Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Responsible Trekking

On deciding we couldn't spend our whole time in Luang Prabang in L'etranger cafe and bookshop, Wina and I booked a 2 day trek with 'Action Max Eco tours' after procrastination resulted in a good price. When we turned up the morning of the trek, the first thing the French owner said to us was 'you're not going to make me rich - you got a really good deal'... And I thought the purpose of 'Eco-tourism' was to benefit the local community not to make expats rich... After that uninspiring start, the trip improved. The others in our group were a French couple who'd just been living in Canberra. Outnumbered by francophones, I spoke French for much of the 2 days. I also learnt how to say hello in Kamu and Hmong (Saba Le and Nho Jhong respectively - my own spelling) which were the ethnicities of the minority villages we visited. Our guide Tou (pictured above) was Hmong, not Lao.

The first day of the trek was Wina's birthday so I secretly asked Tou if a celebration or ceremony could be arranged for our stay in the village that night. He said he would talk to the village chief to organise a Basi. Now, I'd heard about Basis from Paul in Vientiane. I understood them to involve drinking alcohol from a communal cup and having bits of white string tied around wrists. Maybe the Basis Paul has attended have been abridged because he's a vegan?? So... I had no idea that disclosing Wina's birthday would make me responsible for a death.

About 6pm in the Hmong village, Tou told me we would have a Basi for Wina but we were just waiting to catch a chicken. Anticipating the answer, I asked what we were going to do with the chicken. It would be killed, of course. I tried in vain to convince Tou that a Basi without a chicken sacrifice would be absolutely fine with me. He went to check with the chief and the shaman but came back with a chicken. Sorry chicken, I tried. In fact, I had to pay 30,000 Kip (US$3) for the chicken. Happy birthday Wina - chicken slaughter is at least an original birthday present. I should be saying 'rooster' because tradition says that at Basis, roosters are killed for women and hens for men. I tried to tell myself that it was a 'cultural experience' to see a rooster get its throat cut, blood drained, dipped in boiling water, plucked, gutted, chopped and boiled... but I still felt responsible and guilty. At least some of the villagers shared in the feast with us. No, the guilt did not stop me having a taste...

The village was incredibly basic. There was no bathroom, at least that we were told about, and the chief's house where we stayed was 4 walls, a roof and dirt floor. The rooster's blood was drained straight onto the floor of the house but quickly licked up by the dogs. I didn't sleep well on the hard bamboo mat. Especially after I woke up to tiny ants crawling on my face, hair and pillow. The other thing I forgot to mention was the mud. Miraculously, it didn't rain at all for the 2 days but earlier rain had left ankle deep mud in some places.

It was an interesting experience for a night but I admit I couldn't live like the Hmong and Kamu people. The shower, massage and body scrub back at the Lotus spa in Luang Prabang were very very much appreciated.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Vietnam continued

From Mui Ne I took the bus along the winding road up the mountains to Dalat. On the bus I met a Canadian living in Hanoi who was working on updating the new Insight Guide to Vietnam so I got to read the newer than new edition hand written on a photocopy of the old one... She also gave me a few travel tips including don't believe everything you read in guide books - which I'd already discovered for myself.

On the bus I also met Milka from Lapland and ended up sharing a room with her in Dalat. I felt very old when I found out she was only 19! I got over that quickly and we did some fun things together like have 20 glasses of Dalat red wine each. Well... we bought a bottle and the local restaurant we went to gave us micro mini glasses to drink the wine from. We also did a great 17km hike with a lovely guide through minority villages, coffee plantations and across scary long suspension bridges.

Dalat is very different to any other South-East Asian city I've been to so far. Everyone in the streets wore beenies and the markets sold only parkas! (It wasn't even that cold...). It's also unique because instead of the usual cry of 'you want motorbike' or something similar the drivers in Dalat cruise up stealthily beside you and almost whisper 'I'm an easy rider'. There are apparently many impostors but the real easy riders have caps with their names embroidered on and have a good reputation for motorbike tours around Dalat.

So one day, I hopped on the back of Nguyen's bike and off we went. One of the most interesting stops was at Dragon Pagoda, so nick-named because of the 40-odd metre long mosaic dragon made mostly out of BGI Beer bottles which I found strange in a Buddhist temple. Incidentally, Nguyen told me BGI is now owned by Fosters.

I also was fortunate enough to be in Dalat for the festival to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the embroidery workshop. Exciting, no? The festival involved 'important' people such as a visiting artist from Hawaii, the head monk from somewhere's brother and a few others being called to the stage and presented with their own image embroidered onto fabric and framed. The 'ceremony' was quite dull but it was great to see the whole of Dalat out enjoying themselves in the street. I can't imagine an embroidery festival being so popular anywhere else.

From Dalat I headed back down the mountain to the hedonism of Nha Trang. For 5 days, I lay on the beach reading and getting massages, swam and did some diving and exploring. The dives were not that spectacular. Apparently all the big stuff has been eaten over the years by the locals.

One day I did the 4 islands 'party boat' tour which started with some snorkelling - but only by me because I brought my own mask and the ones handed out on the boat leaked. I had carried my mask and snorkel for weeks from Phnom Penh through the non-snorkelling regions of the Mekong Delta, Saigon and Dalat so I wasn't going to have carried it for nothing! The snorkelling was followed by a kind of international karaoke where our Vietnamese host, Dat and his boy band of guitars and pots and pans encouraged everyone to sing along with him a song from their country. I was the only Australian and sang along to Dat's special rendition of 'Watching Matilda'! Surprisingly all this singing happened before the 'floating bar' where free sweet red wine was poured into our cups while we bobbed about on various flotation devices.

Prior to that boat cruise I had dined on my own a couple of night and was starting to feel a bit lonely but met lots of people on the boat, one of whom, Wina from Quebec, I have been travelling with since! After a fun messy mud bath to complete my time in Nha Trang, Wina and I went north to Hoi An (gorgeous buildings, too many tailor shops) and Hue (interesting old royal palaces and tombs) then across the muddy border into lovely relaxed Lao!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Fishing village, Mui Ne

Fishing village, Mui Ne
Originally uploaded by nat neumann.
Here is a picture I promised to go with my Mui Ne blog. There are also a few other photos you can view now from Mui Ne, Dalat , Hoi an and Hue. I am very far behind in my posts... too busy experiencing to be documenting. The big news is that Nat's News will again be broadcasting from Phnom Penh from late September where, if all goes to plan, I will be working for a year.

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