Ban Sop Jam and our time with Mr Mang

Many of us come to Laos asking for a visit to a “real” village. Pursuing the vision we have of the local ethnic village unaffected by tourism and time. The longer I stay here the more my opinion of what the “real” village is has changed. They are all real, except for the few built for tourists, full of poor people trying to make enough money to survive and many times trying to provide a better quality of life for their children.
When we tourists visit the villages we usually only stay for a short time; a few hours, a day. For our visit to Ban Sop Jam we chose to stay a little longer. Perhaps it was staying a little longer or perhaps it was warmth of the people themselves but I feel that I have had a glimpse into both the happiness and the difficulty of their daily lives.

We have returned to Nong Khiaw for our 5th time since 2008. We arrive with smiles and happy hearts as if we are coming home. The town has not changed much since last year and we stopped by to see some of our friends.

Little Village Nong Khiaw

Looking down on Nong Khiaw

Nick at Mandala Ou has been doing well with his new resort and he deserves it (see blog post Leaving Luang Prabang). He worked hard to create such a beautiful place and his location is excellent. We stopped by to see our friends at Vongmany and also to see our little black cat who we rescued last year. The owner told us she is big and fat now. A happy member of the Vongmany family (see blog post Now this seems familiar – Nong Khiaw) although we did not see her at the restaurant.

Famous view from the Nong Khiaw Bridge

Famous view from the Nong Khiaw Bridge

We decided to stay at a different guesthouse this year called Nam Ou River Lodge. It has a good location on the Nam Ou with simple clean rooms and a large shared balcony for 80,000 kip in this season. The owners name is Mr Mang, an energetic young man with a wife and two children. We talked with him about possible things to do during our stay and Mr Mang offered a boat ride to his home village called Ban Sop Jam. We love our boat rides, especially up the Nam Ou, (see blog post Up the river to Hat Sa) and we had heard about this village before so we were happy to go.

On a typically misty morning we started up the river with Mr Mang and our boat driver the ever enigmatic Mr Lah.

A slow boat heading up the river from Nong Khiaw

A slow boat heading up the river from Nong Khiaw

Ever enigmatic Mr Lah

Ever enigmatic Mr Lah

It was a short ride for us, compared to the others last year, and we relaxed in our unusually comfortable seats as we watched pristine limestone mountains and thick jungle pass by.

About a 1/2 hour past the backpacker hangout village called Muang Noi we arrived at Ban Sop Jam. This small village of 65 families is nestled up against a perfect limestone mountain backdrop. The village streets were clean and the children followed us happily as we took a quick look around.

Village is against this large limestone mountain

Village is against this large limestone mountain

Village called Ban Sop Jam and the home of Mr Mang

Village called Ban Sop Jam and the home of Mr Mang

Wandering around the village with the local kids

Wandering around the village with the local kids

Village House

Village House against that limestone backdrop

It is rice harvest season now and most village people are working and living in the rice fields during this time. We dropped our bags off at Yan’s house (sister of Mr Mang) and headed back to the river. Our plan was to cross the river and hike up to the rice fields for the day.

The trail to the rice fields

The trail to the rice fields

The hike to the rice fields was an easy one, about an hour and a 1/2 long, and mostly flat. The trail took us along the edge of tall cliffs and next to the dense jungle growing against them. As we walked along we could see caves and openings in the limestone above us. Mr Mang told us that the older people in the village still remember the days when the United Staes bombers used to fly low through this valley. It was heavily bombed as it was a path to the Vietcong. The villagers used to hide in the caves and had to manage the rice fields at night in order to avoid being seen by the bombers. In the jungle to our left remain many unexploded ordinance (UXO) from that time. The locals do not make the rice fields now in that part of the jungle. The rice fields that are currently being cultivated have been cleaned by the UXO organization of Laos. Mr Mang said that they came with metal detectors and where ever they found a bomb they detonated it. It seemed surreal to know that we were passing so close to the horrific remains of that war and that the local people still live with them on a daily basis.

Cliffs and UXO filled jungle

Cliffs and UXO filled jungle

Eventually we turned a corner and caught our first look at the wide open valley and the rice fields that covered it.

