08.01.2013 - 10.01.2013
The next leg of our trip would see us travel to Savannakhet. We had read about an Eco tourism project set up with a local village that offered treks and home stays and thought it would be good opportunity to gain more insight into the lives of Laotian people. Before booking with the Eco tour guide company based in the city centre we had to contend with the usual travel aspects of getting from the outside of town bus stop to a guesthouse. We jumped on a tuk tuk and was taken into town however were dropped outside a random guesthouse we didn't know about and had no one at reception. We had to do a little reconnaissance of the area before picking our bags up and walking in the blistering heat to what we thought would be the right direction. Thankfully it didn't take long to see the sign for Leena guesthouse which was in our guidebook and we checked in with enough hours in the daytime to have a walk around the town.
Savannahket lies close to the Lao-Thai border and has the Mekong River as its backdrop but apart from that it is quiet a sleepy town with not much going on from what we saw. The old French colonial architecture was interetsting to see but I think without the eco-tourism we might have carried onto the next town. This sleepy atmosphere was perfectly presented when we saw how the local K9's spend their afternoons.
Having found the Eco guide office we were fortunate to be able to speak directly to our guide Vong who was working in the office that day. He took us through the options and we decided the 2 day trekking experience with homestay would be the best due to the opportunity to be involved in giving alms to the monks as part of our homestay experience, something that is a integral part of Laotion culture.
The next morning we were picked up by Vong in a tuk tuk and driven out of town to Dong Natad conservation forest that neighboured the local village of Ban Phonsim, not before picking up our hunter guide who would teach us how the locals use the jungle to provide food and medicine.
Almost instantly walking the path into the jungle we realised that the trekking side of things was not going to be hard as the path was really a dirt track that in some places was as wide as a car so it didn't mean having to go through the dense jungle. That being said, at the exact same time the hunter guide started showing us plants and flowers that provided the local village with food and medicine and he would continue to do this for quite some time during the trek which was great because we really felt like we got to understand how traditional methods were still being used in day to day lives.
Some of the highlights included:
A plant that monkeys eat which was edible. It translated into 'Bald Head Fruit' seeing as what was left resembled the Karl Pilkington-esque shape of a bald head. The guide even joked it looked like a microphone before the edible part comes off.
There was this flower which we tried, which would be used in cooking recipes.
We would carry on walking and then the hunter would suddenly become animated and speak to Vong to translate and we learned about how they burned the trees to collect the sap as it was highly flammable, and used as lighter oil in the homes and when the hunters were in the jungle. We also saw how small pegs were hammered in all the way up to the top of the tall trees so they could collect whatever was at the top. You wouldn't catch us trying it that's for sure, very precarious.
Another tree he showed us had red sap come out of it when cut and we found out that this was used to help new mothers produce milk but its taste was not very desirable as it made your mouth numb.
Later the hunter guide would grab at tall plants to show us the insects that resided amongst them.
This included cicadas that were just had left their shells. I knew it was on my shoulder!!
Strange looking caterpillars that looked like fluff out of a pillow..
Ladybugs with spikes....
Red Ants that covered a pocket of leaves and would defend their eggs that are inside against anything, the strength of these little buggars was incredible. Our hunter even had a taste of them and squashed a few with his hands and asked us to sniff it. The potency of what we sniffed can not be described but it made Sarah joult back with disgust, it was so intense. Locals would crush and use these ants to help rouse someone who is unconscious much like smelling salts.
We saw a load of termites as they marched along the path. There were hundreds of them stretching at least 5 metres back from where this photo was taken.
And there was more.......
Twigs that had a course edge so that it could be used as a nail file!
And a vine of a plant that when cut would be used as a cure for Malaria. You drink the juices from it over a week, if you have malaria it wont taste bitter so once you can taste the bitterness then you know you no longer have malaria anymore. We both found it very bitter, so good to know despite all the mosquito bites we don't have Malaria (our guide seemed to take great pleasure in getting us to taste and smell nasty things!). It is also used as a 'counter medicine' to being gay, not really sure how that would work! It was also used as a deterrent to babies who still fed from their mothers, as its taste was horribly bitter and would be place on the nibble of the mother for the child to associate the bad flavour and decide that they didn't want their mothers milk anymore.
