In the second part of our journey we travel from Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang, via Nam Tha and the ‘Green triangle’ of the hill tribes.
We are pleased to leave Nong Khiaw where the cold has chilled us to the core and enforced emergency clothing purchases of several new layers, including a fine gold Chinese anorak for me. We travel on a rather comfortable river boat, compete with reclining airline seats and blankets! The early morning mist has given way to a cool sunshine and by the time we stop for a picnic lunch it is surprisingly warm.
The scenery is spectacular again, limestone karst on either side of the river, people fishing, home-made hydro-electric contraptions punctuating the rapids, and the occasional village. We stop in one where again they are master weavers, this time of silk and cotton. But we are out-woven by this stage, something I regret later!
Nearing Muang Khua, we pass several gold dredgers, all owned by Vietnamese, who are the dominant colonists here, with the border being so close. The town itself is relatively prosperous as a result.
The journey to Muang La, our two night haven of tranquility, marks the divide between the two colonising powers; to the NE it’s the Vietnamese, and from here on to the NW frontier, it’s China all the way.
The Chinese rent the fields after the rice harvest for second crops of pumpkin, water melon, sugar cane, lettuce, cabbage and green beans. The Lao work for $8 per day on their own fields which is a fortune by local standards. Everywhere we go we see villagers by the road with big sacks of local produce waiting for the pick-up by either middle-men or a truck.
Near Muang Sing we see huge rubber and banana plantations, completely changing the natural landscape. The rubber in particular has destroyed the indigenous forest as it is blanketed all over the once verdant hills, like an encroaching cancer. In Udom Xai we hear several people have died from the chemicals that they are forced to spray on the crops: the Lao, wisely, won’t touch the products they grow for the Chinese, even though the markets are full of them – which the invaders buy!
In these NW towns evidence of the new colonials is everywhere – from the huge trucks that destroy all the roads, the numerous beer gardens and guest houses built specially for them, the massive warehouses where they load up sugar cane, melon and broom-brush (used by the Chinese army to make uniforms and car seats, bizarrely) to the very visible opulence of the new mansions that dot the rice plains near the border and mushroom around Luang, where all the businesses appear to be Chinese-owned.
Even the minorities, the Akha, the Lan Ten and the Iu Mien all work for the Chinese now. It is desperately sad to see, but as Dao says, the Lao have a pragmatic approach, ‘They have money’ and the Lao are undoubtedly better off; indeed they welcome the new roads and the infrastructure that comes with such investment. The villages that are being removed for the vast Chinese-owned hydro scheme are not only being given hospitals, schools roads, houses, but are also being paid for three years. Perhaps the penny hasn’t dropped yet that once they lose their land they will be forced to find jobs. We hear that the Chinese will sponsor their people three times with business start-ups until they pull the investment….it’s the same in Africa. I doubt they will be so generous with the Lao once the dams are built.
It’s ironic that the Lao fought so bitterly to rid themselves from the French and now have lumbered themselves, again voluntarily, with new masters.
Muang La is simply divine after our first few cold and uncomfortable nights (see Flash-packing 1) – central heating and hot water bottles, braziers (or brassieres as the French manager called them) to warm you in the restaurant at night, Ginn Fizz and Lao Lao Mojitos, hot springs and soft beds. On our day off we have a long wander round the local Khamu village and enjoy a Lao massage.
But best of all the sun has come out!
While in Nam Tha we visit several minority villages. Only in the Lan Ten village are the women still wearing traditional dress – they are known for dying indigo and silver-work, I buy a traditional pair of earrings – whereas the Akha only dress up on market day and otherwise grub around in their rather dirty village, aside from the six old crones who haunt Nam Tha trying to sell Akha belts (I succumb out of pity). Dao says they are not as poor as they look, but we find the village a depressing place.
The Iu Mein, in a neighbouring village within walking distance, are quite different: two old ladies are all dressed up, but with a commercial intent. As soon as we were spotted out comes all their fine needlepoint.
But our outstanding experience is in a Tai Neua village where we come to see rice whiskey being made but stumble across a rare site: a shaman exorcising the village from its bad spirits. He is sitting by the central village stone, a sort of totem, where the spirits reside, reading his holy books, written in a sort of Sanskrit he says. The villagers have built a bamboo ceremonial platter where they are leaving offerings of food, flowers, money and candles.
Nearby sits the ‘puppet’ or medium, and a group of young monks, who join the shaman for some chanting. He tells us he is going to tie his holy string around the village perimeter, just like the Jewish tradition of Eruv. Levi Strauss was right about the universality of the human mind.
The mix of animism and Buddhism is prevalent here: the shaman had been a monk for many years, but is quite happy at resorting to traditional beliefs. Likewise Dao, our guide, tells us the the spirits don’t like points, so he always sleeps with a knife under his pillow, but he also carries a picture of the Buddha with him on his travels and bows three times before going to bed.
On the fifth anniversary of Louise’s death it is comforting to come across the shaman and be told that it is ‘good karma’ that we are here. We feel it, too, a sense of peacefulness despite the huge sadness that engulfs us on this day.
The vestiges of communism are still in evidence: in each town we are rudely awoken at 6 am by martial music and a hectoring sort of babbling: the local news and instructions we are told; I guess to encourage people to get up and go to work. We are also told that capitalism has made its presence felt big time, with corruption rampant in government; but when misdeeds are discovered, the miscreants are not punished, merely moved, rather like in the Catholic Church. These ‘nice Communists’ live in peace with each other, unlike many of their neighbours, but at a cost – no demonstrations or dissent allowed, and thus corruption has an easy ride.
And so to Luang Prabang, or Luang as the locals call it. Here we meet up with Cindy and Guy who have been travelling around Myanmar and Cambodia. The final blog will chronicle our time in this wonderful town.
Some random shots: