Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Vientiane Ear Ache

When I went to University, there was a girl who lived in my residence with freckles and brown hair. She never said much , preferring instead to haunt the halls with a permanently forlorn look on her face. She was utterly forgettable, neither especially kind nor fun to be around. In fact, I am quite certain she would have been lost forever in the jumble of my college memories except that one day she over-heard me complain bitterly about an ear-ache. Quite suddenly, she awoke from her brooding gloom, walked across the room and stared at me unsympathetically. With a deep frown, while unleashing the mother of all sighs, she announced:

"Ear aches are a real bitch."

Perhaps she had once said something else to me, but I can't for the life of me recall what. She was a girl of few words, but it was clear to me then that those select few utterances she permitted herself to make, were statements full of deep and penetrating truth. I can think of nobody in the world more qualified than her to put forth this insight, and with such forcefully cogent prose. For surely there is no common ailment more soul-destroying than a bad ear-ache.

It is not often in my life that I get an ear ache, but whenever I do, I am doomed forever to think of her. And so, as I sat in Vientiane, the gloriously understated capital of the forgotten backwater of Laos, nursing a throbbing ear, a cold coffee, and a week-old Bangkok Post newspaper, my thoughts turned, once again, to that poor girl.

This particular infection found its way into my outer ear after penetrating an immune system devastated by the combined forces of a day-long white water kayaking trip, a spot of cliff jumping, and a miserable four-hour ride through the monsoons in the back of a "Laotian mini-van": basically a second-hand tuk-tuk covered in a dirty bed sheet- an arrangement that is about as water-resistant as it sounds.

Katlijn, shivering in the rain, as we kayaked south through the rapids towards the capital.

Pronounced "Wieng Chan" by the locals, and we can thank the French for the abominable transliteration, "Vientiane" is the curious anti-capital of Laos. Paradoxically mixing a small-town easy-going ambiance, with a worldly array of influences spanning Lao people, Buddhist monks, French food, Vietnamese businessmen, American music, and Soviet-era communist propaganda, it is apparently one of the fastest growing cities in Asia. This tumultuous cultural mix and chaotic growth into a capitalist future, however, felt somehow distant and unimportant strolling down its pleasant tree-lined boulevards devoid of any trace of hustle or bustle. Either that, or my swollen ear canal had rendered me half deaf.

Katlijn spots perhaps the country's only decent hog on the streets of Vientiane.

Unable to find the Australian clinic described in our guide book as the only viable alternative to an airplane ticket for Bangkok, I had to come to grips with the daunting prospect of having my ear examined in a third-world medical facility. Vientiane's city hospital lived up to its reputation: a colourless 1960s communist-inspired cement building; its unkept floor sparsely haunted by a sordid variety of bandaged patients and creepy medical gadgets. We found our way through the dimly lit halls to their top ear and throat specialist: a short Laotian chain-smoker with a faint French accent he must have picked up in medical school. Ignoring the "No smoking" sign posted above his head, he lit up a cigarette and motioned me inside.

Through the thick carcinogenic mist that shrouded his tiny office, I could make out a cluttered desk piled with out-dated French medical journals and a single anatomical ear poster festering off the back wall. As he examined me, I heard him whisper faintly into my swollen ear "oh... mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu..." punctuated by an impressed whistle.

He quickly popped in front of me, and exclaimed with eagerness "we see what we can do, non ?" With that, he put his cigarette down, dived behind his desk, and began rummaging frantically through the drawers. Moments later, he popped back in front of me with a long rusty rod hooked up to a large retro electronic control system, and a turkey baster.

"We start with this, non ?"

With an odd surge of relief, I saw him motion towards the turkey baster rather than the rusty rod. Only in Laos could the prospect of having your infection treated with a harmless kitchen implement be interpreted as good news. Regardless of whether or not my ear actually benefited from a good basting, certainly the antibiotics he gave me afterwards proved effective.

