Porters & Pencils – The Trek Begins – Nepal – Chapter 4

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Route = Shivalaya (1784m) – Deurali Pass (2705m) – Bhandar (2104m) – Kinja (1600m)

Date = 06-07 March

It’s a pleasant 12°C as L cleans her teeth at an outdoor sink, spitting toothpaste into the dirt.  She can’t spit into the sink as their host is washing his trousers.

She watches Phurba tie rope around their 25kg kit bag, add his own much smaller backpack and then pick the whole thing up suspended from his head by a band of webbing.  He leans forward into the weight and lopes off, arms hanging down in front of him as counterbalance.  L is aghast.

L:  Angtu!  He can’t possibly carry all our stuff like that!  From a single point on his head!  Hanging by a piece of string!  We must do something!

Angtu looks a bit surprised.

L: I thought he’d have a rucksack.  We must get him a rucksack!

Angtu:  He doesn’t want one.  He prefers it like this.  All porters carry like this.

L:  Surely it would be so much better to spread the weight through his shoulders and hips.  What about his poor neck?  And his back?

Angtu shrugs and smiles politely.

L is mortified.  She wonders if she should turn herself in for human rights abuses.  She can’t bear to look at Phurba – at what she has done to him.  D steps in.

D:  It’s a tumpline.  People have used them to carry stuff, all over the world, for ever.

L:  But not any more!  There are modern alternatives.

D:  Patagonia uses them.

L:  The country?

D:  It’s not strictly a country.  Never mind.  The posh outdoor equipment company.  Their founder swears by them.

L:  Oh.

D:  Look – if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you need to carry a weight, you’re less likely to injure yourself with a backpack.  But if you do know what you’re doing, it’s a different story.

L:  What d’you mean?

D:  The general opinion is that it’s physically healthier and more efficient to use a tumpline.  You need to learn the proper posture and technique, and to build up your neck and back muscles.  But once you do, it’s better for you.

L:  How can it be?

D:  It spreads the weight evenly down the strongest bits of your body.  And it doesn’t squash your lungs.  And in an emergency it’s a lot easier to throw off than a rucksack.

They look ahead to where Phurba is stepping lightly and sure-footedly up the trail ahead of them, singing loudly to himself.

L:  So d’you think he knows what he’s doing?

D:  Looks that way to me.

Under a clear blue sky, they climb the hillside high above Shivalaya, the blue and silver of corrugated tin roofs glinting below their feet in the sunlight.  Strains of music from a wedding procession drift up from the village – the steady beat of drums and the unruly joy of a trumpet.  At one end of the river valley, in the far distance, snowy peaks rise up, beckoning.  As the gradient steepens, the terraced fields become ever smaller, like vertical ripples in a pond of vibrant green buckwheat.  Fruit trees are in blossom and the white petals of huge magnolias speckle the forested hillsides.

P1010959 (2)Angtu sets a steady, sustainable pace, leading the way, and L is relieved that she can keep up.  Phurba walks with them, and the two Nepalis chat and laugh their way up the hill.   They cross, and recross, and briefly follow the road.  The road is not actually a road, but a road-sized sandy ribbon, winding its way ever deeper into these hills, promising long-awaited access for remote villages to schools and doctors, markets and jobs.  For now though, the only people on it are builders and engineers and surveyors.  Those on foot keep away – there is too much dust and not enough shade – and no-one has a vehicle anyway.

On a grassy slope a handful of goats and cattle graze.  They pause at a tidy paved courtyard between low wooden buildings and venture inside.  The small room is blackened with smoke from an open fireplace which has no chimney.  On the walls hang tin mugs and gleaming pots & pans.  They sit at a bench and sip hot sweet tea.  Angtu acts as go-between as their hostess offers a taste of curd – a slightly fermented yoghurt – and a ricotta-type cow’s cheese she has made. P1010974 (2)

Angtu:  We have a very special type of cattle here in Nepal.  Very high milk yield.  Called Jersey Cow.

D:  Oh!  We have those!  They come from an island, just off the coast of Britain.  Called Jersey.

Angtu looks sceptical but says nothing.  Their hostess tells them they keep the cow for milk and goats for meat.  They grow buckwheat, maize, potatoes and vegetables.   They talk about the road.  Progress has come swiftly to this area – in just a few years they have also seen the arrival of hydroelectric power, satellite TV, and wifi.  Sanitation, though, remains simple.  Most dwellings have a separate wooden outhouse, with a hole in the floor, placed at the edge of a field.  The waste collects below and is then raked onto the field and used as fertiliser to grow potatoes.

They carry on, ever upwards, on stony paved and stepped paths, now through scrub woodland, to reach the dusty expanse of the Deurali Pass.    A few buildings and lodges huddle in the stiff breeze.

Angtu:  Left!  Go left!

D pauses, startled, looking for hazards in the path.

Angtu:  Look – you must pass to the left here.  Always clockwise.

At the centre of a clearing are five long double-sided mani walls, hundreds of metres of carved stone tablets inscribed with the sacred Buddhist mantra “om mani padme hum” or “hail to the jewel in the lotus”. P1010985 (2)

L:  Why left?

Angtu looks at her in astonishment, then explains patiently.

Angtu:  Because that is the path of the world, of course.  Everything in our universe moves clockwise.

L:  Of course.  Stupid.

D:  Stupid.

It’s time for lunch.  D&L sit determinedly in the sun, adding layers of clothing and eating dal bhat.  Angtu and Phurba head indoors to sit by the warmth of the kitchen hearth.

As they begin their long descent into the huge green Bhandar valley, D stops.

D:  Take a photo!

He stands excitedly beside a small lopsided signpost announcing “Way To Everest”.

L:  But it’s only day 1.  We’re over three weeks walk from Everest.

D:  I know, but we’re on our way.  The signpost says so!

Later Phurba stops and rests his load on a wall.  He points at a long low wooden shed with a tin roof, and says something to Angtu.

Angtu:  It’s a school.  For your pencils?

P1020003 (3)L&D have filled their pack with coloured pencils and crayons to give to village schools.  They walk across the dusty yard, where a number of tiny children in lilac shirts and dark trousers are emerging from the building.  They have crocs on their feet and a few are wearing ties.   L&D greet the three female teachers.  They rummage in their pack and hand out pencils and crayons as the kids crowd around them.  The teachers explain that the school has 25 pupils aged between 6 and 15, though today there are only 20.  They seem younger, none of them much older than 9.

The children are arranged into rows.  Despite the interruption it is time for their exercise class.  One of the older boys stands at the front and calls out numbers in English, one to nine, as he leads them through a series of star jumps, squats, toe-touches and stretches.  D joins in.  The children begin to stare, then giggle.  The caller proudly continues his routine and his audience follow, but all eyes are on D.  The teachers laugh out loud and get out their camera phones.  Angtu and Phurba look on, amused.

P1020023 (2)Bhandar is idyllic – a widely spaced scattering of attractive stone buildings on a gentle slope of green meadow.  It was badly damaged in the earthquake of 2015 and lots of rebuilding is going on.  The lodges around the central square are full of road-building engineers, so they continue to the very bottom of the village.  At their whitewashed, blue balconied lodge, sunshine streams through the windows.  The mattresses are very thin.  Downstairs there is one indoor squat loo, but no water has been provided.

L:  Angtu – umm…is there a bathroom?

Angtu:  Outside.  Toilet and also a shower.

On a paved terrace sit several girls, one braiding the long dark hair of another.  Beyond them is a tin outhouse with two doors.  In one is a squat loo, bucket of water and jug, and in the other a concrete floor and electric shower.  At a corner of the terrace is a concrete sink and cold water tap.  These facilities are shared between all guests and family members.  L has a shower.  The water is tepid and the overwhelming smell of pee from next-door makes her gag, but she is not to know that warm water from a shower head will become a rare treat indeed.

Having eaten dal bhat once today already, they opt for pasta for supper.  It’s a mistake.  They are still feeling their way.

***

The next morning they sit on the terrace in bright sunshine.  Angtu looks bleary.

Angtu:  I am so sorry.  Very bad night.

D:  Really?

Angtu:  Very drunk Nepali.  I think he was an engineer.  All that talking and singing and snoring.  Then he would stop.  Then he would start again.  This is not normal.

D:  We thought maybe it was always like that.  We just put in our earplugs.  We slept well.

P1020027 (2)They drop towards the river, peeling off layers of clothing as they go.  The day is warming up under a strong sun.  A track winds around the hillside, where deep red rhododendrons and pink-blossomed fruit trees are in flower.  They descend through wet, irrigated gullies of cardamom plants.  As they dash to dodge the sprinklers Angtu explains.

Angtu:  They need a lot of water!

L:  Do Nepalis use cardamom for cooking?

Angtu:  No – they sell it all to India and China for medicines.

D:  It’s one of the most expensive spices in the world.  I think only vanilla and saffron cost more.

L:  That’ll be why they don’t use it themselves – it’s worth too much.  Like saffron in Italy – it’s quite difficult to even buy it where it’s grown – it’s all carefully packaged up and exported.

Further on, they spot a toddler clinging to a rock built into a stone wall on the steep bank above the path.  She appears to be alone.  Angtu speaks to the little girl.  She replies eloquently, with great dignity.  Angtu scrambles up the bank, carefully picks up the child, gives her a gentle pinch on the cheek, and lifts her over the wall.  He puts her down, she turns and thanks him and scampers off as her mother appears.  She had been looking for a good piece of firewood and got stuck – unable to either get back up the wall or down the steep bank.

They reach the village of Kinja at lunchtime and eat dal bhat outside a smart-looking guest-house.  A sign boasts “hot shower” and “attached bathroom”.  That does it – they decide to go no further.

Angtu chooses their room, which needs cleaning.  He attempts to rally the chatty young hostesses, then does it himself with a dustpan and brush and Phurba.

