Tuesday, 27 November 2012

FInal Days of Rest and Tranquility; Nong Khiaw, Laos

Our local mini bus weaved away from Luang Prabang and north,  up the familiar winding broken asphalt surface we were becoming accustomed to.  When we arrived in Nong Khiaw the magic of the place was immediate and infectious as we looked up at steep limestone karst, considerably larger and more dramatic than that of Vang Vieng.  Our lonely planet guide suggested heading west of the bridge spanning the (??) river, where the majority of guesthouses and restaurants catered for the tourists.  It wasn't far down the road before a man greeted us, offering us riverside accommodation for a price which suited our budget.  We stood in our second floor spacious en-suite room with large bed and beautiful, even wooden floorboards; a beautiful yoga space, which opened up onto a shared balcony overlooking the river.  Long boats were being paddled down the river, people fishing for an evening meal.  Music played from the neighbouring school where laughing children played in a courtyard, enjoying a two day party in honour of their teachers.  It was here that Julian decided this place had potential to be a new favourite. 

We pushed aside the gate with bunches of bananas growing overhead and followed the narrow lane way alongside the school yard, greeting the children along the way and headed towards the bridge spanning the river.  A woman sat at a loom in a small room, open to the the street, working on a sarong or table runner as other families tended to shops out of homes. A ridge line swept beautiful overhead to the highest of the surrounding karst, some 300 meters overhead as the sun dipped behind them, relieving us of the afternoon heat and dropping temperatures into a comfortable, warm evening.  Crossing the bridge we admired the dramatic karst and watched the locals in the process of building vegetable gardens along the banks.  Using pieces of bamboo they dug holes, erecting fences to surround the produce in the process of being planted.  This was clearly a new project in the making, each of the many gardens being in the same stages of development and we later learnt the banks of the river had only very recently been divided between the village and each family allocated a plot to use as they saw best fit. 

We followed a dirt road alongside the river in hopes of coming across a path which may lead us up one of the mighty karst and offer potential for a hike.  We knew it was possible to climb the peak adjacent to the village, having been offered a (paid) guide or few during our meander down from the hotel, but the only paths we found lead up into vegetable gardens, and we realized we would have to seek local advice for the hiking trails.  The clouds glowed a brilliant pink, the sun set and we retuned to the main road for dinner, passing guesthouse accommodation from the bargain basement to the ridiculously expensive along the way.  The feel on this 'other side of the bridge' was considerably different than where we were residing; clearly here was developed to suit the needs of people travelling through, whereas the other side was exclusively residential.  The place was all but void of tourists though, the majority of restaurants tended by bored proprietors.  We chose between two places, the deciding factor being the Wi-Fi which was offered in the Indian restaurant.  We were greeted by a Tamil man who spoke exceptional english and I was shocked when Julian went for the Indian menu once again.  He picked between two of my suggested dishes and was soon served a sweet curry with nine vegetables, lush with sultanas and bananas accompanied by a garlic roti.  I watched his every move as he inspected and tasted, his eyes widening in content surprise.  Our new Indian friend has just successfully served Julian the first Indian dish he has ever sincerely enjoyed.

The following day we were eager to find some hiking trails but the tour agents in town refused to tell us where to go, insisting that we must have a guide, a full day excursion costing us 180,000 kip (US$24) each person.  Unable to justify the cost of the guided trek on our $30 budget, we simply enjoyed walking around town, resting in our riverside guesthouse doing yoga or reading. We joined others at our guesthouse for a meal with our same Indian chef; our table ended up being a lively group of ten, the majority of whom were regular holiday-makers but our number included a Swiss couple currently in the process of riding recumbent tricycles from their home to Malaysia and about to tackle some of Laos steeper terrain as they headed south. 

