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February 19, 2010 – Day 421 – Muang Sing, Laos
After a soggy breakfast of foul-tasting eggs, we walked to the market. This time of year there isn’t much to it—a few clothing and household good vendors, a few fruit sellers, and a couple of random-pieces-of-meat salesmen.
In lieu of a costly tour, we decided to rent a motorbike and just drive ourselves around the area and see what we might come across. Just across from the market are two motorbike places that seem to sell, repair and rent all in one location. No one speaks English but they always have a calculator handy to tell you prices.
After overpaying for the rental and quite possibly also the gasoline at the filling station, we were off. A bit unsteady and a little jerky but still, we were off! The motorbikes available to rent are neither full on motorcycles nor regular mopeds. Instead they are manual shifting clutchless contraptions that take a bit of getting used to.
We sped out of town and back toward Luang Nam Tha with frozen tears streaming across our faces and shivering violently. Despite the very hot sunshine yesterday when we arrived, this morning we woke up to a foggy very cold pants-and-sweaters morning. We expected it to warm up as the day went on but that never happened. We had the winding mountain road mostly to ourselves; there is so little traffic in Laos and that only consists of a few motorbikes and even fewer local buses. We sped by sprawling watermelon fields and farmers re-cutting the hill terraces in preparation for springtime planting. There were young children walking along the dirt roads who shouted “saibadee!” (hello) as we passed and the older kids and parents going in or out of the fields. Sugar cane, rubber trees, early corn, and melons cover the countryside. The mountains make for challenging work but the people use the land however they can.
The entire day we spent driving around Muang Sing and passed through several villages. Though we would have likely been warmly welcomed, we chose not to stop into any of the villages and disrupt the farm work and other daily chores going on. We received countless odd looks, a few waves and hellos but surprisingly, no one found us odd enough to stare at. The people we passed seemed to notice us about as much as anything else that might pass through their sightline in a given day, despite the fact that there are so few foreigners in Laos and certainly fewer out in the countryside. We didn’t pass any others all day, only locals but our guess is that the tours offered in town are meant to allow outsiders a look at traditional Lao life within certain willing villages who can profit from the exchange when tourists buy trinkets or fruit inside the village.
The villages themselves are all small, each one consisting of something like 50-60 people (but that is only an estimate based on what we saw). There are plenty of kids out here and even as young as 6-7 they are often working in the fields alongside their parents and relatives. The villages themselves are large dirt compounds with grey and brown houses, usually set up on 9-10 foot high stilts. The houses are made of wood and palms sometimes as well. Hens and their cheeping chicks, fat pigs and piglets, an odd goat here or there, babies, and plenty of dogs can all be seen running around the compounds all day long. Everything is so dusty here and coated in a thin brown film. The villagers don’t smile much but they don’t seem unfriendly, maybe just more curious than unwelcoming. Most are busy working on chores and projects—taking care of the pantless babies dawdling around, chopping up bamboo, drying meat, or even weaving. Only the very old wear traditional dress but the rest wear a mixture of clothing. The girls and women tend to wear the Lao wrap skirt, richly embroidered on black fabric, and a “well-loved” t-shirt. Today being so cold, most everyone is wearing toboggans or hats of some kind and jackets that look like what most people in western countries would cast off for Goodwill. Maybe they are but they are getting another life and keeping these people warm today.
So while we saw some villages, we saw a more honest view. The mixture of tradition and western elements comes out of necessity and it is what it is. We have decided not to take a tour just for an hour of hiking to see a few birds and wild pigs and then go to the villages where the people don full traditional attire and peddle their “handmade” (let’s be honest, much of that stuff is brought in from China and only some of it is actually made by hand) wares at exorbitant prices to tourists. We had so much fun just driving around today, for being able to transport ourselves for the first time since we rented a car in Greece, and for being able to see so much more than the tour can provide. We highly recommend renting a motorbike and seeing some of Laos by yourself. The roads are really terrible and can be quite dangerous in places but there is little to no traffic and you can take your time as need be. You will have a great time and get a glimpse of what village life in Laos is really like.