Tuesday, 26 July 2011

A Sketch of a Road Trip in Laos, July 2011

The road from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha is a winding course hugging close to the rolling mountainess hills, typical of such roads in Laos. It is full of sharp and unforgiving bends snaking through the mountains. Straight stretchess seldomn last longer than a couple hundred meters as if a straight road is a wholly foreign and somewhat blasphemous concept in these mountains. The roads are tarred, but unevenly so--wavy and bumpy and 'organic'. An albino water buffalo points its portly round cheaked butt at the passing traffic, it's short tail wagging impotently against bugging mosquitoes.

Perched tightly against the near vertical mountain wall bamboo shafts are rooted and hang loosely over the road, pretending to be weeping willows with broad tearful forest green leafs hanging from yellow green stalks. Under the bamboo fine ferns grow in hairy tuffs and on the open rock face moss grows in in a bright green velvety pelt. A row of ducks march towards a small village.

Every handful of kilometers or less there are small roadside communities of three to fifteen small wooden structures. The wooden huts are raised on stilts, their walls are woven mats made of dried bamboo leafs or strips of banana leafs. The roofs are thick carpets of grass or banana leaves that droop over the edges. Closeby one stilted platform two pygmy potbelly pigs plough with their broad snouts in the mud.

Never have I seen so many naked and half-naked (bottomless) toddlers in one span of time. Naked Mong children squat in the brick brown mud. A naked boy showers under the village tap, oblivious to the passing traffic. Naked children play in a roadside mountain stream, splashing each other with water so their brown little bodies glisten gold. Naked todlers walk hand in hand, frowning at the stareing passengers in the passing vehicles. One bottomless child carries a puppy by it's neck.

The adults seem not concerned about their children walking, playing, sitting inches from the road with its drizzle of metal monsters passing by. These roadside people are hemmed in by danger: the black tar river with its roaring vehicles on the one side and close by the gurgling brown river with its many branches on the other side. Like the children, chickens also cross the road fearlessly. Dull coloured hens take long-legged strides to meet bronze coloured roosters scuffing in the muddy undergrowth.

Every so often the road is blotched, not only with domesticated animals, but with bleeding earth or bloodclot-red rocks from mud or rock slides--an ever present danger with the near constant rain showers this time of year. A herd of ginger cattle take a siesta on the warm tar. They chew the cud nonchalantly while cars navigate their way around them and rocks and potholes.

On the top of the mountains ancient trees stand like tall sentinels, watching over the valleys below. Their woolly bottle green heads cast dark shadows on the jungle beneath them. Loose vines hang like comatose snakes from their dark grey branches. These old-timers have stood there for centuries, weathered the seasons, both natural and political. In the valleys beneath them is the river with its muddy branches and small rice paddies. In one ditch two water buffalo stand flank to flank and whisper to each other.

Mong women work in the fields, or walk with woven grass baskets strapped to their backs beside the road, or sit and gossip on the stilted platforms while making trinkets decorated with tribal patterns to sell to tourist at the markets in the bigger towns. They are dressed in Mong skirts, black pieces of cloth wrapped around their waists with matching head scarfs and tops decorated in tribal patterns. Two dogs, one a dirty black with yellow face markings, the other a mustard beige with a grin, run towards another village to go tell the latest news they have over heard.

In the oppressive humid heat many men walk topless. Their stringly rich brown boddies show-off tight abdominal muscles, a sign of hard manual labour and not enough food to gain weight. A fat Lao is an uncommon sight, and a fat mountain villager even less likely. There are no fat chickens, no fat turkeys, no fat dogs, no fat cattle. Only fat pot bellied pigs and fat water baffalo, but even these are not 'fat'. The topless rich brown boddied men are busy with whatever needs attention, whatever needs fixing or maintaining. They work on the roofs, on broken motorcycles, wooden structures, they fidgit with anachronistic rusted wire-framed sattelite dishes, planted like a tree next to one of the main huts. They carry buckets on poles, or scythes for harvesting rice or cutting wild bananas from wild banana trees. They are busy, but there is no hurry.

Trucks and vans and motorcycles drone by. The motorcycles are either red or blue and always carries an extra bare-footed and helmetless passenger, a young woman or a child. Sometimes the passenger holds an umbrella over the two of them.

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