Fully rejuvinated we book a 3 day trek and hit the road. There is another couple booked with us, we are told, but they have canceled so we’re on our own! Our guide “Woot” gives us a preliminary run down as we cruise to our starting point in a Saengthaew (improvised pickup truck taxi).
Our journey starts with us being ferried, one by one, across a wide river by homemade bamboo raft. The driver skillfully spears the water with a long pole, pushing us across the clean water. From here we immediately start climbing into the forest.
Larger groups have a few disadvantages, but perhaps the worst is that they make a lot of noise. The three of us are able to stealthily glide along the forest floor, enjoying the full symphony of unstartled insects, birds, and mammals. Woot is fresh out of guide school and his English is too, but we bear with him as he shows us various herbs and forest medicines. “This one cure too many toilet,” he joyfully explains, “this one give you many toilets.” Good to know Woot, thank you, we chuckle to ourselves.
The way soon became clogged by thick green bamboo shoots and our graceful, well my graceful, movement comes to an end. Val and Woot limbo and contort smoothely, while the “too tall falang” (me) hits my head, trip my foot, and generally thrash calamitously. I never the moment would come – but I really wish I could be short for the next few hours.
After hours of beautiful “trail” we start heading down a hill. The trees become large and the forest grows dark under the dense canopy. Ahead a river chugs steadily. The smell of smoke and livestock hints in the air, followed by the laughter of children. We’ve reached our destination.
A half naked boy of about 9 ferries us, in tedious standing position, across the river and into another time. This is the Khmu village of Taidam. It’s late in the day and the villagers are bathing in the river. The women are wrapped up tightly in hand dyed and loomed sarongs and the men splash about in briefs. Val and I join the action, swimming in the cold water and soaking up the laughter. I must look like some kind of strange river monster, hairless on the head, hairy on the body, and above all very very pale!
Clean and refreshed we huddle around a fire as the sun sets and the temperature drops to near freezing. The village is dotted with such fires, surrounded by respective family groups. Puppies, chickens, and piglets join in the hunt for warmth and the tranquility of staring at the flame seems lost on none of us. Family is everything for the Khmu and though we do not speak their language, we universally understand them as they chide each other, tell stories of times past, and impart wisdom on their children.
We are ushered into a family’s home, our lodging for the night, where a veritable feast has been prepared. Buffalo meat, pumpkin, greens, unique forest spices, sticky rice, and our bear hands come together to delight our taste buds. The pumpkin is made into an incredible clear broth soup. The buffalo is smoked into jerky like bits. Tomatoes, garlic, greens, and spices make an incredible red dipping sauce for the rice. The grand finale comes with the “Olam”, which is a common Northern Laos delicacy but with a special Khmu “we know the forest like no other” twist. We eat as if it will be the last time, and honestly if it were to be our last meal we would tearfully thank the chef for a perfect meal.
As the fire light grows dim it’s time for bed. We retire with our host family to our places in their home. The crickets lull us to sleep.
I’m freezing. The matriarch of the family gets up at four in the morning and starts a fire. I join her. We sit silently together. She puts a black kettle of water on the fire, in it she puts a woven mat filled with dry rice. The steam heats us as the firelight dances along the wrinkles of her ancient face. A unspoken deal is struck, she’ll make breakfast and I’ll tend the fire. Her facial expressions tell me when to stop blowing, how wide to spread the coals, and when a new piece of wood is necessary.
The village awakens around us. Roosters shake of the cold and stretch their voices into the morning, the puppies wheeze as they stretch, and once again fires dot the hillside. I take a while to stroll the riverside and watch the birds fish in the twilight. Now it’s time to wake up the sleepy one.
Breakfast is yet again a delight but it’s time to get moving. Woot, Val, the matriarch of our host family and her sister, and I head out. The trail soon turns into a slippery and treacherous creek bed. Our progress slows to a very intent crawl while the ladies blaze ahead. The forest around us is rich and beautiful. Butterflies of all shapes and colors dart around hunting for nectar. Frogs and crayfish splash away from our clumsy feet. We continue like this for hours until we reach a small clearing above the creek.
The two women have a fire going and many banana leafs arrayed out to make a table and seats. A forked stick holds a bamboo tube over the fire, it bubbles with goodness and makes our mouths water. The hot liquid is transferred to another bamboo tube that has been made into a trough. We are given cleverly fashioned bamboo spoons and dig in. The food is delicious and the preparation ingenious. After lunch we bid the ladies fairwell and return the creek bed to continue on.
Eventually the trail diverts to solid ground, and ankles intact we pick up the pace. Woot explains his life story and the culture of Laos. He stops occasionally to show us a root or eat some ants, always notifying us that this is how it’s done “in da Laos”.
Eventually we reach a clearing and see homes up ahead. The second village, our home for the night, is populated by just four Black Thai families. What they lack in extravagent costume they make up in hospitality. They quickly slaughter a chicken for us as we bath in a beautiful stream. Chicken soup warms our rumbling stomach and a beautiful sunset over gleaming green rice paddies whispers promises of sleep.
As the moon climbs in the sky we collapse into bed. It’s the best night’s sleep I’ve had, probably ever.
— Day 3 —
Woot wakes us up, not an easy task, and we get moving. A quaint breakfast gives us energy before we head out. A half hours walk brings us to a Lanten village. The women wear spectacular black coats, interesting leggings and elaborate head dresses featuring french coins. We get to see how they dye their textiles and make their elaborate traditional dress. They’re silver necklaces are another wonder, held together with some incredible anti-gravity scheme. We thank them and get back on the trail.
The patriarch of last night’s host family walks with us until mid-day, when we stop for lunch. The old man gladly takes some IB profen from us with a broad friendly smile. We eat lunch to the music of the forest. A calm breeze cools our sweaty brows. As we get up to leave Val tosses the man a jar of tiger balm, he accepts it gratefully and bows and dissolves back into the forest.
We spend the rest of the day in the forest, just a second behind snakes and monkeys. Cool streams wash our sweat, and bird calls bring our gaze to the sky. After 8 hours we reach a large river. Woot enthusiastically jumps in and we follow suit. Many villagers pass, carrying massive loads strapped to their foreheads. It’s been a great trek. What a beautiful place to share, we’re glad we came.