Three Day Trek in Northern Laos
I even watched the chief of one village recline on a bed of Chinese cushions and smoke ten pipes of opium.
But communication with the hill tribe people some of whom don't even speak Lao was difficult.
I was anxious to learn more about the villagers' way of life, so I headed down to Luang Nam Tha and signed up for a three-day trek led by an experienced guide/translator.
The trekking organization was a low-impact, eco-friendly outfit sponsored by the government of New Zealand. Our guide was a young, well-spoken local; he was assisted by a middle-aged lady who possessed the strength of four water buffalo.
My fellow trekkers included four Australians, one Canadian, and a fellow American. They were a friendly bunch, with plenty of travel intelligence and good humor to share. Joking about 80's films and the Jackson Five in the middle of a Lao forest preserve was a surreal experience.
A Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Wild banana trees, gigantic ferns, and cascading vines dominated the scenery on the first day of the trek. We climbed dry dirt paths to the top of rolling mountain ranges and descended again into dense jungle valleys crisscrossed with clear and clean rivers. Simple log bridges spanned the larger rivers, putting my grade-school balance beam experience to the test. Too bad we didn't study slippery rock hopping in gym class.
For each of our village stays we were to be joined by the Chief for dinner. The Chief of the first village was out on business when we arrived, so we were joined by the Vice Chief. He was a short, handsome fellow of 44 who resembled Al Pacino circa Scarface. He came bearing a liter of Lao Lao, which is clear-colored, village-brewed whiskey that tastes like grain alcohol and kicks like diesel fuel.
We sat cross-legged on the floor around low tables and feasted on heaps of sticky rice, pumpkin curry, and eggplant dip. Shots of Lao Lao circulated throughout the meal; the Vice Chief howled with laughter as we gasped for breath after each shot.
Q & A
A parade of village girls piled into our hut as the Q&A winded down. "Who wants a massage?" the Vice Chief asked. Surprised and delighted, we all crawled over to our thin mattresses and allowed the girls to knead our backs with spine-snapping intensity, karate-chop our legs, and give all of our digits a good cracking. Cries of pleasure, pain, and comedy filled the room. The Vice Chief presided over it all, and once our massages concluded he flung himself down on a mattress and had the girls gave him a triple-team speed massage.
A Soggy Second Day
The second evening began similarly to the first, except this time the real Chief joined us. We had another feast, more lethal Lao Lao, and another comedy massage from the village girls.
After the massage the Chief invited us over to his hut, where a party was taking place. Because the rain had prevented the villagers from collecting food that day, they had slaughtered a pig and were holding a feast.
We entered the Chief's spacious, modest hut and sat around a low table that was crowded with roasted pork and various spices. The pork was stunningly delicious crispy on the outside, tender and tangy on the inside; a dip of chili powder elevated the pork to Utopian heights.
We dispensed with the pork and several more shots of Lao Lao in record time and were hungry for more, so we negotiated a deal with the Chief: sell us more pork and we'll share it with everyone in the hut.
Our pooled funds of $3 bought us two kilos of pork. One of the men sliced up the meat while others diced garlic and chilies. The whole lot was fried in a wok atop an open fire. We sat and waited and whetted our appetite with Lao Lao.
But no amount of Lao Lao could obscure what was ultimately served to us in gigantic ceramic bowls: mounds and mounds of steaming, glistening pork fat.
To be fair, there was a bit of pork liver and skin in there too.
Mining through a bowl of pork fat with chopsticks in search of stray bits of meat is no easy task, and we quickly abandoned the pursuit. But the villagers tucked in with abandon. The Chief attacked the fried fat with particular relish.
Our abstinence went unnoticed as the men around us hungrily consumed several weeks' worth of calories.
Mr. Porkman, Bring Me a Dream
Mr. Porkman, bring me some pig
I envisioned a chorus of cabaret girls dancing around a giant Porky Pig figure with a top hat and cane. And I chuckled myself to sleep.
Posted on December 16, 2002 08:47 AM