The hostesses prove to be better at sign-writing than provision of service.  The “attached” bathroom is attached to the building, not the bedroom.  It’s downstairs, with a squat toilet and shared with the rest of the building’s inhabitants.  “Hot shower” translates to “washing up bowl of boiling water into which you add cold water from the loo flush bucket and stand in a shower tray next to the squat loo”.   D&L bathe in the washing up bowl and are careful not to step barefoot into the adjacent squat toilet bowl.

P1020054 (2)Kinja sits where a confluence of rivers force a widening of the valley floor.  There are enormous boulders strewn about, possibly ancient remnants of glacial moraine, as they do not appear to have tumbled from the mountainsides above. The village was badly shaken by the earthquake and there is plenty of construction taking place.  A couple of boys clatter past, to and fro along the neatly paved alleys, with wheelbarrows full of building stone.   The end wall has fallen off a house nearby, and another is crumbling and abandoned, used only to tether a goat from a doorpost.  Laundry is spread out on a woodpile to dry, and a solar kettle reflects the sunlight from its enormous mirrored dish to a blackened pot suspended at its centre.  Flowering nasturtiums crawl over a low wall and a cactus tree provides an incongruous foreground for the distant snows beyond.

They are now drinking local water – sourced from it hardly matters where.  D first carefully squeezes it through a filter and then adds purification tabs for good measure.  It is failsafe and tastes no worse than London water.   Over the course of their trek it will stop them needing to buy and dispose of around 120 plastic bottles of water.

As the afternoon wears on, L begins to feel feverish and cold.  She wraps up in excessive layers of clothing and has porridge for supper.

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The Way to Shivalaya – Nepal – Chapter 3

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Several months earlier…

L:  Did you know that Lukla is known as the world’s most dangerous airport?

D: Don’t you say that about every airport we go to?

L:  But this time I mean it.  The internet says so.

D:  Oh, well then.  Everything’s true on the internet.

P1030686 (2)L:  The runway is ludicrously short, with a massive cliff to fall off at one end and an enormous mountain to bump into at the other.   And no runway lights.  And high winds.  And thick cloud.

D:  (tapping phone)  I’m sure it’s fine.  Look – Lesotho’s runway is shorter.  And so is Shetland’s.

L:  But we’re not going to Africa or Scotland.  We’re going to Nepal.

D:  Fair point.  (tapping phone) Lukla’s also one of the world’s busiest domestic airports – they have up to 50-60 flights a day landing or taking off.  So statistically, the chances of a mishap are really very small.

L:  Humph.

D:  It’ll be fine.

L:  I think we’ll walk.

*****

Back to the present….

L:  I’m so glad we’re doing it this way.

D:  10 hours in a bus and a week on foot to avoid a 40 minute flight?  Makes no sense whatsoever, but I’m delighted with all the extra walking.

L:  Oh no – we can’t go by bus.

D:  No?

L:  No.  All the buses crash.

D:  Surely not all of them?

L:  And everyone will puke on us.

D:  Of course they will.  And you know this how?

L:  The internet said so.

D:  Ah yes, the internet.

L:  The blogs say the journey is a terrible ordeal and everyone gets car-sick and the bottom of the ravines are littered with dead buses.

D:  You really shouldn’t read….

L: And statistically the bus to Jiri is actually MORE likely to kill us than the flight to Lukla.

D:  So are we back to flying?

L:  No way.  We’re going by jeep.

D:  Sounds safe.  If expensive.

L:  We just need to book one with brakes.  That explorer fellow Levison Wood was in a jeep with no brakes.  It drove off a cliff and fell 150 metres into a ravine.

D:  Was he alright?

L:  Not really.  I think he broke his arm rather badly.

L sends text:  Good morning Angtu – could you please make sure our jeep is a lovely new one with good brakes?

Angtu sends text: OK sir. Japanese.

D:  So will the jeep drop us in Jiri or take us all the way to Shivalaya, so we save half a day of walking?

L:  It depends.  The road to Shivalaya’s supposed to be the worst bit.

L sends text:  Hello again Angtu – we would be very happy to drive to Jiri and stay the night there if it is easier than Shivalaya.  We are happy to walk from Jiri.

Angtu sends text:  Ok sir.

D:  Stop worrying about the jeep and the road.  Anyway we’ll be at the mercy of the driver.

L:   Crap.  I hadn’t even thought of that.  What sort of drivers are Nepalis?

L sends text: We would like the drive tomorrow to be calm and safe.  Please could you ask the driver to go nice and slowly and to stop the car if he needs to use his cellphone?

Angtu sends text: Ok sir.

D:  For pity’s sake – will you stop hassling the poor man?

L:  Sorry.  Shall I text Angtu to say sorry?

D:  No.  Leave him alone.

*****

They get out all their clothing and equipment, and pile it on the bed.  Then they look at the waterproof bag that Angtu has given them.  And then back at the bed.  It’s never going to fit.  They put aside some stuff – a sleeping mat, a pair of thin sleeping bags, some extra fleece tops and trousers.  They add their bulky 4-season sleeping bags and new thick down jackets.

L:  We’ve just added more than we’ve taken away.

Next, clothes are pared to a minimum – compromising on hygiene rather than warmth.  A pair of trainers is discarded.  They are triumphant.  It fits.  They weigh the bag.

L:  27 kilos.  That’s too much.

D:  I thought we were told 30.

L:  We were, but we can’t give a porter 27 kilos of our gear to carry, plus his own stuff.  Remember it nearly killed us just carrying it across the train station.

They identify the heavy things and reluctantly reject spare batteries, bottles of toiletries, insect repellent, wetwipes.  They buy a Kindle version of the guidebook and unpack the paperback.

L:  We’ve now got no changes of clothes and nothing to wash with.

D:  Just weigh the bag.

L:  25 kilos – that’s better.  It’s still stupidly heavy though.  55 lbs.  And his own pack as well.

D:  How d’you know the limits?

L:  The International Porters Protection Group has a website.  It says how much a porter should carry and reminds people to check that any porters they hire should have proper clothing, food and shelter for the conditions.  And insurance.

D:  Doesn’t that happen anyway if you book through a tour operator?

L:  You’d hope so, but not always, no.  In 2014 there was a gigantic snowstorm which trapped lots of trekkers in Annapurna.  Some of those who died were porters and guides who just didn’t have the right clothing to keep warm.  Or any insurance to be evacuated.  And until recently trekking porters were sleeping in caves and wearing sandals or even going barefoot – in all weathers including snow.

D:  But our guys are sorted?

L:  Yes – Angtu says that both he and the porter have the clothes and kit they need, and I’ve checked that what we’re paying covers food and accommodation and insurance for both of them.  Which it does.

***

The next morning, a gleaming silver and maroon 4×4 awaits them at the foot of the hotel steps.  Angtu stands beside it looking cheerful.  He is wearing new leather walking boots and, despite the balmy 24 degrees, a fleece hat.

Angtu:  Sorry sir.  Indian jeep, not Japanese.

D:  Morning, Angtu!  Looks great to me.  Nice boots!

Angtu: A client gave them to me.  One size too small I think, but very good!

L&D pause to think about walking for a month in uncomfortable boots.  Angtu walks for a living.  They decide not to interfere.

L:  Has the car got brakes?

Angtu grins, removes his hat and rubs his head.

Angtu:  Yes mam.  Good brakes.

D&L have prepared for their journey by popping a Nepalese anti-nausea pill each, taken the night before.  This has the effect not only of successfully staving off all symptoms of car-sickness but also rendering them both curiously relaxed for a full 24 hours.  They wonder what’s in it.

They set off promptly at 7am and drive through the haze of a Kathmandu morning.  Dogs and the occasional monkey wander the pavements, keeping company with brightly clad women in pristine saris of vivid pinks and oranges, while the traffic swerves around cavernous potholes, street-seller carts, and at intervals a thoughtful-looking cow.  The streets throw up dust and are edged with rubble and litter and puddles and mud and bricks and sand and rebar.  Taxis, mopeds, buses and lorries shift lanes gracefully, without the aid of line markings, and without antagonism.  There are few car horns, but at the junctions the shrill blasts of the policemen’s whistle keep the traffic flowing.  Through it all weave bicycles, pushed – not ridden, heavily laden with fruit and vegetables, bundles of laundry, recycling waste, and even furniture.

They stop in a gateway on the way out of town.

Angtu:  Here we meet our porter.

L and D shuffle along the back seat to make room.  Phurba gets into the boot with the luggage.

L:  Oh!  Wouldn’t he like to sit…um…?

Angtu:  No – he’s comfortable there.  He will sleep.

They lean across into the back of the jeep and shake hands, introducing themselves.

D&L:  Namaste!

Phurba:  Namaste.  Phurba Sherpa.

Phurba smiles, showing bright white teeth and fine bone structure in an unlined face, ties his floppy hair into a topknot, plugs his earphones into his ears, fiddles with his smart-phone, and settles down comfortably amongst the bags.

Angtu:  Phurba means Thursday.  He was born on a Thursday.  He’s Sherpa – very strong.

L is relieved that the burden of porterage has fallen to someone young and fit.

As they leave the Kathmandu Valley, the road is mostly good, mostly tarmac, and mostly along river valley floors.  Low mountains rise, dry and dusty, from swathes of lush green crops – buckwheat or rice.  For an hour or so they climb and then contour the tortuous ridges high above a steep sided river valley, the road now dirt beneath their wheels.  Lorries swing wide around corners into their path, but somehow there is room for everyone.  There are no barriers, but concrete posts are set at intervals along the vertiginous outer edge to marginally lessen the chances of an unwanted plummet.   They see no dead buses at the bottom of ravines.  Not one.  It’s a surprisingly stress-free journey.  Or it could be the pills.

