Mountain Folks

“ The road from Muang Sing to Xiang Kok passes through one of Laos’s more remote, and at times more lawless, corners. ”This is the admonition in the Lonely Planet guide book. Yet as the sun rises I start walking 20 kilometers or so back to the Chinese border. There I will walk back to Muang Sing. In this way if I succeeded in walking route 322 all the way to the Mekong river at Xiang Kok I will have succeeded in walking across Laos, admittedly at one of its narrowest points.

Muddy rice paddies crowd both sides of the narrow highway. Every mile or so strange bamboo platforms shaded by small roofs made
of palm fords rise several feet above the paddies. I stop to study them. It is then I notice the neatly arrayed cooking pots. The platforms are where Laotian rice farmers eat and at times sleep. I hear the yelling and laughing first then a pick-up truck whizzes past me Ten women with one of their hands precariously grasping a roll bar while standing in the back of the truck, wave vigorously at me with the other hand, while laughing and cheering as the truck spews rocks and grime from the dusty roadway.

A racewalker must be an oddity in this part of the world. I am very curious, however, as to why the women are all topless. Large and flabby breasts giggle in the wind and nearly reach their waist lines which are adorned by long ankle length colorfully flowing dresses.
A few miles later I notice a dusty dirt jeep trail curving its way through the rice paddies. My water supply is low. From the tire tracks, and clouds of dust still lazily swirling above the road surface I surmise that the pick-up likely turned into the road. A crude road sign hand painted with Laotian characters in fading red letters leads me to believe there must be a village somewhere along the road. Always the adventurer, I head up the road. “Surely there are no bandits in such a desolate place” I keep repeating to myself in between prayers for salvation.The thatched huts, some with wood planked porches, are all built o stilts about 6 feet above the ground presumably sheltering families during the inevitable annual season. A few women peer from behind rustic bamboo slatted doors but then quickly disappear into the darkened homes. There is no more laughter. It is then I sense that I have invaded a private space where perhaps a wobbling Westerner is not welcome.

I notice small hut. An old woman dressed in black pajamas which eerily accent her blacked teeth smiles and motions me to the front of the building. There a young boy clad in a tee shirt and jeans first offers me cigarettes and then chewing gum. I wave my empty water bottle. The boy immediately understanding my crude sign language retreats to the back of the hut returning with a filled bottle. After testing the cap and assuring as best as could that the bottle has not been opened, I hand him some Laotian money and start walking back toward the highway. A large group of children descent upon me gleefully mimicking my walking style. I speed up. They start to run. I turn a wave goodbye. The kids wave and cheer as I drink my new found water. It is refreshing even though it is as warm as the late afternoon sun.

At the China border crossing a long line of tractor trailer waits at customs for clearance to enter Laos. The trucks loaded with Chinese goods will ply their way along the highway until they reach the Mekong river were their contents will be loaded on small freighters for transport to Myanmar and Thailand

“You Want Opium”

The afternoon sun begins to lose its luster. Having reached the border I turn around walking back to Mung Sing. I quicken my pace. I know this is not a good place for an aging Westerner to be wandering alone at night.I see him in the rice paddy, bent over  tilling a low mud wall which separates each water logged growing area and serves as a pathway for farmers to traverse the scant quadrants which the local government has assigned to them. I push on conscious of the setting sun.

Delighted that I reached the border and thinking of the strange village I discovered I start to sing one of my favorite oldies “Splish Splash”. My crisp voice bounced and echoed so effectively off of the endless miles of rice paddy water that I did not hear him come up behind me. I felt a brush against my arm and was startled to see the thin mud covered farmer running beside me. His light weight black pajamas aided by a slight tail wind allowed him to keeping up with me as I tried to walk faster. His face was tired, weathered by a life time in the sun. His hair tangled with bits of mud and twigs hid his growing baldness. When he smiled at me I would have instantly judged him to be a nice person if it hadn’t been for the large hoe with a rusty medal blade which he slung nonchalantly on his shoulder. The farmer, now trotting, glanced at the water bottle I was holing. My mind raced through photos of the sun punching the shade less patches of dirty water reflecting and scorching the farmers face. Instinctively I held the bottle out to him. He vigorously shook his head, and used his hand to wave the universal signal for “No”. Unfortunately the hand was also holding the hoe which he now swung menacingly around his head. Terrified, I smiled. The farmer responded by speaking in English “You want opium”. I too shook my head [indicating “no” of course] while walking so fast that the wannabe drug dealer disappeared into the darkening road behind me.

Laos rice field

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