Trip Report #4, 5/18/00

OK, I swore I wouldn't do an update for at LEAST another month, but 2 weeks in Laos has produced too many adventures. The three most memorable are as follows:

"Rafting The Lower Nam Ou: Solo!"

Inception

Due to the difficulties of travelling in Laos, I found myself several days behind schedule in the small river town of Nong Khiaw. You can pay to be taken down the river in a power boat in a day, but it didn't take long to think of doing it myself.

Unfortunately, large bamboo is not easy to find, and I exhausted buying pieces off local residents. To get more, I was told to find "Mr. Kampoo who sells the bamboo."

Mr. Kampoo soon convinced me that my skills were not up to the task of building a raft for the 4-5 days it would take me to get to Luang Prabang. It turns out I'm not the only crazy to come up with this idea: he'd built rafts for 5 others over the years.

Mr. Kampoo built the raft while I tackled the paddle problem. Laos canoe paddles are pathetic at best. Very small surface area, and not well built.

A piece of bamboo, a board, some screws, and a machette, and I was back in the 20th century with a double bladed, feathered kayak paddle.

The raft was huge: 20 feet long, and about 500 pounds with all my gear, food, and water. Even with my great paddle, it took about 5 minutes just to cross the river or turn the boat 180 degrees. The raft was christened "Boat-hemoth."

Day 1

They should rename this thing the Nam Ou Lake. Mostly still water, requiring almost 9 hours of solid paddling. The views are awesome though. Laos life is bustling along the waterway. Rivers are the original roads of Laos, and these otherwise isolated people are thriving. They seem to think I'm crazy, but are damn curious about the paddle!

Day 2

The morning is the same. Then came the class 3 rapids.

I've done enough river running in my life to know these rapids weren't too bad. At least, not if you're in a boat that can maneuver. No point in scouting; I had to take the line I was given. Sure, I could SEE the rock 100 feet down river, but all-out paddling would perhaps point me in the right direction before I hit it.

The first rock I hit caught me sideways, and I had to jump in the river to pry the raft loose while listening to bamboo cracking. The second rock, head-on, rearanged the overall conformation. The third rock caught me sideways again, then flipped the raft up on its side. More crunching bamboo. By climbing on the lifted side, I was able to keep it from flipping and work it loose.

OK, I'll admit it, I was NOT happy at this point, and definitey shaken. There's no way I could have righted the raft if it had flipped.

At the end of my 12+ hour ordeal for the day, I came to a bridge over the river: the half-way point and the only possible take-out point for another 2 days. I assessed the situation and bailed. Wet sleeping bag and cracked (albeit still structurally sound!) raft aside, the deciding factor was realizing that given a chance to rerun those rapids in Boat-hemoth, I would opt out.

I gave my raft, paddle, and extra supplies to the villagers near the bridge, who were kind enough to feed me and put me up for the night. In fact, they held a traditional Laos celebration for me which included some very cool rituals.

"Hangin' With The Hmong"

While in the Northwestern corner of Laos I thought it might be interesting to see what it is like to work in the fields. I bought a hoe, and hiked a few hours up into the hills to join the local workers.

After working for a few hours, a Hmong villager (the Hmong are an ethnic hilltribe people) hiked up to me and motioned for me to follow him. He led me back to his village and into a large hut where maybe 30 people were cutting up and preparing a cow they had killed. They fed me and I juggled for the kids.

A man started playing a bagpipe-type instrument while circling a pot of boiling blood over a fire. Behind him another man starts dragging the cow's head by a rope, behind him another walking the forelegs, then one walking the hindlegs, and lastly a kid dragging the tail.

It was one of the most wacked things I've ever seen- something only an ancestory of opium smoking could come up with.

I headed back up to the fields, but was now surrounded by about 10 kids. Felt like the pied piper! They took me swimming, and then worked with me. They definitely need working songs, so I started teaching them Harry Belafonte, taking the liberty to change the lyrics. If you're ever in Northern Laos and hear field workers singing:

"Day-O. Day-ay-ay-O.
Visa's up, I don't wanna go home;
Visa's up, I don't wanna go home!"
etc...
-that'd be my fault.

"Alcohol With The Akha"

Those of you who don't know me well probably won't understand the significance of this short story. It may help to know that I haven't had any alcohol in 15 years...

A foreign worker I met invited me to an Akha wedding (the Akha are an ethnic hilltribe people). The wedding, for the son of the village chief, was nothing like what we have.

One part of it involves the ceremonially-dressed couple proceeding around the room on their knees. The bride holds a platter; guests put money on the platter, and then take a shot of 'Lao Lao': Laos rice whiskey. The groom refills the glass.

Then they came to me. My choice: throw 15 years of abstainance to the wind, or curse the wedding couple and single-handedly ruin Akha-US relations for the next 50 years.

That stuff tastes like turpentine.

That's two weeks in a nutshell. Next stop, Burma!
-Ken

Current score:
Ken: 8 (days)
Leeches: 5


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Page Revised 5/18/00