Back on flatter ground, they stop for lunch.  The little restaurant has a balcony overlooking a cultivated valley, a river winding through it.  In the foreground is a haystack up a tree, well off the ground.   They are served dal bhat – the Nepali staple of rice with curried potatoes, green vegetables and lentil soup.  They have asked for one portion between them.P1010989 (2)

L:  I’m really not hungry.

D:  Try some.

L:  OK.  Just one taste.  Oh – that’s delicious!  Maybe I am hungry after all.

Angtu, Phurba and the driver sit at a separate table.  Angtu tucks in to his lunch with enthusiasm, eating with his hand, and pouring water into his mouth from a shared plastic jug.  Phurba uses a fork.   Angtu grins over at them.

Angtu:  Good?

D:  Very good.

Angtu:  Any more?

D:  No more.  Thank you.

Angtu has a vast second helping of everything.

The route is uphill for much of the afternoon.  The driver pauses, adjusts his gears, and continues.  He stops again, pumps the clutch, and carries on.  Eventually the jeep comes to rest.  They lift the bonnet and peer inside.  Angtu explains.

Angtu:  Very hot.

The clutch is overheated, or overworked.  The jeep is slipping out of gear or sticking in gear.  They wait for things to cool down a bit, and then set off again.  It gets no better.

D:  My old Escort did this.  Angtu – try turning on all the heating full blast, and it’ll cool the engine.

Angtu and the driver politely ignore this suggestion and they limp onwards with frequent pauses.

D:  Really Angtu, it’s worth a try.

They nod and do nothing.  They wait for the car to cool down enough to get back into gear.  D leans forward through the gap between the front seats.

D:  Just give it a go.  Look – turn on all the heating, as high as it’ll go, and open all the vents.

There is a chorus of dismay as Angtu and the driver are hit full in the face by a cloud of hot dust.

D:  And maybe open the windows.

The jeep crunches into gear and moves forward.  It continues.  The plan seems to be working, though those in the front are less than happy.  Fortunately, fifteen minutes later, they reach the top of the hill.  The heating is turned off and the vehicle coasts all the way down the other side in neutral.

L:  I’m glad it’s got brakes.

After 8 hours and 137 miles, they reach Jiri.  They have averaged 17 miles an hour.  To their surprise the driver seems happy to continue to Shivalaya.  The jeep behaves perfectly, but their progress slows further.  They descend steeply on a very rough dirt road, thankfully dry at this time of year, but despite picking their way carefully over the ridges and ruts, hit the underside of the vehicle several times.  At the bottom they cross the river, on the other side of which the track is suddenly beautifully paved with stone cobbles – a painstakingly constructed Wizard-of-Oz-like yellow brick road undulating beside the river to the village of Shivalaya.   They arrive as the sun slips behind the mountain, blanketing the village in shade.  The final 10 miles have taken them an hour.

Shivalaya sits at 1784m altitude on a patch of flat land next to a shallow rocky river.  Terraces are carved into the wooded hillsides above, and the valley floor is a patchwork of cultivated plots beside the water.  Several shops and half a dozen lodges provide accommodation and food, though business is slow – tonight they’re sharing half a dozen trekkers between them.  Angtu chooses a lodge.  D&L take one room, Angtu & Phurba another.

L:  What about the driver?

Angtu:  He’s going back to Kathmandu.

L:  What – now?  But it’s getting dark and the car’s broken and he’s been driving all day!

Angtu:  He’ll stop somewhere and sleep.  Somewhere with a mechanic.

P1000311 (2)Their tiny room has plywood walls and ceiling, two narrow single beds – each with a foam mattress, bedcover, duvet and pillow – and a padlock on the door.  There is a bare light bulb and curtains on the windows.  There is a plug socket in the room, and astonishingly, wifi, though neither of these actually work.  This is the template for pretty much all their accommodation throughout the month-long trek.

At the end of the corridor is a loo.  The cistern is broken, but beside the toilet is a large bucket of water and a jug.  Although L describes this in her journal as “one v. basic loo”, avoiding the need to squat over a hole in the floor is in fact a luxury rarely to be repeated.

In the dining room they drink tea and peruse the menu.  They will soon recognise that almost identical choices are offered by all the lodges and tea-houses along their route.  There are pancakes and porridge and chapati bread and eggs.  There are soups and omelettes.  There is dal bhat, curry and fried rice, pasta, pizza, spring rolls, and momos – Nepali style dumplings stuffed with vegetables or meat, served boiled or deep fried.  It’s a mind-boggling array provided by even the remotest places – often many days walk from the nearest road – and from kitchens which usually cook just two hearty meals of dal bhat every day.  However it’s a carb-heavy list, with dollops of protein, and precious little fruit & veg.

D:  Are you warm enough?

L:  Yes thank you.  Why?

D:  You seem to be wearing absolutely all your clothes.  Your thermals and your fleece and your slipper socks.

L:  We’re in the mountains!

D:  But it’s 19°C.

L:  Oh.

D:  It’s going to get quite a lot colder.

L:  Oh.  Is it bed time yet?

D:  Definitely.

L:  What time is it?

D:  Half past seven.

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Impressions of Kathmandu – Nepal – Chapter 2

 

 

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They like the Hotel Shanker.  From the grand white wedding-cake façade a flight of broad steps leads up to a gleaming gallery of double height windows and crystal chandeliers.  Beyond this, things become more comfortable and somewhat idiosyncratic.  Past the Kunti Bar, the dark carpeted corridor is scented with spices of Nepali and Indian cuisine wafting up from the kitchens below.  Of the two tiny lifts, one demands a swift dash to enter/exit – dawdlers are sharply nipped by the fiercely closing doors.  Curiously, the floors are numbered not 0-3, but 4-7.  Their room is spotlessly clean and blissfully comfortable.  Faint sounds of a trumpet and shouting drift up from the army barracks nearby.

L:  Whatever’s that squeaky noise?

D:  Shaggers.

L:  Yuck.  Next door?

D:  On the windowsill.

L:   On the…?  Oh – parakeets.  Sweet!

They like their guide.  Angtu Rai is a cheerful, smiling Nepali of about their own age.  He is friendly but exquisitely polite and they are startled to find themselves addressed as sir and mam.  They introduce themselves quickly to put a stop to this formality.  They chat.  He tells them that he lives in Kathmandu with his wife and son, but his parents are in a hill-village not far from their trekking route.  He is nearing completion of a Masters Degree in Sociology & Political Science.  He has led treks all over Nepal including their route many times.  Competent and organised, Angtu describes the trek to them.  D listens attentively, while L takes longer to tune in to the sounds of her mother-tongue shaped by a Nepali mouth.   

L:  I’m surprised the first week will be so busy.  I thought there’d be hardly any other trekkers. 

D looks at her with puzzlement.

Angtu nods with concern. 

Angtu: Yes mam, the lodges in the first week will be busy.  Very very busy.

L:  Right.  Very busy.

D:  Not BUSY.  BASIC!  Angtu’s saying that the accommodation for the first week will be very BASIC.

L:  Oh!  Oh dear – that’s not the same thing at all.  But we will mostly get our own bathroom, won’t we?

Angtu winces behind his smile.

Angtu:  Very basic.

He leaves them with a large waterproof kit bag in which to pack all their gear.  And two bulky 4-season sleeping bags. 

D:  Thank you Angtu.

Angtu: Goodbye sir.

D: Angtu?  Do please call us D and L.  Please.

Angtu:  Thank you sir.  See you in two days, with the jeep.  Here at 7am.

*****

Today is Holi – the Hindu festival of colours – and as the day draws to an end, in the streets roam little same-gender groups of teenagers, boys with boys and girls with girls, heading home and cheerfully wishing passers by “Happy Holi!”  They all wear white tee-shirts and are daubing themselves and others with smudges of paint powder, applied to faces and clothing, every colour of the rainbow.  The mood is light and, apart from 3 dizzy-looking German boys, seemingly alcohol-free.   As D&L round a corner, a girl calls out “Happy Holi!” and delicately touches their faces with cherry-red powder.  They feel proud – they’re now a part of something, celebrating love, the triumph of good over evil, and the arrival of spring.  It’s their first day in Nepal and it feels auspicious.  They inspect each other.

D:  What does it look like?

L:  Ah.  Sort of a graze.  As though you might have fallen off your bike.  What about me?

D:  Umm.  Sort of a bruise.  Like you’ve walked into a door.

L:  Oh.

D: Oh.

They happily leave their powder wounds in place, confident it will bring them luck.

*****

P1000297 (2)They wander the maze of narrow mostly-pedestrian lanes of Kathmandu’s Thamel district.  Many are unpaved, dusty, with rubble-filled potholes.  Crumbling buildings reach 4 stories overhead, festooned with electric cables which meet in clumps of aerial spaghetti at every junction.   Dust hangs heavy in the air, mingling with the aroma of spices and incense.  They pop into The North Face and inspect a deliciously warm looking down jacket.  They peer at the price tag.

L:  Yikes – can that really say USD $750?

They scuttle out again.  There are dozens more tiny shops selling high-tech trekking gear, well known “brands” at a fraction of the price. 

D:  That’s more like it. 

They add to their luggage mountain: a waterproof hold-all for $11 and thick down jackets for $50 each, both emblazoned with globally respected brand names.   They regret that they are already so well equipped and have no reason to buy more.  They resist the call of temptingly priced clothing, pashminas, crafts and souvenirs.  Street sellers offer lip balm and wooden flutes.  Stray dogs lie in the shade.  There are a few Westerners but the majority of those strolling the lanes seem local. 

