The other weekend, two of my housemates (Hannah and Nanny) and I flew to the city of Luang Prabang in the north to set out on a two-day trek. The trek would take us through a valley and to the top of a mountain, with visits to villages and an overnight stay in one of them.
The Laos that I live in is not really the Laos that I pictured before arriving. I live in the most developed city in a quickly developing country, teaching at an expensive English language school with a great reputation. I am continuously surrounded by some of the brightest and wealthiest people in the country, people for whom the possibility of seeing other parts of the world or doing significant things is greater than most. (Yesterday in my young learners class, we were playing a board game to practice reading simple three- and four-letter words and one word on the board was “pad”—upon seeing it, a nine-year old student in my class instantly said, “iPad!”)
Caught up in all that I’m doing here, it’s easy to forget what most of this country is actually like. The reality is that, outside of the country’s few tourist-drawing sites, Laos is almost entirely rural and underdeveloped.
We booked our two-day trip through a reputable tour company and were accompanied by five other travelers—two American, two Dutch, and one Spanish. We were driven in a van one hour out of Luang Prabang, north along the great National Highway 13 (a winding mountain road). We were dropped off in village along the side of a road and crossed a river in a small, long boat (its sides when loaded only rising two or three inches above the surface of the water), making three trips to get all passengers across.
We were accompanied by three guides, from three of Laos’ major ethnic groups. Laos is still ethnically very diverse, and ethnicities are grouped into three main categories corresponding to where people of those ethnicities choose to build their villages. The majority of the people in Lao are “Lowland Lao” people, living in the country’s flatlands and valleys. Other groups include those that live on the sides of mountains, including the Khmu ethnicity, and on the tops of mountains, including the Hmong. Each ethnicity has its own language, and the people’s knowledge of the national Lao language depends on the remoteness and financial status of that village. One of these languages, Khmu, doesn’t even have a written script.
Language can be such huge barrier to accessing information. As a native speaker of English, you can read news from all around the world published by multiple sources and viewpoints, essays, and literature either written originally in English or translated to it. We have access to so many ideas, either in English or in translation. Not surprisingly, almost nothing has been translated into Lao. Most educated Lao people rely on their knowledge of Thai or English for reliable information about what happens around the world. It’s then amazing to imagine what is available to people in these villages, for whom Lao isn’t even their first or best language. If they want to know anything about the world, they must at least learn Lao, which still won’t get them very far—ultimately, knowledge of Thai or English would be better.
We trekked through the jungle. It didn’t look all that different from a North American forest (without pine trees of course), but it was much louder with the sounds of birds and bugs and many trees and plants had absolutely massive leaves. The path, which was used primarily by the villagers in the area, was fairly grown over, making it feel at times like we were bushwhacking. It was of course all quite easy for our guides, who strode along casually in their flip-flops, while we struggled and sweated profusely in our hiking boots, frantically fighting off leeches along the way.
The villages varied greatly in size and culture. Some had extremely basic electricity—a small generator hooked up to a small dam in the stream provided a lightbulb or two of electricity for each of the wealthier houses. Although wary at first, the people—especially the children—were quite friendly. Digital cameras are still quite a novelty. Taking a picture of a child and then showing it to them brings joy and amusement. In one village where the children were more outgoing, they were eager to show off for us, doing cartwheels, hand stands, blowing bubbles with the juices from a plant, and singing every song they had learned in school. The songs, which were sung in Lao, seemed to have been taught for largely practical purposes (one began, “My tooth hurts!” while another warned that eating something—I’m not sure what it was—would bring you bad health). I was fortunate to remember that my camera has video, so you can enjoy their singing too. They nearly knocked me over as they swarmed around me in excitement to watch themselves sing.