Friday, December 9, 2011
The one thing everybody should, and most people do, when in Laos is go trekking. I don’t just mean a little jaunt in the woods. I mean a proper 2-3 days hike through forests, waterfalls, banana plantations and into the daily life of two thirds of the country.
If there’s one thing that Laos has that’s unique to the world is its rural villages, which have remained largely unchanged throughout much of modern history. To get a good feel of the real Laos you’ve got to head out into the countryside on one of the many available treks. The makeup of these tours is similar: usually 2-3 days, beginning with light trekking, ending up in a rural village for the evenings, where you’ll likely sleep in homestays or a basic longhouse, be able to watch or partake in village activities and have local food. Most involve either a dance presentation or handicraft explanation and then you’ll be on your way again, hiking to waterfalls and up scenic hills. The choice of locations and tour operators, however, does have a significant impact on who benefits and how much.
In Laos, many of these treks have been developed as a way to help poor communities make supplementary income and increase their skill levels, with often a portion of your trek going into a village development fund. This is a great way to learn about the real Lao culture and enjoy yourself.
The south of Laos is well-known for its excellent Arabica coffee, and we started out with a coffee roasting demonstration, where we got to watch the coffee being heated and mixed on a rudimentary wood fire. A shot of lao lao, the local rice alcohol, and some sugar added to the roasting really gives the coffee a rich taste. They eagerly wanted us to taste the different types of coffees, which resulted in a caffeine rush that shot me through most of the morning hike. This started out with a visit to two waterfalls, a climb through thick secondary forest and over streams. Lunch was a great local assortment of sticky rice, Jaep,-the local chili dip, BBQ chicken and tasty dried pork.
Being the first tour group, our afternoon arrival to our sleeping village was greeted with as much fanfare as curiosity, and the gaze of 50 children never left us for the rest of our stay. This village has no electricity or running water, with all of its raised houses made of wood woven branches, it felt like you’d gone back in time. The bucolic scenes of this village felt almost too stereotypical to be true, and yet it is.
Two girls were busy threshing some rice; a boy was chasing chickens while a line of pantless toddlers watched us, wide-eyed. The villagers warmly welcomed us with a traditional baci ceremony, in which a series of white bracelets are tied to your wrist, with blessings and offerings made to welcome newcomers to the village. This was followed by the obligatory lao lao shots, and a copious dinner.
Bed time is early in a village with no lights, and so was the wakeup alarm, with villagers setting off towards their fields by 5am. After a 6:30 am breakfast we pack up and do the same, walking through sticky rice fields, up a hill with sweeping views of the region and a temple which sheltered refugees of the secret war. Gaining tidbits of local lore we stop at the wishing tree, where your wish will come true if you manage to hit a tree 20 meters away with a rock, and into a few small caves, one with over a hundred tiny Buddha statues molded from sap.
We returned to civilization dusty and tired, but feeling content for having experienced something which few others in the world have and in doing so, better understood the Lao people and their lives.
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