In a store no bigger than a garden shed, they buy a Nepali sim card for their phone – passing their handset helplessly to a slightly built youth who briskly sets it up whilst conversing with two other customers and sitting on his burlier colleague’s lap, giggling.   A pharmacy the size of a wardrobe supplies them with water purification tabs, anti-nausea pills and Diamox for altitude sickness.   At every encounter they are assisted by Nepalis who are polite and friendly and helpful – seemingly simply for the sake of being polite and friendly and helpful.  In this country there appears to be no piercing interest directed at foreign visitors, no superficial deference, no pushy hard-sell or cold shoulder or seductive flattery. 

They spot a cashpoint on the other side of a main road and pause at the kerb to cross.   Lanes of traffic are fluid – sometimes four, or five, or six.  Coaches, buses and minivans of all sizes overflow with people squashed against the windows and hanging out of the doors.  In the middle of every major street junction stands a raised one-man bandstand, towards which flows maybe 20 lanes of traffic from four or more directions.  All this is controlled by one frenetic police officer, hyperventilating into a whistle, doing the work of multiple sets of traffic lights.   Sometimes the officer works protected within the bandstand, but more often they wade bravely into the thick of the traffic, gesticulating assertively and delivering sharp and urgent blasts on their whistle.   L&D wait patiently.  They are unsure of the rules – is this a country which drives around, or straight over, pedestrians weaving between vehicles?  They shamelessly tuck in behind locals in the know, using children and the elderly as human shields.  They reach the cashpoint where their request for USD $250 is issued as a wad of Nepali Rupees a full centimetre thick. 

The city is awhirl with dust.  Dust rises from unpaved roads and the post-earthquake rubble of buildings.  Dust hangs over the city, filling noses and ears and lungs, dusting faces and hands with a fine layer of ochre.  The locals wear face masks.  L starts to cough. 

***

Kathmandu’s Durbar Square is a hive of courtyards, squares, temples and shrines to Hindu deities, teeming with locals, tourists and pigeons.  Damaged by the earthquake of 2015, some of the soft brick pagoda-style buildings are supported by scaffolding, while a few are gone forever.  Ancient wooden beams and window frames are intricately carved and the outer edges of the deep eaves ripple with red fabric frills.  It is busy and beautiful.  Guides sell their knowledge to sightseers, a Sadhu priest sells his face to photographers, and a tiny woman presses irresistible home-made cloth bags into wealthier palms.  P1000265 (3)Not all are there for the tourists though.  Two women squat in the sun washing roof tiles whilst a group of men rest idly by.  A monkey ambles past chewing a piece of fruit.  A tiny boy dances amidst a rising cloud of pigeons.  A youth dozes in a temple doorway and an elderly gentleman pauses to read his newspaper, the roof above his head providing welcome shade and supported by beams carved with graphic sexual contortions.   In one peaceful courtyard, the blank windows hide the Royal Kumari – a little girl worshipped by Hindus as the Living Goddess of Nepal.  It is believed the goddess within her leaves at puberty, at which time she will be sent home and replaced with another.

***

Most of the visitors to the Narayanhiti Palace Museum are Nepali.  They come to wander through the 20th century art-deco residence of the country’s former royal family, its hunting trophies of stuffed tigers and bear pelts preserved today with a sprinkling of mothballs.  On leaving the interior of the palace, visitors are funnelled into a dilapidated garden with unkempt flowerbeds and buildings either half finished or half demolished. 

L:  Oh my goodness – d’you know where we are?

Awareness dawns that this is the site of the massacre of ten members of the royal family in June 2001.  There is no plaque or statue or memorial or shrine.  Just a few straggling visitors and some bullet-pocked plaster.  There are signs showing who was shot where. 

D:  It was the crown prince wasn’t it?  Because his family disapproved of the woman he wanted to marry?

L:  But he shot his parents.  Nepalis say he could never have shot his parents.

D:  Well he did, didn’t he?  Along with other members of his family.

L:  Or did he?  That evening he got a bit wasted and was taken to bed to sleep it off.  He then apparently got up again, got dressed, and returned clear-headed to the party, shot everyone and then shot himself, being right handed, in the left temple, possibly twice.  Does that sound right to you?

D:  Errr…

L:  And his uncle, who then took over as King, was coincidentally not there, and the only people at the party who survived were this uncle’s wife, son and daughter.

D:  Who did it then?

L:  Some say India.  Or the CIA.

P1000263 (3)

Overburdened, Overtired & Overtipped – Nepal – Chapter 1

P1030874 (2)

The question arises on the way to the airport.  They find themselves changing trains, alighting at platform 1, with minutes to spare to reach platform 24 and their onward connection.  The two of them have packed carefully for their 30 day trek to the world’s highest mountain.  They have done their research and are prepared for all eventualities.  Except one.

L – Stop.  I can’t.  I’m breaking.

D – You’re not breaking.  You’re fine.

L – We need a trolley.

D – There are no trolleys.  We’ve got to carry it.

Each slung about with rucksacks and duffel bags and day packs, shoulders straining and knees buckling, they make their way uncomfortably along the underpass, breathing hard.  They stop and look up.

L – I’ll never make it.  You’ll have to go without me.

D – It’s a flight of steps.  You’ll make it.  And anyway, I can’t just leave you here for a month, you’ll get in everyone’s way.  Come on – we’ve got 2 minutes.

Red faced, panting and sweating, they stagger upwards, twenty-two steps and two more big ones onto the train.  They set down their loads and regard the pile with dismay.

L – How is one porter going to carry all this up and down mountains for a month when the two of us can’t heave it up a flight of stairs between us?

D:  Not all of it’s going up the mountain.   We’ll leave a bag at the hotel.  With the snorkels.

L:  Yes.  The snorkels.

D:  And maybe some other stuff.

L – But how am I going to climb Mount Everest when apparently I can’t climb the stairs?

D – We’re only going to the bottom.  Not the top.

L – Still.  I thought I was fit.  I’ve been for four runs!

D – In three years.

L – Oh.

*****

Doha Airport.  2am.  Waiting for flight connection to Kathmandu.

L – It must be a deliberate tactic to stop people falling asleep.  So as not to miss their planes.  Or make the place look untidy.

D – What must be?

L – All the bright lighting and uncomfortable benches and super-annoying armrests so you can’t spread out.

D – I’m trying to sleep.

L falls quiet.  D shuts his eyes.

L – Don’t you think that economy long haul flying must be just like childbirth?

D – WHAT?  How would watching films while having meals brought to you possibly resemble childbirth?

L – You know what I mean.

D – I truly don’t.

L – It’s appallingly uncomfortable but no-one really talks about it, and when you’re experiencing it you swear never to go through it again, and then you forget, and a year or two later there you are again.  Just like childbirth.

D – Right.  No.  No, I think it’s probably nothing like childbirth.

L – I’m going to ask some people.

D – You do that.  I’m asleep.

*****

Kathmandu airport at 10am is calm.  There’s no fuss.  Getting their visas is quick and easy.  Retrieving their luggage takes longer.  The baggage carousel is busy with Nepalis collecting imported TVs and suitcase-sized bundles wrapped in intricate webs of knotted rope.

Outside, throngs of people stand in groups – women in brightly coloured saris or tunics and scarves and loose trousers, beautiful splashes of crimson and marigold and fuchsia, and men wearing close fitting topi hats of orange patterned fabric.

L:  Why has everyone got a red smudge on their foreheads?  A tilaka is it?  Isn’t that Hindu?  I thought the Himalayas were mostly Buddhist.

D:  They are – in Sherpa and Tibetan areas.  But we’re not in the Himalayas.  There’s a lot more of Nepal than the mountains.

L:  I know, but…

D:  The country’s something like 80% Hindu and only 10% Buddhist.

L: But Buddha was born in Nepal.

D:  Yes, and then Buddhism spread outwards from here, including over the mountains and into Tibet, but since then, Hinduism has taken over in most of Nepal.  Lots of the monasteries in the Himalayas seem to have been founded by Tibetans fleeing across the border into Nepal and bringing Buddhism back with them.

Their hotel has provided an airport transfer.  They are greeted by a man who takes charge of their towering trolley and sets off with it across the car park.  They follow.  In the hazy March sunshine, the temperature is a pleasant 27°C.  He passes ranks of gleaming SUVs and minibuses, and stops next to a small, battered hatchback.  He smiles and waits.

L:  (whispering)  Oh.  I think maybe we should tip him.

A second man steps forward and loads their luggage into the boot and back seat of the car.  He smiles and waits.

L:  (whispering)   I think we should…..

A third man turns up and gets into the driver’s seat.  They set off.  On arrival at the hotel the driver gets out, smiles and waits.

L: (whispering)  I think we….

Two porters swoop down the hotel entrance steps, heave the luggage out of the car, and disappear into the building.  D&L check in and are shown to their room.  The porters arrive and set down the bags.  They smile and wait.

L: (whispering)  I think….

D:  I know.

Ch 1 Kathmandu

The Hmong & The Khmu, Laos (Trek Day 2)

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Thanks to the enthusiasm of its 37 cockerels, the remote Hmong village of Ban Phatum, tucked into a wooded pass in the mountains of northern Laos, wakes early.

In the indigo pre-dawn light, children potter sleepily around the village chewing sticky rice cakes, piglets scamper into the undergrowth, and the hens peck around the cooking fires looking for scraps.

D & L stand on a plateau above the village, toothbrushes in hand, swigging water from a bottle, and spitting minty freshness into the undergrowth. If anything, the views are even more astounding at dawn. Yesterday’s blanket of low cloud has returned, snugly wrapping the foot of the mountains from the early morning chill, leaving a hundred black peaks jutting through to greet the sun, whereupon they glow gently, turning hues of pink and gold.

Their guide Lia whips up rice, salty boiled greens, and omelettes and joins L & D for breakfast.

L:   It’s so beautiful here. The lifestyle is still so traditional. It’s pure.