Happy to have survived another Laotian medical appointment and feeling myself finally on the road to recovery, Katlijn and I celebrated that evening in one of Vientiane's fine restaurants. Shortly after the second world war, in a master stroke of utter genius, the Laotians kicked out all the French people in their country but kept their French cuisine. Perhaps not surprisingly, the same cannot be said of American fast-food franchises which are now banned in most parts of Communist Indochina. This, of course, is all good news: it might be possible to find superior French food in Paris, but only here could you enjoy it for the cost of a happy meal. Dollar for dollar, Vientiane is certainly one of the world's finest gastronomical centers.

I sank my teeth into a supremely grilled salmon bathed in mustard sauce. Within moments, my ear ache seemed to have faded away, and along with it, that poor freckled girl from my dorm was once again banished to a remote place in my distant memory.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Vang Vieng In the tube

Katlijn grimaced when the old crone offered to take her empty plastic lychee bag and throw it out the window. Chucking one another's trash into the country-side is both socially approved and a Laotian birth-right. The crone eyed my empty Styrofoam curry box curiously, completely unable to fathom why we insisted on carrying smelly junk all over her country on our vacation.

"LAOS… HAS… NO… GARBAGE… CANS,” I tried to explain. She looked at me slightly amused and slightly sad- the way I suspect she might look at her local village idiot. I opened my backpack, “YOU… SEE ? MY… BACKPACK… IS… FULL… OF… GARBAGE!”

Astounded by my bizarre other-worldly mannerisms, she re-doubled her efforts to unload my garbage onto the highway. For several hours, the crone and I locked horns in a battle of will as I guarded my Styrofoam curry box, sometimes with force, from the old crone’s anxious littering hands. Fortunately, by the time we had arrived in Vang Vieng, she had finally learned to accept my obvious lunacy and was snoring soundly my shoulder.

Peering outside the confines of our musty bus, it was clear that we had arrived in a stunningly beautiful part of the world. A panorama of imposing limestone cliffs shrouded in the soft green camouflage of jungle growth, while the Nam Song river wound its way through the karsty portrait. Outside, I could see restaurants serving pesto pizza, happy backpackers milling about, and cheap guest houses boasting air conditioners, hot showers, and even tiny waste-paper baskets.

I pried the old crone off my shoulder, grabbed my Styrofoam curry box, and set off into paradise.

Vang Vieng amid the jungle.

It doesn’t take more than a few hours for Vang Vieng’s superficial charms to fade into distant memory. Contrasting harshly with the idyllic landscape is a sprawl of cheesy bars serving under-dressed foreign girls curiously potent “happy” meals, while brain-washing them with an arrangement of clunky television screens each running a different Friends re-run at full volume. Laotian Pesto is in fact a disgusting blend of spinach and ketchup, and the backpackers weren’t happy at all, they were stoned. This place wasn’t paradise, it was a strange and unnerving Kafka-esque dystopia populated entirely by hippy freaks and college drop-outs.

Hoping to escape this disturbing reality, Katlijn and I met up with a local guide for a tour of the country side. Like most Laotians we met, Phose cheerfully guided us into the steep slippery slog that is Laotian jungle trekking, inexplicably oblivious to the various hazards this might entail. He brought us to what he called the “Nam Song river suspension bridge”: a dangerously dilapidated crossing high above the Nam Song river cobbled out of loose cables and a sparse smattering of slippery bamboo strips. Unable to comprehend our concerns, Phose dexterously tip-toed his way across.

To my surprise, Katlijn threw caution to the wind and took a few courageous steps towards the nearest length of water-logged bamboo before emphatically declaring this endeavor unreasonably dangerous.

A group Laotian toddlers giggled mercilessly at Katlijn as she desperately negotiated the cable’s precarious sag. They gingerly swung around her and skipped across in their thonged feet. Moments later, their pregnant mother lumbered behind, murmured an apology, then meekly made her way across leaving Katlijn dangling sheepishly in her wake.

“Break your bones not possible,” Phose refrained with an astonishing sincerity. He lit up a fag and began bouncing on the bridge. To the frustration of our guide, and the great amusement of the local villagers, we found a kayak and paddled to the other side.

The Nam Song River suspension bridge.

Phose leads us between giant karst formations deep into the Laotian jungle.