Hiring a pair of single speed city bikes (which were in pretty rough shape) the following morning we ventured west out of Nong Khiaw, up and down a considerably steep road.  I found myself pushing my bicycle (though Julian was far more determined and persistent with his) uphill more often than riding it and found myself feeling ill multiple times from the intense heat of the sun.  We passed a couple of villages where local children would run after our bikes with smiles and waves as as passed.  It was clear that these villages had been functioning the same way for centuries and was the least developed of any villages we had seen in Laos.  There was no evidence of running water and there was certainly no electricity.  A man dug out a bowl by hand from a section of tree trunk some 20cm in diameter and perhaps 30cm deep, already there was another lying beside him, the outside just requiring some shaping and finishing before being put to use. For what purpose the bowls / vases were for I cannot say, but the work must have taken days to complete with the simple hand tools he used, sat upon the ground in the shade of a tree, the piece gripped between his knees.

As we paused on a bridge a couple of local youths pulled up beside us and sat upon the railings.  They spoke to us in the little english they knew, "Good morning teacher, 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 6 - 8- 10", repeating this a couple times before time before taking off up a mountain track.   A path on the opposite side of the road and some 2km further on led towards a river far to inviting to ignore and as Julian sought out angles and compositions with his camera, I was drawn towards it.  Easing myself into the river (fully clothed) by some large unearthed tree roots the cool water was a refreshing shock to my pores, the karst rising steeply above me into clear blue skies. Julian soon joined me and we swam against the current before allowing it to carry us downstream.  As we retuned to the bikes a trio of young girls approached us asking us for the three main items foreigners give children here; pens, candy and money.  Often reading advice discouraging tourists to give such things to the local children as it encourages a begging culture, we refused. We had no pens or candy on us and we are unwilling to part with our money as always. As we left the river path, we happened upon the children's guardian sitting out of sight, just four or five metres from where the girls had approached us, the lesson obviously having been learnt even in this quiet backwater, that innocent faces and small hands are more likely to receive gifts from 'farang' than a woman of advancing years.

We cycled the rest of the way home to find women had emerged from the woodlands that lined the majority of our route , their sarongs, blouses and headscarves filthy with dust, long knives hanging by their sides and bundles of firewood across their backs, as they walked home to the next village, chattering to each other or calling greetings to ourselves as we passed. They refused our offer of a lift on the back of our bikes and we continued back to Nong Khiaw for a shower and dinner at our favourite Indian restaurant.  Three evenings in a row Julian ordered Indian dishes, thoroughly enjoying one and realizing the other two were tolerable; not as awful as his preconceptions had given him to think. As we sat eating, during the quiet, warm evenings, we watched the eldest son of the house opposite spend every spare hour he had to weave himself a cast net for fishing in the river shallows. Whilst we never saw his task completed, we admired others and their usage, the peace and the pace of Nong Khiaw and the surrounding villages made a deep impression upon our hearts and it is reassuring to think amidst the hustle and bustle of the modern world with its jet planes and hyper-markets; fast food, fast internet and fast pace, such a place as Nong Khiaw exists towards the end of the line.  Our host at the restaurant sincerely eased Julians trepidation about travelling through India, especially the northern part of the country where the food is apparently quite mild and we plan on spending the majority of our time.  He turned out to be an exceptional chef, with exquisite and subtle taste and our time with him was invaluable, easing Julians fears of starving in his homeland and allowing us to look forward to that leg of the trip even more.

We stood on the balcony on the last evening watching the fisherman with large lights wade through the river seeking, what we assumed was a nocturnal species, and listened to the chatter of our neighbours in the houses that surrounded our digs. In the morning we packed after four idyllic, restful days on 'Laos time' and returned once more to the world, via bus.

Our final two days in Laos was spent in transit, heading north en-route to the Chinese boarder at Mohab.  We broke the journey up in Odoudomxsy, a decidedly typical, dusty boarder town void of any real point of interest.  We checked into a musky room with squat toilet and hose coming out of the wall into a bucket acting as both a shower and sink, along with the most uncomfortable bed thus far.  We wandered the city in quiet reflection of our time in Laos, one of the most serene places I have ever been.  Any and all preconceptions I had of this country has been discarded.  As one of the most impoverished countries on the planet what I found in Laos turned to be the most beautiful examples of simple living I have ever seen.  Void of mass consumerism and the constant desire to have more, bigger, better, faster things.  Where flaunting material items as a show of social status is far from anyones mind. Where basic needs are met, even if it means an entire village having no running water and venturing down to the river to bathe or wash clothing.  The most peaceful moments of my life were those spent trekking through the New Zealand backcountry with my home on my back, living in just this way.  This is a place where family is of upmost importance and entire communities work together to ensure a successful crop.  The physical beauty of the country with its patient, open hearted people have captured my soul, this month passing so quickly and despite very much looking forward to China, I sincerely didn't want to leave Laos.