Lia: Yes, it’s poor.

L: No – pure. Their culture is uncontaminated.

Lia: I understand. But also, it’s poor. The government have tried to make them move. But they don’t want to go.

D: Why? I mean why should they move?

Lia: The government want all the ethnic people, the hill-tribe people, to move down from the mountains. To be closer to schools and hospitals and markets to sell their produce, to have electricity, water and toilets, to find jobs. Any village smaller than 50 houses is asked to move. To make life better for them.P1050624

D: But Ban Phatum said no?

Lia: They said no. They like it here.

L: I can see why. But they’re not hiding.

Lia looks startled.

Lia: Hiding?

L: From the government.

Lia: (sounding polite but confused) No. They are not hiding. Now, we must get ready to leave. We will go at 7.30am.

D steers L back into the grass-walled, palm-thatched house where they had slept.

D: Have you gone mad? What are you talking about? ”Are they hiding?” Why would you even ask that?

L: Because of the war. I read about it.

D: What war?

L: The Vietnam War.

D: But that was forty years ago!

L: I know. But during the war, the Americans were helped by local people in Laos. Those locals were Hmong. They were the ones living in the area. They knew the terrain.

D: Oh.

L: And when the war ended, the communists took over not only in Vietnam but in Laos too. The Hmong had fought against the communists. They were on the wrong side.

D: Ah.

L: So they weren’t the new government’s favourite people. A lot of Hmong fled to the US or over the border into Thailand.   Lots more were sent to re-education camps.

D: But surely that’s all water under the bridge by now.

L: Mostly, yes. Several generations on, most Hmong now live peacefully in Laos. Like here in this village. But several thousand of them are still in hiding in the mountains, in areas like this, afraid of reprisals.P1050696

D: Hasn’t the government forgotten about them after all this time?

L: It seems not. Apparently they’re still being captured and killed for being bandits and rebels.

D: And are they? Being bandits and rebels I mean.

L: Maybe a few Hmong do still have guns left over from the war, but I’ve seen reports that most of them are unarmed. That they’ve got no reason to fight. That they’re just frightened families unlucky enough to have had fathers or grandfathers who helped the Americans. And that they’re starving – eating roots and bugs – because they have to keep on the move, to stay hidden, so they can’t grow any crops.

D: In that case, why doesn’t anyone do anything?

L: The UN are aware of it but say they haven’t got enough proof to step in. And Thailand is sending thousands of Hmong back to Laos, saying there’s not enough proof to give them asylum.

D: The ones who’ve come back from Thailand – are they OK now?

L: I don’t know. But a lot of them seem to live in huge restricted camps. Which doesn’t sound ideal.

It is nearly 7.30am. D & L emerge from the house with their rucksack, ready to go. Lia looks surprised. He’s obviously not expecting them to be on time. L takes a last look at the village, sad to leave, and sad to compare this seemingly tranquil lifestyle with those of other Hmong, hidden elsewhere in these mountains.

They set out in silence, waving goodbye as they go. D tries to lighten the atmosphere.

D: How long has Ban Phatum been here?P1050543

Lia: Since the 1950s. This village is linked to a bigger one down near the road. The village chief lives there.

D: So there’s no chief up here?

Lia: No, but there is a group of elders. I will tell you what happens. Remember that most village people don’t speak Lao, they speak only Hmong. So they choose a chief who is educated and can speak Lao and so can talk with local government. But every village also has the elders, and the chief must listen to them.

D: So the elders look after the village?

Lia: And the shamans.

L: Shamans?

Lia: Yes. The village has two or three shamans who take care of the spirits and any illnesses. The shamans are not chosen – it follows from father to son. If someone in the village is sick, they don’t go to the doctor, they go to the shaman. Only if it is very serious they will go to hospital.

The path contours around the hillsides, climbing gently, heading towards a higher pass. The grass is damp.

Lia: Watch out for leeches.

D: Really? Excellent! I definitely want to be bitten by leeches. Like a proper adventurer.

L: Really? I definitely don’t.

P1050683They pause for a drink. The slopes in all directions have long ago been cleared of trees, and now the forest is reclaiming them. Lia waves an arm expansively.

Lia: This area here? All opium garden.

D: Interesting. Until when?

Lia: Maybe 10 – 15 years. All the mountain people used to grow opium poppies. Especially Hmong people. It was very difficult for them when it stopped. They had to learn to grow other things. But they don’t make money like before.

L: Why did it stop?

D: I remember this. It was international pressure. A few countries were given huge aid incentives to put a stop to it – Laos must have been one of them. But one or two of those places now grow opium legally for medicine – selling it to the big pharma companies. Does Laos do this?

Lia: No. We grow no more opium.

They continue on up the narrow trail. At the pass they pause. The way down is drier, on the sunny side of the mountain.

Lia: Check for leeches. I have one – here.

L: Yuck! None. Hurrah.

D: None. Dammit. I so wanted a leech.

It is a long, long descent through the forest, and increasingly steep. They walk slowly, using their trekking poles to lessen the impact on tired knees and feet, and avoid slipping on the greasy mud underfoot. They are overtaken by two women and a girl, stepping sure-footedly down the mountain in rubber sandals, the baskets on their backs loaded high with marrows.P1050700

Lia: Heavy! 30 kilos!

A little way on, they stop for a rest. The women are also resting – their marrow baskets on the ground beside them. D walks over to lift one of the baskets. It is as immovable as a rock. He checks if the straps are somehow hooked, and tries again, his face turning red. Lia grins.

Lia: Heavy! 30 kilos!

D: At least!

L takes off her shoes to massage her feet. D feels envious and does the same. There is blood on his sock.

D: A leech! I have a leech!

L: Look – you have three!

D: Hurrah!   Let’s get them.

The socks come off. There is nothing to show, except for the blood.P1050703 (2)

D: Oh. Never mind.

L: Are you happy now?

D: Oh yes.   Fantastic. Look, they won’t stop bleeding!

He pauses, the elation in his face fading and turning to concern.

L: Are you alright?

D: D’you think they’ll get infected?

L: I doubt it.

D: Good.

He continues to frown at his feet.

D: D’you think I might bleed to death?

L: No. I really don’t.

The last hour into the valley is tough. They pick their way slowly down the steep, slippery wooded path, step by step. The women with their 30 kg baskets are long gone, chatting happily as they move three times faster in their flapping sandals.

P1050697 (2)Lia: All the falang (foreigners) fall over on this path.

D: Thanks for that.

Lia: Then they cry. Women, men, they all fall over and cry.

D: We’ll do our best then.

Lia: But today is easy. Not so slippery.

L: Is it. Is it really.

They creep their way down to the valley floor, without falling over. Or crying. Despite being falang. Lia looks a little disappointed. Before they leave the forest, he thrashes about in the undergrowth, emerging with two large palm fronds. As they emerge into bright midday sunshine, he hands them one each to carry over their heads, giving them shade.

L: This is fantastic. It’s perfect. I love my jungle parasol!

D is certain that he looks like a twat, but carries it politely, nevertheless.

The approach to Ban Phayong village is through a lush, flat, well-watered landscape, with the mountains forming forested walls to each side.

P1050720They arrive at an immaculately shorn green meadow on which sits a collection of traditional woven-leaf houses with palm thatched roofs. There is electricity to each house. They pass several blocks of public toilets with water points nearby and larger, brightly painted buildings of blockwork with tin roofs. Livestock are tidily contained in pens. Berries are spread out to dry on a grass mat in the sun. It feels a little like an authentically themed holiday park.

They smile and wave at people as they pass, but are mostly ignored.

D: (whispering) It’s the parasol. How can they take me seriously with a massive leaf on my head?

L: (whispering) Don’t diss the leaf. It’s my favourite thing.

They reach the chief’s house, where they are given coffee and herbal tea, and sit under his porch in the shade. A group of French walkers arrives and settles nearby, outside a sleeping hut for guests.

Lia explains the village set up.

Lia: Ban Phayong has 68 families. Hmong people and Khmu people share the village. This is the Hmong side.

L: So where are the Khmu?

Lia: They live separately. On the other side. They have different cultures, different languages. Khmu are Lao Theung – upland Lao, not mountain Lao like Hmong people.

D: So why do they live together?

Lia: It is easier, to have a bigger village. They have electricity, and a school – right in the middle, between the two sides. The lessons are all in Lao. I told you – the government wants the smaller villages to move closer to towns and roads, to make life better for the people.

P1050724D: But why put people of different ethnic origins together like this?

Lia: So that they become more Lao – they learn the national Lao language and culture. It is better for everyone.

D: Cultural assimilation. Aren’t they losing their own traditional ways of life though?

Lia: They still live separately. Traditional life is strong. You will see.

Food emerges from the house of the Hmong chief. They tuck into chicken soup, pumpkin, omelette and rice. The French group are also here for lunch. Children in traditional dress parade past slowly, in case anyone might want to photograph them.

Lia: This chief – he is Hmong. He has done many things for the village, for more than 10 years. Everything you see is because of him. The electricity, the toilets, the tourists, the guest house. Many tourists come here, every day, bringing money to the village.

After lunch they walk through the village and admire the chief’s hard work, and his networking, noticing that several of the public facility buildings bear plaques showing sponsorship from overseas. They pass the school, a smart new building standing alone on a hillock in no-man’s land.

They cross an invisible line and continue through the Khmu part of the village. The contrast is striking. Some houses are built of wood, others of bare blockwork with tin roofs. They are raised off the ground, and are smaller than those of their Hmong neighbours. There is no grass, more dust and litter. People sit in their doorways in the shade. They smile and wave and two small boys shout “Hello!” and “Happy New Year!” to them in Lao. Here the authenticity comes with a smile and a stark absence of holiday park trimmings.

