Alex Bramwell reflects on village and city life in South East Asia… Deep within the corridors of bureaucracy, the luminaries-on-high have awarded Luang Prabang its World Heritage badge for its mixture of French colonial architecture and living Buddhist culture. While not openly impressive, at least by European standards, the city has its charm, feeling not unlike a slice of Louisiana that has been accidentally dropped into Asia and then not repaired for the best part of fifty years.
At dawn, monks and novices, barefoot and clad in orange robes, walk in procession through the town receiving alms. It is a modest but unique spectacle that attracts a daily crowd of Falangs. The number of almsgivers is declining and judging by the advanced age of most of those that remain, the tradition seems doomed to fade away sooner rather than later. The town is papered with posters asking people not to use flash while photographing the processions. They don’t work!
We watch the monks walk solemnly through town, lit up like Oscar nominees. One western woman makes a stand, shouting at a shameless group flashing away at the monks. Indignantly, they move thirty yards down the line, snapping as they go. The Lao are being pushed down the seemingly unstoppable path towards cultural blandness, little incident by little incident.
We choose to travel the seven hours up the Mekong to Nong Khiaw by riverboat. This far up its course the river is a pretty, greenish little thing winding its way around Karst Limestone peaks. It is still a long way from becoming the Mighty Mekong of guidebook lore and war films. Nong Khiaw is a sleepy connection node where the only asphalt road in the area meets the river. We visit caves, guided by eight-year olds for a dollar each. Once they were used as air-raid shelters by now they are just unremarkable caves. The next day we trek to neighbouring minority villages giving out colourful books, printed by a charity in Luang Prabang, to the small children. All the children aged eleven or more are in school, two hours walk away. Everywhere we go there are crowds of children but almost no old people. On the trail we pass a few coconut palms and rows of foundation stones; all that is left of a village abandoned during the US bombing campaign.
Stopping for lunch in the shade of a teak plantation we have black sticky rice mixed with sweet coconut milk and cooked in bamboo. You peel back the bamboo covering and eat the rice like a banana. It makes a great hiking snack and is much tastier than trail mix. Lao food is delicious and so varied. River weed is a staple, either steamed or fried and there are dozens of variations on sticky rice and delicious dips. In Luang Prabang we found tiny live bats on sale next to giant frogs, smoked squirrels and grilled catfish. There is even porcupine!
As we walk along the narrow raised paths through the rice fields the harvest is well under way. It is all sticky rice in Laos, harvested by sickle and threshed by hand. Any excess rice is brewed into Lao Lao, a potent firewater that is surprisingly drinkable.
Nonetheless, the slash and burn agriculture still practiced by the hill tribes seems so destructive. We come across entire hillsides littered with charred tree trunks. We ask the guide why they don’t sell the wood from the forests they cut down. “Who would buy it?” he asks, waving a hand out over the empty landscape. There are water buffalos everywhere and they seem to be very well tended. Our guide tells us that the villagers treat them like a savings account, only selling them in times of hardship. One water buffalo is worth about five hundred dollars, about the same as an imported Chinese moped.
We move an hour upriver to Mong Noi, an unlikely backpacker hub miles from anywhere that seems almost prosperous. The main activity in the town seems to be organised trekking but we decide to walk out on our own to neighbouring villages. We follow a sign-posted trail out through the fields towards Banna Village, getting hopelessly lost. Arriving at the wrong village we have to choose between two identical restaurants, neither of which have anything at all except warm beer and fresh venison. Venison it is then! Somehow time seems to get stretched in Lao kitchens so it is almost an hour before we get bowls of venison noodle soup. Our host beams at us as we try to chew the tough meat and pick lead shot out of our teeth.
When we finally find it, Banna Village turns out to be the quintessential rural Lao village, complete with the odd shell casing and water buffalos penned under bamboo houses on stilts. What electricity there is stretches far enough to run a village television, blaring out Thai soap operas, and a few econosave 40 watt light bulbs.
Lao cockerels seem to think that dawn starts every ten minutes from midnight onwards, making sleeping in rural areas something of a challenge. Rising at the genuine dawn reveals the village shrouded in mist and the Lao clustered around fires, singeing the fur off an incredible range of wild animals. With rats, deer, giant rats, porcupines, squirrels, lorrises and civet cats all falling prey to the hunters’ antique guns, it looks like someone has invaded the zoo! One small child heads to school munching happily on a smoked rat wrapped in sticky rice. Our morning coffee is rich and delicious, smokey from the fire. It is far from a rural idyll though. One woman tells us that she has three children but has given birth eight times.
We trek away as the mist burns off the hills and the villagers carry 40kg sacks of rice along the narrow paths as if they were full of feathers. The afternoon before we discovered that the exchange rate among these jolly farmers is a shot of Lao Lao (local whiskey) for every Marlboro Light you hand out; something we wish we had known before distributing the better half of a pack. Back in Mong Noi we take the last of our books to children at the poor end of the village. As always, we don’t have enough and some of the children we photographed a couple of days before go without. Heartbreaking as it is to walk away we know that Lao kids are good at sharing. The Lao language doesn’t even have separate words for “yours” and “mine” and the concept of personal possession is a recent import.
Along the road back to Luang Prabang in the late afternoon, the schools empty their charges onto the streets. Every few hundred yards a small crowd of children, on foot or bicycle, makes its way home. So very many children! Where are they all going to live, what are they all going to do? Will they still get up at dawn to give alms to the monks? But that I suppose is Laos right now, a country with its future ahead of it, modest yet wonderful, with far more to lose than to gain. A great country, unless you happen to be a porcupine! Alex Bramwell