Wide open spaces

Wide open spaces

There are small bamboo houses built on stilts here and there. The local people live in them during rice harvest season. We were greeted by Yan and the other people working the fields. All smiles and giggles as Michel tried his hand at cutting the rice and took pictures of them. Some of the men headed off to a nearby pond where they planned to catch our lunch. I wandered over and quietly watched them as they dove around in the water most often coming out with a live fish in their hands. Yummy, fresh fish.

Hut were we met the local people

Hut where we met the local people

Working underneath the hut

Working underneath the hut

Woman who wears her "Sunday cloths" to greet us

Woman who wears her “Sunday cloths” to greet us

Michel cutting rice

Michel cutting rice

Mr Mang and Mr Lah cooked our lunch for us. Some of our fish was cooked in a soup and some barbecued. The fire was started with bamboo wood and dried leaves that were laying around. Fresh bamboo was cut and used to hold the barbecued fish over the fire. Mang wandered through the nearby jungle and gathered wild coriander, wild peppers, and another leaf that is slightly bitter to season the soup. Add a little bit of salt and you have fantastic tasting soup!

Tom Yum - Fish Soup

Tom Yum – Fish Soup

Lovely Fish for lunch

Lovely Fish for lunch

Mang’s father taught him which herbs to cook with and which herbs are for medicine. He knows what herbs to use for a snake bite and to go and find red ants to put on the wound to kill the poison. I am starting see that the local people are very close to nature. They have a relationship with it that is beyond a typical falangs (tourists) ability to understand. Mang’s family has lived in this village for generations and finally moved away to Nong Khiaw when he was 10. He clearly finds great joy in returning to his roots as he tells us this is his favorite way to cook. Wild food out of the jungle or fish from the pond and river.

Left to right: Mr Lah, Michel, and Mr Mang

Left to right: Mr Lah, Michel, and Mr Mang

As I sit with the women one of the girls signs to me how hot and tired she is. She shows me that they work and then nap and then work again. They are all very strong and fit but this is not easy work. After lunch we followed the locals into the fields and watched them harvest the rice.

Following the locals into the fields

Following the locals into the fields

two menu preparing to work

two men preparing to work

Women working in the fields

Women working in the fields

The rice is planted before the rainy season begins in June. Now that it is ready everyone helps each other as they cut and gather the rice. The process for cutting the rice include proper clothing; leggings to protect your ankles from being cut by the rice, a hat usually made of woven bamboo which protects from the sun, and a sharp curved knife for cutting the rice.

The workers cross the field together, cutting 4 handfuls of rice stalks and then dropping the rice in an organized pile behind them. The rice will dry for four days and then be gathered and stacked into stupa or haystack shapes in the field.

Cutting the rice

Cutting the rice

Man setting up a scarecrow

Man setting up a scarecrow

Working together to cut the rice

Working together to cut the rice

Standing in water cutting the rice

Standing in water cutting the rice

The stupa stacks of rice are used to provide easy access to the rice later when it must be beaten and the grains of rice removed. The stupa shape is also used to measure the quantity of rice harvested compared to last year. After the rice has been beaten and the grains separated from the stalks it will be loaded into 80lbs/40kilo bags and carried back down the trail.

This man gathers and stacks the rice

This man gathers and stacks the rice

Man on his rice stupa

Man on his rice stupa

The sun was heading down toward the horizon but the workers continued their harvest as Michel and I head back toward the village with Mr Mang and Mr Lah.

As we walked back to the boat we encountered different people and a few water buffalo along the trail.

We met this hunter on the trail.  We later learned he is a wonderful singer

We met this hunter on the trail. We later learned he is also a local singer

We followed this woman back down the path toward the river

We followed this woman back down the path toward the river

She signed to us that she had a headache after carrying the heavy load

She signed to us that she had a headache after carrying the heavy load

Carefully coming down the slipper path to the river

Carefully coming down the slippery path to the river

After we arrived at the village I opted for a quick bath. This normally means wearing your sarong and using water from the faucet in the center of town. I did not bring a proper sarong with me on this trip (bad planning) so I wore a my long shirt and shorts for bathing. Even with the shared bathing facilities there is not any public nudity in normal village life. The cool water felt great after the heat and dirt of the day.

