Laos Homestay and Visiting an Akha Village (and an Introduction to Southeast Asian Toilets)

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Laos and the Mekong River from Chiang Khong, Thailand

You’re in Thailand at a border town spending the night before crossing into Laos.  You get to the bar, you have a nice dinner, and you’re drinking large Chang beers to soothe your tongue after eating fiery Thai curries.  You’re already tipsy but wait as long as possible to break the seal, then head down a dingy hallway and experience the sweet release of drunk urination.  Then you look around and realize there’s no toilet paper, but you, you’re smart and brought your own tissues.  You throw it into the toilet and realize there’s no flush and take in your surroundings for the first time.

Chiang Mai 204At least you’re “Welcome” to sit down to use the facilities, from which vantage point you can better read the mat under the toilet.  If you’ve been to Asia before then toilets like this may be familiar, but seeing this for the first time, as I was … What. The. Fuck.  After staring blankly at the toilet for a while, I realized I had actually entered a real life game of Myst, and in order to get out of the bathroom I had to figure out how to use these seemingly irrelevant tools to flush the toilet.  There’s a faucet, two buckets full of water, and a giant ladle.  Is there a secret flush button hidden somewhere?  Nope.  Do I take the ladle and scoop out the pee and dump it in the other bucket?  Ew, I hope not. Do I stick the hose into the toilet and turn it on?  Nope, the faucet didn’t connect to the hose.   Do I just stick my lady parts in the bucket and then dump the water into the toilet….hey wait!  I think I got it!  I picked up the ladle, and dumped a pan full of water into the toilet, voila!  Flushed toilet.  And after touching that ladle, I was so happy my friends gave me hand sanitizer in my going away packages.  I made a comment about the toilet to my Stray guide and he assured me I should get used to this arrangement and stock up on tissues and hand sanitizer as this was probably the best toilet I’d be seeing for the next few weeks in Laos.

The next morning we woke up with the sunrise to beat the crowds to the border crossing.  We had heard that Laos was a much more conservative country so dressed in pants and tshirts in the early morning heat, we lugged our stuff down the hill to the river and waited in line  for our paperwork to go through.  Hungover as usual, I was looking forward to the change of culture, or at least a two to three week vacation for my hardworking liver.  While we waited I read the wall listing “Lao customs” which included a statement indicating major penalties for non-Lao people engaging in sexual relations with Lao citizens, or even sharing a room with one unless they are married.  So basically what it said was, “WE ARE NOT THAILAND. CALM YOUR DICKS.”

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About an hour later we all got the okay to cross the Mekong and got into a cute little boat that I had severe concerns would capsize under the weight of foreigners and our excessive luggage.

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Fortunately we made it across in one piece, and then got in line again to go through Lao customs.  While we waited, we got yet another reminder in cartoon form that Laos is a conservative country and we should not do as the cartoons were doing, which was getting drunk in public, running around in bikinis and making out all over the place.  Noted.  And as I felt my hangover nagging at me from my stomach, I assumed puking at customs probably wouldn’t go over well either.

Once all of us were okayed to get into the country we regrouped and saw Sigh, our Lao Stray guide waiting for us with three more Australian passengers.  As headed off, of the Australians wisely started asking Sigh for some basic language tips the only things of which I remembered was “sa-bai-dee” which means “hello,” “khawp-chai” which is “thank you” and the unofficial country motto of “bor pan yang” which roughly equates to “no problem.”  He also told us the most important words we would learn for interacting were “laolao” which indicated the local rice whiskey, “beer Lao” which is the national beer, and that the language and people are both called “Lao.”  So basically I could get laolao or Beer Lao from a Lao in Laos (you don’t pronounce the “s”) – I was starting to feel like I was in Smurf village and if I were to smurf English it would be smurfing hard for smurfs to smurf, smurf me?

 As we bumped along the mountainous road with the bus drastically slowing uphill consequently killing the AC, Sigh made it a point to tell us that this was “the best road in Laos, and tomorrow we would be traveling on the worst road.”  Sweet.  And seeing as this was the best road, there were plenty of toilets along the way, so when one of the Aussies had to pee it wasn’t long before we were able to pull over at a rest stop.

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Welcome to the Jungle …toilet

After a few hours drive, we made a quick stop in town indulge in some last minute wifi and to pick up our former Belgian travel companion who had hopped off the bus for  few days in Luang Namtha to do some trekking.  Then, it was off to the home stay.

The bus drove us as close as he could to the village and then it was up to us to make it to our respective homes.  As might be expected, there were no paved roads and the “path” was actually just trodden down mud in between stilted wooden houses with palm roofs.  This would be one of those instances where a backpack may have been better than a rolling suit case.  And where wearing flip flops or sneakers would have been better than heels.  We were split up into groups of two and three and introduced to the families we would be staying with.  In our house, the father who would normally be the one spending time with us, was passed the fuck out since the Lao people were still celebrating the New Year and he’d been drankin.  The host mother, who was a tiny Lao lady with two young children, was quite adept at charades and indicated for us to have a seat on the floor around a tray of watermelon.

Happy to be ingesting something refreshing and probably ideal as a hangover cure, we helped ourselves to some fresh fruit as our host mother got back up and went to the kitchen.  She returned with four shot glasses and a well worn  bottle of questionable looking brown liquid which she pointed at, saying “laolao.” Not wanting to be rude (not sarcastic for once) we all took our shot and said thank you.  She smiled and nodded and poured another shot.  So much for a liver vacation in Laos.

