Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Trekking in the NPA

Wow. what a mental couple of days. We're currently in Vietnam, but first I have to tell you about the 3-day trek we did in the Dong Phu Vieng National Protected Area (NPA), Laos.

We first heard about it in a great little booklet called 'Stay Another Day in Laos' which focuses on eco-tourism type activities, and getting down with the locals in Laos - what we love best. The focus of this trek was two Katang villages, where the people believe in the spirits and welcome guests to their village with a baci ceremony as an offering to the spirits. Since the trek is organised by the local tourist office, only runs twice a month, and is almost prohibitively expensive for backpackers (US$150 each), this seemed to be one of the few opportunities in Laos to see a real village, not a touristy one.

We tried to call the tourist office beforehand, and in typical Laos style no-one answered, but since the trek looked so interesting, we took a risk and got on a 8-hour bus from Vientiane to Savannakhet on the off chance that there would be a trek going the next day, and there was. Yes!

The day started with a 4 hour sawngthaew (local transport - a bit like a tuk-tuk but with 2 long benches) ride with some (lots) of locals - great fun! The people in Laos aren't that used to seeing tourists, and think we're hilarious (it's our pointy noses apparently; theirs are flat), so within minutes, we were giggling along with them, letting them try on Ben's ultra strong glasses, sharing cookies, and watching them eat bugs from sticks. Yum.

After a quick stop at the local market to buy lunch and conical hats (little did we know how useful they would be), we set off in another sawngthaew down a very dusty road into the NPA and ate a lunch of sticky rice and vegetables off the forest floor whilst the mosquitoes ate us. Although our guides did their best to accommodate our vegetarianism, Laos food is pretty yucky, and poor Ben had to soldier on through every meal just to keep his food down - I think it's the fishy smell that gets him.

Then after lunch, we walked 8km through dense forest, over rocks, and through fields of bamboo, and arrived at the first Katang village, Vong Si Keo, at about 4pm. The village children ran to greet us, and the whole village seemed genuinely happy that we were there, with our camera - they are all obsessed with digital cameras! The guides ask that tourists ask before taking a picture, and then only take pictures if they can promise to send a copy to the villagers. In a world with no mirrors, and few personal belongings, a photo is a big deal, and soon everyone was posing for photos (which involves pulling a stern face, and never smiling), and giggling at the results.

After the initial mayhem, we put the camera away, and went for a shower, at the village pump, in the middle of the village. Women have to dress modestly, which meant I wasn't allowed to wear a bikini, and had to shower with a sarong on, and an audience - not as easy as it looks. Luckily it was quite dark by then and everything went OK. Village life is great!

Then the baci ceremony! During this ceremony, head members of the villagers made offerings to the spirits, sang local songs, and blessed us whilst tying yellow threads round our wrists; then we all drank Lao Lao (paint stripper strong "whisky") and Ben and I sang "I'm forever blowing bubbles" and "You are my sunshine" to the claps of the villagers. Very surreal.

We retired early, and slept like babies - helped along by the Lao Lao and our aching legs. If only we'd known how difficult the next day was going to be.

It was hell. We set off at for an 18km trek in the sweltering heat. No joke, it was 35 degrees outside! After marching through the first 8km, I stumbled one too many times, and started crying, snotting out "I'm too hot!" Oh dear. Bit embarrassing, but it just all got too much, and even the guides were struggling. It was really hot, and I was seriously worried about our health - since the guides only supplied us with 2 litres of water each - definitely not enough. Anyway, after the initial shock, we took it a bit easier, soldiered on through the other 10km and made it to Yang village, dreaming about our promised swim in the Xe Bang Hieng river. Bliss!

The river was a joy. Ben said he felt reborn, and I dropped the wet sarong I was trying to get dressed underneath, and showed a local boy my muff! Oops! Here's Ben washing our clothes in the river:

We loved Yang village. The family we stayed with were a joy. We arrived to the sight of the little girl ripping the wings from a live cicada (a flying bug) and eating it. Whoah! There were 5 children in the family, who were all really inquisitive, and delighted that we let them use our camera to take pictures of each other, which they did for about an hour.

After dinner there was an enormous rain storm, and the men of the village spent all night collecting frogs. We woke to the sound of a bag of croaking frogs on the veranda, and looked on as the villagers rejoiced. These 2 girls were very happy with their new pets - not sure the puffed up frogs are so happy though...

Anyway, then it was time to say goodbye to the villagers, and goodbye to Laos. Ben and I both feel a great connection to Laos and really grateful to the Laos people for being so warm and generous. We had some amazing times there. Thanks Laos, we'll miss you. Here's Debs crying at the Laos/ Vietnam border. Bring on the noise!


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