It’s hard to believe, but some people go their whole lives without coming to Laos.

It’s hard to describe Laos. It’s a wonderful, relaxing, friendly place almost top to bottom. There, I just did it.

Everything is negotiable. Everything is lax. When the weather is nice, as it was for the two weeks we were there, the place is paradise.

Marc with Beerlao
Marc with the best beer in SE Asia, Beerlao

We’re not there anymore. We’ve moved on. By plane. Because we’re flashpackers now.

Asia has turned us into flashpackers. That is, mid- to high-end backpackers: the older set: the ones who don’t mind shelling out a couple extra dollars if it’s the difference between, say, a bathroom or no bathroom, or clean or not clean. The ones who don’t mind flying over taking the bus if the prices are at all reasonable.

Flashpackers: that’s us. Not terribly ashamed of it either, despite our good hardy self-abnegating start in New Zealand and Australia. Are our backpacker bona fides in doubt? Nah. Six months on the road and counting.

After Vientiane we spent a few days in Luang Prabang, a very nice town with a great Hmong night market, before meeting up with Tamar and Christine, from Lebanon; we headed north with them for some trekking and boating down the Nam Ha River.

The tour company that arranged this (it must be arranged; there’s no other way to get up into the hills) screwed up the details – there was, for example, no boat trip – but in many ways this proved beneficial. In the end it was a great trip, for entirely unexpected reasons.

Lisa and moth
Lisa spotted this huge moth in Luang Prabang

We wound up with a local high school chemistry teacher who brought along his students as porters. We still carried our own bags – not bragging, just regretful. We brought too much. I am a mere flashpacker after all. Khammanh, our guide, was a last-minute replacement by the company (which shall remain nameless) that booked our tour, so he had no set agenda except a long-planned visit to a local Akha hill tribe, some five hours’ walk outside Meung Kwa – not far from Vietnam, China and Myanmar, as the crow flies.

Unfortunately we aren’t crows so to get there we’d have to take the crazy roads. The drive to any of those borders would take many long twisting bumpy hours.

Anyway, there aren’t any crows. They get eaten, I think.

(Really, there aren’t many birds in the Lao countryside. You don’t hear them anyway. For centuries villagers have been capturing them with simple but ingenious traps. They sell them by the basketful from roadside stalls.)

Bucket o birds
Bucket o’ birds

The roads were bad enough just to get where we were going. Anyone headed this way should know that the road south of Udom Xai is particularly awful.

Pakha’s folks weren’t sure what to make of us

Khammanh took us to Pakha, a village of 153 people, mostly children from the look of things, some two hours’ walk from the nearest road. Unlike the usual “village homestay” that has become a cottage industry across SE Asia, this visit was unplanned – and unexpected. Pakha, we were told, had only welcomed falang – foreigners – a few times before. Khammanh, born in an Akha village, pays regular visits but rarely brings tourists.

Also with us: a German couple, Volker and Hannalora. A few years ago they worked with nearby villages on water projects.

Pakha is a very poor village and as Volker and Hannalora would tell you, the first problem is lack of water. The women haul muddy bottles of it up a steep slope all day long. All the children are sick, with pink eye, with rasping coughs. Many of the adults have the same cough, due partly to their habit of smoking coarse tobacco through bamboo water pipes. Barnyard animals wander freely: chickens, potbellied pigs, puppies and kittens, cows. It’s the dry season, but it felt especially dry.

pig.jpg puppy.jpg
Pig; puppy

The children were amazed and a little frightened of us, at least at first. We won them over with goofy faces and big smiles. Self-deprecating humor is always a winner.

Khammanh and rice wine operation
Khammanh surveys the rice wine-making operation in a Laos village

The people of Pakha were beautiful people, very welcoming, gracious and friendly. And smart and engaging. The women wore brightly beaded traditional black garb: they glibly deflected our requests for photos. Except on a few occasions.

Late in our stay they brought out a single-stringed instrument that sounded like a wavy violin and gave an impromptu concert. The village gave us a going-away ceremony, the first time they’d done so with visitors: a chicken was killed, its remains studied for portents. Several elders tied a piece of black or white string around our wrists, then placed parts of the unfortunate chicken, with a little rice, in our hands. Volker and Hannalora were veterans of this ceremony in other villages, they had wrists positively wrapped in strings.

Rice wine, real foul moonshine-type stuff, was amply distributed. We ate, we hugged, we gave the village schoolteacher some books and pens. We left.

We visited a Khmer village later, one helped by our German friends’ efforts, and the difference was stark. With a clean steady water supply they have wide, clean streets, and irrigated gardens growing fresh vegetables. Tall strong houses on stilts. Healthy children in the streets. Laundry on lines. Plenty for everyone. But not a monopoly on cheerfulness, or kindness.

Back in Luang Prabang we said goodbye to Tamar and Christine, headed for Burma, and Volker and Hannalora, headed for southern Laos. We were headed for Hanoi. And oh what a tale that will be.

Chicken head Group shot minus Lisa
Chicken head; group shot, from left: Marc (with broom), Hannalora, Volker, Tamar, Christine