Saturday, March 19, 2011

Entry 14: Lao Riverboat Trip

With a one-minute long ferryboat ride across the River Styx, I mean Mekong River we traded the paradise which is Thailand to experience what the Lonely Planet travel book writer refers to as the "real" Hell, I mean "real" Laos.

The "real" Laos which the obviously female writer, judging by her "Eat, Pray, Love" prose style refers to is that 75% of Laos live in small countryside villages. By the way, Laos is pronounced "Lao" without the "s" by every local in SE Asia and a national is called a "Lao". Further confusing the issue, Lao-American females now refer to themselves as "Laotians", which shouldn't be confused with those mermaids that come from a country in the middle of the Ocean, but like other Lao place names have been "French-ified" to impress upon others that Laos is somehow culturally French, as France did take the time to shit on this country for a number of years. Sorry for regressing, back to the "real" Laos. Even though the majority of Laos live in simple villages, even the most remote villages, (accessible only by river boat, then several days journey by foot through the mountains) are far from "real". The ecosystem has been devastated by Laos cultures which no longer share a symbiotic relationship with the forests or rivers and the chemical warfare in the form of agent orange waged by the USA continues to poison the land that isn't a cratered out, bare bomb scar.

Since the time the Laos communists beat the Americans at their war game, the lowland (valley farmer) Laos gained government control and have nearly purged or converted all other tribes to their way and created brainwashing policies that gives one the impression that Laos are autonomas. Now with tourism booming the lowland Laos are doing everything possible to promote ethnic minorities, following Thailand's lead and creating artificial multi-ethnic villages where only one group of tourists, properly controlled and pre-paid is allowed to visit at a time, ensuring each group will experience the "real" Laos.

As part of the lowland Laos repressive regime, they prohibit foreigners from dating their women (although there are no such restrictions enforced on Laos males, should ever one get so lucky) claiming that it erodes their culture. Frankly, I don't think it is the charm-less, lowland culture foreigners come to experience with its recent, terrible history of ethnic purging and how could this excuse hold sway when their neighbor, Thailand has preserved the most open, beautiful culture in SE Asia, if not the world without repression of their females.

Once arriving on the Laos side of the river "the trail" suddenly became thick with tourists. Don't get me wrong, I have no problems with sharing anything with others, especially like-minded adventures like myself, but the trappings that sometimes come with tourists is what is disagreeable.

The Laos are friendly enough as long as you pay their fixed and higher tourist-only prices, otherwise you are nearly invisible, they have perfected the art of blocking foreigners out of plain sight. We took a 2-day boat ride, which should have been just one day long, but the Laos "insist" that you stay in their specially prepared tourist guesthouse village for the night.

Scenery of river life from the slow boat was fantastic, by far the best part of the Laos trip so far, however there was no option to stop and interact with any of it.

In the afternoon of the second day down the Mekong River we arrived in Luang Provang, highly recommended by the Lonely Planet author, who has me convinced she is also in on the nearly inescapable, Laos plan to scam tourists at every turn. The night market had nothing but fake handicrafts and cloth manufactured in China and completely controlled by probably one Chinese individual,

a village marketed as "genuine" with a bamboo bridge erected by a single family indicated by a sign posted in English and tourist toll to cross, guesthouse on top of guesthouse, inner tube rides on the river, tuk tuk ride to waterfall with price fixing everywhere. Amazingly, tourists seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely as long as their Beerlao (which is unaffordable to 99% of Laos people) was served cold and they could eat their chocolate crepes and banana pancakes in view of the river. In my previous trip to Laos in 2004, I had the same experience. The normally accurate Lonely Planet guidebook misguided me to a so called river paradise which ended up being a destination for lazy Euro- and Israeli hippies smoking and getting served drinks by uninterested Laos all day while lounging on their bungalow hammocks. One day there was enough for me to throw all caution to the wind and head deep into the mountains by foot where I was met by a gang of poachers who put guns in my back, bullets in the chamber and led me to a makeshift bungalow prison where I spent the night with a cellmate that had the most horrible cough I've ever heard and was surprised to see him alive the next morning. Since I made it out alive to visit Laos once again, I wanted to be sure this time around our great escape from the tourist trail we hatch has a much lower probability of trouble.

We joined a tourist boat headed north up a tributary, Nam Ou of the Mekong to a town called, Nong Khiaw set in a dramatic valley of sharp limestone cliffs, some too steep for loggers to access, supporting small microcosms of old growth forests with giant trees visible on the cliff faces.

We packed only our essential gear, hammocks, fish rods, sleeping bags, kettle, etc and left our unessential gear, computer, mosquito net, etc at a guesthouse and traveled via two buses all day to the next, upstream access of the river which has a ferry boat crossing. The following day we boarded a public motorboat devoid of another tourist for the first time since coming to Laos.

We motored 25 km upriver to a tiny village, where we then hiked four hours up a steep mountainside trail to a Khamu village.

