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.

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