This is a snapshot from the author’s recent backpacking journey through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. See Part 1 of the series here.
It took 14 hours and a prayer – not to mention an out-of-place latte – but we made it to the village.
Or, at least, so we were told.
Right after our guide told us that it would be in our best interest to not get sick today since the closest hospital was several hours away via boat, we “docked” at a beach-y looking spot along the Mekong.
In what I can only describe as a highly choreographed dance of nautical procedure, our two guides, the boat’s captain and two people who mysteriously appeared from, I’m assuming, the back of the boat started to assemble, disassemble, tie knots and dump all of our bags on the sand.
As a former Girl Scout familiar with things like tying knots and what it means when your bag is dumped in the sand (it means “come get your stuff – this is home for the night”), I was impressed with their efficiency. I, however, grew concerned at the sight of the knots. I couldn’t tell you how to tie them or even their names, but I know enough about knots to know that these were the serious kind used for overnight stays.
My eyes darted from the knots to the pile of backpacks to the tree…and the other tree and another tree, etc… I was searching for a sign of life outside of my travel companions and the two mysterious boat people. Someone asked if we were lost.
Our guide started to giggle at the very fair and very serious question. He then started doing a thing I noticed that many of our local guides on the trip would start to do from time to time: pretend to not understand. While he spoke and understood English very well, there were a few occasions where someone would ask a question that warranted a presumably uncomfortable answer, and he would sometimes feign a language barrier to avoid answering. He ignored this particular question and continued to tie knots.
It remained unclear if we were actually lost since there was no village in sight, and it certainly felt like we were in real-life episode of Lost. The lushness and greenness of the surrounding jungle rivaled that of the TV show. And how else would you explain the two people who “randomly” “appeared” “from the back of the boat” when we “docked”?
Mid-conspiracy concocting, some local children came out of nowhere and descended a thorny and steep hill to help us carry our bags back up the hill to their village.
It’s times like this that a group’s dynamic really starts to shine through. One faction of young women in the group – the “cocktail seekers” as I referred to them in my mind – huddled around their bags, concerning themselves over whether they should take their make-up bags up with them for the overnight stay or leave them on the boat. The steep hill necessitated some serious weight-related choices to be made. One of the “comfort seekers” covertly approached our guide. The whispering and the gesturing toward the boat were clear signals that she was working on securing one of the three beds on the boat for the night as opposed to sleeping in our hut. She was successful in her mission.
With some difficulty, I made it up the hill and claimed a bed with my overnight bag.
This particular village lies in the hills along the Mekong River in Laos’ Oudomxay Provence and is just outside Muang Pakbeng. This was our home for the night and the halfway point in our journey from Luang Prabang to the Thai border. There are about 60 people who live in this village, which sometimes serves as the home to a boatload of tourists who opt for a more “local” experience outside of the cosmopolitan world of Pakbeng which had its main road paved in 2005.
From our sleeping quarters, I followed my nose to the smell of barbeque. I had just given up eating meat (minus fish) only a few weeks prior, so the aroma of roasted chicken enticed me in a way that made me question every time I’ve ever stopped eating meat for a prolonged period of time.
Beyond the aroma, the most striking aspect was the fact that I could take exactly 7.5 steps to get from my bed on the floor to the indoor, open flame where tonight’s dinner was roasting. What struck me the most, however, was not necessarily the obvious fire hazard – although I did find that quite concerning – but it was instead the communal aspect of living in this village and not just amongst the humans. Ducks, chickens, pigs and even cows meandered in and out of the houses, but this was no Disney movie. My Western mind “awww”-ed at the cute little pigs rolling around in the mud, but there was no question that each of these “pets” served a specific purpose, and it wasn’t to be cute. Even the cow taking a rest underneath a man’s house would soon become dinner (and lunch and breakfast and probably a backpack).
Our tour continued to ascend up another hill, and we passed a woman selling Western necessities like Oreos. At the top of the hill lay a series of multi-purpose buildings that framed a small and muddy pit that was currently in use as a football field. A few of the local young men had foregone their t-shirts to engage in a very physical game of pick-up football, complete with epic slides and side-tackling. Mesmerized by the physicality of the game, we served as hushed spectators for a few minutes, minus some hurried whispers (something about regretting not bringing a make-up bag, or something).
We were joined by a gaggle of small girls who feigned shyness for about a minute and then immediately took interest in some of my fellow travel companions’ fans and bracelets. The girls distracted us from the display of strength and agility on the football field with their own impressive strength and agility in bitter bracelet barter negotiations (the fans, ultimately, were not parted with). We had some troubles understanding each other, but after a short conversational lull due to an actual language barrier, we started to communicate in the universal language of thumb wars.
In the world of thumb warring, I am tough competition – ask my sister – but if their negotiation skills were any indication, I faced yet another uphill battle. Several minutes in, we had amassed a small circle of spectators, and I was all in. Then, in another universal language, some of the village moms clinked spoons against large pans to indicate that dinner was ready.
The green curry we had for dinner was the best I’ve ever had. Many of the local villagers joined us after dinner, and the football players snuck out the back with a case of Lao beer. I lost a couple more rounds of thumb wars before everyone retired for the evening. Surprisingly exhausted from the day’s 14-hour boat ride, I had little trouble falling asleep in my mosquito-netted rectangle on the cool, tiled floor.
5:30 am rolled around quickly, we slid down the hill and started the final leg of our journey to Thailand: a 12-hour boat ride to the border.
Lindsey Frick left her corporate job in online marketing to travel the world. The first stop on her tour? Spending several weeks backpacking through Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. When she’s not traveling, she’s experimenting in the kitchen, lost in a book or training for a half marathon — and taking many pictures along the way. You can follow her adventures on her Instagram page.
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