A community of Laotian farmers crosses the Nam Song suspension bridge regularly to access their wild rice fields. With an amazing machine-like accuracy, they manage to throw grains of rice into tiny holes in the ground without bending over.

Trekking through rivers and mud.

A picturesque jungle farm where Phose roasts us up a well-deserved lunch.

Butterflies in the jungle.

Laotian karst is home to some of the world's best spelunking. Many of the caves, like this one, are best explored in swimming trunks.

After a thoroughly muddy but enjoyable romp through the gorgeous jungle, we continued our tour by kayak down the Nam Song River. Soon, Vang Vieng’s strange hippy world announced itself once again with an array of bars setup along the river in thatched stilt huts, each of them selling ridiculously cheap booze to a goateed clientele drifting languidly down-river on tractor tubes. Long-haired yahoos were swinging high over the river from ropes, then jumping off with a reckless abandon proportional to the number of consumed lao lao shots and doobies.

Typical Vang Vieng river bar.

Katlijn, shortly after polishing off a Vodka Bucket.

Andrew, with bucket, considering the rope swing.

By nightfall, in a drunken stupor watching three simultaneous “Family Guy” re-runs, Katlijn and I had reached a new cultural low in our world travelling experience, shamefully assimilated into the happy-shake-for-breakfast universe of Vang Vieng.

It's actually kind of fun.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Other Thirty Percent

A bus ride through the gorgeous and rugged juggle hills is the quintessential Laos experience. A rusty ‘nam-era bus. Broken windows and the haze of road dust they let in. A crowd of backpackers piled in the back lazing off crooked seat backs and stacks of rice bags. An Asian bus driver that, paradoxically, drives in an almost sensible laid-back manner. Regular coffee breaks. Communities of stilt houses and thatched roofs rolling slowly by. Their tribal residents decorated in an other-worldly array of colors, styles, and names: The Black Hmong, the Red Dzao, the Akha. This is Indochina in low gear.

Our bus turned a corner, lumbered quietly down a dirt road, and squeaked to slow halt. Its crusty payload of international backpackers hesitated and blinked their eyes before squirming out from between their rice sacks and torn seat cushions. In the sunny quiet, we slowly and deliberately set about the solemn ceremony of unloading our enormous luggage, mounting up, and setting off in small teams to uncover the cheapest hotel deal in town and brag about our ruthless providence later.

Katlijn and I teamed up with an Israeli ex-fighter jet pilot and a tattooed Aussie beach enthusiast- typical backpacker circuit company. As we explored the wanting hotel scene, we remarked to each other how amazingly easy backpackers could go about their business here. In other parts of Asia, our bus would have been surrounded by a sea of slippery touts and over-eager hoteliers. They’d not only unload our bags for us, they’d run off with them to their hostels cleverly forcing us to take up chase. Not in Laos. It seemed the local business community couldn’t be bothered badgering backpackers. Sure, they’d make a token effort to rip us off, but it was done in such a half-ass lazy manner and with so much free lao-lao, that we’d feel almost obligated to give them our money.

There isn’t much reason to come to a place like Phonsavan. Indeed, very little reason at all. Nevertheless, I forced Katlijn to accompany me all the way out here just so I could witness first-hand their main tourist attraction: a grassy field full of broken stone jars called, rather uninspiringly, “The Plain of Jars”. Imagine that ! A plain of… jars ! Of all things ! I found that interesting. There is this place, deep in the farthest reaches of Asia’s mystical backyard, witnessed each day by only a handful of dusty backpackers who actually have the time for this sort of thing, full of giant stone jars so old they pre-date the birth of Christ by more than 1000 years. Oddly, these jars are found nowhere else but here, their extinct society would have devoted massive amounts of resources to their construction, and archaeologists haven’t the foggiest inkling what they are for. That’s incredible ! How can it be that everyone knows Stonehenge, but nobody has even heard of Laos’ giant jars ?

Several theories have been proposed to explain the origin of the plain of jars. The Akha people believe the stone jars were used to ferment lao-lao rice wine, while archaeologists think they may be part of an ancient burial ritual.

A german backpacker puts forth a third alternative.