Village houses

Village houses

The women of the village all weave silk scarves and they were eager to sell them to us as we walked around the Main Street. We did buy a few before leaving town wanting to leave a little money for the local folk. There is so much poverty here.
The small children do go to a primary school and the lucky ones may get to go to secondary school in Nong Khiaw where they live during the school year. The very lucky may receive some higher education in Luang Prabang, but not many.

Scarves woven in the river displayed in the village.  They appeared afer we arrived

Silk scarves woven and displayed in the village. They appeared afer we arrived

Children peeking out from behind the scarves

Children peeking out from behind the scarves

We spent the evening in Yan’s little house eating a delicious chicken dinner with sticky rice and vegetable soup. Yan was very kind to us during our stay. She had worked very hard in the rice fields all day and would not have come back to the village except that we were visiting. She was in pain that night and signed she had a headache during dinner.

A woman cooking dinner near out hut

A woman cooking her dinner behind her house in the street

Dinner prepartions in our hut

Dinner preparations in our hut

Kitchen in Yan's house

Kitchen in Yan’s house

The chief of the village ate with us and a few other friends of Mr Mang who came home from the fields just to spend the evening with us. Lots of Beer Lao and laughter around the table. The chief is voted for by the village people and respected by all who attend. It is an important event for us to dine with him.

The cheif (left) and his friends at dinner

The chief (left) and his friends at dinner

There is no real electricity just a small generator which provides enough power for simple lights. No television, although we did see a group of kids around a small net book enjoying some kind of electronic entertainment.

Kids and electronic entertainment

Kids and electronic entertainment

Most of the kids played in the dark street well into the night, turning cartwheels and playing games. The adults were tired after their day in the fields…although the local men found the energy to go hunting after dinner and finally went to bed around 2am.

A little entertainment after dinner

A little entertainment after dinner, lighting by Michel’s led flashlight

We slept upstairs in a shared bedroom with Mr Mang and Mr Lah. We all slept on floor matts with nice blankets and a mosquito net. It was comfortable enough but more like camping out than a real bed, we were up early the next morning.

Inside Yan's house - we sleep upstairs

Inside Yan’s house – we sleep upstairs

We found a man down the street who sold us a cup of strong Laos coffee with sweet milk and I spent the morning talking to him about his memories of the war. He was old enough to remember hiding in the caves and the bombers passing over head. Hard times for him and his family who lived on the other side of the river until a big flood came and forced them to move into this village.

These women are in their 80s.

These women are in their 80s.

The village is a mix of Laos and Khmu ethnic groups and has grown from 10 families to 65 with the Khmu, who came from the nearby hills and are more recent, living in smaller homes off the Main Street.

Young girl building a pen for the pigs

Young girl building a pen for the pigs

Michel went exploring and found this man building a canoe. The man started with a tree trunk, cut this wood, and will build the boat from scratch using rustic tools.

Man building a canoe near the village

Man building a canoe near the village

Using rustic tools for building

Using rustic tools for building

Nice big canoe for the river

Nice big canoe for the river

After a morning around the village we packed up and went back down to the river. My feeling as we left the village was of what a difficult life these people live. There is beauty in it too as they are a strong community and take care of each other. So many of the opportunities that we take for granted are not available to them. During some of our signing conversations with the women we learned they all try to have five children. When sickness comes some of those children may die. Only one or two of them may go to school in Nong Khiaw, the ability to perform some math and some reading being as much education as most will receive. We falang may arrive and spend a few dollars in their village and it can have a real affect on the quality their lives.

We took the boat a little bit down the river and started our second hike. It was a tough one as we had to climb over a jungle covered mountain to the valley full of rice fields on the other side. The local people hike this path frequently.

A real jungle hike including leeches

A real jungle hike including leeches

Pulling myself up that slippery hill!

Pulling myself up that slippery hill!

The jungle was thick and damp. I had to pull myself up many of the rocky ledges. The boys, including Michel, could have hiked the whole trail without resting but I did request one rest near the top. While we rested Michel and I pulled the leeches out of our skin that had attached themselves on the way up. Ugh!

More amazing open spaces after our hike

More amazing open spaces after our hike

After a hike down the other side of the mountain we arrived in another valley full of rice fields.

