Monday, February 15, 2010

Laos Day #5 - A Day In Luang Namtha

After our full and exhausting day to Xieng Kok on Thursday, Duang and I decided to relax and "catch up" on Friday 29 January. Duang caught up on her sleep and I caught up on my journal.

While Duang slept, I had my breakfast and wrote in my journal. It is very easy to fall behind in maintaining a journal especially when there are so many interesting sights, and people to write about. Kees joined me prior to his departure to go on his photo assignment of the Lanten wedding. It had been a surprise as well as a pleasure to see him again in such wonderful surroundings.

Later in the morning, Duang and I attended the local festival. At 11:00 A.M. Jorgon and Helga drove us out to the Vat (Wat in Thailand) in their camper. We were somewhat disappointed. Just as we were surprised at the small size of the Luang Namtha Night Market, we were surprised at how small the festival was. We climbed the staiway from the dirt road up to That Phum Phuk (That Phoum Phoul) and were rewarded with some nice views of the Luang Namtha Valley.

During the Second Indochina War, the stupa of the Vat was toppled by a bomb blast which occurred during fighting between Communist troops and Royal Lao troops. The ruins of the toppled stupa now provide an interesting climbing experience for local children as well as many of the young Monks, who are often not much older than the village children. A replacement stupa was built alongside the ruins in 2003.

The festival consisted mainly of several small booths selling food, snacks, soft drinks, and beer. In the end of the festival furthest from the stupa was an area set up as a beer garden complete with a stage and powerful sound system. Unfortunately, we had arrived after the performance of local minority dances. There were several booths where anyone, children, Monks, as well as adults could throw three metal darts at air filled balloons placed within vertical wooden trays. If a person burst three balloons they won a small container of soy milk or some other type of soft drink. The booths were doing a very good business. Gambling is legal in Laos unlike in Thailand where it is banned. From this trip to Laos I can report that they start them young. Many times we saw 7 and 8 year olds trying their luck or rather testing their skill. Another common sight at the festival was a small child enjoying the simple pleasure of a helium balloon tethered to their hand.

After walking along the two aisles of booths three times, Duang and I sat down at one of the food booths. I ate some squid flavored potato chip type snacks while Duang had a plate of chicken feet to munch on. We shared what eventually became three bottles Beer Lao - the excellent Lao beer brewed in Vientiane. We sat listening to the mahlam lao and mahlam sing music blaring from the beer garden while we watched the world, or at least this small part of the world go by. After awhile 5 middle aged men strolled by and nodded "Hello". By their demeanor, haircuts, slacks, and cotton solid colored pastel shirts, I knew that they were government officials.

After a couple of hours we decided to return to the hotel. We passed two tables with plastic chairs under a canopy where the five men along with three officers of the Lao People's Army were enjoying themselves. Just past their location, as we approached the exit, Duang left me to go to the bathroom. As I stood waiting for her to return, one of the men came with a plastic chair and motioned for me to sit. Since it was already getting quite warm and my camera backpack was heavy, I gladly accepted his invitation. He left but quickly returned with a glass of Lao Lao, the very potent rice whiskey popular in Laos as well as Isaan. Having lived in Vietnam for awhile I was familiar with party and Party protocol - party etiquette and Communist Party etiquette. I accepted the offer and took my glass over to the table where the dignitaries were seated. I thanked them in Thai and toasted them in Lao to their shock and amazement. Fortunately a Lao toast is one of the few Lao terms that I know. By now Duang had joined us and she was treated to their hospitality - a glass with some Lao Lao. She spoke a little to the men explaining that I was from America and that I was visiting for one week. We thanked them and headed towards the gate. I then remembered about certain laws in Laos. Foreigners are not allowed to "fraternize", "be with" (as in the Biblical sense), or be intimate with Lao women. I suppose that such laws may also apply to relations with Lao men, but I never cared or researched that aspect. If a foreigner wants to marry a Lao woman, they have to apply and request permission from the Lao government. Duang is often mistaken for being Lao in our travels and I wanted to ensure that there were no misconceptions regarding our status or perhaps it was the effect of our beer and Lao Lao, so I returned to the dignitaries and explained in Thai and pantomime that they did not have to worry - Duang was Thai not Lao, we were married, and they did not have to take me to jail. We all had a big laugh and said good bye one last time.

We returned to our hotel and found that Mr Thone had brought his 11 month old daughter to the reception area. We spent some time playing with her and photographing her before returning to our cottage. After two hours of cleaning camera gear and writing in my journal I went for a walk.

Outside of the hotel in the gravel parking lot, local boys were having a cock fight. Cock fighting has deep and long traditions in Southeast Asia. It is not illegal here. This was the second cock fight that I had witnessed. I had watched my first fight in Tahsang Village. Unlike what I had read about cock fights the first fight as well as this one was not a bloody or fatal affair. In the first fight, the spurs on the roosters leg were taped to prevent them from being used as weapons. In Laos there were not any spurs on the rooster's legs. True to form, I found this fight to be as boring as the first one. In Laos the fight consisted of two twenty minute rounds. I had arrived towards the end of the second round. I don't know if it was actually at the end of twenty minutes or not, but it was obvious to me which rooster had won - the other one pretty much given up although both animals were tired from their jumping around and pecking. The boys mercifully declared the winner, grabbed each rooster, split into two groups and went their separate ways on bicycles. I continued on my walk.

I walked to the bridge, an Acrow type structure, spanning the Namtha River. I never made it all the way across the bridge. Down below my perch at the start of the bridge, a fisherman was cleaning off his throwing net on his way back home in the late afternoon. Across the river, women were busy washing laundry, and bathing in the shallow water below their village. Truckloads of farmers and harvested broom plant crossed the bridge on their way back to their villages. As the heavier vehicles crossed the bridge, the bridge bounced up and down from the moving loads. One of the smaller farm trucks, the 10 HP type, did not have enough power to cross the bridge so men were assisting it by pushing it up the slight rise towards the middle of the bridge. Bicyclists were a major part of the bridge traffic that afternoon. All this made for interesting photography and observation of daily village life in a remote rural area of Laos.

For a relaxing and a "catch up" day, Friday turned out to be another satisfying day. It had been another day of surprises and an opportunity to observe as well as learn about daily life in Laos - a beautiful land inhabited by extraordinary people.

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