D: So much for cultural assimilation.   The two halves could be ten miles apart, not ten metres. None of the Hmong chief’s work has crossed the line to the Khmu side at all!

L: You’re right. There’s just two completely separate communities sharing a name and a school.

Lia is silent on the matter but has a story to tell about the Khmu people as they amble through the verdant valley landscape towards the river and the end of their trek.

Angkor-Wat-in-CambodiaLia: After this, you are going to Angkor Wat, right? In Cambodia?

D: Right.

Lia: The greatest temples in the world!

D: Right.

Lia: Built by Lao people!

D: Really? Umm…I’m not sure I’d read that.

Lia: (emphatically) It’s not in the history books. But yes! Lao people. Khmu people.

D: Right.

Plain of Jars picLia: And the Plain of Jars – have you read about that?

D: Yes, hundreds of stone jars in the fields in Eastern Laos, thousands of years old, and none of the historians or archaeologists know who left them there or what they were for.

Lia: Ahh. But I know.

D: Really?

Lia: (proudly) Yes. Khmu people.

D: Right. I’m not sure I’d read that either.

Lia: It’s not in the history books. But I will tell you.

***

And so, as they walk, Lia reveals the age-old secrets behind the origins of the Plain of Jars and the founding of Angkor Wat.

Once upon a time, in the first or second centuries, the ancient Khmu people lived happily in Eastern Laos.   They made a lot of lao lao rice whisky, which may be why they were so happy. The lao lao was very important to their culture and they drank it whenever they could. Festivals, ceremonies and battles were all celebrated with the drinking of great quantities of lao lao. All this whisky needed to be brewed and stored. It is obvious that the hundreds of mysterious stone vessels spread across what has now become the Plain of Jars, are whisky jars. So that solves that one.

Now, the first king of the Khmu people was a strong and powerful king called Khun Jung. The fame of his strength spread far and wide and lots of his people wished that they could be as strong as him. The people thought that if they could only eat a little bit of the king, they would gain his strength. Khun Jung was no fool, and he told his people that if they killed and ate him they would become weak, not strong. He told them that they too could become strong, by following him and learning from him. This worked for a while, but eventually the people killed him, popped a skewer into his bottom and out of his mouth, barbecued him, and had themselves a feast. However, eating Khun Jung did not make the Khmu people strong after all. Instead it made them argue and fight amongst themselves for three hundred years, until in the 5th century, some of them split off, headed 500 miles south to Champasak in southern Laos, and founded the magnificent temple of Wat Phu.  Here they settled, but continued to argue and fight amongst themselves for a further six hundred years, until in the 11th century, some of them split off again, and headed 300 miles south west. Here they settled and founded the even more magnificent temples of Angkor Wat. Which is over the border in Cambodia. Where the people are Khmer. And the language to this day is Khmer. Khmer – Khmu. D’you see? The original Cambodians and builders of Angkor were Khmu people. Lao people.

And so concludes the revelation that the greatest temple complex in the world, Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, was in fact built by the Lao. According to Lia. But it’s not in the history books.

P1050732 (2)

The Hmong Village – Laos (Trek Day 1)

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Lia: And every house has a spirit. This is important. When we arrive at the village, you must not go inside any home unless you are invited. You could bring bad spirits from the forest into the house and make people ill.

L: Err….right. No. Absolutely.

D & L meet their guide, Lia, early that morning, and set off on their two day hike into the forested mountains of northern Laos. They are to spend the night in a remote Hmong village. Lia briefs them as they walk.

Lia: Hmong people are not Buddhist.   Only half the Lao people are Buddhist. The Hmong people believe in spirits. And ancestor worship.

They pass a large watermelon plantation and pick their way across dry rice paddies, not yet planted for the coming season. They cross a stream and the path starts climbing through woodland and patches of rubber plantation. Lia continues his briefing.

Lia: In the village, they do not speak Lao. Only Hmong.

D: Oh. Will that be tricky? Do you speak Hmong?

Lia: Yes. My father – he was Hmong. When I was fifteen he sent me to the mountains to learn the Hmong language and culture – his culture.

L: Are the two languages similar?

Lia. Not at all. Completely different. I’ll teach you. To say “hello” – in Lao is sabaidee, but in Hmong is niaojong. To say…

P1050537They hear voices above them in the forest. They are climbing steeply through the trees on a narrow path and the cloud has rolled in leaving everything blurred and dripping. Lia stops talking and listens. A dog barks.

Lia: Hunters.

They catch up with a group of five men and a pack of dogs. The men each have a gun. L, D and Lia join them and for a while they all walk together, tripping over the dogs who weave up and down the procession and get under everyone’s feet. The men chat in sing-song lilting tones, musical swoops and swings of voice impossible to emulate in English.

Lia: Hmong people. The men hunt for food, and also build village houses. The women look after the children and animals, and gather firewood for cooking. You will see.

D: (whispering) Have you noticed their guns?

L: (whispering) So? They’re hunters.

D: (whispering) But have you actually looked at them?

L: (who wouldn’t know a Colt from a Kalashnikov) ????

D later explains that he has spotted an ancient World War II military rifle, several homemade muskets fashioned from a length of tube and a trigger mechanism, and an AK47 complete with bayonet.   He then further explains that no, these are all quite different to anything one might see shooting pheasants in the Cotswolds.

L: What are they hunting?

Lia: (looking a bit shifty) Anything.

L: But what? Big, small, animals, birds, what sort of thing?

Lia: Anything they can eat.

They reach a clearing and pause for a drink, and the hunters, the dogs and the sing-song voices all melt away into the mist. From now the path is along a bare ridge, still climbing steeply. Lia strips a handful of leaves from a shrub and pops one in his mouth. He offers them around. They taste lemony.

Lia: Sourleaf. Good, huh?

They nod, chewing.

L: So there are three main ethnic groups in Laos, right?

Lia: Yes.

L looks pleased with herself.

Lia: And no.

L: Oh.

Lia: The government says 49. Others say 134.

D: You weren’t far out.

L: Shut up.

Lia: But yes, there are three main groups. You can see them on the money – the 1000 kip notes.

D fumbles in his pockets and finds a note. They study the three women pictured in traditional dress.

1000 kip noteD: So who are they?

Lia: They live in different areas. In the valleys, the hills or the mountains.

He points to the woman on the left.

Lia: This is Lao Loum – lowland Lao. They live in the river valleys and grow wet rice. More than half the population are Lao Loum. They speak the national language – Lao – and follow the national religion – Buddhism.

He points to the right.

Lia: Lao Thoeng – upland Lao. They are maybe one quarter of the population and they live on the hill slopes. They are very poor – when they have no money they barter.

Lastly he points to the middle of the three women.

Lia: And this is Lao Soung – mountain Lao. Hmong people are the largest group of Lao Soung. They grow corn and dry rice, and keep animals to sell. When we arrive at the village you will see.

P1050541The ridge flattens and they emerge onto an orange dirt road. They are now above the cloud, in bright sunshine under a vivid blue sky.

Lia: The village. Ban Phatum.

They look around, but see nothing but forest and the track leading away towards a wooded pass. They follow the track and suddenly come upon fencing and a collection of small buildings. The village is in an idyllic setting, nestled into the pass, fringed by areas of cleared meadow beyond which the wooded mountain rises protectively above. The temperature a perfect mid-20s, the air is clear and the colours seem richer than before – the glowing orange of the earth, the vibrant green of the woods and the cerulean blue of the sky.

In the road a cluster of boys are playing a type of boules with spinning tops. Lia greets them and stops to join in. A carved-wood cylinder, sharpened to a point at one end, is set spinning on its point as a target. Lia takes another, winds a line of string around it and then launches it towards the target. His technique is spot on, his top hits point down and spins across the ground, but he is miles out. The boys laugh in delight.

Lia nods, satisfied. Honour is served. D&L look impressed. They walk on through the village. A group of women are squatting in the shade of a tree, chatting softly and chopping vegetables. Next to them several dogs lie panting and piglets and hens hunt for treasure in the dust.

D: (whispering) What’s “hello” again?

L: (whispering) Something to do with a game. Mah-jong. And a cat. Miao-jong. With an N. Niao-jong I think.

D smiles as he passes. One or two smile hesitantly back.

D: Niao-jong!

The women giggle.

It is Lia’s turn to look impressed.

P1050543The village spreads up both sides of the pass. Single room dwellings of wood and bamboo and palm thatch contain fourteen families and a menagerie of livestock. About half of the houses have corrugated tin roofs but all other building materials have come straight from the forest. They head to the far upper edge of the village, and stop.

Lia: Here is the house. You rest and I will make lunch.

He pauses.

Lia: And the toilet? Over there.

He waves vaguely at the undergrowth beyond the edge of the village. L looks for a latrine or outhouse building but sees nothing.

L: Where exactly?

Lia: Anywhere. In the forest. But don’t go too far.

L: Oh. Of course. Right. Because of the bombs?

Lia looks puzzled, then smiles.

Lia: No, the land here has been cleared. It is safe. There are no bombs.

They wonder what else is out there, but Lia doesn’t elaborate.

P1050551They enter their new home. Under a covered porch two small children sit on tiny stools around a fire in the middle of the earth floor. Nevin is five, but tiny, and his sister Ladah is two. L & D greet their mother, who is their host. She nods shyly at them.

L smiles at the children and waves.

L: Niao-jong!

Nevin stares solemnly at L, stands up, walks over to his sister and wallops her hard over the head. Ladah opens her mouth and howls. Their mother scoops Ladah into her lap, and scolds Nevin. Nevin howls too. L flees indoors to where D is unpacking.

D: Was that you? What did you do to them?

L: Nothing! I promise!