As we wandered happily about the mysterious plain of jars, we began to notice, for the first time, the ubiquitous presence of the following signs posted all over Laos:

And so, I think this is as good a time as any, to finally broach the topic. After all, I know what you are thinking: all these colorful tribal people and stone jars are fine… but, really, doesn’t Laos have something to do with the Vietnam War ? Come to think of it, if it’s the “Vietnam” War what did “Laos” and “Cambodia” have to do with it at all ? And if this was part of the “cold” war, why all the napalm ? And was it a “conflict” or a “war” and what’s the difference ?

If you ever find yourself asking questions like these, then you are probably a closet Vietnam War ignoramus and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. After all, between all the double-speak that developed to explain the unthinkable and all the stoned journalists telling the story, it isn’t surprising nobody really understands what happened anymore. However, the details of Laos’ tragic story seems to occupy a particularly nebulous realm in the already foggy place of the American-Vietnam psyche.

Vietnam era bombies: small clusters of metal balls packed together in clay and gunpowder. Thousands of these were dropped at a time to engulf several football fields of area in a deadly spray of shrapnel.

Despite all the confusion, the story line is very simple. The infamous “domino theory” was coined by John F. Kennedy to garner popular support for his increasingly hawkish interpretation of events in Laos, not Vietnam. These comments were made in response to political events developing in favor of a communist-inspired resistance government called the Pathet Lao. To prevent further escalation, a 14-nation conference was held to create the Geneva Accord of 1962 which strictly forbid the presence of foreign military in Laos. The tragic story is that everybody violated this accord for a very long time.

Bomber releasing bombies over a target.

It would be unseemly to announce in public the wanton dismissal of a major international agreement, so the war was conducted in secret. The “Secret War” lasted nine years and involved foreign superpowers (America, China, USSR) playing off native Laotian pawns (Thai-Hmong tribal groups and the Pathet Lao) against one another, while committing air support and ground troops of their own. The war was such an embarrassing secret that the name of the country was banished from all official communications; participants darkly referred to activities in Laos as “the other theater”. Pilots directly involved in the bombing, were asked to dress in civilian clothes so they could not be traced back to the United States. Since the war was in violation of a Geneva accord anyhow, it made sense to ignore the rest of the international rules of engagements while they were at it and what happened in “the other theater” was so horrible it had to be obscured in a confusing array of nebulous euphemisms forever. However, I will refrain here from the stylized diction of the stoned ‘nam embedded journalist, and stick with the facts:

  • On average, one planeload of bombs was dropped on Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years at a cost of 2 million US dollars per day.

  • Between 1964-1968, nearly half a million tons of ordnance and 200,000 gallons of agent orange had been let loose on the country. At about this time, bombing was halted in Vietnam increasing the available air power to drum Laos.

  • By the war’s end, approximately 1.9 million tons of ordinance had been dropped on Laos, or over half a ton of explosives for every man, woman and child living in Laos.

  • On a per-capita basis, Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the history of warfare.

During the secret war, seventy-percent of the ordinance detonated successfully. In addition to an astonishing inefficiency, this figure highlights another issue: what about the other thirty percent ? And finally, brings us back to those signs and the subject of this post.

The short answer is that it has been re-integrated back into the local economy. True, some of it still goes off from time to time when a decades-old bomb sunk in the muddy rice fields meets a farmer’s plough or a tourist’s hiking boot; Laos is no place to wander off the beaten path. However, the vast majority of it is meticulously recovered and sold-off as scrap-metal for such mundane items as village flower pots, kitchen ladles, and thatched-roof supports. There were so many bombs dropped on such a poor country, that the left-over ordinance has become a commonplace commodity occupying the most mundane and banal items of daily village life. The locals barely notice that their tulips are growing out of bullet-ridden army helmets and that their families live in homes curiously cobbled together by spent artillery shells.

An abandoned soviet tank in Laos has since been picked clean by scavengers and resold as scrap-metal.

House support, fence, and herb-garden built out of spent artillery shells and bomb cartridges.

