In which we actually go off the beaten path
As Pi Mai wound down, we passed our squirt guns on to the kids down the street, bid goodbye to Luang Prabang and launched ourselves into seeing more of Laos.
The first stop- after a stuffy, crowded, tortuously loud Lao pop music filled bus ride- was Sayaboury, for a two night stay at the Elephant Conservation Center. Here we got a brief immersion in all things elephant, feeding them, riding them, following them into the jungle to bed down for the night- thrilling activities all. We also got an education about the tricky balance for elephants in Laos where there is a long history of captive elephants working alongside their handlers or mahouts. Both captive and wild populations have declined worryingly in recent years, so the private center and the NGO ElephantAsia are working to provide veterinary care for sick or injured elephants, and a place for mahouts to come with their elephants to birth and raise their babies (mahouts don’t like to let their working elephants have babies otherwise, as a 22 month pregnancy (!!) is a lot of working time to lose.) We spent a happy hour watching the result of these efforts in the form of a fuzzy two month old calf frolicking with her mom. Adorably uncoordinated and floppy trunked she gummed pieces of sugarcane, head butted her mahout, and performed the toddler classic wet noodle maneuver when it was time to leave the water and walk back uphill.
From Sayaboury to Vientiane we opted for a more direct minibus over the public bus and it was more comfortable, blessedly air conditioned and quieter, but the combination of speed and roads rendered both kids sweaty, pale, limp, and sick, sick, sick despite the previously administered motion sickness pills. Miles especially suffered but thank goodness that kid has a lot of bounce; once we stopped moving he was fine and ate noodles for dinner like a champ. Still, we decided a Plan B was called for, so we bought plane tickets to skip the next bus leg (8-10 hours) to Savanakhet and Vance made a heroic multi-pharmacy effort to seek out better motion sickness meds.
Our stop in Vientiane ended up being mostly about practicalities and celebrating Della’s 12th birthday. Because some of our upcoming countries are fussy in their entry requirements (South Africa, I’m talking to you) we had an appointment at the embassy for the addition of more passport pages. Laundry needed doing, and a birthday cake needed to be ordered. We had a bakery tip from an American we met at the Elephant Conservation Center who is currently teaching in Vientiane so Vance gamely biked through traffic and scorching temperatures to find it. However, when I made the reservation at our hotel I mentioned to them we had a birthday happening, too. The result? Two cakes! There are worse things in life, no?
We had a short flight to Savanakhet where we met up with our guides, Aire and Kwang, for the two night trek in Dong Phu Vieng NPA that Vance had arranged. After requisite stocking up at the market, where blond, blue eyed Miles caused a stir among the ladies selling vegetables and herbs, we drove four hours out of Savanakhet, then hiked 8 km to a Katang village. The Katang are an ethnic group in Laos like the Hmong who have their own language and follow an animist religion, instead of Buddhism. This village of about 100 dwellings had no electricity (although it is on it’s way.) Most homes were simply built along the same lines with elevated living quarters and a separate kitchen area across a short porch. Tractors and looms were parked in the shade underneath, and pigs, ducks, chicken, cows and goats wandered at will amongst the usual sprinkling of litter. Ah friends, if there was one thing I could change about this past year, I would wish to magically photoshop my memories of the drifts of plastic bags and bottles that litter so many of the otherwise beautiful places we’ve seen, especially in Bali and Laos. What the world needs now is not love sweet love, it’s a biodegradable solution to water bottles and snack food wrappers or a whopper of an anti-littering campaign to shift the cultural norm. My theory is that for many places, for eons, you could throw the broken water gourd or leaf that your lunch was carried in on the ground and it would break down pretty quickly. Plastics and foil are pretty new on the scene and perhaps their persistence hasn’t quite sunk in? Of course, in the poorer places of the world there isn’t always municipal organization or a plan for trash, beyond half heartedly burning a pile every now and then. In any event, the sight of pigs and chickens snuffling amidst broken lighters, a stray flip flop and plastic bags, never seems to phase anyone but me.
For once I felt truly off the beaten path. If Miles had caused a ripple in the market that morning, he caused a sensation in the village where most people had never seen a little blond kid in person. The Lao are less demonstrative than the Turks who were also so fond of him- there was not a lot of touching or hair ruffling or hugging- but he instantly became the most interesting thing going in the village and had an audience of dozens of eyes following him whether he was eating dinner or brushing his teeth. After our dinner there was a baci ceremony to welcome us (we who had just untied our New Year’s strings got some new ones) and there was some beer and whiskey drinking and singing, including a family rendition of America the Beautiful, the Itsy Bitsy Spider and at Aire’s urging because he also knew the words, Hotel California.
The house we stayed in had walls woven of split bamboo, which made them permeable to the breeze but also to the sounds of pigs scuffling and roosters blaring. At 5:00 am the household was up and at work. I lay on my mat listening to the morning sounds outside (hacking, spitting, the rhythmic thud thud of rice being pounded) and I thought about my home so far away, my nice sheets and stainless steel appliances and plumbed-in double-boilered espresso machine, and felt deeply grateful for the comforts of my regular life where I don’t have to get up at 5:00 am to pound rice.
After we ate breakfast and bid goodbye to our audience, we hiked 18 hot kilometers, with lots of moaning about whose idea it had been (it was Vance’s.) Humors were restored when we arrived at our second village where the presence of electricity meant cold drinks and the nearness of the river meant we could swim with an escort of two dozen little kids, all with the same beautiful cafe au lait colored skin against which Miles practically glowed. Here we were objects of interest, but with much less intensity. After another night (dog and pig fight at 1:00 am, roosters crowing at 3:00 am, everyone up at 5:00 am) we took a boat back to the start of our journey.
At this point we were meant to catch a bus to Vietnam, but managed to miss it. Aire and Kwang drove us an hour to the border instead where we walked across then set about figuring out how to catch a bus onward to Hue. Were the kids fazed by this? No, they were not. Their eight months of experience really shone through and did us proud. We saw a bus pulled into a gas station with Hue written in as one of its destinations and asked if they had room for us? They did. Even better, it was a sleeper bus with aisles of crazy reclined seats stacked like bunk beds. With our new motion sickness meds doing the job, I was able to lie back in relative comfort and read all the way to our destination. Finally, a method of public transportation that worked. Cooler temperatures and the sights and flavors of Vietnam await!