Only after the villagers thought we were asleep did we sneak out of bed to the shadows of firelight where we were treated to a gathering of new mothers with babies sleeping on their backs. Just as women everywhere else in the world, they were chatting up the day's gossip, but instead of over a Starbuck's were spinning thread from raw cotton by throwing a top to the ground, spitting on it and then picking it up again after it lost its momentum.

We generally don't think of humans specializing to their environment as other animals do and as we once did since we are now nearly all homogenized. However, just as you would never find a muskrat living on the summit of a mountain, traditionally you would never find a Khamu living riverside. The many tribes (over several hundred) throughout the Mekong Region are classified first according to elevation by which their culture adapted. Generally, the higher the elevation the more nomadic/hunting-based the tribe, whereas the valleys have been inhabited by farming cultures for the past few thousands years. The difference in the people separated by a few thousand feet elevation and only several kilometers distance by foot is immense, much greater than say an Irish Christian is from an Iraqi Muslim.

This was Sony's first experience to have an entire village gather around you to stare at your every movement, no mater how mundane.

Early the next morning, as the people rise before sunrise we hiked back down to the river village. We showered at the public faucet with the constant stares of villagers and for the next few days enjoyed village life in general, especially after the staring got boring for them. Naked kids playing almost all the time, girls who just entered puberty standing around together in a sort of limbo, too old to get naked and play and too young to be impregnated, their counterparts, testosterone-filled boys acting out their sexual frustration and aggression by shooting with rifles any pathetic game within sight (with over-hunting, not a song bird to be heard within miles and the only game we saw on the menu were rats), preggos nursing while multi-tasking in the village or while working the fields, their men lounging or fishing all day having the lives of an American sportsman on constant vacation and the elderly weaving baskets or brewing up Lao Lao, an illegal rice whiskey.

As the village didn't have the small-sized canoe we were looking for to paddle down the river, only larger boats fitted with motors, the next day we attempted to see if we could find a small boat by hiking upriver. After hiking a few hours, the riverside trail became overgrown and impassible so we gave up on the idea to find a canoe and hiked up a trail following a small drainage instead. The pretty stream we followed for the next hour wound up a side valley, past a few waterfalls and as we rounded a bend a recently cut valley planted with flowers came into view. I knew in a heartbeat we had stumbled across a field of opium poppies, once an important part of the people's culture, now illegal.

We only stayed long enough to take a few photos and turned back as I didn't want Laos-trouble from some protective farmers. Safely back at the village we negotiated the next day with a nice, elderly bootlegging couple for their boat which we bought for 700,000 kip ($85) after the old man removed the motor and propeller. The boat was beautifully shaped and painted, hand-made, sealed with tree sap with no leaks but much heavier than a small canoe, no chance we would be able to portage.

Some nights we hung our hammocks within a village, other nights we camped alone along the river, high up enough on the bank not to be confused with bewildered game hunted with spotlights shinning from boats at night.

Each hot afternoon we would dock village-side, play with kids, bathe in a cool water source used by the village and walk around. Getting to accustomed to village life was especially enjoyable.

The locals only fish with nets and exert immensely, ridiculous fishing pressure ensuring nearly no fish reaches adulthood. Catches are pathetically small and only carp (would be a disgrace for previous generations of fishermen), as the river no longer supports many, if any predator fish. I only care about fishing for predators, so didn't expect to have any fishing luck at all. I was shocked when I caught big carp on a rapala, unheard of elsewhere in the world. Carp are sluggish, lazy bottom feeders that are not known to chase down and attack other minnows that a rapala mimics. Maybe with the depletion of predator species, some carp have learned to exploit this vacated niche. Anyway, the villagers were shocked at the size of fish we were hauling into the village and gifting to elderly men. We gained instant street credibility and access to all fertile women, almost.

Villagers were surprised and very interested to see us. They always offered the best sleeping spots in their homes and were all very friendly, especially kids who seemed at times to be the only inhabitants, as there were so many of them. Village life starts an hour or two before sunrise as the women prepare breakfast. By sunrise everyone has eaten and is off on their task-of-the-day. If the village has a school, children go there until 11 am then run as fast as possible and jump in the river. Everyone loves helping each other and within the course of a day we saw at least seven different people holding the same infant as the mother was busy outside the village somewhere.

While sitting drinking coffee in a village, Sony asked me why countries such as Japan and China developed and Laos did not. I answered that the countries that developed come from slave cultures, such as our own in the west. You can't have pyramids, great walls or Wal-Mart super centers without enslaving the majority of people; were the Library of Alexandria and Atlantis exceptions? By contrast our predecessor tribes such as the one we are visiting are communal-based cultures. There are no slaves as no one has economic status, everything is shared. Within our sight is a rice bank in the town center that is communally owned.