In addition to an increase in demand from American journalists and GIs, a newly-formed landscape of bomb craters created a boom for the local opium and heroine industry. Runoff collected in the bomb craters provided a perfect nursery for growing opium poppies. Poppies were grown in these bomb craters long after the war until the industry was made illegal in Laos only five years ago.

Not to undermine the problem of unexploded ordinance in Laos. American bombs of the era were designed to maim, not kill, and this cruel logic is still being unearthed more than thirty years later. The Laotian scrap-metal trade is as wicked as the war that initiated it. After all, who better to find and dig up lethal baseball-like bombies than the little fingers of child-labour ? The small cadre of Western volunteers trying hard to dismantle and remove dangerous ordinance from Laotian communities are often disheartened by the angry looks of villagers watching on as potentially useful and profitable commodities are taken away from them.

The mysterious stone jars were badly damaged during the bombing of Laos, irreparably complicating the process of understanding the past. Today, there exists a field of mostly smashed jars lying about a forgotten backwater of Laos: a kind of shrine to wasted resources attended to regularly by a clergy of gap-year backpackers.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Bumps

As I sipped from a cup of coffee and sunk my teeth into a bacon and egg bagel sandwich, the portly American manager badgered her Lao employees then complained about them to her disinterested breakfast clients.

“You have no idea how hard it is in Laos to find someone who can get up on time and decently work a latte machine!” It was a modern-time American mass-consumer echo of the French Indochina rice-listening parable.

The manager continued waddling through the cafĂ©, occasionally asking us about our order. “Is your coffee hot? Are your eggs cooked?” Truth be told, my mug was lukewarm and my sandwich downright runny. I cravenly hid behind my precious week-old English language newspaper feeling faintly sorry for everyone involved in this scene.

We were in Luang Prabang, Laos’ foremost tourist showpiece. It was the home of the Lao monarchy, until the end of the Vietnam War when communist inspired Pathet Lao forces rounded the royal family up and locked them away in a nearby cave. For the next four years, they slowly starved to death. However, that was then and this is now. Since the fall of the Soviet bloc governments and the opening of legalized private enterprise in communist Laos, Luang Prabang has transformed itself into a premiere South East Asian tourist mecca- and all the dodgy coffee shops, pizza restaurants, and smoky sports bars that entails. Not to mention the backpackers. Loads of them.

The Luang Prabang night market sells a decent array of local tribal crafts.

Katlijn on a sunny day by the Mekong.

But I’m not here to disparage Luang Prabang. Despite the annoying preponderance of western youth backpacker culture, it is still a sunny happy place nestled between green mountains at the confluence of the Khan and Mekong Rivers. No trip to Laos is complete without a day or two spent strolling through the relaxed palm-lined streets, the dignified crumble of stately French colonial buildings, and the gleaming rooftops of an ancient Buddhist heritage.

A bird's-eye view of the KhanRiver winding through Luang Prabang and the surrounding mountains.

Wat Xieng Thong's elegant roof-top sweeping low to the ground is typical of classic Lao temple architecture.

Starting from the snowy peaks of the Tibetan plateau and making its way to the delta region of Vietnam, the Mekong is one of the world’s great rivers. There are two ways to visit the Mekong from Luang Prabang: a twelve-hour leisurely float through a serene world of fishing traps and rolling jungle scenery, or a harrowing forty minute white-knuckler as your speed-boat hurtles up-river and the Mekong valley rockets past you. The former involves a good book, plenty of time for self-reflection, and a slow numbing of the senses brought on by a full-day of continuous on-board boozing. The latter involves a crash helmet, frequent collision, and a suicidal disposition. Wisely, we opted for a delightful twelve hour drift into a quiet lao-lao induced coma.

Making its way through Tibet, China, Myanmar, and Vietnam, the Mekong's famous waters have flowed past some of the most dramatic and bloodiest events in human history.

We came to sometime after sunset at a tiny fishing village called Pakbeng. Arriving from the other direction was a larger, and much louder, boat loaded with what sounded like a cargo of backpacking frat boys. Alas, the quiet lao-lao induced coma can only be enjoyed going up-river as the down-river boat takes on all the backpackers riding in from Thailand. Not much can be said of Pakbeng itself, except for one thing: I have checked my diary carefully now and shortly after we spent a night at one of Pakbeng’s many cruddy hotels, I had my first occurrence of a mysterious re-occurring skin irritation Katlijn and I subsequently referred to as “the bumps”.

