This is Mr Ping, a 58 year old Lao Loum man from Muang Ngoi, Laos. Lao Loum are, literally, the low-land dwellers of Laos who live in valleys and along rivers. They are the majority ethnic group in Laos. And meet Miriam, a very chilled out Irish lassie from Limerick. Mr Ping is guiding Miriam and I on a trek up a mountain or two, to a Khamu village, in northern Laos. Mr Ping has met Australians before, but Miriam is the first Irish person he has encountered. Miriam’s photos feature heavily in this post.
Mr Ping is married, and he has four children. Two sons and two daughters. His two sons are in a monastery in Luang Prabang. The Ping family, in the main, are subsistence farmers, and Mr Ping cannot afford to provide education for his children. The sons will stay in the monastery for three or four years. This is a repeat of Mr Ping’s own life; he spent two years in a monastery in Luang Prabang from the age of eight. His memories are not happy, he was bullied and beaten by older novice monks, and he was forced to undertake the worst jobs, like carting water and cleaning latrines. He begged his parents to return to his family home, but it wasn’t until war was in the air that they agreed. He is sorry that his sons must stay in the monastery, but there are no alternatives.
We stride away from Muang Ngoi, and the first stop is at one of the caves that were used by villagers during the Secret War to shelter from the bombs. This cave is where Mr Ping lived, with his parents and siblings, from the age of about 10, until he was 15. Mr Ping is standing in front of the small shelf space that was his family’s bedroom, kitchen and living space for five years.
We continue on our trek, and pass another cave. Mr Ping points out huge fallen boulders and rocks from the massive karst above. This is where some old people died in the war, he tells us. During daylight hours usually meant staying inside the caves, but it was winter and the old people were very cold. They lit a small fire under a tree to try to get warm. It was enough to grab the attention of the overhead bombers.
Further along, he points up to the top of a very steep mountain and tells us that is where the school was during the cave years. One day he and his friend skipped school to go hunting birds. Rice paddies could only be worked at night, and many of them were destroyed by bombs and napalm anyway, so food was scarce. They heard the overhead whine, then roaring as another mother lode tumbled down from the sky. The school was gone, along with nine people, including Mr Ping’s 10 year old sister. As Mr Ping relays these memories he shouts out and makes bomb noises. I ask him if he, at that time, understood why the bombs were being dropped. His look was incredulous. No, he didn’t. Not then, and not now. Did anybody know why, he asked me.
Mr Ping tells us he has a rice paddy, but quite far from Muang Ngoi, maybe an hour’s walk from the family home. It is only three quarters of a hectare, so barely big enough to produce enough rice for the family for the year. Most years, they need to supplement their crop with purchases from neighbours. Mr Ping does not have any buffalo or cows.
Buffaloes, in particular, are well out of his financial reach, costing anything from 6 million kip, or $750, upwards to buy each one. So their rice production is back-breaking, hard, hard work. With a laugh he says it doesn’t matter about the buffalo, because he has many, many chickens and ducks. Plenty of eggs and chicken laab…
In 2000 or so, foreign tourists started to visit Muang Ngoi. Immediately Mr Ping saw the opportunity this might provide. He travelled to Luang Prabang, and found a small English dictionary at the market. It would cost 100,000 kip [$12.50 or so], far more than he could possibly afford – sometimes this was as much as his family was able to earn in a month. He tried to bargain, but the stall holder was resolute, but he bought the dictionary anyway. Mr Ping started to teach himself English, word by word, each night after working in the fields. Until eventually, he had enough words to work as a guide for the tourists who wanted to go on treks.
For the life of him, Mr Ping cannot understand why anybody would want to drag themselves up mountains, through leech infested jungles, across stark rice paddies and fields, to stay in dusty villages that are full of grunting, snorting, mooing, clucking, crowing animals. And that are usually far from any river, and the possibility of fishing. But, as he discovers over the years, this is exactly what tourists want. And it provides a supplementary means of income for the family…
Also, for this trip it gives him a opportunity to make discoveries about a new country altogether: “Miriam, in your country, do they speak English? Eat fish? Many mountains? Any buffaloes? How many people? Can you catch the train to France? Or Germany? How long to fly to Laos?…”. His curiosity is insatiable.
After exhausting hours of upwards climbing [stumbling in my case], and enduring a vivid, wild monsoonal storm that left us soaking and slipping and sliding, we reached the Khamu village just before sunset. Mr Ping generously generously cut his large plastic sheet in two so that both of us would have some protection from the storm. Miriam, sensibly, came prepared.
We ate a delicious meal of noodle soup, and enjoyed sharing lao lao, a potent whiskey made from sticky rice. Miriam kept the home fires burning for her ethnic roots and enjoyed a tad few more than me…
Then it was time to snuggle up in our cosy little bungalow and fall into an exhausted sleep, each of us with a tiny little room separated by bamboo walls that didn’t quite make it all the way to the roof.
The next morning, we were awoken by the ubiquitous sounds of a thousand roosters crowing, pigs snorting and grunting, and cows shuffling and mooing. The village slowly came to life as the the sun rose over the mountains.
Morning tasks started in earnest, including our own preparations for the hike down the mountain, and through the jungle to another village to meet a man with a long tail canoe that would take us back down the Nam Ou to Muang Ngoi.
Mr Ping tells us it will be a slippery slidey day, after yesterday’s rain. And that the path, in part, would be along a river. And that there would be more climbing up before we descended. He wasn’t playing down any of it it.
But this provided Mr Ping’s many and varied incredible talents to shine through.
Finally, after puffing and panting up and down a bit more, bearing witness to the incredible beauty and harshness of this landscape, and the unbelievably resourceful people who live here, we set eyes on the Nam Ou. Only one descent to go…
We travel down the river enjoying the incredible landscapes sans walking, and land on a shady sandbank for a picnic lunch. Mr Ping disappeared, and returned with a banana leaf full of wild chillies. For dinner, he explained. And pointed out how much better the banana leaf was than a plastic bag.