Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Bolaven Plateau and homestay- part 1

We had the most amazing 2 days traveling to the Bolaven Plateau with Udon, our guide (from the previous trip to Wat Phuo), our driver Aot (who also speaks English, pronounce "ought"), Kat, and Fredrick from Belgium. Everyone was 23-35 years old and full of energy so it was a great match of people. We rode in the back of a small pickup truck with a roof and bench seats called a sawngthaew, which is pronounced similar to Tsing tao (the beer) so that's how I remember the name. Everyone had great fun listening to my tone deaf attempts to pronounce words in Lao, since Lao is a tonal language. Sadly, I don't think being fluent in Lao is in my near future. We first stopped at an eco preserve near a waterfall where the Lao government has set up several different households of minority groups to live in the same village, each in their traditional dwellings and clothes. This is the villagers' choice, and Udon says the families choose to do this because they get plenty of food and their children get to go to school, which I gather is rare in the minority villages as well as the poorer Lao villages. Udon said even if school is free, which it often is out in the countryside, if the kids don't have money for the uniform, books, paper and pencils they can't go. Also they may be needed to work on the farm or at the family business and therefor not be able to go to school. This eco preserve also helps the minority groups because it funnels the majority of tourists into this manufactured village, where they can take a million photos and see the tribes without damaging the actual tribal villages' culture by exposing them to too many outside influences. Isaac bought a neat but awkwardly shaped musical instrument that we are hoping to mail back home today or tomorrow. I am sitting in our hotel in Vientiane writing this and it has certainly become the proverbial albatross around our neck at this point, albeit a funny one, as we attempt to transport it on tuk tuk, sawngthaew, and my favorite, overnight bus. But I digress. After that we had a yummy lunch at another waterfall, and Udon ordered our food for us so it was delicious. Everything was eaten with sticky rice and we loved it. Soup with lemongrass and tamarind is my other new favorite thing.

After that we rode elephants from the river into the jungle to another village. It was Issac and me on one and Kat and Fredrick on another. The seats were pretty rickety, (Isaac's back/side support was completely broken), so we hung on for dear life when the elephants needed to go up or down hill. I will say that the sun was blazing when we weren't in the forest! We had a great time, with butterflies everywhere and everyone in the village staring at the strange falang (foreigners) as we went through. Not many falang visit the villages that aren't off a major road. Our elephant was pretty hungry and kept veering off course to sneak some leaves, much to the dismay of the elephant trainer. We had just seen her eat a ton of bananas but what can I say, she is a foodie like us. She was pretty slow but managed to pick up speed quiet a bit when she saw a variety of leaves she liked! Kat and Fredrick's elephant kept using her trunk to blow air on them and made sounds that sounded like a dolphin. Truly adorable. We also had a funny moment where I heard Kat (behind me) say to Fredrick "what a weird looking bug OHMYGODITLANDEDONKERRY" at which point I shook my entire upper body, heard a loud buzzing sound, and saw a huge brightly colored beetle fly off my shoulder. Oh, and twice I had the same spider-as-big-as-my-hand in a web right by my head experience as the last time we rode elephants in Cambodia. This is always slow motion scary, almost comically so, because the elephants move SOOOOO slowly, rocking way out of the spider's path and then lumbering back into it. I ducked way down and the spiders scurried away when they saw us coming, so it ended well. Ironically, both spiders were on the side of the elephants that Fredrick and I were on, and we are the two most scared of spiders! Udon later told us that Lao people cook and eat these spiders. No thanks.

After that we continued driving east, into Salavan and Paksong. The weather got cooler the higher into the plateau we traveled, which was a relief, and we stopped by several Katu and Alak villages along the way. The Katu historically carve their coffins way in advance and store them under their raised houses/huts, but since there is a wood shortage we only saw a few concrete coffins. I'm not sure if these are just symbolic now or if they still use these as their coffins. The kids were really excited for me to take their photograph and when I would show them the image in the display they would shriek and laugh and all the other kids in the village would race over and try to get in the next photo.

I must have showed them 10 photos in a row and their screams of delight never seemed to diminish. I could have stayed there all day . I did get a little video of Kat showing them their photos and their reactions after. Incidentally, Aot and Udon love that Kat's name is "Kat" so they renamed her "Meow" or "meow meow", which is Lao for "cat". Everyone keeps thinking Kat is Lao and they don't initially understand that she is American. Udon explained that they never see Asian Americans or Asian Europeans although they do get tourists from other Asian countries. "Falang" refers to white or black foreigners, not asian foreigners. So Udon was explaining to the other Lao people that Kat is secretly "Falang", since she is American. I think Kat has gotten used to the response she often gets after she replies that she is American, which is "but you look like us, where are you really from?". So she just says Korea now when they say that. I am curious to read Kat's blog and see her thoughts on the whole ethnic identity/nationality thing. She has been writing in her paper journal and calling it "blogging" so I anticipate some Kat's Meow blog action when we return. Maybe it's nothing to Kat but I am fascinated by the fact that she is Asian and American seems to be blowing everyone's mind. Next up: Homestay!


Lisa said...

This all sounds amazing... I am so glad you've found some internet access to post on your blog and include pictures! I am super jealous of the elephant ride, spiders not-with-standing. I've had so many huge spiders coming at me in those weird dreams though that I don't think it would deter me!

Donald said...

I, too, am glad you are posting these updates on your adventure! I am captivated reading this! And Kerry, I, personally, would seriously consider eating one of those spiders, just to change the power structure! As if saying to the spider, " Hey, get in my way again, and I'm going to eat you!" he,he....

Anonymous said...

Don, yes, I think they knew that they were potential lunch, because they scurried away quickly! Well I guess being on an elephant doesn't hurt either. I don't know WHAT I would have done if they had scurried the other way, toward us!-