Mysterious re-occurring skin irritations are, as you might imagine, an integral part of the South East Asia low-budget travel experience. Backpackers, in general, attribute any skin irritation to a generic phenomenon they call “bed bugs”. Despite having no idea what bed bugs actually are, backpackers nevertheless always arrive at this diagnosis with certainty, though the details of the inevitably woeful prognosis vary in a unique kind of morbidly creative flourish especially reserved for this sort of ailment (“they carry diseases”, “they lay eggs… underneath your skin”, “they’re still living…in your sleeping bag !”).

Bed bugs have therefore taken on the stuff of legend. Probably because of this odious and inflated reputation, nobody seems to ever have had bed bugs though, oddly enough, they “know somebody” who did and so can rattle off a long list of potential remedies that run the entire gamut of common sense from skin ointments to setting fire to your entire backpack.

Unfortunately, there was no shameful hiding my bed bugs from the frat boys the next morning. I didn’t have a choice- I was covered in the bumps. While a few of my fellow backpackers treated me and my potentially contaminated backpack like the bubonic plague, most were genuinely understanding and the ensuing debate on the nature of bed bugs and potential solutions to the problem served as an effective ice breaker. Together with our new-found friends, we whiled away twelve hours together on the Mekong playing cards underneath a steady stream of drunken backpackers making their way to the on-board bathroom. Needless to say, we saw a lot more cards and booze than scenery on the return journey.

Not for the faint of heart, Luang Prabang's morning market stocks some curious produce.

Alarmed by my rapidly spreading bed bugs and the developing backpacker lore surrounding them, Katlijn and I made our way to the local hospital back in Luang Prabang. South East Asian former communist block medical facilities are, in a word, deplorable. Any self-respecting tour guide will tell you to take you and your mysterious re-occuring skin irritations straight to Bangkok if symptoms persist- and with good reason. The local Laotian hospital looked like a converted bomb shelter with all the clinical sterility of your local fast-food burrito outlet. I tripped over an obsolete French medical text on the way in and we made our way through an eerily vacant cement bunker towards a very bored and unimpressed receptionist. She eventually led us to an examination room filled with a collection of macabre medieval medical contraptions. We were left a long time alone with our thoughts of all the sawed off limbs and leechings that probably occured in this very room.

“Whatever you do,” Katlijn warned me, “ don’t let them stick anything in you.”

A nurse finally came in to examine me. She proceeded to poke at the red bumps on my leg and give me a blank look. Finally, she muttered a few consoling words in French and suggested I go home and take a shower.

The backpacker circuit concensus for a bad case of bed bugs seems to be tiger-balm, though in my experience, this remedy has about the medical efficacy of a particularly stinky placebo. However, I was desperately itchy and willing to heed any medical advice I could get, no matter how dubious but just short of burning my backpack. I had a long scolding hot shower and bathed my entire body in about half a bottle of tiger balm. Within moments of lying down in bed, a painful burning sensation seized control of my entire body which, in all honesty, was moderately more pleasant than my untreated bed bugs.

The next morning, I found myself reeking of Menthol hiding behind a two-week old English language newspaper listening to a corpulent American woman berate her lethargic Lao employees to a motley crew of indifferent backpackers nursing their hangover with mugs of lukewarm lattes.

As much as I loved sunny happy days on the banks of the Mekong at Luang Prabang, I desperately needed a change in scenery. It was time to move on.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Party-on Aka dudes !

"One Chinese does work of two Vietnamese. One Vietnamese does work of four Cambodians. Eight Laotians like one Cambodian," explained our Laotian waiter while beaming with pride at his restaurant's lackluster service. In a similar vane, a famous colonial proverb from the days of French Indochina roughly translates to, "The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Laotians listen to it grow." It is a well-known fact, not to mention a source of great national pride, that Laos is THE laid-back land of under-achieving layabouts.

