Exploring Rural Laos
Luang Prabang is an endearing town with dusty, winding, narrow roads lined with French colonial buildings on a peninsula created by the Mekong and the Nam Khan in northern Laos. Orange-robed monks walk bamboo bridges and laze in the shade of temples on streets where, at night, stall owners sell barbecued meat and sticky rice under small lights that lend a rustic charm to your dining experience. It’s easy to slow to the Laotian pace of life here, but if you feel yourself getting too comfortable, you can give your system a jolt with a trip down highway 13 to Phonsavan.
Phonsavan lies just 250kms east of Luang Prabang but is a world apart. The roads between the two towns rattle your bones and churn your stomach – our bus driver stopped to throw up twice as we snaked, bounced and skidded on our way through the mountains. Our objective was to visit the town and its outlying Plain of Jars, three separate sites of megalithic jars dating from the Iron Age.
“We were served snacks of duck embryo and dog ribs; the latter tasted great but the former…”
Late of an afternoon we arrived and despite its cold concrete appearance, within an hour, a local guesthouse owner had invited us to a celebration for the opening of a temple that had been financed by him and his brother. We ate and drank for free and got taught a traditional Laotian dance on the Friday night in marquees outside the guesthouse, with around 200 revelers made up of village folk and townspeople. Close to daybreak we were told to come back at 8 a.m. to go with them to the village where the temple was built.
A Rare Opportunity: A Temple Opening Celebration
That morning we rode out in a convoy of pickup trucks, four people per truck. My job was to steady a shrine that was in the back with us – it was adorned with scores of 1000-kip notes folded into petals and leaves and then made into flowers. The guys behind us had handguns and were shooting them aimlessly into the sky as their kids let off bangers and small fireworks. They rode on a pickup that had a 15-ft. rocket on top – I would say firework but these things don’t bang, they launch and soar high and are probably the closest Laos will come in the near future to space exploration. The truck behind this had a group of men playing different percussion and bamboo instruments while dancing and so it went on – each truck had its own slice of madness going on and it didn’t stop until we reached the village.
In a paddy field outside the village we set up marquees of bamboo and tarpaulin and unloaded the pick-ups. Instantly we were getting lau lau (rice whisky) and Beer Lao passed to us from our right hand side. Sitting with elderly Laotian men who couldn’t speak any English, we nevertheless grasped the protocol for drinking with them and communicated in gestures and looks which got funnier the more lau lau that went down.
Dark-skinned women with leathery hands cooked an array of dishes on open fires and barbecues. We were served snacks of duck embryo and dog ribs; the latter tasted great but the former, with its unappealing appearance and textures, varied between slimy, crunchy and chalky. Anything but moreish.
Rockets and Lau Lau: A Winning Combination
Suddenly there was a lot of shouting and whooping going on – each group of villagers had brought their own rocket, which was fastened to a massive A-frame bamboo structure, and these were being lifted onto the shoulders of the men associated with it. They would dance it around the center of the field in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of fashion while music blared out from speakers propped on bales of straw.
My friend and me were asked to help with the rocket we had arrived with. It was hoisted it up onto our shoulders and we carried it with the guesthouse owner, his friends and his brother. As we danced, women would then run in and pour lau lau or Beer Lao into our mouths to give us ‘strength’; you needed it not for strength, but to kill the pain. My shoulder was disintegrating under the pressure of the bamboo that was ‘resting’ on it. Crowds followed behind, dancing and clapping. Through my rice whisky haze I made sure to soak it all in, knowing that this doesn’t happen to too many people.
We danced and drank into the night and, later on, sat around fires for warmth. When we turned in for the night, it was on the ground under the tarpaulin marquees, where everyone slept side by side, in order of age but separated by sex; women on the left, men on the right, with the eldest woman on the very left and the eldest man on the very right-hand side.
We woke with damp clothes but dried quickly in the early morning sun as we watched the rockets being launched. After clearing the field of all signs of the relentless celebrating of the night before, we went down into the village and sat outside a cluster of wooden dwellings that were propped up on stilts so cattle can sleep in the shade under them. The only cow in sight this morning, though, had been slaughtered and butchered as we arrived. Blood dripped from its head as it sprawled atop a pile of logs. The meat was cooked on the embers of a fire that had been lit early in the morning and we dipped it in a spicy sauce and washed it down with more rice whisky – the breakfast of champions.
The guesthouse owner who invited us drove a 1972 open-top American Jeep left over from the American War. It literally was ‘just enough essential parts’ – no windscreen or doors, just the base, engine and wheels. Once we had had our fill of beef and whisky, we climbed onboard and, with the wheels struggling for grip, we sped off on dirt tracks through countryside pocked with bomb craters, headed back to Phonsavan. The dirt tracks became dirt roads that rose and fell into dips and bends as we ripped along at unsafe speeds, throwing a cloud of dust behind us. It was a stirring way to leave somewhere where we’d have been more than happy to stay.