Friday, February 12, 2010

Laos - Day #4 Xieng Kok to Luang Namtha

Outside of Xieng Kok, we stopped at a Vat ("Wat" in Thailand. The young Monks were busy preparing the Vat (Temple) for the start of the three day festival commencing the next morning. They were putting a new coat of gold paint on the chedi. Upon climbing the long concrete stairway from the dirt road up to the Vat level, we came upon several Monks. The oldest Monk appeared to be 20 years old and the youngest Monks were approximately 9 years old.

Four Monks were standing upon bamboo scaffolding that surrounded one of the two chedis. Each of the Monks had a paint brush and a small plastic pail of of gold paint. As they busily painted the concrete surface of the chedi, the young Monks were busy chatting to each other as well as keeping an eye on the 3 falangs (foreigners) who had appeared in their sanctuary. Another Monk, about 8 years old, was painting a small statue at the corner of the chedi foundation.

Several other Monks were involved in mixing some more of the gold acrylic paint. They were pouring the vicious paint into a small plastic bucket and adding water to it to create a more spreadable mixture. Three young boys, who were not Monks but I suspect were related to some of the Monks, intently observed the mixing operation. Just as we observed in the Khmu village with the blacksmiths, there were plenty of people watching and giving morale support to the few that were actually working. The tradition of observing work is acquired and embraced at a young age.

When we first arrived at the Vat, the Monks were a little shy with us and definitely camera shy. Across the dirt road from the Vat, the Lao People's Army is building an outpost on top of a small hill. Loud music was blaring from within the "complex". In this communist state the music was not state martial music, or music extolling the virtues of the workers, or even music praising the universal brotherhood of the proletariat. They were broadcasting mahlam lao and mahlam sing songs - some of the exact tunes that are currently popular in Isaan and are played at every concert show. When my favorite song started playing, I showed the Monks some of my Isaan dance moves - much to their delight and amusement! After my "performance" the Monks were neither camera shy or leery of us - not even weary of us either.

Jorgon and I spent a great deal of time photographing the Monks painting the chedi. Helga and Duang, no doubt accustomed to our obsessions, did not seem to mind and patiently waited. At one end of this level of the Vat's grounds local women were erecting bamboo poles to form the framework to hang tarps to create booths for the upcoming festival. The booths most likely would sell local food specialties or just as likely some type of game of chance. Unlike Thailand, games of chance or rather "gambling" is legal. In fact upon crossing the border out of Thailand going into Laos, Thailand has posters advising people that if they lose their money gambling in Laos, the Thai government is unable to help them. Favorite games for all ages are throwing darts at balloons or tossing bamboo rings around the necks of empty beer bottles.

Back on Highway 17B, the dirt road back to Muang Sing, we stopped in an Akha village. We had spotted some women sitting outside in front of their home alongside of the road caring for children and babies. It was a scene composed of three generations - baby, mother, and grandmother with the women wearing traditional Akha clothing but also topless. As we approached, the grandmother came to us and was obviously demanding money to be photographed. My experience in Thailand, Vietnam, and on our previous trip to Laos, is that this behavior was typical of the Akha people. The opportunity for what could be some excellent photographs was too tempting to dismiss her demands. I thought that she wanted 5,000 Kip for "modeling fee" and I thought that it was a fair price. I paid her the 5,000 kip and there was immediate confusion - through our driver we found out that she actually wanted 50,000 Kip. I told her jokingly and very animatedly in Thai, which she understood, that for 50,000 Kip I would want to take photos of "nome falang yai, nome falang one - may ow nome Akha lek" (Big foreign breasts, fat foreign breasts not small Akha breasts). She started laughing and Duang as well as the driver were laughing like crazy. When it was translated for Jorgon and Helga, they laughed too. Duang told me that when we got back to the hotel I could take pictures of her breasts and pointed out they were bigger than the Akha grandmother's. We all laughed for a good long time as we continued down the road. This encounter was a topic of conversation for the remainder of our journey back to Luang Namtha as well as to this day. I suspect that the women were accustomed to being paid for being photographed but had never been rejected like that before.