We took a short break at the Nong Lam lake which was a beautifully peaceful spot.
We also learned that it was taboo for anyone to fish without a boat, however we weren't exactly sure why?
It was an interesting morning and we found the hunter guide to be really funny even though he didn't speak English. Sarah thought that he took a shining to me and I guess from this photo you could say it was true.
Even though the trek was easy the heat was taking its toll and even with some short breaks in the shade we were glad to stop by a family home to have lunch. Vong showed us some of the locals food preparation and we were given long runner beans to chew which would later be used by the local woman to make a chilli based dish which to be honest was way beyond my threshold for spicy but we had a little bit. It was a nice lunch and we chatted with Vong about some differences with our cultures and that we had a different belief system to his, and for most Laotion people for that matter, which at first I thought we might have offended him but it turned out he just wanted to learn. He was a very nice friendly person and told us that he was a farmer but wanted to be a teacher. When he wasn't being a guide he would go to nightschool to learn English.
Our hunter guide came to join us to eat and he showed us how the welcoming Baci ceremony that would happen at our homestay later would work. It involves holding out your hand whilst white wristbands are rubbed away from you over the top of your wrist and a prayer is spoken to let out all the bad things in your life. Then you are offered food (it was an egg this time) that you hold in your hand whilst the bands are rubbed over the inside of your wrist and a prayer/blessing is spoken to allow the good things to come to into your life, and then the wristband is tied. Then the egg has to be eaten to ensure good luck. It was nice of the guide to explain this to us and I was thankful for the wristband I received from the demonstration.
Once lunch was over we headed onwards taking in more of the jungle, which became more dense as we made our way through and path came narrower and in places seemingly non existent. We went through an open area which in the wet season would be at least a foot above our heads underwater but at that time it was bone dry which was insane to think how different the seasons were in terms of rainfall.
As the day lingered on, it became apparent that Vong was becoming a little bit non-fussed about the information that our hunter guide was trying to explain and to our annoyance we had to keep asking 'what did he say?', which didn't help with my impression of him considering it had started out very well. During this time we were told to sit down in the shade whilst they both went and gathered something out of the bush. It wasn't till after that we found out, by asking, that they were collecting the seeds from a plant by burning them because the seeds are used to make a drink that would work as an aphrodisiac similar to Viagra, and would sell for a pretty price.
Soon after we made it to the Ban Phonsim village and we said farewell to our hunter guide, it was quite sweet because he had gotten all the tourists he had guided to write their names and country they were from in his book, which we dutifully did. After which, Vong took us to meet our Homestay family. On the way he showed us into some other locals yards and porches to see how certain crafts such as weaving were done.
We first met Mr Sonthong at the front of his home and he welcomed us in and talked to us about where we were from and he introduced his family to us, proudly showing us photos of his children and we learned that one of them had moved to USA which would explain how he had kept up his knowledge of English.
The afternoon we were able to freshen up in what appeared to be the communal toilet/bathroom for more than one family in the street judging by the wall of toothbrushes. We were then introduced to Champa who was the local contact for the Eco Guide and was a charming older guy who would be looking after us whilst we stayed in the village.
As the evening went on the preparations for our traditional welcoming ceremony was in full flow and Sarah was able to help up with the preparation and I got to pick up a small crab! (There wasn't anything for me to do, plus in Lao the women do all the food preparation)
It wasn't long before the ceremony was ready and we sat down on the floor with the family and 10 other elder members of the village around a symbolic centre piece made of flowers which held the wristbands and ceremonial food (we were told that larger ones are used at weddings). An elder man known as the fortune teller began singing prayers as we all held on to the centre piece. Then we both had to take a shot of rice whiskey and hold in our right hand food that was presented to us whilst the fortune teller blessed us first. Then the other elders all took turns to came over to tie wristbands and wish us good things in our life. It was very warming and I think Sarah got a little bit emotional at one point, although this may have been due to the rice whiskey. Once everyone had tied on the wristbands we had to eat an egg to ensure good luck. After that we all sat together to eat a delicious meal including the chicken that had been used in the ceremony and continued the evening with talking about our travels showing photos and the family in turn showed us theirs from their trip to Angkor.
