Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Laos Day #4 - Xieng Kok Market

One of the places on our agenda to visit was the market at Xieng Kok. The market is open on the 14th and 28th of each month. Xieng Kok is a river port on the Mekong River. Across from Xieng Kok is Myanmar which was and in some places still referred to as Burma.

We got up at 4:00 A.M. to be ready to leave in the van at 5:00 P.M. with Jorgen and Helga. I twas a typical morning in the region for this time of year - foggy and at times a mist. However you can almost set your watch to it disappearing at 11:00 A. M.

The first leg of our trip was to retrace our previous journey out to Muang Sing. Traveling in the van made a world of difference. Whereas I was concerned the other morning that our driver was driving much too fast and we arrived in Muang Sing, on this trip we were quite comfortable and arrived in 1-1/2 hours. It was too early to get something at the Muang Sing market so we took the fork in the road that leads to Xieng Kok. After aways down the road we stopped at a small village market and had some breakfast. We didn't need to buy too much because Helga had brought along some muffins from a bakery in Luang Namtha.

Xieng Kok is another two hours by dirt road, Lao Highway 17B, southwest of Muang Sing. By the time we got to Muang Sing, the sun had rose and we were able to view the countryside as we bounced along. We passed through many villages and a beautiful countryside. There was a good sized banana plantation where bananas on the stalk were draped in thin blue plastic.

Every where broom plant was being harvested. Often both sides of the road were flanked by harvested broom plant carefully laid out to dry in the sun. Once it is dry it is bundled together into sheaves and transported to central locations to be weighed, and loaded onto large trucks for transport to China. For the larger fields, the large semis drive into the fields. There is a tent made out of an old tarp where some of the farm workers camp out to watch over the harvest through the night. Whether in the large fields or small settlements, the broom plant sheaves are weighed on a small portable spring scale most likely 25 kilogram (50 pound) capacity. The sheaves are stacked in groups upon the scale. To accelerate the weighing process, sometimes boards are placed on top of the scale to allow the stacking of more sheaves each time. A scribe sits in the shade and records each weight in a notebook, the paper kind - not the electronic kind, as called out by the weigh master.

Sheaves that are not loaded directly onto the big trucks are transported by all other means - strapped to the backs of woman with sheaves almost as long as the women are tall, some women haul the sheaves in a woven bamboo basket strapped to their back with the large fluffy heads of the broom plant bouncing up and down above their head as they trudge along the road towards their destination. Some men carry sheaves balanced atop one of their shoulders. Children are also part of the migration of the harvest from the remote fields to a central gathering location.

Small farm wagons pulled by 5 HP diesel engines are sometimes used to transport the harvest from scattered locations along the road in the middle of nowhere to a tiny village closer to some where. Some larger Chinese olive drab farm trucks, powered by perhaps a 10 HP diesel engine and using fan belts instead of a metal drive shaft carry even larger loads.

We arrived in Xieng Kok and observed some workers offloading coconuts from a large river boat. Across the rapidly flowing Mekong River, we could see into Burma - a large mass of hills and dark green vegetation. Other than the swift current there appeared to be nothing to stop anyone from going into Burma (Myanmar) - if you wanted to or leaving Burma. I don't know what would happen if you got caught in Myanmar without proper documentation. This area was once a hot bed for opium cultivation and production going back to the days of French colonial rule. Opium poppies are still cultivated in the area but obstensibly to supply drug manufacturers literally and possibly figuratively in China. Myanmar is also recognized as a source of much of the amphetamines that find their way into Thailand. The Xieng Kok area is one of central points to smuggle the drugs into Laos on their way into Thailand. This could go part of the way in understanding the people's shyness at being photographed at the market.

The market was smaller than I anticipated, perhaps one acre total. The market did have just about anything for sale. It was very busy. Outside of the entrance to the market there were two tables set up with hand cranked machines that shaved blocks of ice that was served with various flavored syrups in small plastic bowls - Lao Snow Cones (Bowls?). The vendors were doing a landmark business. The twice a month market was an obvious treat for the children as well as the adults.

The women, mostly from the Akha minority, filled their woven bamboo baskets with their purchases. The baskets were worn on their back like a backpack but had a rope from each side of the basket bottom up to a wooden yoke on the woman's shoulders. The middle of the yoke was cut into a semicircle to allow clearance for the neck and to allow the yoke to rest fully as well as squarely upon the shoulders. A rope from each end of the yoke rose and was attached to either a cloth or braided band across the woman's forehead. What ever the mother or grandmother could not carry in this manner, their daughters carried in their basket. Girls, as young as 8 years old, were participating in market day in this manner. Quite often younger girls, 6 or 7 years old, were carrying their baby brother or sister in a sling over their shoulder resting against their hip. It seems that the shaved ice treat had to be earned. Childhood in the villages of Laos is a short term experience. Everyone has a contribution to make to the success of the family.

When we were about ready to leave, a man arrived with four cases of tangerines or mandarin oranges to sell. He was immediately surrounded by a horde of woman reminiscent of the film clips of the wedding dress sale at Macy's in NYC. I thought that fights would break out. The decibel level increased dramatically. I could see that every piece of fruit was being meticulously inspected, selected, and argued over. I focused my photography efforts on woman in particular. She had an attitude which was enhanced by the large wad of betel nut that she was chewing in her mouth - staining her mouth a deep red. Perhaps it is a masterful negotiation strategy - who wants to upset or argue with a woman who has a mouth full of red saliva and organic matter? In 15 minutes all the fruit was sold and the vendor was gone. There is no need to worry about shelf life at the Xieng Kok market.

Some of the young Akha ladies were looking at silver ornaments to wear on their hats, ears, or clothing. They also used their time at the market to socialize and catch up on gossip. I also saw some flirting between some young women and young men. It was an intensive 1-1/2 hours at the market. Jorgon and Helga were terrific travel companions. We enjoyed their companionship immensely. The 12 hours that we spent traveling in the van reinforced our initial impression of the "travelers" - They are definitely "Khun jai dai" - Nice people. People with good hearts.

Our long day was half over but there was plenty of additional adventures and encounters to write about - subjects of future blogs.

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