P1050542Their house has a spotlessly swept earth floor, split-bamboo walls and a palm thatch roof. It is cool and airy. A raised bamboo platform covers two sides. This is where they will sleep. L lies back. Despite the absence of a mattress it is surprisingly comfortable.  Through the paper-thin wall a cockerel crows loudly. It is roosting under the eaves of their hut.  Dangling from the ceiling they notice, to their surprise, a lightbulb.

Lia calls them for lunch. On a surface of banana leaves he has laid out cold pork & cauliflower, sticky rice, and a smoky aubergine dip. They are told to eat with their hands – picking up mouthfuls of pork and cauliflower, pinching sticky rice into balls and dipping it into the sauce. It is delicious. Once they have eaten their fill, the family tuck in to the rest.

L: There’s a lightbulb. So the village has electricity?

Lia: A little. Down in the valley is a waterfall which makes electricity. Enough for some of the people to have a light in the evening. You will see.

After lunch they are dispatched for a walk. Shal is an unsmiling teenager with a machete. He speaks only Hmong. They smile at him. He regards them blankly, then turns and walks off. They follow.   Three smaller boys, aged about ten, tag along for the ride, each wielding a balloon on a stick. One by one, along the way, as they swipe at the undergrowth, they pop their balloons. They grin, shrug and carry on. One of them grazes continually, munching fistfuls of sourleaf from the shrubs that he passes.

P1050558The views are glorious – wooded peaks, patchworks of upland meadows and a sea of cloud blanketing them from the rest of the world below. In the fold of a valley lies another little village, spreading down the slope like a landslip. The boys spot figures on the opposite hillside, as tiny as beetles, maybe 500 metres away as the crow flies. They call across and a long conversation ensues, phrases floating to and fro, bouncing from one hill to another, as natural as a phone call, with no need for technology.

On the way back the boys spot a small fallen tree, one end about a foot off the ground. They stand on it, and it moves. Shal joins the younger three, straddling the trunk, and the four of them bounce, helpless with laughter. D & L look on, laughing with them, enjoying their delight.

L: We’re a long way away from crisps and computer games.

***

Back at the village, Lia is killing a cockerel.

D: Oh dear, I hope that’s not the one that lives in our roof.

They leave him to it, and wander around the village. Everywhere there are children and dogs and chickens and pigs and piglets and goats and cows roaming free. Bamboo fences separate the village from the edge of the forest. Despite all the livestock, there are no flies, and almost no waste.

P1050596D: Well, for a start, with no shops there’s no packaging. Or carrier bags. That helps.

They watch Lia hurl a bowl of scraps out of a doorway. Instantly it is hoovered up by piglets and hens.

L: And there goes your food waste. But there’s no animal mess either. Or human for that matter. All these people. All this livestock. And yet it’s remarkably clean.

D eyes up the piglets, snuffling their way eagerly around the village and into the undergrowth beyond.

D: Pigs are omnivorous. Probably best not to think about it.

Children are gathering bundles of grass to make into brooms. Toddlers roam in and out of houses, singly or in groups, some clothed and others naked, clutching sticky rice cakes which they nibble on.

D & L smile and wave.

D: Mah-jong! I mean niao-jong!

The kids grin and wave back.

P1050599A woman is weaving palm leaves to make sections of roof. She laughs and blushes with pleasure as they admire her work. Another woman and her daughters return from the fields with baskets bulging with marrows.

L: Wow – beautiful!

D: And heavy.

The girls nod shyly as they pass.

At the edge of the village, they find the community’s only water source. A skilfully crafted bamboo aqueduct channels water from a mountain spring to the edge of the village in a constant flow, allowing people to wash, do laundry and gather water for their homes. They wander back through a whirl of children and puppies chasing a blue balloon.

P1050630 (2)On the hillside behind their hut, beyond the edge of the village, is a large flat clearing. From here, they have an awesome 180 degree panorama of peaks spread out at their feet and of the sun sinking behind the mountains, washing their own hilltop in gold. It is blissfully peaceful and utterly stunning. They stand there gawping and wearing out their camera. There is a chuckle.

Small child: Falang. Oh!

Another chuckle.

Smaller child: Falang. Oh!

Two little boys, aged maybe three or four, are standing on the other side of the clearing, laughing at them. Falang means “foreigner” in Lao, and obviously also in Hmong.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

She waves. They edge nearer, grinning and laughing. The smaller child is naked and holding a red balloon. Both are barefoot, oblivious to the sharp stony ground.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

They dart nearer. L reaches out, but they dart back. She folds her arms and they dart forward.

Boys: Falang – oh!

L: Niao-jong!

Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!

P1050648 (4)They run circles around her, chanting and laughing. L laughs with them, whirling within their circle but keeping her distance, frightened of frightening them.

D: Whatever are you doing?

L: I don’t know. I’m terrified!

D: What of? They’re children.

L: Exactly!

Boys: Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh! Falang – oh!

At dusk they return to their home, add extra layers of clothing, and join Lia around the fire under the porch. The whole village smells aromatically of woodsmoke. There is the soft chatter of conversations around cooking fires, the wail of an overtired child, and the sound of a hundred hens.

L: There are lots of cockerels, aren’t there? About thirty seven, I’d guess.

D: One less than earlier.

He nods at the fire, over which a plucked chicken is spread out flat and cooking. Lia rolls his eyes.

Lia: It’s the only reason I don’t like staying here. I can’t sleep. You will see. Three, four o’clock in the morning – they start! Then all the village wakes up, talking and making a noise. It’s terrible!

They watch the cockerels stalking around, bossing their hens. Nearby a young man is stroking and teasing and hand-feeding a white cockerel with a long tail.

D: What’s going on there? That one looks quite different.

Lia: A fighting rooster. He’s very special.

There is a loud crow from the eaves of their house.

L: Thank goodness. He’s still alive.

Lia: And that one, he’s special too. A hunting rooster.

A gaggle of little girls sidle up to L and stand beside her. They have solemn pretty faces and are dressed in traditional Lao wrap-around skirts, topped and tailed by western style tops and leggings. One has her little brother strapped to her back, legs dangling.P1050617

D: That’s sweet. They want to be your friend.

L: I know. What shall I do?

D: How should I know? Be nice.

L smiles at them. They stare seriously back at her. She gets out her camera and photographs a hen, pecking at their feet. She shows them the photo. They smile. She points the camera at them – takes a photo. Shows them. They giggle and point at the image, call their friends over and bossily arrange themselves into a line to be photographed again.

L: There are plenty of children here.

Lia: (sighing) Hmong people don’t understand birth control. The women have six or eight children. The man can have several wives. And they do not have to marry to be together. In the valleys some Lao Loum think badly about the Hmong because of this. The lowland Lao are very strict – no sex before marriage. Anyway. All these things make a lot of kids that need food and clothes.

L: Do they go to school?

Lia: Some. Now the track is here, it is easier. Until two years ago, the only way to the valley was the way we walked today. But now they can arrive at the main road in one hour, on a motorbike.

They have noticed that a few of the young men in the village have mopeds.

L: Do they go every day?

Lia: No – it’s too far. They stay at school for the week, from Sunday to Friday. But they have to bring their own food and uniform and books and pens and paper. It’s not easy.

L: We want to help. We brought some money. To help pay for the kids to go to school. Is that the right thing to do?

Lia: Money is good. Or clothes – they always need clothes and shoes. Not toys though – nothing plastic. The people here don’t understand about rubbish. Last week a visitor gave them balloons – you can see – the kids are very happy, but now there are are pieces of rubber all over the village.

P1050621 (2)They sit around the fire in the dark. Puppies and hens tiptoe close to the embers. Lia brings out supper. There is barbecued chicken, boiled marrow, chicken and marrow soup, and rice.

D: Do people eat meat every day here?

Lia: No. Only when the hunters bring animals. Mostly they eat rice. And vegetables.

L: But all this livestock? There are so many hens and pigs. And cows and goats.

Lia: Hmong people don’t eat these animals – they sell them. Except for the spirit sacrifices.

L:   The…..?

Lia: At a ceremony, they will kill an animal. The spirits take the blood, and after that, the people can eat the body.

By 8pm it is silent, and very dark. There is no moon, but a million stars glow brightly in the utter absence of light pollution. The village is in blackness, interiors lit only by cooking fires and half a dozen dim light bulbs, and outside the occasional bobbing of a torch at the edge of the forest – heading to the loo before bed.

D: It’s so peaceful. No parties?

Lia: (laughing) Hmong people are quiet people. They don’t listen to music, only their own traditional music, and they don’t drink alcohol. Not even lao-lao rice whisky.

On their bamboo platform, they find a mosquito tent has been set up, two quilts and two pillows. They snuggle down, and sleep soundly, aware only of their hipbones as they turn over.

***

D: Holy crap! What’s the time?

L: 3.47am.

The cockerels have started. All 37 of them. Including the one in their eaves.

P1050644 (2)

Beauty and the Bombs – Nong Khiaw, Laos

 

P1050307 (2)

D: What’s wrong?

D leans the bicycles up against a fence and joins L at the start of the footpath.

P1050374L: I’ve been reading the signs.

D: I know – it looks fab. “Great panorama”. “360 degree viewpoint”. Can’t wait!

L: No. The other signs. “Dangerous.” “Unexploded bombs still in this area”. “One of the most bombed areas in Laos.”

D: Oh. Those signs.

L: Yes.

D: Right.

L: Yes.

D: Well come on then! It also says “Don’t get off the path.” So we won’t. We’ll be fine! He sets cheerfully off between the bamboo-fenced vegetable plots, and is soon out of sight behind a clump of banana trees.

***

P1050371They arrive in Nong Khiaw the previous day, after a four hour minibus ride on quiet, mostly good roads sprinkled with a few potholes of the size that you drive into, and then out of again. The little village straddles the Nam Ou River and the scenery is so magnificent that they just want to choke and fall over.

