Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Home Again - Laos Day #1

Yesterday afternoon we returned to our home from our seven day journey to North West Laos - Luang Namtha Province. It was a great trip with some very pleasant surprises. The weather was fantastic. We had one day of rain as was forecasted however the rain commenced at 14:30 after we had completed our scheduled day's activities. The rain continued on through the night with Duang and I enjoying perhaps our best night's sleep of the entire trip. The sound of gentle rain falling on the wood shingles of our woven bamboo cottage relaxed our minds and more importantly kept the roosters quiet - for one night.

Our journey to Laos started on Monday 25 January at 6:00 A.M. when we left our home to drive up to the Thai - Lao border at Nong Khai. The weather was excellent and we found a covered parking area with security very close to the Thai Border Crossing. The attendant at the parking lot called his friend to assist him with our bags. Duang and I each had a carry on bag and I naturally had my knapsack of camera gear. The attendant need help because he could only carry one person behind him and one suitcase in front of him on his motorbike! He friend came over with his motorbike. I chose the driver that seemed to be the most experienced and proficient in driving a motorbike. I gave him my bag which he balanced in front of him, and I sat behind him with the camera bag strapped on my back. Duang did the same on the other bike. He gave Duang a phone number to call him to get us upon our return. Fortunately we did not have far at all to go to the crossing. It was such a short distance that I made up my mind that upon our return, weather willing, we would walk back to the parking lot after crossing. I don't mind taking some chances for a photograph, a pleasurable experience, or for adventure. Taking such a chance to save a few walking steps was not worth the risk.

It took us about one hour to clear with Thai authorities and Lao authorities at each end of the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. Duang had more of a difficulty leaving Thailand than I did. Departure cards for Thai citizens are written in English and have to be filled out in English. I had already left Thailand and could not go back to help her - we had forgotten about the need to fill out a card for. Fortunately there are people who help fill out the forms for free. I had more difficulty getting into Laos. I had to obtain and pay for a visa to enter into Laos. Duang was allowed in based upon her Thai passport for free.

After we completed the Laos crossing, a man asked us if we need a ride. We told him yes that we needed to get to the Vientiane Airport. He agreed to do it for 400 baht - around $13 USD in an air conditioned car. We drove along the Mekong River, through the center of Vientiane past many of the places that we had visited a year ago on our first trip to Laos.

Vientiane International Airport is a small airport - three gates where you board directly into your plane. There was a Vietnam Airlines twin engine jet, a small twin engine prop plane and our MA60 twin turboprop plane at the airport when we arrived. The MA60 is a 50 to 60 passenger turboprop plane similar to a Dash 8. The MA60 was first produced in 2000 in China by Xian Aircraft Company. The first MA60 was first delivered to Lao Airlines in August 2006 and they now have four of them. I didn't know that it was a Chinese plane until we got home and I checked on the Internet. All labels on the aircraft including access panels for maintenance were in English. The safety card was in Lao and English. Flight announcements were in Lao and English. On both flights I was the only Westerner. Duang speaks Isaan which is a dialect of Lao so she understood all verbal communication and was able to communicate throughout our trip. Since the Thai government had stopped the teaching in Isaan of the Lao alphabet years ago, she can not read Lao. Our flight to Luang Namtha was about one hour long and very scenic. The area around Vientiane is flat and very sandy due to the Mekong River. The flight to North West Laos took us over miles and miles of heavily vegetated hills, mountains, and narrow valleys. Once in a while you could see a paved highway with very little traffic on it or more often you could see narrow dirt roads - a foreshadowing of our days to come in Laos.

Many of the hillsides had small cleared patches on them where crops are or have been cultivated. The agricultural methods of the various ethnic minorities differ. The river valleys are farmed very much like the land in Isaan - diked areas of relatively small plots of land used to cultivate rice. In some of the mountain areas, there are escalating terraces up the side of the mountain reminiscent of Inca farming in Peru and Red Yao farming in China - a heavy investment in toime, labor, and commitment to remain in a single location. Later I found out that many of these terraces are the start of rubber plantations financed and managed by Chinese companies.

The Hmong people, on the other hand, practise slash and burn method of agriculture. A portion of the mountain is cleared of trees, the undergrowth is burned off, and their crops planted. When an area becomes no longer productive, another plot is cleared. When the entire area is no longer productive, the village is relocated.
The soil of North West Laos is not very good. The soil is yellowish and sometimes reddish, comprised mostly of clays.

After checking into our hotel, we rented a "taxi" and driver for the afternoon to explore the countryside. We drove out to Baan Nam Dee, a Lanten village that has a waterfall attraction. It is also in an area known for making paper out of bamboo. In Baan Nam Dee we came upon children taking their afternoon bath in a small stream alongside the dirt road just outside the village. There were 5 girls ranging from 4 to 9 years old and a boy about 4 years old splashing unembarrassedly naked in full view of any one on the road. This is the way it remained for our trip. The people in the villages are very poor and small children, especially toddlers, are often naked. Adults are more modest but due to the lack of indoor facilities, bath in public either in a river, stream or community water tap in the village.

Upon our return from Baan Nam Dee, we stopped along the dirt road in Houana Village - a Khmu settlement. On the edge of road in an open sided concrete column structure with a thatched roof, several women were sitting on the ground busily weaving plant materials to form panels that are used in the roofs of local homes. Several children were busy playing amongst the working adults. One baby was soundly asleep secured to her mother's back with a pakema while the mother busily weaved panels. Many of the women smoked pipes as they worked. We found out that they were a village three hours walk away - Sidhar Village. The women stay in Houana to work at this "factory" and make almost $10 US dollars a day - a good rate for Laos and even Thailand for this type of labor. The people were very friendly and did not mind being photographed. I make a point of showing them their photo to assure them that they picture is respectful and dignified. This invariably gets them to relax and makes for better photographs.

After our visit with the weavers we continued back down the road towards our hotel. We came upon two women bathing along with a young girl in a small stream next to a rice paddy. After finishing washing her body the girl put her clothes on, filled a pail with water, and trudged back across the road to her home followed by her mother - also carrying a bucket of water back to the home with her wet sarong clinging to her body as she walked down the country road in front of our taxi.. Life and personal hygiene is much more difficult in these rural areas.


  1. Did you smoke a pipe as an engineer - wasn't that an "in-thing" at that time?

    Life seems so simple for these people. How is poor measured? Jim

  2. As an engineer I did not smoke a pipe or anything else. It was the "in-thing" but I had moved on and marched to my own drum beat.

    Life is definitely simpler for these people. How is poor measured? I don't have that definitive answer. However "poor" to them might have more do more with a person's spiritual and mental state than the quantity of their material possessions. I have not seen anyone yet who was malnourished. The people live off the land - eating many different types of vegetation that grows wild or they cultivate. They share food much more readily than Westerners. They eat ants, ant eggs, insects, tiny fish, snails ...

    The people are all pretty much in the same boat and seem content to make do with what they have. As part of Buddhist philosophy they do not dwell on what material possessions they do not have or think too much at what they want. They are concerned about being happy and content. They would consider many Westerners to be much more "poor" than them despite the huge differences in material wealth.