Bottom of D's boat

Chilly morning on the boat

Misty jungle

Visiting a weaving village upstream

Thread for weaving

Weaving loom

Little girl pretending to use the loom

Little boy playing with a ball

Shy little girl hiding behind weaving display

Duck and mystery jungle vegetable for lunch

Assembling sticky rice with banana to be steamed in banana leaves

Butchering the goat

The most important and special parts of the goat reserved for guests and important men: intestine, testicle, foot/hoof, knuckle.

Man from another village, D, Monk P eating at the goat barbeque

Congealed goat blood with cilantro and chilis

Everyone watches you take the first bite.  No pressure.

Pouring Lao Lao (homemade rice whiskey) into the goat's horn

Cringing after drinking the Lao Lao

Tony's turn for the Lao Lao

Goat horn, bananas and sticky rice on the table\

Boiled goat with herbs

Another baci at D's friend's house

String tying portion of the baci ceremony

D at a friend's house, ready for the second goat feast of the day

The second feast for the day: boiled goat with herbs, sticky rice

Another baci, this time at D's house

The baci table at D's

Village woman tying strings on Tony's wrists

D and village chief tying strings on Jena's wrists

Congealed chicken blood with peanuts, chili and cilantro

Boiled cow liver and other mystery organs

New year cow brain soup (the broth was delicious!)

Trying to talk with D using our Lao-English and English-Lao phrasebooks

LP Lao phrasebook

D looking through the

D (Monk K's father) and his wife M

Village man wearing an Obama hat

Breakfast: grilled fish, roast new year cow, mystery soup

Breakfast: New year cow intestine

Our breakfast host

Lao Hai in the making (sweet, thick rice wine)

Hen in a basket with a chick perched on top

Chicken coop baskets

D's dragon tattoo that he got in Thailand when he was young

Alicia playing Kator with village girls

Village kids on D's porch

Girl and boy on D's porch

One day, the monk’s father took us in his boat to see some caves that had served as shelters during the U.S. bombings. One still had bones in it.

Back on the river

Monk K leading the way through the jungle

Tony and D checking out the cave entrance

Large chamber inside the first cave

sparkly rock formation in the first cave

Heading back down the river to the next cave

Strange red insect

Hiking to the next cave

Ammunition box hinge

Entrance to another cave

Entrance to the bombed cave

Large spider's eyes reflecting the light

Broken bowl in the bombed cave

Bones in the bombed cave

Arriving back in the village

When we arrived back at the village after exploring the caves, there was a shiny boat tied to the bank that we hadn’t seen before. As we drifted up next to it, the monk’s father pointed and said, “Made in USA.”

Bow of the UXO canoe

During and after the Vietnam War, between 1964 and 1973, there were 580,000 US bombing missions that dropped two million tons of ordinance on Laos- equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. Up to a third of the bombs did not explode. Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO (unexploded ordinance) in Laos since the bombing ceased.

And they still want you in their homes. And they still want to feed you. And they still want to tie dozens of strings around your wrists as a symbol of how much they want only good things to happen to you in the coming year.

Village chief tying baci bracelets

Want more? Watch our short video of our December adventures, which include motorbiking through Mae Hong Son, floating down the Mekong, and traveling through northern Laos with monks.

31
Jan 2013
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Laos

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Motorbiking in Mae Hong Son Province

A man and his dog

North of Chiang Mai, there is a town called Pai. Apparently the journey to Pai used to take seven days by elephant before the road was built through the mountains a few decades ago. Now it takes three hours by minibus and either a strong stomach or motion sickness pills.

Pai walking street

Pai is full of backpackers and Thai tourists, rickety bungalows and boutiques and street stalls full of quirky, self-congratulatory souvenirs that proclaim the number of curves in the road one has endured to get there (762). There are unique caricature artists, and even some guy who runs around in full Jack Sparrow costume and sells postcards of himself. Not exactly a quiet place to escape to, but it’s an easy area to enjoy life.

Alicia and Satiya

Satiya's caricature of us

Little kitty at our bungalow

bungalows

tea vendors in Pai

Pai is also in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Mae Hong Son Province, which is considered one of the very best places in the world to motorcycle. A 125cc moped isn’t exactly a motorcycle, but you can rent them in Pai for less than $5 per day, so we decided to go for it. For several days, Tony drove us all over the valley, through villages, to the waterfalls, and down the rough gravel road up to the “secret” hot springs that is still in use as a village bath.

helmets

Pai Canyon

Sketchy bridge

Pam Bok waterfall

Harvested rice field near Pam Bok waterfall

Rapeseed field

Harvested rice field near Pai

Tony sliding down Mor Paeng waterfall

secret hot springs

Alicia at secret hot springs

On our last full day in Thailand, we decided to head about 40 km north to see Tham Lod, a large cave hear the Myanmar (Burma) border. We got a late start and the road wound tightly up and down the mountains. By the time we got to our destination, we realized we needed to turn right around if we wanted to make it back to Pai before dark. Then we passed a sign for Cave Lodge, which we remembered had been highly recommended to us by Kevin. We decided that the best thing to do would be to stay and see Tham Lod, spend the night at Cave Lodge, and then go back first thing in the morning.

Cave Lodge parking lot

Cave Lodge hammock

We hiked out to where the river exits Tham Lod, and got there just in time to watch thousands of swifts making their nightly return to cave at dusk.

Tham Lod

Swifts entering Tham Lod

This was the first time all year that our headlamps were really necessary, because we walked the trail back to Cave Lodge in the dark. We noticed what looked to be glittering dew all over the ground, but upon closer inspection, it was our lights reflecting in the eyeballs of every spider in the jungle. Jungles have lots of spiders.

spider in a cave

We were disappointed that we hadn’t carved out more time to spend up here, but were really thankful for our short taste of a pretty amazing place.

We woke up early the next morning and realized that while our decision to spend the night had given us the safety of traveling in daylight, we had sacrificed the heat of the day for it. Tony was wearing only a light shirt and shorts and it was a gray and damp morning and there was a mountain between us and the rising sun. But soon we were rewarded by amazing views of the mists in the valley below.

First view of the mists from above

hairpin curve in the road

Lone tree

tree - looking east

Lisu girl silhouette

By the time we made it to the top of the mountain we were nearly frozen solid and sprung for hot cups of instant noodles from the tourist concession stand. Some Lisu girls, who hang out at the scenic overlook to pose for photos in exchange for tips, were also eating their breakfast before they began their day.

Tony and the Lisu girls

slurp

The soup warmed us enough to continue and most of the rest of the way to Pai was in sunlight.

Burma is somewhere over there

Tony at the top of the mountain

reflection

We had to return the moped and leave for Laos that evening, but we’ll be looking for excuses to ride again soon.

28
Dec 2012
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Thailand

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