When I awoke at 5am I had no idea that this day would be one of the best of my life. I only knew it would be amazing or could end in disaster. The 5am start was to go and see the monks walk around the village to fill their baskets with food. I got dressed and met the two Spanish girls I was planning on spending that day with. We went to watch the monks which was worth seeing but one of those things you do once and never again.
The two Spanish girls I was with had both been living in Sydney. The eldest, who as it turns out is only a few days older than me, had been travelling for a few months. She started in the Philippines and worked her way around to Laos to meet with her friend. Her friend (the other Spanish girl) had flown out to meet her for a two week backpacking holiday. Both girls spoke excellent English and were two of the nicest people I had ever met. Just the night before they had invited me along for a day and night trip to the village of one of the local boat drivers.
After watching the monk’s do their daily walk around the village to collect food offered by locals and some tourists we made our way to the river. I followed my two companions down the road while local boat drivers hustled for passengers all around us. It was an extremely hot day, all three of us had all of our stuff in our backpacks and looked like human donkeys waddling down the road. It did not take long for us to find our host and driver, who will be forever known as ‘Spicy’ as that is the closest English translation of his Lao name. Spicy met us and took us down to his boat, which was a small but very nice longtail boat. The boat was a dark blue with comfortable seats and space to move around. Spicy left us in the boat to go and see his wife before coming back and taking us on the beautiful hour long ride down the Mekong river.
Spicy pulled over on the river bank and instructed everyone to get out. It was the end of the raining season in Laos but it still rained heavily most nights, making the river high and the banks muddy. With my backpack in place and my shoes back on I took a leap off the boat and landed in the mud. My nice white trainers were now brown and damp as I struggled to climb the steep 5 foot incline up to the top of embankment. Spicy stayed on the boat to clean up but soon joined us at the top and lead us through the small woodlands to his village.
At first I thought this could not be the place we were staying, the houses were all old and made from bamboo. The ground was muddy with animal tracks and leftovers everywhere. There were only a few huts dotted around the large field with a few trees and the odd chicken roaming around. We stopped outside one of the bamboo houses where Spicy told us this one was his, explaining how he had built the house using bamboo from the jungle. The village was mainly family, a place were everyone helped each other. They would all help build a house together, would eat together, and most of the village men worked together.
After taking a good look at the outside of the house I was unsure if I wanted to stay, the house looked old and nothing like the brick homes of England. It was to late to change my mind though and the only option was to embrace this one of kind experience and just enjoy my time there. We carried on walking through what looked to me like a farm yard round to a small shop where two women were standing by to greet us. Spicy explained that his cousin had opened this shop because most of the people living in the village could not get into town, they worked most of the day in the rice field and spent the nights looking after the children and helping around the village.
One of the women brought us water and started to prepare us some food. As they did this Spicy told us about life in the village, he told us how they all eat together, that there were only 50 people living there, and that most the villagers had moved to town to make more money. There were only 4 children in the village, two were too young to go to school so they spent their days playing in the fields, watching their mothers work. The men of the village had rice fields and each day they would work on one of the rice fields, rotating around so over the week each field would be worked. They worked as a unit and everything they had they shared. Unfortunately they still had poorer village members whose rice fields may not have brought in money that year, but they would still help them.
The food was ready and the woman brought out a small wicker basket filled with sticky rice that Spicy showed us how to eat ‘Laos style’. In the village everyone would eat from the same bowls. They used their hands and to eat the rice you scooped up what you wanted in your hand and rolled it in your palm before dipping it into the sauces and eat. After a few glances at each other it was clear that there was nowhere to wash our hands so we decided to just dig in.
When we had finished eating, Spicy went to find his cousin as we wished to go up one of the nearby mountains. Spicy explained how most of the village was hungover because one of the families had won the local lottery and treated the village to a few bottles of whisky. When he returned with his extremely hungover cousin we started our hike. At first it was an easy walk in the woodland, the only thing was the midday sun beating down on us with very little shade in some parts. The path we were on had not been used in a while, it had undergrowth coming over the path making the walk slightly more difficult as I was dodging the strange and wonderful insects crawling over everything.
We had not been gone long when Spicy found some wild mushrooms and started collecting them for dinner that night. A lot of the food that the villagers ate was from the forest and local area, the rice was brought home from the field and the vegetables were dependant on the season and what could be found. As we walked, Spicy and his cousin started finding bamboo, teaching us how to collect it and how to spot a good bamboo stalk for eating. This is a survival skill I hope not to ever need and at the time I found interesting, but I had no idea what bamboo to taste like.
The walk itself took us some time as our guides kept stopping to collect food. We were all starting to get hot and tired and just wanted to get on the way without stopping and waiting. It was at this point our guide decided that we were crazy to be doing this in the heat and that he was too hungover to be taking the ‘ crazy white girls’ up the mountain. This was to become our nickname at the village.
For the rest of the journey Spicy was our guide, although he had admitted that he could not be sure of the way as he had not done this trail in some time. It took us about an hour to reach the top but every hot, sweaty second of it was enjoyable because of the good company I had. On the way up we made displays for our hair out of leaves and took every opportunity to take photos and cool down. As the only English woman on the hike I was the one who suffered the most from the heat, I must of looked like a wild animal trudging up the mountain, my hair all wild with leaves coming out of it, my face red and moist.
Once we were finally at the top it was time to relax and enjoy the beautiful view that stretched out before us. From up here the world was green and lush with the winding brown river cutting through the landscape running on until it could not be seen. The sky was light blue with just a few spotted clouds around allowing for a spectacular view. In the distance some small villages could be seen and Spicy pointed out some rice fields. Sitting on top of such a high mountain it felt like the world had disappeared and only the earth, stone, and water still remained. There has never been a moment in my life were I have felt such freedom. Yesterday had been and gone, tomorrow was unknown with no plans or expectations. What was and what will be had no time or place in this moment of complete freedom.
The journey back down was not as easy as going up. We took the more direct rout down, which was a vertical slope through reddened burnt ground and over grown bushes. I spent most of the trip sliding down the slops and at one point we all fell. I cut my arm, bruised my leg and took at few toe nails off. But all the time we were in fits of giggles and laughter that rang out across the mountain until it was swallowed by the noise of the world around us.
The journey back was much quicker and took us through an old bombing sight. It filled my heart with sorrow to see the earth still damaged to the point of no return because of the war. Laos was one of the most bombed countries during the war that affected Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. From July 1964 to March 1973 the Americans dropped their bombs over this country, at the time known as neutral to the war. There were over 80 million bombs dropped in Laos and many failed to detonate, meaning that to this day people are still being killed by the bombs left behind.