Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Glamour-kayaking on the Nam Ha river, Northern Laos

Wow kayaking was magical. Yet again I felt transported to a real-life fairground where dreams are realised.

I arrived at the trekking agency all glammed up in my 1950's swimsuit with matching sarong, over-sized sunglasses and a smattering of warm clothing. Needless to say I got some strange looks, but if I'm to run a vintage stall in Affleck's Palace I need to keep up appearances. In stark contrast my kayaking companions, looking like they'd just stepped out of a dire Decathlon advertisement, who boasted about huge river rapids in Tibet, capsizing on the mighty Mekong, blah blah blah. I must admit it was then I started to regret having told my guide that I'm a keen kayaker; I wasn't so sure a gentle paddle on the sea measures up to grade 3 river rapids. I had a helmet and life jacket (much to my dismay as it ruined the Fifties moviestar look I was attempting) so what could go wrong?

Absoutely nothing. Fortunately for me as it's dry season the rapids weren't too scary, in fact in parts we had to wade as the water was so low. I must admit I didn't do too much wading, I left that to my wonderful guide Pon. The reason for this was not that I didn't want to get wet and ruin my outfit, but for the fact that I didn't have appropriate shoes to get out into the water (the day before I'd sustained a rather nasty graze on my perfectly-pedicured little toe). My seemingly unsuitable outfit was actually far more appropriate than any outdoor getup as it dried off in the sun far quicker than those silly slacks where you can zip off the bottoms to reveal a pair of even more hideous shorts. They are surely the most unfashionable clothing invention ever, apart from the awful fishmen's pants which you see every other traveller wearing. Yes I know the trouser-come-shorts are designed for practicality not catwalk glamor, but rather smugly I can report that my companions were kayaking in cold, wet clothing the next day, whereas I was dry as a bone.

Anyway I digress, back to the kayaking. The scenery was incredible - traditional village life was taking place in a spectacular mountainous backdrop as we meandered along the clear waters of the river. We saw young boys fearlessly spear fishing, rugged fishermen huddled around makeshift fires on the shore, wrinkled old women smoking pipes, pretty fresh-faced women sewing in the villages, dusty children playing and chattering farmyard animals galore. I cannot express enough what an enchanting two days it was, made even better with a few thrills of the rapids along the way. AND I never fell out, which two of my "experienced" kayakers did.

The hills and valleys of Northern Laos are sparsely populated with a hotchpotch of ethnic groups from all over South east Asia, each having their own language, culture and traditions. The area we visited is home to the Khamu and Lantern hilltribes who were most welcoming. I found the Lantern tribe the most endearing; they seemed the most unaffected by Western ways. Their clothing was distinctive and interestingly the women keep their eyebrows shaved to show that they are married. Give me a wedding band any day. They found us equally as fascinating, for although they see many trekkers, we are still a source of curiosity and sometimes great amusement. You have to get used to being stared at, just as we at times were staring at them in amazement. I met a lovely old women who moved places just so she could sit opposite me and stare for what seemed liked hours. The many creases in her crumpled face must be able to tell so many tales - if only we could've communicated. I reckon she must have been impressed with my outfit though. I bet the women of the village are copying the look as I write. Keep a look out for the next Lonely Planet Laos, where the author describes traditional tribes trussed up in 1950's starlet dress.

Our home for the night was a basic bamboo hut at the edge of the river, next to a ramshackle Khamu village. Our guides cooked the most delish traditional Laos food over an open fire. We ate tender, smoked BBQ buffalo, spicy Lao salad, sticky rice, piquant roasted aubergine stew and a mediterranean-tasting tomato sauce. Yum. One guide, Su, persisted with his fishing until we had fresh river fish - the freshest fish I have ever eaten - it went straight from the river to the BBQ. The guides are jack of all trades. They are accomplished chefs, builders, fishermen, musicians, kayakers....... The list is endless, so different to many young people at home who cannot boil an egg, never mind skin a chicken (or a civet cat - we didn't eat one but we saw the discarded fur next to the tell-tale cinders of a fire and our guide explained what had been cooked there). Waking up to the dawn chorus of scores of frogs and forest birds was beautiful. It was slightly chilly, but the guides were on hand with a cup of coffee and a wonderful breakfast to give us energy for the second day of kayaking. Paradise.

I've been told that my next stop, Chaing Rai in north Thailand, is rather touristy, so I have decided to stay another day in Laos. I'm reluctant to end this enchanting fairytale life I am living, so I'm going further north to see if I can get a homestay, before an early start at the market in Muang Sing. My guide recommended it as the best way to see the many ethnic groups come together in one place. He also recommended a great place to eat dog. There's no accounting for taste, but I simply cannot bring myself to chow down on a cute canine. Eating a Babe look-a-like is bad enough, but I draw the line at a hairy hound. Besides, Scamp would never forgive me.

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