The Lao village dance dances justifies a detailed description: men form an inner circle facing their female dance partner in the outer circle. There is no physical contact, nor eye contact. Surprisingly, the same song was played over and over and over again. Each time the song came up (1 out of 2 songs) an elderly bacherlorette was pushed towards me by family and friends. Leading to an awkward situation for both her and the guy who can’t dance Lao style (me).
This village has no access to electricity (an oversized lawnmower functioned as generator for the massive sound system), there are no stone houses and hasnt got any roads.
The previous day I had already noticed some of the benefits of being so removed from civilization: no shops mean no plastic waste. All the food waste is quickly eaten by the dogs/pigs/chicken/ducks (whoever arrives first). People collect their food literally from the forest around them, and meat for dinner is a reason for celebration (or the other way round).
Such a tightly nit place comes with other benefits: no shame nor secrets. All kids under the age of 8 walk around naked and village people shower together (men and women separate) at the public shower in center of town. Cautiously, one of the English villagers speaking villagers I had ran into asked whether I didn’t shower. When I explained that I preferred showering in the morning, he nodded understandingly. Only the following day I understood his wonder: the outside temperature when i showered was 20 degrees lower and the water even colder. I should have known.
I had stayed a second night and that morning a villager explained me a different route to Udumxai. This insider’s route got me back in two hours (despite the light rain of that evening) and nearly without effort. Except for the time when my rear wheel fell between two bamboo poles that were part of a ‘bridge’ across a stream.
All in all, an experience I won’t easily forget…
By now I consider myself a tough south east Asia motorbiker:
– drive in ice rain with fog on a deserted mountain pass: done it
– big city racing between 6 other motorbikes a massive truck and 2 tuktuk’s on a 3 lane way: been there
– drive for an hour to arrive at a dead end: so passé
However, I wasn’t prepared for this drive. Quickly after I left the village of Udumxai I felt the fever of the previous night return, with a vengeance. Stomach problems (for the first time since India) and dehydration at a temperature of 33 degrees without drinking water nearly completed the picture of a miserable physical state.
Not only had the road a total absence of traffic (=help in case of trouble) and villages an hour apart, the road was the most extreme until now. I will never forget the feeling of sitting on a nearly overheated motorbike, fully loaded with my backpack tied at the back and a daypack in the shopping basket on the front, driving in first gear up hill, losing traction and starting to slide backwards down the long muddy mountain flanked by cliffs.
Upon arrival at Chom Ong I had covered 40 km in 4 hours. I felt/was more dead than alive. I couldn’t find anybody at the who spoke more than 2 words of English (literally). The amount of effort for conveying the words ‘sleep’ and ‘food’ made clear that the locals aren’t used to visitors and/or that I apparently suck at even the simplest of charades.
The question arises why I go through all this trouble. That became clear the following morning as I left at 60% strenght for Chom Ong cave. After an hour’s uphill hike we arrived at the entrance of the cave, which has only been surveyed in 2009, came equipped with a solar powered lighting system. What I saw inside was the most amazing sight of this trip: a perfectly lit cave of 15 meters high and around 40 meters high. I leave it up to the interested spectator to Google ‘Chom Ong cave’ to learn and see more. I can only say that the combination of the size, the silence, the illumination (and the darkness when you turn it off) is truly amazing. We (obviously) went beyond the fixed lighting and explored a substantial part of this 13km cave with my $1 torch and the flash-function of my iPhone (my guide didn’t have a flashlight).
Until now I haven’t seen many horrible things during this trip. Sure, I’ve seen inhuman poverty, terribly mutilated people, but that changed just now.
For my first excursion in months, I joined up with a young French couple. After a tiring walk in sometimes bitter cold weather (despite 4 layers of clothing) we arrived at a hill tribe village. It was deep in the forest, over 40 km away from the nearest ‘city’ of 8.000 inhabitants.
We decided to spend the night there, left our daypacks and continued to another one to ‘sample the atmosphere’. Once we arrived we noticed that this village was even poorer than the first one, the children more shy of strangers and the men and women still wore traditional clothes.
As it started raining (again) our guide took us to the central hut in the village where we were offered a cup of tea by the village chief. As we sat there drinking our tea, the chief asked the guide a question, who translated to me something like: ‘have medication, baby water?’. I had only taken plaster spray against blisters, so I responded negatively. I asked what the issue was, maybe I could help? I was then directed towards a room at the other side of the big hut and witnessed an imagine I will never forget.
In a smoke filled room a woman was cooking and a kid of a couple of years old lay on a couple blankets. Half his chest, his neck and part of his arms were covered in fresh 2nd or 3rd degree wounds, obviously caused by burning.
I asked again what happened. Apparently, the kid had been left alone and wanted some water… I stood there helpless. I asked the French trip mates, whether they had anything. Fortunately, they were better equipped than I was and had some materials for cleaning wounds and bandages. However, it was clear that the kid needed professional help.
We asked if they had been to the hospital. They confirmed, but said that they didn’t like the treatment he received, as he had been in a lot of pain. We suggested several times that he should return for additional treatment. They ignored. After Claire, the French girl, had cleaned the wound and we had stood there watching the boy suffer, we left for the village where we would spend the night. Upon our departure we re-explained the necessity of keeping the wounds clean and left some money for hospital treatment if they’d change their minds.
Saddened, by our incapacity to make a more significant change in the life of the boy we walked ‘home’ in silence.
After a terrible massage and an even worse night sleep, our horrific adventure wasn’t over. We were packed up, ready to leave for our second day of trekking and doubting whether we should return to the kid when an even younger child was presented to us. This time the burning wound was much smaller (hand until elbow), but in addition to the blisters it was ‘decorated’ with a horrible yellow and green infection. I’m no doctor, but even I could see that it wasn’t looking good. The input was the same: keep the wounds clean, go to the hospital, the result as well: a combination of refusal and ignoring.
His mother was delighted with the money we put in his not-burned hand.
The agenda for today was over 200 km on a motorbike, the last half on unpaved road. I had 25 km to go and decided to make a last stop for the final stretch. There was nothing remarkable about the place except for the warmth of their cola.
When I asked for the bill you got dumped on my hand. I don’t even know what kind of animal you are. A monkey? You held on to me like an old man holds on to his stick: with all your strength, which didn’t amount to very much.
You had the hands and feet of a human, and surely you weren’t older than a couple of months. You were tired and fell asleep immediately.
It felt like an eternity together, but probably wasn’t more than 15 minutes. Our goodbye was terrible. You cried as I tried to loosen your grip. Your hands and feet outnumbered my left hand 4:1, so you didn’t let go. The shopowner was busy, so I could weep silently as I tried again.
I walked away without looking back.