Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Biking in Laos: Part Two

The next morning, we had an early start, and rode across the Don Khone island, stopping to visit the local market, and see a sugar plantation.

One of my favorite elements of the Animist religion: the belief in Phi (pronounced pee). Phi are spirits such as tutelary (guardian) spirits, ancestors, as well as ghosts and demons. It is believed that if you build a small house outside of your house for whatever phi comes to visit you, those spirits will treat you well. Lao people make offerings to the Phi houses in the form of prayers, food, drinks, incense, candles.

Next stop: the sugar plantation. When I heard the word "plantation," I pictured a small factory, at least a building. But instead, it consisted of a man in his 60s, who for his whole life, climbed a palm tree at 5:30 in the morning, tapped the sap, and then boiled it in a wok over a fire for 7 hours. Then he allowed the "sugar" to set, cut it into circular pieces and sold it to passerby's. In older times, Lao people would send messages to family living in a nearby village via palm leaves. If the palm leaves were wrapped around a piece of sugar, it meant your family was healthy. If the palm leaves were wrapped around a chili pepper, it meant someone was not well.

Once we crossed the river, we headed south to the Khan Phapeng waterfalls. During monsoon season, this is the widest waterfall in the world (14km), with the largest volume. It must spread out and spill over the forest, because although it was massive, 14km is hard to imagine. But for the past three days, everyone kept asking, "Can we swim in the waterfall?" And then we saw it.

Next, we crossed via ferry (are you keeping count?) to Don Khone (Don means "island"), and then caught a small boatride in search of nearly extinct Irrawaddy dolphins. Other than almost almost getting heatstroke, we were lucky enough to spot a couple fins. Can you?

(That's a fellow biker unleashing his magic trick on some of the local kids.)

That night, we witnessed the most beautiful sunset from our bungalow.

Though I don't have pictures, that night our guide, Noi, invited some elders from the village to carry out the Laotian New Years ceremony (which is usually in Feb., but since international New Years was fast approaching, she thought it a good time to hold the ceremony). After the ceremony, each elder came around to each of us and fastened a white rope bracelette around our wrists, welcoming us to the new year.

The next morning was one of my favorites. A few of us visiting the local monastery in the early morning light to offer food to the monks. We sat and waited/watched while they ate. Some local children in their school uniforms arrived to offer the monks food before school started, and patiently waited alongside us until the monks finished their meal. Then the monks said a prayer, and the leftover food was eaten by the children before they went to school. In Turkey, military service is compulsory for young men. In Laos, monastery service is nearly compulsory. Laos males who choose to be temporarily ordained as monks generally commit to one-month to three-years of service. I loved how the town supported the monks' endeavors by providing their meals for them. The monastery was wall-less, so the morning glow was stunning.

After breakfast, we transferred by vehicle (there were two support vehicles following us the whole trip) two hours north to the edge of the Bolaven Plateau: home to Laos' temperate coffee-growing region. Here, Arabica and Robusta beans, fetching some of the highest coffee prices in the world, grow. This day was the most challenging on the bike, though the lowest mileage. We climbed up the plateau steadily for 20km during the hottest part of a 100 degree day. I was super proud of myself for making it to the top; took some talking to myself. Once at the top, we stayed in a beautiful bungalow situated atop a cliff overlooking the impressive 200-meter Tad Fane waterfalls. The next morning, we took a steep hike down to the top of one of the waterfalls. It was on this hike that we learned from a local guide (who looked like he was fifteen) about all the deadly plants and snakes in the forest. It was a tour of death. Appropriately, overlooking the steep drop-off of the waterfall involved a fear of death. Don't get too close, Randy!

After the mini trek, we hopped back on the bikes, and headed up the plateau. Man, that thing never seemed to flatten out! We stopped for a break at Mr. Coffee, the enterprise of a Dutch man and his Laotian wife. Here, we tasted and bought wok-roasted coffee. We watched her wokroast a batch of beans for the 10 minutes it takes to produce the most smooth, mild, sweet coffee I have ever tasted.

The next stop was a bit heart-breaking. But a bit about the demographics, first.
The Lao are broken into two main ethnic groups based on where they live: the lowland people, and the highland people.
69% of the country's people are lowland inhabitants and the politically and culturally dominant group. Our guide, Noi, was a "lowland Lao." Hill people and minority cultures of Laos such as the Hmong have lived in isolated regions of Laos for many years. Mountain/hill tribes of mixed ethno/cultural-linguistic heritage are found in northern Laos which include the Lua and Khmu people who are indigenous to Laos. Today, the Lua people are considered endangered. Collectively, they are known as Lao Soung or highland Laotians.

We visited a relocated mountain tribe that spoke a dialect/language that Noi could not understand. This group was moved into the lowlands by the government in order to "give them better opportunity for farming," in an "effort to help them." However, the land looked so barren, and I couldn't help but be reminded of the Native American situation in the U.S.: the moving of natives onto barren reservations where they were unable to carry on with the way they knew how to live and survive. It was also uncomfortable to be a group of Westerners walking around looking at all these villagers as if they were in a zoo, but they looked at us just as curiously in our strange biking clothing. The tribe's trades included harvesting coffee beans and weaving textiles, however, most people seemed to be laying around or tending to the many young children running around (Randy and I visited another ethnic village a few days later, and everyone was out working - harvesting and carpentry.

This was also the only place where anyone asked for anything (begged), which surprised all who had been to a third world country prior to this trip. Here, a few of the little girls approached the women in our group asking for "band" and "barrette" for their hair. Spiceroads recommended we not bring gifts to give away in such situations, as, in their opinion, it "encourages begging and unbalances local income patterns." We witnessed one interesting custom while we were there. As these people were animists, they placed empty coffins underneath their homes in order to prolong their lives (a way of tricking the bad phi and "death" into staying away for awhile longer).


Kate said...

Carrie (and Randy!) this looks like so much fun! I wish I had been there, too. Maybe next time! -Kate B

Randy said...

Love it! I am full of smiles hearing you tell the stories.