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.