OK, OK, since so many people want to know… we did not actually eat the rats. They were not offered to us and were instead eaten by the guides and village women who were cooking. Unfortunately, they are probably used to westerners squealing and then photographing their dinner, one of their only sources of protein. Honestly, it just did not seem that gross in the middle of the jungle. Several claim that they were fully prepared to eat them…
From Luang Prabang we traveled eight windy, bumpy (and for some team members, barfy) hours by minibus to the town of Luang Namtha — one of the jumping off points for exploring the Nam Ha National Protected Area — for a three-day guided jungle trek. The highlights of this adventure on the eastern edge of the Golden Triangle were not found in the hiking itself or in the flora and fauna, but in the people.
On the hiking: it was steep up and down, at times treacherously slick, jungle trekking with few views through the dense foliage (despite relatively high ridge and summit trails) in what an Ashevillian (not to mention a Vermonter) would consider extreme heat and humidity. (Nonetheless, our guide, Tom, referred to this time of year as the “cool dry season”.) On the fauna: we saw little of it but heard some pretty “jungley” noises probably produced by birds and frogs (interspersed with some mysterious nighttime shrieks and crashes). On the flora: we saw a lot of it, but, with no expert botanist with good English language skills on the team, we did not learn much about it.
The people made the trip. Our guide Tom was a gentle, knowledgeable young man who, along with his sidekick Zhuan, could fashion almost everything you would need out of the raw materials around them (mostly bamboo). These items included strong, light weight rattan walking sticks; bamboo picnic tables, shot glasses, chopsticks, spring loaded pea shooters; and banana leaf food wrappers. Our fellow trekkers Pawel and Goshe provided good stories of previous treks in Ethiopia and important insight into their recent trekking experiences in Nepal (where we hope to trek next month). Pawel’s camera size (large) and shooting frequency (often) indicate that he will produce some great images (which we hope to receive by email someday). Our other fellow trekker, Ian, was a mechanical engineer with the Mars Curiosity mission, responsible, among other things, for the percussive part of the rock drill the rover has recently started using to take samples of Mars’ rock layers. The drilling had just started when Ian left on the trek, so he was anxious during the trek to find out whether the drill (specifically the percussive element) actually worked. (It did.) Ian’s knowledge of things galactic came in handy when answering the boys’ many questions about life on Mars and etc. We’re calling those Q & A sessions homeschool science class for the week.
Night one was spent in a rustic jungle camp. Among the practical issues faced by residents of a jungle camp is protecting food (here sticky rice grains) from rodents. Snakes take care of part of this problem, but the complete solution involves trapping, roasting and eating the critters, specifically jungle rats. Sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and served with a variety of meat, vegetables and spicy sauces was the order of the day at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Day one: “I love sticky rice!” Day three: “Oh no! No more sticky rice!”
Night two was spent in a Lanten village. The Lanten (variably known as the Lantien, Landian, and Yao Mun) may have originated in the Yangtse River Valley of China but migrated south into southern China and the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia during the last centuries. They are closely related to the better-known Hmong (better known in the US for their role as our allies during the Vietnam War). Walking into this village, accessible only by footpath, was a highlight of the three days. Chickens, pigs, dogs, and cows roamed unfettered through this community of 113 souls (down from 115 a month earlier). The effects of poverty (and possibly the shallow depth of the Lanten gene pool in this region (the tribes apparently do not intermarry very frequently)) were apparent on their faces. The first three grades of schooling are offered in the village, after which ambitious young scholars who choose to continue their formal education must hike 3 to 4 difficult hours to a school on the main road where they spend the school week before returning home for the weekend. Having hiked that route out of the village on Day 3, I can attest that those students do hike uphill to school, both ways.
In addition to the events Amy described, our visit to Luang Prabang also included an elephant ride. The corny and uncomfortable first half hour sitting on a platform seat strapped to an Asiatic elephant riding through degraded forest was followed by a much more exciting barebacked ride into the Mekong River for an afternoon bath. Coco’s mahout (elephant wrangler) got a big kick out of getting her elephant to fully submerge itself starting with its head in an attempt to throw Coco off the front into the muddy Mekong. The scene reminded me of a mechanical bull riding contest in the middle of a very large river. Her core strength and sense of balance along with a firm determination to keep her hair dry allowed Coco to stay seated throughout. Amy’s elephant refused to engage in such antics, instead preferring to spray her through its trunk. Unfortunately, the spraying behavior started before they reached the river resulting in a dust and elephant saliva bath, later to be rinsed with sprays of Mekong murk. The boys’ elephant was well behaved on all fronts much to their disappointment. Dad was happy to record the events from the bank.
Luang Prabang has become very touristy over the past ten years and it is easy to see why. It is a charming town nestled along the lazy Mekong River full of temples, golden Buddhas, young Buddhist monks strolling in their bright orange robes, cafes, flowering trees, great food. We spent the day strolling and visiting the temples, eating dinner in the food stalls of their famous night market.
There are two ways to get to Luang Prabang, Laos from Hanoi. Thirty hour bus ride through mountainous terrain, or one hour international flight. While we most certainly would have chosen the former 15 years ago, time and wisdom (and a little extra cash) steered us to the latter. We had an uneventful flight over the beautiful and extensive mountains of northern Laos. We landed to nice, balmy tropical weather. The boys loved Laos from the moment we exited the plane and walked across the runway. Our hotel pick-up was in an old Land Rover….they could not possibly have been more excited! We piled our bags in, crammed into two benches facing each-other in the back, and off we went, scooting past all the nice hotel limos and air conditioned minivans. Past the luxury digs in town, down a long, bumpy dirt road to our little huts. We were greeted by the delightful Lao owners, ordered some Lao beers, and watched the boys play soccer with their new Lao friends. I think we are going to like Laos.