At least this is the image of Laos which is carried around the globe by legions of crusty-haired, guitar-toting travelers who inevitably flock here to fill their days with such noble pursuits as hanging in a hammock and drinking from those wonderfully Asian super-sized bottles of Beer Lao. So successful is Laos' anti-tourist campaign, that it has become a staple in the South East Asia low-budget travel circuit and a kind of modern hippie pilgrimage site trying desperately to rekindle the magic of 1960s Shangri-La. In other words, contrary to the undiscovered country you might expect to find, there are a lot of backpackers here.

Katlijn enjoys a typical Laotian snack of lime juice, soup, and a basket of sticky rice.

Unlike Thailand, Vietnam, and parts of Cambodia, Laos doesn't yet have the infrastructure to cater to anyone but the ubiquitous backpacker, but this is all changing. Snaking through the hills of Northern Laos, past charming thatched huts of ancient tribal people watching curiously from the roadside, is a sleek two-lane highway- as refined and modern as anywhere in the world. Laos just happens to exist along the shortest path between two of the world's great emerging economies of Thailand and China and, fortunately for a land of rice listeners, huge amounts of money is coming in from abroad to upgrade Laos' roads and facilitate their trade.

Our shiny black minivan glided into the remote town of Muang Sing, just south of the Chinese border. After dropping us off amid this backwater, we watched in silence as the anachronistic van glided further north disappearing into the horizon with its valuable payload of Singaporean and Malaysian businessmen. We silently turned around and walked into town through endless fields of rice paddies and the prevalent stench of farm animals.

A carved wooden gate is typical of Aka villages in Northern Laos. Interestingly, the appropriate etiquette is to walk around the gate rather than through the gate. These entrance-ways are reserved for use by their animist spirits.

Many of the carvings around these doors represent phallic symbols of fertility.

Muang Sing was the starting point for our trek to visit the Aka people, one of Laos' many remote semi-nomadic tribes occupying the picturesque hills along the Mekong River. Our guides were a good-natured farmer/teacher named Saw who loves British Premiere League soccer, and his trusted side-kick who loves green soccer socks pulled up to his thighs. They cooked us our food, guided us through the jungle, and spoke English, Lao and the local tribal languages. Like most Laotians, they smiled a lot and professed to the national ideal of working as little as possible and indulging in plenty of Lao Lao.

"Lao Lao" is the most important word in a Laos backpacker's local vocabulary. In it's simplest form, it roughly translates to "a dodgy rice spirit aged in rusty Vietnam war-era scrap metal." However, it can be used strike up a conversation with just about anybody in Laos who doesn't speak your language. Merely mention the word in passing to a random bent-over rice crone, and you will almost certainly be rewarded with a toothless grin, a tour of his personal shrapnel ridden distillery, followed by several drunken hours in a joyous linguistic exchange of profanities and Lao Lao synonyms. Truth be told, Lao Lao tastes like a bad sake with bits of rust floating about in it. However, the fact that it is often served to you out of a spent artillery shell using an old American GI helmet adds a certain macabre charm to the entire binge drinking experience, somehow making the whole language exchange with your new Laotian farmer friend all the more funny.

In addition to our guide, Saw, we were accompanied by a Scottish backpacker, James, an Aussie couple, Mark and Sara, and a token tribal guy who didn't really do much, but served the important role of earning the trekking company a coveted spot in the Lonely Planet's eco-friendly tourist page.

Our party from left to right: James, Saw, Katlijn, Mark, Sarah, the token Aka guy, and Saw's side-kick.

Mark crouching between our guides, Saw and his side-kick.

Our first day in the Lao jungle helped us better appreciate how miserable life must have been during the war: the pouring rain, the dangerously steep and slippery jungle terrain, the manically delusional Asians: "breaking your bone not possible !" Saw persisted in the face of commonsense. It was like a real-life 'Nam experience. James even slipped in the mud and impaled himself on a bamboo stick.

