Luang Prabang Christmas and New Year’s
There were more westerners in Luang Prabang than I’ve seen since leaving Europe 2 months ago. There were families with young children, distinguished elderly couples from France passing barefoot backpackers, everyone strolling down streets crowded with tuk tuks, outdoor markets selling hippy clothing and silver jewelery, and 100 billion restaurants and bars with the latest in “Falang” (foreigner) food and drink—pizza, beer, baguette sandwiches and smoothies.
Where did Laos go? I couldn’t see the country. There were too many restaurants and guesthouses blocking the view.
Erik and I did have the joy of spending days with fellow cyclists at REAL pizza places, REAL french bakeries, REAL ice cream shops. Christmas slipped past.
I met a Lao woman who runs a cafe/indoor driving range….which led to her inviting me to go camping with her and her friends 20 km out of the city at a small farm for New Year’s Eve. Erik stayed home, still trying to heal from giardia-like symptoms (and avoiding more social situations), and I packed into an SUV with 13 people, plus all our camping gear.
We took a ferry ride across the Mekong River, and suddenly, I was in Laos again. Big old trees, dirt tracks for roads, animals everywhere, little shops, small homes and lots of rice paddies. We arrived after dark at the farm, and I followed the group by the light of a smartphone along thin ridged pathways between rice paddies. We all laughed and slipped on wet mud and finally arrived at a small thatched home where the family has a fish pond, grows rice, and black oyster mushrooms.
Before the young couple came to help on the farm, the mother lived almost alone here, scraping a living by going into the jungle and selling what plants she could harvest. The couple are both well educated teachers in Luang Prabang, now they come home on weekends and slowly build up the infrastructure of the farm. There is no road out to the farm, so construction material or sawdust for the mushrooms, needs to be brought in on their backs. Progess is slow, but steady.
I could not believe these women in front of me. Before we got to the farm, I looked doubtfully at white canvas shoes, tight jeans, little pink and red tops, lipstick and their stuffed animals. By the light of the smartphones, I thought, geez, how are these girls going to make it the night?
As soon as we arrived, they all knew what to do. Get the fire going, set up mats on the ground, and start grilling food. Chicken feet, enoki mushrooms, chinese garlic greens, everything was put on skewers and expertly roasted. Ming, a chinese woman who lives in Lao, told me that if one’s teeth are strong enough, they can gobble up the entire chicken foot, bones and all. I saw it in action.
The evening was a tribute to the Lao people, their joy, their enjoyment of each other’s company. A guitar was brought out and there were sing-a-longs in Thai, Lao and English. I did not know a single song. Games that involved dancing, storytelling, and wordplay brought us effortlessly to the New year’s eve countdown. Not a drop of alcohol was consumed that night.
Most of the girls slept outside, under the awning of a shed, on a tarp as their mattress. I slept in my tent. It rained. At dawn, the roosters woke everyone up and we blearily washed faces in the nearby pond (no running water), and carried buckets of water up to the latrine to ‘flush’.
Through the evening’s conversations, I learned that most of them lived without electricity as children, or if they had it, it was only used at night to illuminate a single bulb in the family room. Now to look at these women, they are more sophisticated than I am, on their smartphones most of the time, makeup, the latest fashions, university degrees, the whole bit.
Many thanks to Noi and her friends for inviting me for a unique New Year’s celebration.