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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Eventually we turned a corner and caught our first look at the wide open valley and the rice fields that covered it.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
After a hike down the other side of the mountain we arrived in another valley full of rice 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Categories: Laos travel