Saturday, September 17, 2011

Journeying to Far-away Lands

One of my hopes in Laos was to leave behind streets, tuk-tuks, and voices, and find a place where life is quiet. I had heard about treks to tribal villages out of Muang Ngoi Neua, a small town only accessible by boat, and decided to make my way to the storied place with no automobiles or flushing toilets, and only limited electricity.

Muang Ngoi was first discovered for tourism by a French woman boating up the Mekong in 1988. At the time, her search for a hut to sleep in was met by adversarial faces, with every townsperson shutting their doors as she approached.

Their lack of welcome came from equal parts fear and anger. For nearly twelve years, the people of Muang Ngoi had been forced to live in small caves carved into the local mountains as wars destroyed their tiny village. The worst bombing came from 1968-1969 during the U.S. “Secret War,” when the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran through Laos was attacked mercilessly by B-52 bombers. Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country in the world, with more bombs dropped in the countryside during the Vietnam War than fell in World War II. As is the case in Cambodia (see post below), approximately one-third of these bombs did not detonate, continuing to contaminate the countryside with dangerous unexploded ordinances.

My guide in Muang Ngoi told me that his brothers and sisters were born in those caves. During a trek through the hills, he showed me the exact cool and damp space on the cave’s floor where his aunt, my host, was born.

Today, resentment has faded as the people of Muang Ngoi and nearby tribal villages understand the economic benefits of tourism. They now have several simple guesthouses and family-run restaurants that welcome travelers from the very countries that made them retreat into caves some forty years ago.

Just outside of Muang Ngoi, several small villages can be found where residents speak tribal languages, practice varying forms of animist religion, and make specialized handicrafts that are sold in a communal market in Muang Ngoi every ten days. I visited several of these villages during a day-long trek with my guide, Saan. I saw how men work a full day to weave two baskets that could sell for 20,000 kip each (about $2), while others labored to make simple knives that would sell for about the same amount. I witnessed how American and Russian-made bombs had been repurposed for their metal and were used to support huts, create drainage, and sharpen tools.

Life really is quiet in these villages—except for the roosters, chickens, and children. Along the banks of the creeks and river, puppies, chicks, ducklings, and infants all crawled along dirt paths. Fertility was in the air, from the rice paddy homes of buffalos to the village huts. There was something romantic about life in Muang Ngoi, which I decided came from sounds alone: the buzz of the generators for the few hours of electricity that came at night; the chirping of insects in the forest along the river; the sound of the river, the creeks, and the waterfalls.

My stay in Muang Ngoi was brief, but made rich by the reception of villagers, especially my guide Saan and his family. Saan welcomed me to his home for a buffalo barbeque and drinks (I ate vegetables and passed on the Lao Lao fermented rice wine), traditional rice soup for breakfast, and a glimpse at religious culture in the village. Saan had been a monk as an adolescent, and taught me the ins-and-outs of paying respects during a Theravada Buddhist festival.

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