Harvesting Rice in the fields

Harvesting Rice in the fields

The workers came in from the rice fields to have lunch with us. Some of Mr Mang’s friends were working there along with his father in law.

Workers are coming back from the fields for a little lunch

Workers are coming back from the fields for a little lunch

We had a large lunch where they served some sort of mountain cat they had killed the day before. Along with the usual rice and vegetable soup there was bamboo rat and wild bird. We tried a little bit of the mountain cat to be polite but focused mainly on the rice and soup. Normally we are up for trying any kind of food but a friend had warned us of a bacteria that has recently been found in the rodent wild food and we opted for caution. During lunch the local Lao Lao (homemade alcohol) appeared along with Beer Lao. The local men were celebrating their visit together and having fun!

The snake that Michel encountered near a hut…

The snake that Michel encountered near a hut, poisonous and not quite dead yet

Whenever there are snakes around they usually find Michel and today was no exception. We met two on the trail and the one in the picture above near our lunch! No doubt some of them were poisonous. Michel killed the last one with a bamboo stick. The locals love to make snake soup too.

We stayed a little while and visited with everyone until they had to go back to work in the fields.

Woman poses for Michel with her child

Woman poses for Michel with her child

The heavy bags of rice that are made during the harvest must be carried back over the mountain and down to the river. There are no sick days, no excuses to avoid the hard work. Everyone must perform their part of the labor in order to take care of the village and the rice.

Heavy bags of rice must be hand carried back

Heavy bags of rice, hut is for storing rice with posts on rocks

I felt so much respect for the hard work required just to serve us our daily rice here in the village. Jungle hikes, wild animals, snakes, leeches, all part of everyday life. All part of a timeless process that has been going on here in the same way for generations.

Saying goodbye to our rice fields before we head down the trail

Saying goodbye to our rice fields before we head down the trail

Heading back down the trail

Heading back down the trail

End of our adventure

End of our adventure

Our trip to Bon Sop Jam will be our last visit to a remote village in Laos before we slowly begin the two month trek back to the United States and our comfortable home. It has brought us closer to what it means to live in a village. We falang romanticize village life but the reality is not so easy.

I also finally had a sense of what it takes to live each day. The food must be killed before it can be prepared. The firewood gathered before it can be cooked. The herbs and seasoning retrieved from nearby woods for flavor. All of this in addition to managing the rice fields, the water buffalo, and the supplies for the village. If you are a woman you may also spend your evening spinning thread and weaving silk. If you are a man you may go hunting or occasionally weave baskets for storage.

No television, No Ipad, most of the time very little formal education, and for the most part dependent on what the land will provide. How alien we falang must seem as we cruise through with our Raybans, and our IPhones. And yet these people remain gentle and accepting. So eager to exchange information about their lives with us. For those of you still pursuing a visit to a real village, it just doesn’t get much more “real” than this.

Michel, the jungle explorer, muddy but glad to be back on the boat

Michel, the jungle explorer, muddy but happy to be back on the boat



Categories: Laos travel

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5 replies

  1. Nice post. Thank you.

  2. What an amazing experience. Except the leaches. Ugh! You are such troopers to tolerate! The scarves are beautiful. So many hours must go into them. Enjoy your trip home. Love you!

  3. I can’t imagine what the hikes must have been like on the more difficult ones. What lovely pictures you share with us. Thanks so much, especially for the endearing personal glimpses into the local’s lives. For those of us that love Laos, these pictures and your descriptions are very heartwarming. We really appreciate your blog.

    Next time out, you may want to travel with one of these handy, versatile tote bags made by Khmu in Laos. They are made of 100% JungleVine®, which I’m sure you saw in person. Our goal is to help them earn a living making these bags, and to not let this wonderful, ancient craft die out. The planet can use an all natural bag made from a wild growing nuisance weed. The craftsmanship of these Nature Bags is intricate and artistic. Leave it to the Khmu to come up with a purpose for JungleVine. http://www.NatureBag.ORG

  4. I must say, as much as I love the pictures you’ve shared in the past of the cities, landscape, temples, celebrations, food and drink, seeing your latest blog that took us right inside the lives of the villagers was very intimate and educational. It’s not often we get such a personal view. For that, I greatly thank you.

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