I was met by my guide, Noi (nickname, means ‘small’ in Lao) spot on time at 8am, we collected the other 2 participants on the trek, Bianca and Simon (a 27 year old town planner and 25 year old graphic designer from Melbourne, Australia) and then travelled 15km by tuk tuk to the start of the trail.
To begin with we were walking through forests and the tall trees provided shade from the hot sun. The terrain, which i remember thinking was a little strange considering we were in the forest, was soft white sand. After about 2km we stopped at Nong Lom lake, a pleasant little clearing in the forest where there lies the remains of a large rice field, the majority of which has sunken into the water below. Nong Lom translates as ‘the sinking of the rice fields.’
We continued our walk along the sandy carpet beneath our feet, leaving the forest and entering farmland, or the barren land being prepared for farmland, where all that remains of the once healthy trees that grew upon it, is a few blackened pieces of wood lying dead in the charcoal mess beneath them.
We stopped for lunch a little early, weakened by the strength of the midday sun, opening up every sweat gland in our bodies. We shared sticky rice and chilli paste, omelette, whole barbequed fish and morning glory. We didn’t share (even Simon and Bianca, the meateaters, left it to the resiliant stomached Laotians) some rather dubious looking pieces of pork which were still covered in prickly hair. Someone hadn’t bothered to shave the pig before butchering it.
When we reached Ban Phonsim (apparently 15km later but i’m sure we can’t have walked more than 10), we were all desperately in need of a cold drink, our water had gotten so hot that if you added a spoonful of coffee and sugar to it you’d think your cuppa had come straight out the kettle!
The villagers at the house where we would stay were making preparations for the traditional ‘baci’ ceremony : a ceremony to welcome foreigners into their home. This would take place later on in the evening, before the eating of the meal which they would also prepare and cook for us. A couple of the ladies were rollling banana leaves into cones and decorating them with white and orange flowers. We helped by tying knots into lengths of white cotton, the purpose of which would be apparent later. We also made a quick trip to the village school to talk to the staff and catch glimpses of the children as they finished their lessons for the day.
Just before sunset, Simon was roped into a game of football with Noi and some of the local boys. Bianca and I sat on a fallen tree on the sidelines, watched the boys at play and took photos of a couple of little Lao kids playing around on a bicycle. When we returned to the house and had showers (if you can call them that!) we helped (or rather, tried to, as neither Bianca or I are brilliant cooks by any stretch of the imagination!) with the cooking of the food for tonights meal.
As the ‘baci’ ceremony began, we were all given decorative scarves to wear, which were wrapped around our bodies and over our shoulders, before sitting down and being presented with our welcome present. I was so impressed with what you can do with a bamboo basket, several handfuls of rice, some banana leaves and flowers, and strands of white cotton : it truly was a beautiful creation.
The family proceeded to the light the 2 candles on top and one by one they would each take a length of white cotton and tie it around our wrists, whilst reciting wishes of good luck and health and fortune in Lao. At the end of this bizarre ceremony, i felt like the bottom half of my forearm had been mumified! We tucked in (rather awkwardly due to having pieces of cotton dangling from our arms!) to the feast that had been prepared in our honour, followed by several shots of Lao Lao, washed down with water.
In keeping with the village custom, a man and a woman are forbidden to sleep in the same bed, even if they are married, so Bianca and i were fortunate enough to be given the bed with the mosquito net and Simon and Noi slept (minus mosquito net) in the bed beside us. We tried to get a (relatively) early night due to having to be awake at 5:30 the next morning in order to prepare alms to give to the monks. However, we couldn’t find the light switch and someone had the T.V blaring downstairs for what seemed like hours, so we all lay there with the light on in a state of semi-consciousness. When we did eventually fall asleep, Bianca woke us all up by having one of her vivid dreams (apparently due to her anti-malarial tablets) and freaking us all out because she thought there was a rabid dog in the room!
Photo is of Bianca, Simon and I with our welcome gift just before the Baci ceremony began, Ban Phonsim.