“Are you going to be our guide?” we asked Xiong (pronounced Song). “Yes,” he replied with a big toothy smile. With that and the fact we were the only two signed up, we were sold on doing a two day trek in Muang Ngoi. Xiong was professional but friendly and sincere and we immediately took a liking to him. On the morning of our 150th day of international travel, we set out on a 16 km hike that included an overnight home stay in a local village.
Here are some of the things we particularly enjoyed:
– Xiong singing songs. After five hours of hiking and chatting we asked if Xiong would sing us a local Laos song. At first he refused, but then he said he would sing if we sang a song. We kicked it off with a little James Taylor, “You’ve Got a Friend,” and he responded with a song about a man who wanted to marry a woman, but didn’t have the money for the wedding ceremony. We swapped songs back and forth for a bit and then Xiong kept hiking and singing and we just followed the music.
– Playing with the village kids. Xiong told us it would be a good idea to bring balloons for the kids in the village. It turned out to be a great idea and we spent a light headed hour blowing up balloons. It wasn’t the first time the kids had been entertained by tourists and their balloons, but it was still fun and they got a kick out of it. John also brought his foot badminton and frisbee (the jelly flyer) and the older kids enjoyed those more. Additionally, he got in on the foot volleyball game that is so popular in SE Asia, but was confused by the ever changing rules.
– Learning more about Laos. On the second day we passed a group of women walking to the fields for work. They said something to Xiong and after they passed we asked him what they had said. They said, “Hello. We are very poor.” This prompted a conversation with Xiong about the level of poverty in which the local people live. Xiong said that many of the villagers look at him as being rich, but from his perspective his “riches” are a burden. He has many bills to pay and although he can pay them with his salary, there’s not much left at the end of the month and his time is not his own. He felt that the life of a villager was better in most senses–people work when they want to (which is most of the time, really), the villagers are given land (they do have to pay taxes that equate to about $.25 per year) and have an abundance to eat. Some of the more well to do villagers even have satellite TV! Their life is a very simple one, but he sees the value in the simplicity. The one drawback is health care. There is a medical volunteer in each village, appointed by the government and given a bit of training and compensation, but it’s very basic.
Even though Xiong is financially in a better position than many Lao people, he still isn’t able to make enough money to travel. He has never been out of Laos and if he wanted to get married right now, he wouldn’t have enough money for the ceremony (the equivalent of about $3000 USD). We didn’t get the feeling he was asking us for money, it just came up as a part the conversation. Another reminder to us what a privilege it is to be able to see other parts of the world.
– John trying to pound rice. One of the jobs in a family is to pound rice using a foot leverage device that looks similar to a teeter totter. Let’s just say it looks easier than it is. John gave it a try and did fine for the first two hits and on his third, missed the center and sent rice flying. The woman working the pounder was gracious, but we’re pretty sure inside she was thinking, “you idiot!”.
– Big spiders in the bathroom and cockroaches under the pillow. Enough said. Didn’t really enjoy this, but we had to mention it.
– Dinner with the family. We enjoyed our evening time with the host family which centered around dinner. The man of the house, Bon Ping, spoke a little English so we were able to ask questions and have some dialogue. Of course, you can’t go through an evening meal without John’s beard being a topic of conversation. They got a real kick out of it and we once again heard the phrase, “John same, same monkey.” I guess monkeys look the same in every country. John also came up with some really good questions which saved us from an entirely awkward meal.
– Kayaking. The last leg of our journey was a two hour kayak downriver back to Muang Ngoi. It reminded John of his trips down the Illinois River in Southern Oregon, minus the rapids. We were surrounded by huge limestone mountains covered by jungle. It was a beautiful and relaxing way to spend the end of the trip. We even cooled off with a swim in the water as we floated along.
Xiong has our contact info and has talked about visiting his uncle in Fresno. We told him if he gets all the way to California, he has to come to Oregon so we can take him on a trek. A trek and a homestay in this area of Laos is something we would definitely recommend to anyone in this part of Asia.
We were in Muang Ngoi for a total of three nights. Besides the trek, here are a few other things we found to do there:
– We enjoyed a great hike with Rebecca out to a cool cave that went really deep and then on to a local village.
– Sitting on the sand by the river reading.
– Eating deep fried banana pancakes and sticky rice with banana, coconut milk, and sugar.
– Floating down the Nam Ou (the river) in inner tubes.
– Sunrise hikes to a view over rice paddies.
– Listening to a group of very loud Lao women who had too much lao-lao (Lao rice whiskey) banging on a drum and singing at the top of their lungs. It was distracting as we were trying to have a conversation over dinner, but hilarious.
Muang Ngoi was a very relaxed and simple place. There are no motorized vehicles, you can only get their by boat, the scenery is stunning, and they only have electricity for 4 hours a day. We enjoyed the pace of life and the peaceful environment and were glad to have stumbled across this town.