After a long, wet, eight-hour slog we were delighted to stumble into a clearing at a remote Aka village. Gazing for the first time at a Laotian tribal village in the heart of a green tangle is truly one of the Indochina's most inspiring experiences. A gorgeous patch of bamboo huts and water buffaloes amid the green jungle-clad remoteness. Thin muscled bodies of men returning at dawn from their work. The full splendor of an ancient and forgotten slash-and-burn agricultural society unveiling in the sunset.

Arrival at our first remote Aka village.

James entertaining the local Aka kids. He was delighted to find one of the locals selling Beer Lao to passing travellers.

Aka villagers making green tea.

The villagers had built a special bamboo stilt house for visitors, which transforms into a kind of foreigner animal house whenever Western backpackers pass by. We announced our presence with some awkward naked fumbling at the village shower, soon attracting a devoted crowd of Lao-Lao toting party goers who followed us back to our thatched abode and the most happening club-scene in the jungle. Our Scottish friend, James, was in his element here: a master at the art of drunken linguistic exchanges, he used a tiny picture book to teach the Aka people a remarkably diverse and creative anthology of drinking games. As our evening descended into bizarre blend of Scottish bar culture and Aka fart jokes, a number of pretty young tribal girls joined us to end the evening with a traditional massage. Lying on my stomach with a tiny girl crawling up and down my spine, I vaguely remember James' robust Scottish accent bellowing proposals to his masseuse, until this whole weird surreal world started spinning about me in a metallic rice-wine induced deluge, and I passed out for the night.

Massage is an important part of Aka culture. It is tradition, not only for each village girl to massage weary travellers, but also her father-in-law.

Slightly inebriated, Saw and his side-kick sit in the animal house and show off their tasty Lao mealtime creation.

The Aka village under a blue sky, shortly before we departed the next morning.

Our second day of slogging through the jungle began in the aftermath of a night's worth of Lao Lao and rust-poisoning reverberating through my skull, but ended more pleasantly with gorgeous panoramic views and sunshine. Though I never thought it possible, the second Aka village we arrived at late the next day was miraculously more gorgeous than the first.

Banana leaf lunch-time in the jungle. Absolutely delicious !

Water buffaloes bathing in the mud: an integral part of the tribal economy.

Aka swing set with tribal village in the background. Teenage Aka boys and girls meet and flirt with each other in this swing set during special inter-village celebrations. About six months before marriage, a new thatched hut is built for the girl, and her secret fiance is tacitly allowed to sneak out to stay with her over night. Most Aka girls are married by the time they are fifteen years old.

Saw instructed us to walk another half hour to find the village shower: a small waterfall descending a steep embankment. We arrived during the height of the tribal bath time and were met with a god-like display of finely toned, muscled, and bronzed naked men- perfect specimens of human beings that look like Michelangelo sculptures come to life. These were bodies that could only have been conceived from a life-time of natural foods and manual labour.

As we self-consciously stripped our clothing off, I heard Mark's disheartened Aussie accent mumble under his breath, "bloody oath, it looks like a body building convention here." Needless to say, our white, hairy bellies fumbling between their sculpted Asian pecs, was a damning testimonial to Western decadence.

James allays the pain with a giant bottle of Beer Lao while Mark and Sarah attend to his recently impaled hand. When James fell on the hard bamboo pole and needed stitches, Saw suggested he visit an Aka doctor who turned out to be the village tailor. Fortunately for James, Mark and Sarah had brought along their first-aid kit.

Aka village school. Very few skilled teachers are willing to hike out to these communities. Our guide, Saw, was such a teacher and use to hike 68 kilometers in one day to reach remote villages to teach their children.

While Saw swung lazily in his hammock, we spent the night slowly acclimatizing to the Aka's noble way of life: admiring a spectacular night-time electrical storm, sipping idly from giant bottles of Beer Lao, and letting the local ladies kneed our weary calf muscles. We all looked at each other thoroughly contented. It occurred to me, with great surprise, that somehow our pilgrimage deep into the dark Aka heart of the Lao jungle, far away from the backpacker circuit, together with our tribal hosts, we had somehow managed to rekindle the magic of Shangri-La.

Our post jungle trek celebration with Lao-style home-made flat noodle soup.