A night up on stilts… (Part 1)

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In pursuit of adventure, Christof, Cara and I turned off the main road near Na Maw, to follow an unpaved route into the northern ethnic minority hill tribe areas. Initially it rolled its way via a string of villages towards the Lao/Chinese border – one closed to non-nationals – but then veered off into the jungle and thinned out into a red dirt track, heading vaguely in the direction of Phongsali, our eventual destination. It was exactly what we’d been looking for. The track was all but empty, hemmed in tightly by jungly tendrils and at times too narrow for any vehicles save adventurous/lost mopeds and Mad Max tractor-trailers.

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Occasionally, it forded rivers, or climbed steeply in rutted steps, or shrunk down to the width of a singletrack. We weren’t keen to wander too far off the beaten track though, thanks to the unexploded ordnance that still litters the country. Laos had the unfortunate position of being a buffer state in the Vietnam War. Despite being declared neutral by both sides, between ’64 and ’73 the US flew an average of 177 ‘armed reconaissance’ sorties a day, in a clandestine war that was so covert that not only did the pilot fly without identification, but the very country itself was classified. The sorties were relentless enough to earn Laos the status of being the most bombed country per capita in history – a story that is told in Christopher Robbins’ The Ravens: Pilots of the Secret War of Laos. The irony was that just two years after the Paris Accords was signed between the US, North Vietnam and South Vietnam, Laos was ‘liberated’ by the communists, the king abdicated and the PDR was formed.

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Christof feeling the heat.

Keeping to the track was hard going enough though, and we were glad to find the settlement of Phu Kham to spend the night, where we negotiated a night stay in a local house. Far away from the tourist grid, our reception was somewhat reserved, though an influx of kids gathered round at the arrival of the ‘falangs’ and their strange bicycling machines.

Effectively a big, open plan room on stilts, the house was clad in wicker lattice and supported by beams and struts. Above, there were wooden tiles; below pigs, chickens, dogs and naked children scraggled about in the dirt – two tiers of life, with three generations under one roof. Flickers of sun permeated through cracks in the floor, walls and ceiling from uneven planks. Just a couple of windows and the doorway provided natural light. It was spotlessly clean, and beds were duly rolled out for us on a large, homemade and uneven wicker mat. Dinner came and eventually went: an near endless supply of sticky rice, and fresh vegetables plucked straight from the garden. Simple, but filling. A few strands of meat hung from a homemade pulley airer above the fire, slowly being smoked; they were destined to be part of our breakfast, supplemented with the usual handfulls of sticky rice.

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Laos aims to incease access to electricity to 90 per cent of the country by 2020 – by which time it hopes to be considered a developed country, and is looking to Vietnam for investment and China’s booming economy for Laotian exports, including hardwood, hydroelectricity and traditional medicines. Apparently, 58 per cent of the country is currently plugged in, though it’s hard to believe the figure is that high. Still, Phu Kham seemed to be doing ok. Every house had a single bulb, and water supply was unexpectedly good and clean, thanks to a German NGO – an example on how reliant Laos has been on foreign support.

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Phu Kham: a bit of an unfortunate name.

Before dawn, the village began to stir. Men handcranked tractors to life and women swept errant dust away between the cracks in the floorboards. Dogs chased roosters, and kids chased dogs. As we awoke and took in our surroundings, a barrel of sticky rice was being steamed around the pit fire, where the whole family sat, warming their fingers and toes – the mornings here are cool and misty in the winter. Laid out on a hession sack, steam enveloped the room as the rice was cooled, rolled, then bundled up into wicker rice boxes and hung on the walls for daytime snacking.

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Off to school: one of seven children in the family.

Later, two tribal women came round to buy cloth. Perched on their heads were pointed hats, with nine silver buttons on the front, arranged in the shape of a square, and elaborate headresses in which they tucked away their wads of money. They wore short, patterned, woven skirts, their shins were covered, their breasts were bare and they walked barefoot, despite the thorny undergrowth and rocky terrain. Their wicker rucksacks were filled with natural dusters plucked from the forest for sale or barter, which splayed out like peacock feathers. Peering into the house to check out the foreigners (news travels fast), they had a good hearty giggle when they saw us. Cara went out to say hello, so they smiled and poked her a bit, all the while chirping happily away to each other.

Our kind hosts loaded us up with a heavy carrier bag of sticky rice – which was to prove more nourishing than we might have expected. Then it was time to get back on the road – or rather the trail – and ride to Bun Tai. Or so we thought…

(to be continued…)

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3 Responses to “A night up on stilts… (Part 1)”


  1. 1 Nguyen Anh Tuan December 24, 2008 at 9:16 am

    Merry Christmas
    Dear Out There Biking

    When searching for the route from Na Maw to Phongsali I found this blog. It is great way to travel you do (biking), thank you very much for a great story about your adventure.

    We are doing motorbiking in SE Asia, you can view about our activities at http://www.voyagevietnam.net with a willing of sharing road information and stories.

    May I ask you a question: Is it possible for offroad motorbike (Honda XR250 Baja) to go on this road (from Na Maw to Phonsali) ? We would like to find the road from Phongsali to Muang Sing instead of taking the road pass by Muang La, Udomxay…

    It is great if you could help for the info. Also if you want to know any road information (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia) just let me know.

    Thank you very much in advanced

    Best Regards

    Nguyen Anh Tuan

  2. 2 cass December 26, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    hi there,
    yes, should be fine to do on a motorbike. there were a couple of river crossings (see picture) but I think they should be okay, though I don’t have much experience of motorbikes. I don’t have my maps with me as I’m travelling at the moment, but the linking section ran for around 80km I think, of which over half is quite tough going.
    have a great ride,
    cass


  1. 1 Trouble in da jungle (Part 2) « out there biking: the blog Trackback on December 19, 2007 at 12:49 pm

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