Further down the road we came upon an extended family building a new home on the side of the road. The home was being built on the side of the road but their materials, equipment, and children blocked one-half of the narrow road. We spoke to the people, mainly the young husband who was Lanten. His wife is Akha and the house is being built in her village. As we found out later during our trip to Laos, new homes are typically "relocated" existing houses rather than "New" as in built from scratch houses. The houses are heavy timber framed structures using notched as well as mortise and tendon joints. The heavy investment in labor and I suspect the inability to easily or cheaply obtain similar heavy timber today necessitates recycling the houses. The man informed us, through Duang, that he does not say his wife's name and she does not say his name because if they were to, the person would die. Animist beliefs play a very large part of daily life in the minority peoples of Laos as well as in Isaan. He offered each of us a shot of the volatile locally made rice whiskey to show his hospitality and to wish us good luck on our trip. We gave him a few thousand Kip, but not 50,000 to express our gratitude. We happily continued down the bumpy road laughing about the Akha grandmother once again due to the hospitality of the Hmong husband.

We stopped at a Hmong village and I got out to photograph two little boys on a hill overlooking the road. The sun, as so often it seemed on this trip, was in the wrong location for effective photographs. While I ws in front of the van taking photographs, Duang started yelling at me from within the van. I walked back to see what the commotion was all about. I got to the open sliding van door to find Duang, Jorgon, Helga, and the driver, Mr Kompack all laughing like crazy. Duang pointed out to the top of the hill to the left of the boys I had been photographing and explained what was happening. On top of the hill was a little boy around three years old completely naked, dancing like crazy and shaking his backside at us. Duang said that this little boy had clothes on when we arrived but as I started to photograph the other boys, he took off his clothes and put on his "show". I have no idea why he did it but we all got a good laugh at this entertainment or act of defiance - such are the surprises along the back roads of Laos.

At one home alongside the road we saw a mother and 7 children all younger than 5 years old. The mother and 4 of the children were standing in what was essentially a large drainage ditch alongside the road. The mother was wearing her sarong pulled up to her arm pits and was wringing part of it dry with her hands. The four toddlers were completely naked and were enjoying their combination bath and playtime. This ended up being a familiar sight in Laos - people washing clothes, washing children, and washing themselves in whatever body or source of water was convenient.

We stopped at the Lanten village of Ban Pakha. The village was a bee hive of activity. People were preparing for the Lanten New Years Celebration on 31 January. Women were preparing home made sausage for the party. Outside of one of the homes, a woman was cooking meat in a very large wok. The wok was basically sitting on the ground - atop a mound of clay. The inside the clay mound had been dug out to form a fire pit. A fire of bamboo and some hardwoods had created a healthy amount of coals for cooking. Inside the home, past the women and children milling outside the door, another woman was stuffing pig's intestines with chopped up meat and other things. Banana leaves were spread upon the well compacted dirt floor to provide a large work place. While I was busy photographing the scene, Duang was engaged in conversation with the women and ended holding a very young baby. I was not allowed to hold the baby, but I did provide some entertainment to the women as well as children - they were fascinated with my hairy arms and once they overcame their initial reservations amused themselves patting, stroking, rubbing and pulling on my arm hair. I felt it was a very fair exchange for being able to photograph the village people.

The people invited us to return on the 31st to attend their New Year Celebration. I told them through Duang that we would seriously consider coming back.

Further along the dirt road we saw some people bathing in the river. The adults turned away from me when they saw me. I got quite a different reaction from the children. Although I had stayed a comfortable distance away from their bathing area, the children quickly descended upon me either by running or riding their bicycles. It was wonderful. They were curious and inquisitive. I had a great time photographing them and showing them their pictures on the camera's LCD monitor. It made the children even more excited and willing to be photographed. Up on the road, Duang, Jorgon and Helga were getting a kick out of the sight of me and the children interacting. I also saw two women walking along in the river upturning stones and rocks in their search for food. They were not as willing to be photographed but I managed to take a couple shots.

We arrived back at the guest house after dark and weary from a long and enjoyable day. As we climbed up the wood stairs into the reception area I heard a voice say "Well you made it back alright." I was surprised to see it was our friend Kees. Kees and I had met through the Internet. His wife had discovered my blog and photography site. She shared it with him. We corresponded by email and then Facebook. Kees and Dorothy visited our home late last year. It was from and through Kees that I became aware of the Luang Namtha area. He has taken many wonderful photographs in the area and participated in the development of tourism in the area. He had gotten a last minute email to photograph a wedding as part of ongoing tourism development for a government agency. Unfortunately, Dorothy was not able to accompany him on this trip. We ended up having a wonderful set dinner with him at the Boat Landing Restaurant. It was a treat to be able to visit with him so unexpectedly and to introduce him to Jorgon and Helga.

It was a very fitting conclusion to a very satisfying and full day.

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