I had been in Laos a few days, in the town of Luang Prabang and could not wait to explore the countryside. Being severely allergic to tour groups meant going on a solo walkabout. So I set off from Luang Prabang, heading north-east, thinking to go walking for week or so.
The map I had found showed no roads but there is a partially paved road now. The road follows the meanderings of a small river and there are villages strung out along the riverbank. People here fish the river and farm parts of the surrounding hillsides. Once a week they take their produce to Luang Prabang, to the market. Most of them have never even visited Luang Prabang which is the closest town, barely a hundred kilometers away. They had never seen a foreigner.
Smiling welcome greeted me in every place I stopped. No sooner would I stop, but be surrounded by people, just as curious about me as I am about them. We talked – I in my broken (but rapidly improving Lao), and they in broken English. We were helped along by the phrases at the back of the guidebook and when that failed vigorous miming came to the rescue.
When I reached a village I would greet the headman or woman and ask permission to pitch my tent in a field. I was the equivalent of a one-man circus come to town. People would drop whatever they were doing and I would be trailed by some twenty people, all eager to watch and to help.
More hindrance than help, at any one time there would be some ten youngsters pounding in tent pegs – at the wrong ends! Vociferous arguments would break out – someone who had merely seen a similar tent was the undisputed expert and had no qualms about lording it over the rest. I knew that once pitched I would not be able to go anywhere near the tent for at least a couple of hours. There would be people going in and out of the tent, opening and closing the zippers, looking into the pockets, lying down in the tent to see what it felt like.
More than once I had been asked if I would sleep in their house so they could sleep in my tent. Once I remember I found six people squeezed into my little two-person tent! It was literally bursting its sides. At one village I was taken to a grand old lady. She sat on a throne like chair and had a long intricately carved ivory cigarette-holder. Her word was clearly law in these parts. Grandma flatly refused to let me pitch my tent when I first asked her. I was a little perturbed and since it was already getting dark, wondered what I should do. Then she turned to me and said ‘You are like my daughter; you will stay in my house’. There was no room for argument and I offered none. “But”, she continued, we have heard of your tent. Put up your tent so the children can play”.
At another, they simply refused to let me pitch my tent outside, claiming it was dangerous. But there were no spare beds. So we compromised – I slept in my tent inside the shack that passes for the local store.
My folding camping stove was another instant hit. People young and old, would call their friends and then ask me to turn on the stove. Then to turn it off, fold it and put it away. A second later I would be asked go through the process all over again. I was beginning to feel like a pro at this one-man magic show. Dinner of instant noodles was greeted well enough, but in the morning it was the coffee I made that found no favor. Everyone of course wanted a taste and the faces they made were priceless! My coffee is black and lacks sugar. Too polite to refuse the first cup, they hurriedly said “no” to the second.
At one village they tried to teach me to fish the traditional way. I failed. Bursts of laughter greeted my inept attempts. Little children doubled up with laughter and hurried to call their friends to come and watch. I realized I had the starring role in this inadvertent comedy show and it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul started selling tickets.
They did catch some fish and cooked them for the evening meal. We ate Lao fashion, sitting on the floor on bamboo mats, balling up sticky rice in one hand and taking bites of fish with the other.
There other meats on occasion, frequently unrecognizable. I thought it prudent not to ask what I was eating.
Most evenings the other villagers would gather in someone’s house and we’d have an evening of chatting and drinking the locally brewed liquor. The local brew is made from rice and is a perfectly vile concoction. I made unobtrusive use of the fact that we were seated on a platform of split bamboo strips. The chickens rooting around under the platform did not seem to complain.
Eager to save me the effort of walking, they told me that a truck went to Luang Prabang once a week. If I would only wait, I would not need to walk. So on the way back I decided to do just that. Boxed in between baskets pf produce, a few chickens, one goat and assorted villagers and children, we trundled back to town over the red dirt road.