The next 7 days journey downriver rowing the heavy, barely maneuverable boat was glorious and trouble free. We paddled through the largest rapids on the stretch (only Class II+) with only a few splashes entering the boat and no portages required. At a minimum we would have been constantly swamped in a canoe, overturned a few times and at worst maybe caught up in the ubiquitous fishing nets and drowned.

The section of river we floated is not too far off the tourist route as tourists are motored the entire 150 km distance from one road crossing destination to the next, but far enough off the tourist radar since no one stops anywhere in between, except for one notorious tourist trap village described by the Lonely Planet as being better off because of tourists and ìquaintî. The village, however is a strip of rip-off tourist guest houses, unfriendly owners (many from some other big Lao city) and the base of operations for a vigilant police force taking orders from the Lao government tourist bureau to make sure that everything from boat travel on the river to guesthouses to village visits are controlled and proper payment is made to their cartel. This police force would later apprehend us in a weeks time, tipped off by the boat operators plying tourists up the river.

A Westerner too easily mistakes what I refer to as communal for Communism, but there is no difference in the way Communist and Capitalist systems operate, they both have identical goals to preserve the status quo of a few elite, only the rhetoric differs. A communal society or the real meaning of "community" as we like to refer to our most intimate form of governance is a place where wealth is not hoarded, nor status the goal of the individual. "Keeping up with the Jones' " is the motto of our society. I even received a lashing from Frankie, my 6-year old nephew for being "old school", how does a 6-year old even know that phrase? Frankie doesn't think my computer and software is the right kind as it doesn't have an Apple on it. Rather than being communities, we live in constant competition with the other members of our super-tribe, neighbor pitted against neighbor. The most "communal" of our institutions is the public school system; however it is within these "hallowed" halls students are breed for status. In my day it was who could afford a shoe with a Nike stripe, shirt with a patch of an alligator or jeans with a little red tag on the ass. Today it's the identical game played out I imagine with cell phones and I-crap. By the way Frankie, when you are old enough to read this the reason I don't use Apple computers is that the premium Apple charges is not worth the marginal quality difference or operating system advantage and they can't run engineering software.

In the tribe there may be a superior hunter that brings back the most game, but his happiness is sharing his gift with all the others. Another social disease we have contracted from our super-tribe has to do with our persistence to live for some future ideal, whether in terms of happiness or success. Because tribal people find contentment in the present, just as things are there is no need to change or develop. Walking across the hardpan clay street to sit in the shade of a hut I thought with relatively, very little effort the tribe could level their only street and surface it with flat stones from the river not only giving the town a prettier look, but with the useful function of keeping feet and thus houses cleaner. However, as I looked around again at how content, man next to me mending his fishing net, women chatting, kids playing seemed to be to leave things just as they have been for a millennia, maybe it's me that needs to do some changing (as if any of us has the ability to change)? Anyway, I know there lies some happy medium between a muddy road that hasn't been fixed in a 1,000 years and living where the only "community" institution available to me is a YMCA that costs twice as much as a private 24-hour fitness membership.

On the 7th day of rowing and what would be our final day on the river, I caught the wind of trouble as I noticed out of the corner of my eye an unfriendly looking 2-man crew boating with no cargo or fishing gear. That evening we arrived at the only river village deemed tourist destination, located just one day upriver from where we left our gear. I took the precaution of docking our boat upstream and out of sight of the town's pier and we walked in like other tourists. Compared to what we had experienced for the last week, the vibe was horrible we were back in the "real" Laos, touts and lounging tourists. I took note of a police station and we headed back to our boat with the intention of taking off. As I approached the river I noticed two men, one in our boat rowing and the other on the shore in pursuit. I thought, what luck at last I caught thieves red-handed stealing from me and I ran down the beach to greet them with a big show of intimidation. I grab the boat rope off one guy and went into the river (camera got dunked and is now useless) and scared off the other guy. By this time tourist boat operators started coming over and I thought I would have their support. Someone said the word, "police" so I thought great, let's all go to the police who will obviously side with me since I was the boat owner and these other men were trying to steal my boat. As I entered the police station with Sony, the men who I thought were the thieves, took off their shirts and put on police uniforms. At that point, I was happy I was in a tourist town with lots of witnesses; otherwise I think the now infuriated policeman that I pushed down on the beach would have shoved a hot poker up my butt. Anyway, I knew there was no chance we could get our boat back, but Sony with American righteousness tried unsuccessfully to argue with them. I looked each one of them in the eye and gave them my best Thai prayer sign telling them I hoped they felt good inside and left. We were required to stay there in a tourist guesthouse for the night and caught the first boat out of town in the morning with no further incident, even though we got an official visit at dinner that night. With our boat tour over and Lao aftertaste in our mouths we reunited with the gear we left in the downstream town and headed for the Chinese border as fast as possible.


  1. Miss you so much. This is awesome. Are you safe? Love your sister

  2. Amazing trip! Lively blog! Keep us posted! Heart, Rosalee