16. loka, 2016

A peek at village life in Nam Than, Lao

I'm a little apprehensive as I enter into this pitch black room through it's somewhat wonky door. I'm greeted with a cloud of hot steam and herbal fragrance. Once I've stood in the dark long enough, my eyes finally make out the outlines of a wooden bench by the wall. I take a seat and breath in the fragrant steam. I'm wearing this cotton scarf and a bikini underneath. I've arrived in a sauna in Luang Nam Than village, Lao.

I relax into the blissful warmth of the sauna and think back to the days events. I massage my shoulders, which feel tired after carrying a backpack all day and stretch out my worn out knees. I close my eyes and return once more to the challenging jungle trek of today.
I'm walking along a narrow, windy path in the middle of a rainforest in the Nam Than nature reserve. The jungle that surrounds me is dense! The singing of birds and cicadas paired with the sounds of crickets, ring in my ears at quite an impressive volume. Out of what must be hundreds of different types of trees and plants, I only recognise a few. From what I can see there are bamboo, wild banana trees, coconut trees, mango trees and rubber trees.
There are lots of different types of vines and I get my foot caught in one a few times, which nearly sends me flying each time. The path ascends up the side of a mountain at a pretty steep angle. My pulse is ticking and I'm so out of breath! Thankfully our guide, Air, whips out his machete and in no time at all, turns the path side bamboo in to walking sticks for us. The biggest challenge comes from crossing the streams in the valley below. Some of the time, we're balancing on tree trunks bridging a stream and other times we're trying to hold our footing on the slippery stones below the surface.

We sit down for a break on a banana leaf, that our guide has kindly spread out on the ground. Another leaf operates as our dining table. He offers us some sticky rice, spicy, marinated bamboo shoots, fried fish and some boiled chicken. There are no plates or cutlery around so we indulge in the food, local style; with our hands. We admire the sizeable and colourful butterflies, fluttering around us. Besides birds, termites, bees and snails, they are the only animals we see on our jungle adventure. We had guessed beforehand that the protected tigers and jaguars of the area, would probably not make an appearance. I'm especially glad that we didn't encounter any snakes, although I'm not sure how many of them our guide might have seen, since he walked ahead of us.

This path is the only road to the village of the Khamu-tribe and we finally arrive there after three, long, sweaty hours. This relatively primitive, sun soaked village, is like another world, one unfamiliar to us. No one appears to be in any rush here. It's time for midday siesta, so people are sat or stretched out on their porches and a few of the women are knitting bags out of thin yarn.

Someone’s rocking a baby in a basket that's hanging from the ceiling. There are children running around on the yard, the youngest ones naked and brown from all the sun and dirt. Some cockerels are having a fight and making raspy crows as they do so. A hen wanders about with her chicks behind her. The village dogs bark at us strangers. Little black piglets are playing chase. The village eldest comes over joyfully to greet us. He's a small, bony man, who's seen life over several generations. I imagine he must have told the youngsters of the village a great many Khamu stories, while sat around the fire at night. The tribe’s language and traditions are passed down orally, to the generations that follow. There’s a small shop in one of the houses. The saleswoman smiles happily as we buy some drinks. We want to support this sole entrepreneur of the village, even though we still have three litres of water left in our bags.

Just as we're about to leave the village, we notice that on the side of it, tucked away, lays a leaf roofed rice barn that's been built on top of pillars to ensure that the rice survives, even in the case of a fire. We also wonder about this peculiar little crisscross, assembled from sticks, laying on the ground with a blue shirt placed on top of it. We get told that one of the villagers is sick. The shaman had built this contraption around the sick person, read some spells that are meant to heal according to Khamu beliefs and then transferred the illness and any evil spirits residing in the patient, from the person into their shirt instead. The shirt was placed outside of the village and the patient returned home, considered healed according to their animist beliefs.

We spot thick smoke coming from the edge of the forest, just outside the village. We meet some women there, who are burning some land, in effort to create more farmland. All of the strenuous jobs, such as farming rice and collecting firewood are considered women's chores in the Khamu society. Men, in turn, take care of fishing and hunting. We hear a few shots even now, as the men of the tribe shoot their prey with small calibrate shotguns.

The heat of the sauna feels drowsing. I awaken from my thoughts and decide to ditch the steam. I rinse myself clean by scooping water on myself from a big water container. Soon after, I step into the still warm, although dark, outdoors, feeling refreshed. The lights of the evening market shine at me rather enticingly.