My thoughts were interrupted on our way back from dinner by two youths on bicycles who pulled over for a chat, asking us where we were heading.  Upon learning we were aimlessly wandering their streets, they asked if we would like to come practice english with them.  Of course, we were happy to join them and were soon lead down an alleyway and through a set of doors where we found about 50 students waiting.  We were greeted with curious smiles from everyone and moments later led into a classroom and invited to find a space to sit.  We were soon surrounded by youths eager to practice their conversational skills. Soon, their teacher came to stand at the front of the room to begin the evening lesson and upon completion called upon us, asking us where were from then relating to the class both in english and laos that we were native english speakers and to come forward with any questions they may have.  He then asked if we would come to the board to go over todays lesson so the students could hear our pronunciation.  I urged Julian to go first, and as he looked out onto the 50 onlookers he stated, "Oh, Im all nervous now, I've not stood in front of a classroom in over 20 years" which the teacher translated and got a good giggle out of.  As he read over the writings on the wall the class repeated after him.  The teacher had made a few grammatical mistakes and was happy to have Julian correct him.  I thought I was off the hook but as Julian sat down I was called to the front of the board to repeat the procedure.  They looked up at me with their almond shaped eyes expectantly as I looked back at them, a varied group of individuals ranging from 13 to 17 years old, male and female, some dressed in casual western clothing, others in lovely sarongs and blouses and another group of practicing monks in long orange robes.  It was satisfying, standing before them, having them repeat after me and making sure they knew the differences in meanings between two very similar spellings.  When the hour class had ended a small group of them walked us out gradually dwindling to a couple who walked us all the way home, eager for every and any opportunity to practice their language with a native speaker, knowing full well the opportunities the skills they learn today may present them with further down the years and aware also I think of their compatriots in Vientiane that have many more opportunities for both practice and employment: their competition in a changing world as much as anybody.

The rest of the evening I was buzzing with the energy from the experience.  I can't think of a more perfect conclusion to our time in Laos, considering the opportunity we have been offered to return to do exactly that (which, I have just realized, I completely forgot to conclude with in the Vang Vieng entry.  That cliff hanger ending was not exactly intentional, have to admit! I guess thats the problem with not being able to upload for so long.).  The man with big ideas for the future was someone who comes from a very poor family in a village one hour south of Vang Vieng. As a child, he went through the coldest months of the year with no shoes, sweater or jacket, attending class in just a T-shirt.  His family was looked down upon through the eyes his peers which today, seems to inspired him.  He has opened a successful restaurant in Vang Vieng and has changed the path which his family has followed for generations.  Next, he aspires to bring tourism to his village, but in order to do so, the villagers must know at least a little english.  He offered us a piece of land to build our own bamboo hut, in return we would become a part of opening an english school and teaching the residents (particularly the children) english.  In Laos, tourism is an important source of income and to be able to get a job in the tourism industry changes lives. 

To have a little taste of what it feels like to stand before a class was like a little push, or reminder, of the future that could await us here.  The intimidating thing about it though is that village has had no prior experience with the language, where as the class this evening had a base understanding.  How do you introduce and language to someone for the first time?  There are classes offered in southern Thailand we could take which would introduce us to the concept of teaching english as a foreign language, which would be invaluable should we choose to do this, and ideal since we intend on spending some time there climbing.  I have never really felt like I can make a difference in the world but on that evening, thinking about bringing english to a village which has never seen westerners before in hopes of creating a future with opportunities opened up to the inhabitants should they choose to embrace them: perhaps we could have an impact on a small part of it.

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