As we are not married the family wanted to make it clear we should sleep in separate beds which was fine with us, but I think they made doubley sure by sending Champa to sleep upstairs too despite his home being around the corner. It felt like we were being chaperoned and as we were trying to sleep Champa kept asking questions about our culture particulalry about why we are not married yet and when are we going to have children emphasising how much older we are than people in his culture. It was quite endearing really as he kept asking and apologising for asking at the same time, and we didn't mind at all.
Today would be the opportunity for Sarah and I give alms to the monks and the night before we were told that it would be an early start at 6am. Unfortunately even though the sleeping arrangements were good I didn't get the best sleep because at 4am the drums from the temple started to be beaten and the cockerels joined in making a racket that meant the 6am wake up call wasn't what I was looking forward too. Before we left Sarah and I were kitted up in traditional garments and stocked up with rice, water and chocolate biscuits to present to the monks. We made the short walk to the temple and Somgtong joked with me about Sarahs age, "Why is she 28 if you re 27?", Champa had obviously been sharing our chat from last night. Champa showed us to the ceremony and gave us instructions how to sit in the temple and when to put each item in the containers for the monks, this included sticky rice, bananas and chocolate biscuits. We were not alone as other villagers joined us and one by one each member walked on their knees and gave alms as well so it was very real and authentic. Once everyone had prayed whilst the monks chanted we all poured small bottles of water into the bowls we had bought the alms in normally this would be done on the earth outside to represent giving water to grown plants and for sustenance in the next life.
After the ceremony we made our way with Champa and Songtong to have coffee and tea which was quite nice as we got to see the morning rush of kids and women on their way to school or work which helped us witness life in the village. Other men from the village joined our table and spoke with us whilst the elder from the ceremony last night signed certificates for people who had donated to the school.
After we went back to the home stay for breakfast and Champa told us about the how the village was made up of 700 homes, so calling it a village was not really true, and it had 3 schools covering primary to secondary which we would later visit. A scrumptious breakfast was ready for us back at home which consisted of a delicious rice soup and we were ready for our next trek with Champa and our new hunter guide. They would take us through the surrounding countryside towards the nearby Turtle Lake where we would have lunch before making our way to the famous stupa.
On the way out of the village we went passed the primary school and were allowed stick our heads in for a while and all the children would smile and say 'sa ba dee' in unison to us which was very cute. The people we had met were very proud of the schools that they had and it was great to see how they are supported and encouraged to learn by the community.
We also stopped at a locals house to see them preparing rice whiskey which is a lot cheaper than beer and so Laotian people tend to drink this more often, it also gets you drunk quicker as its so strong! In this house they would be able to produce over 90 litres of it which would last a fair amount of time.
Some of the other highlights of our morning trek included:
We stopped at area where they made charcoal using a furnace made out of mud.
Champa told us about how the children at the schools were punished if they didn't do there homework. A shell that was on the floor had strong spikes on it and they would have to kneel on them as punishment, knowing this would happen all the children did their homework. I tried it out myself and it was painful to be fair.
We took a few minutes to rest and Champa told us that we were sitting in a sacred area with a burial ground of an Abbot. He told us how the local people had learnt not to do anything bad in this place as once 4 men had stolen some sacred items from the tomb and a year later they all died and so it is believed that the strict spirit of the Abbot got them back and so he should not be disturbed.
We stopped off to crack some almonds we had foraged and have a snack.
But it wasn't long before we made it to Turtle Lake and enjoyed a hearty lunch with a nap. This are is being preserved but I believe there is also development for a better road guesthouses to be built around the lake to bring more income to the local people and keep the area as an attraction.
After returning to the homestay to say our goodbyes we went to visit the Stupa on the way back to town. The That Phon Stupa we visited is a famous landmark in the Buddhist culture and one of the most important stupas in Laos. Many flock to this location once a year for the Boun Pha ceremony which Champa said was a great time as he gets to see his sons who live in Vientiane and Thailand. It also has a line of golden Buddhas surrounding the area which are donated by many different people and Champa liked to point our that even Europeans had donated to the stupa.
The whole experience was fantastic and we really felt as though we had been shown a genuine life of Laos people which I think we will remember for a long time.
Stay tuned for more tales .