Four shots later Sigh came back in to pick us up and take us to an Akha village, one of the ethnic minorities in Laos.  But first we had to see the hi-tech laolao distillery.

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Onward!  After a walk through “town” where we saw plenty of friendly locals waving, smiling and shooting us with water guns, and then through a country road, and across a muddy river, we made it to the Akha village.  According to our Stray magazine, there was a chance we would be visiting an ethnic group, most of which use a different language than Lao.  Had we been with the Hmong, hello would’ve been “najong.”  For the Khmu it would’ve been “samai leur.”  And in Akha it was simply, “ahv yuuhxv ohf”.  Thanks for just slamming down on the keyboard in frustration Mr. Guidebook writer.  Fortunately waving and smiling is universal language.

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While walking around the village seeing small children and small animals running around everywhere, Sigh started to explain some of the culture to us, and how it differed from Lao culture.  One of the things he was most excited about was how the ethnic minority tribes had less stringent rules about “dating” and in the Akha tribe they actually had huts on the outskirts of the village where dating teenagers could go to be alone.  Yes, teenagers have their own temporary housing for, um, better getting to know each other.  Coming from a culture where all dates have to be chaperoned until marriage, I could see how a Lao person would be fascinated by this.  Fuck, our rite of passage is making out in movie theaters – can you imagine if we gave American kids their own huts for dates?  Actually nevermind, that would be a horrible idea and should never be contemplated.

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The girl in the pink t-shirt is not impressed

After walking around for a while being followed by giggling kids who were simultaneously aggressive bracelet sellers, incredibly shy and amazingly cute, Sigh told us that we would be meeting the village chief.  He yelled up to him in his house and the chief came out on his balcony in his underwear yelled something back and reappeared dressed on the ground floor a few seconds later.  As the ten or so of us crammed into the room sitting on the floor in a circle, the chief started speaking and Sigh helped with the translation.  Then some of the chief’s helpers came out, distributed shot glasses and poured us some laolao.  Three times.  So much for intentions of sobriety in Laos.  On the other hand, five stars for Lao hospitality.  Before we left, the chief came up to me after stumbling through English the whole visit and said, “You are beautiful girl.”  Well at least I know if I want to be a Akha chieftress (what is the right word for that?) I can always come back to Laos.

After the visit, we went back to the village where kids painted our faces for the New Year and then some people headed to the showers.  By which I mean half the people walked down the river to bathe in their clothes.  I instead opted for wiping down with wet naps and then tried to stalk my host mom while she prepared dinner.  When she indicated that she didn’t need any help and that I was probably in her way we joined her kids watching TV.  From what I gathered from the visuals, the program was about a black girl trying to make it singing in a nightclub and her friend was trying to help her confidence by offering moral support and getting her a new wardrobe.  Then on the opening night, she got over her stage fright and blew everyone away by singing an exact recording of a Whitney Houston song.  By the way have you ever seen a black person speaking Lao/Thai?  No, neither have I – which means the “black girl” in question was actually a Lao/Thai actress wearing an afro wig and black face.  Hooray for countries where there aren’t enough minorities for shit to ever be considered politically incorrect.

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(clockwise from small bowl) spicy egg and tomato hot sauce, stir fried cucumbers and chicken, some kind of pumpkin, stir fried morning glory with garlic (yum!)

After our showers, our hosts served us dinner and tried to make small talk.  I mean really small talk.  As in the host dad who had awakened from his slumber asked me where we were from and when we told him New York he had no idea where we was talking about so I had to break out my map (leggings) and point it out.  On the other hand, there was quite a liberal pour of laolao throughout dinner.  Regardless, while it was nice to eat dinner with a local family, sitting and eating with pretty much zero communicative skills puts this on my list of most awkward dinners.

After dinner Sigh came to recollect us for a bonfire outside with the locals, which was brutal as fires emanate heat, as does the rest of Southeast Asia, and we were all wearing pants and long shirts or t-shirts.  The Australians had been accompanied by Sigh during dinner and due to their breached language gap, they seemed to have gotten heavily into the laolao and Beer Lao which was confirmed when one of them rested her head on my shoulder and then fell backwards off the bench.  Her friend who was seemingly less drunk claimed that she had “never been drunk and never had a boyfriend and never did anything with a boy,” which also explained how she was able to travel through Southeast Asia with her dad.

We hungout at the bonfire for a little while sweating our asses off while the village kids came and timidly tried to make friends with us.  The aforementioned sober girl was like the Pied Piper of children and they were all adorably sitting on her lap talking to her in broken English and telling her “I love you,” which I guess is not a bad phrase to learn if you’re going to learn limited English.  I also guess it takes a different type of human being than I to be good with children.  Another kid had found one of our iPads and was engrossed in an intense game of Angry Birds.  Not much of a kids person, I looked up and realized that I couldn’t see many stars.  North Cyprus and I took a creepy walk in the dark to try to see if it was because of the fire, but no dice, there’s just really terrible visibility in Southeast Asia.  At that point I decided it was time to quit drinking and go to bed.  Afterall, if I thought the Thai toilet was bad, using the outhouse squat toilet was going to be an experience that I’d try to sleep through until the next morning when we got back to town.

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