L: It’s too much. I can’t cope. I can’t fit it all into my eyes!

They walk along the riverbank to find their hotel. They have decided to splash out on the best place in town, at a whopping USD$50/night, and have nervously paid in advance. At the Nong Khiaw Riverside they are given glasses of iced lemongrass & ginger tea, and a room key. L opens the door to their room.P1050289

L: Holy moly!

D: What? Is it awful?

L: it’s another basket. D’you think you can you bear it?

Their bungalow stands on stilts on the riverbank. The walls and ceiling are of woven leaf matting, and the floor is of wood. The room is stylishly decorated, has a four poster bed and smells sweetly of straw. A huge set of French doors fills one wall and leads to a wooden balcony looking over the river. Opposite, a mountain juts out of the water and straight up to touch the sky 1100 metres above.   It is awesomely beautiful.

P1050294D: I think I can bear it.

They spend the rest of the day on the balcony. D studies the guidebook while L gawps and takes photos of the view.

D: What shall we do?

L: (not listening) Astonishing. Smile please.

D: We could kayak.

L: (not listening) So gorgeous. Actually, don’t smile.

D: Or go for a bike ride.

L: (not listening) Just fantastic.   Maybe you look better from the back.

D: Or a walk.

L: (not listening) Extraordinary. Or not in the photo at all.

***

P1050313The narrow path climbs steeply through the forest, ducking under madly spiralling vines. They manage not to step on any bombs. At the top, they are in thick cloud, swirling around them. There is nothing whatsoever to see.

L: Oh no.

D: Just wait.

L: All this way up….

D: Just wait.

They wait, resting in the bamboo shelter perched on top of the mountain.

D: About the bombs.

L: Yes.

D: You’ve been Googling.

L: I have.

D: So who were Laos at war with when the bombs were dropped?

L: Nobody really. It was during the Vietnam War, in which officially Laos was neutral.

P1050320D: Officially?

L: Well, some of them were helping out a bit.

D: Who were they helping?

L: The CIA. Is the cloud clearing yet?

D: What? No. Did you say CIA?

L: Yup. Hold on a minute. What d’you know about the Vietnam War?

D: Blimey. In a nutshell? Here goes. Vietnam. Long thin country, running north to south. Line across the middle. North of the line is North Vietnam, which is communist. South of the line is South Vietnam which is not communist and is supported by the US. North Vietnam want to take South Vietnam and turn it communist. The US want very badly to stop them so that communism doesn’t spread.

L: Right. So the communist North Vietnamese had a network of vital supply routes through the jungle known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. To move their equipment and soldiers down south to fight the Americans and South Vietnamese.

D: I’ve heard of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

L: Well, a lot of the Trail was actually over the border, in Laos, and not in Vietnam at all. The US was keen to shut it down, and they asked Laos for help. So local people living in the mountains near the border were trained up by the CIA to help the Americans disrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh trail, rescue any US airmen shot down, and protect an important radar base.

P1050422D: OK. But who dropped all the bombs on Laos?

L: The Americans. Any gaps in the cloud?

D: Not yet. What d’you mean, the Americans? You’ve just said Laos was helping them!

L: I know, but the US were freaking out about the potential spread of communism. They did everything they could to stop it, including bombing the hell out of both the Ho Chi Minh Trail and anywhere else in Laos they thought might have a communist in it. It was supposed to be a secret, because of Laos being a neutral country. It’s known as the Secret War.

D: When was this?

L: 1964-73. The US dropped over 2 million tonnes of bombs. Equivalent to a planeload every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years. Making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history.

D: God Almighty! Or Buddha.

L: Quite.

D: It must have been the world’s worst kept secret. There are gaps though.

L: In my facts?

D: Undoubtedly. But also in the cloud.

P1050339The sun is melting the white layers into wisps to reveal the vivid blue sky behind.   The signs were right – they have 360 degree views of the most bombed, and surely one of the most beautiful, countries in the world. There is space all around them, into which they feel they could fly. On every horizon lush green mountain ridges jut and soar, cut through by fertile valleys, rice paddies, and the lazy curves of the coffee-coloured Nam Ou River, laid out below their feet.

L tries to speak, but nothing comes out.

L: I’ve got no superlatives left. I used them all up yesterday.

D doesn’t need words. Just looking is making his soul sing.

***

On the way back down they are equally careful not to step off the path.P1050372

L: Apparently 30% of the bombs didn’t explode. That’s 80 million bombs. Even now people get killed by them every year. And it stops them being able to farm their land safely. Something like 25% of villages in Laos are still unsafe.

D: Are they being cleared up?

L: Yes, but it’s the most unimaginably enormous task. The US have spent over $100 million in Laos over the last 20 years on unexploded ordnance (UXO) clearance, and there are a bunch of agencies and local teams out here doing nothing else, but it barely scratches the surface. Hold on, I’ve got a quote somewhere.

She stops, and taps her phone.

L: Here. So, Obama has just pledged another $90 million for UXO clearance over the next 3 years.  But even that’s not nearly enough. A Mines Advisory Group director reacted to the news by saying: “Before the President’s announcement I feared that the UXO operation in Laos would take hundreds of years. Now I am optimistic this can be reduced to decades.”

D: Decades.

L: Decades.

***

They cycle on out into the countryside.

L: You find it. I’ll tell you about it.

D stops on a corner and wheels his bike onto the gravel verge.

P1050417D: We’re here. Tham Pha Thok.

L: Where? I can’t see it.

D: I think that’s sort of the point.

He leads the way across a stream and through a meadow, heading straight for a rocky mountain rising sheer out of the flat valley.

D: There.

L: No. Can’t see a thing.

D: You’re not looking at it properly.

They are approached by three small boys, who take charge. In impressive English they introduce themselves as Lee, Bia and Guan and announce that they are 10 years old. Lee has a head torch. He leads the way up a steep flight of stairs and into a large cave, 30 metres above the ground. It consists of a wide gallery stretching back several hundred metres, with smaller caverns opening off it, several of them striped with natural light chinking in from fissures in the cliff-side.

P1050393L: This was lived in by villagers, and also by a lot of the provincial government, during all those years of bombing. You can almost imagine it, can’t you? It’s a good safe spot – completely invisible from the outside, and close to a stream.

The boys head deeper in and illuminate various pitch-black room-sized dug-outs to the sides. One area is labelled “Governor”, and another “Provisional Government Chairman”.

D: Tricky place to have an office.

Lee, Bia and Guan scamper back down the steps, but their tour isn’t over. They are beckoned around the foot of the cliff on a tiny overgrown path. They reach the entrance to another, much smaller cave, and clamber between boulders, squeezing through a crack in the rocks.   They look around the small space.P1050410

L: Blimey. This was where the region’s main bank was based. For six years!

Before they leave, D takes on the role of banker, and reaches into his wallet to pay the diminutive guides. He pulls out a note and starts to hand it over. The boys’ eyes light up.

D: Hang on, that’s got too many noughts on it!

It disappears swiftly back into his wallet, and is replaced by three more, each with one less zero. One for each boy. They stare at him solemnly for quite some time, waiting for the larger note to reappear. It doesn’t. They shrug their shoulders and dart away down the footpath into the woods.

***

The village school is putting on a Cultural Evening. They cycle there at dusk, and are earnestly led around the back of the school building to a stage area by several boys in traditional dress. Half a dozen performances are introduced by two tiny people, one girl and one boy. They take turns. One reads a long introduction in Lao from the laminated sheet they are clutching. The other then frowns and studies the sheet carefully before announcing in English “And now a song. Please enjoy.” It seems that whatever the Lao description of the different performances might be, the English translation is the same. Each time, the foreign audience wait eagerly to be told what is coming. “And now a song. Please enjoy.”P1050501

The performances are in fact dances, not songs.   The children are wearing traditional clothing representing different ethnic groups.   Sometimes a group of girls will dance, and sometimes they dance in boy-girl pairs, which makes them all giggle and blush. Their bare feet pat softly on the floor and they hold themselves gracefully upright. Most of the dancing is done by their hands, twisting at the wrist, palm up, palm down. It is beautifully elegant, dignified and poised.

***

The Nam Ou River and surrounding scenery is even more spectacular from a kayak. The water is smooth and slow-flowing. Their guide is called Big. As they paddle gently down the river, side by side, he tells them he used to be a monk.P1050487

L: Gosh – how long for?

Big: 6 years. From 12 to 18. They put me through secondary school. It’s a good education. But it’s not a life for me.

L: No?

Big: No. One day I met a friend in the street. He was wearing a fine suit. So I stopped being a monk.

L: Because of the suit?

Big: Of course! So that I too could enjoy clothes and music and food and girls.  At college.

He tells us that his family come from a hill village four hours from here.

Big: It is very remote. My village only got electricity last year.

He points towards the sandy shore. Vegetables grow in neat rows on the banks and several small boats are moored up. Glimpsed through the trees there are houses with woven-leaf walls and palm-thatch roofs. Big explains aspects of village life.

P1050443Big: See? This village too, has got electricity now. Just last year. Like my village.

Big: The firewood there stacked up. Used for cooking.

Big: Rice mats. All the rice is laid out to dry in the sun. Before the husks come off.

Big: They keep bees, for honey. In those hollowed out tree trunks on the side of that house. See?

Big: The water point. All the village get their water from this place. For washing, for laundry, for cooking, for drinking.

L: And for toilets?

Big laughs.

Big: No. For that they have the forest.

They drift on downstream into the setting sun. Water buffalo bask on the banks and wallow in the shallows. A family drive their cattle and pigs to down to the shore to drink in the cool of the late afternoon. Three teenage girls run down a beach and into the water, whooping and splashing, ducking like dolphins, fully clothed. The sun drops lower. The river glitters silver. The mountains line up in layers, from greys to blues to black.

P1050450