…but Sartre is smart-re, as Homer Simpson would say, if he knew that Khmu is pronounced like Camus, and that it’s the name of a tribe indigenous to the area around the Nam Ha river in Luang Namtha province here in Laos. I’ve just returned from an amazing two days of kayaking along that tributary of the Nam Tha river (itself a tributary of the mighty Mekong), during which we stopped at a number of villages, inhabited by such groups as the Khmu and the Lanten (close relatives of the Hmong).
We left from the office of Green Discovery at 9am, after leaving our backpacks in storage there and stuffing bare essentials into dry sacks for transport in our inflatable two-person kayaks. Together we were four: a friendly Danish couple P. and S., myself, and our guide Ket (pronounced something like Get crossed with Ed). We boarded a tuk tuk and headed for the highway, on which we drove for about an hour before we reached the flooded iron-rich paths that will form the base of a new road once construction is finished. We jerked and bumped our way down toward a village for another 20 minutes or so until we reached the Nam Ha River, inflated our red kayaks, donned orange lifejackets and yellow helmets, and pushed off into the muddy water. We made our way through some minor rapids, P. and S. in one boat, me providing the engine power in front of the other while Ket maneuvered us down the course as if it were a video game.
As we entered the Southeast Asian jungle, propelled by our own force down the chocolate river, I couldn’t help but think I was floating down the “Irriwaddy,” as the simulacrum river that flows through the Bronx Zoo, surrounded on either side by free-ranging tapirs and bathing elepants, is known, at least within the borders of the zoo (outside, it transforms back into the slightly less exotic Bronx River). Fluorescent blue birds swooped from bank to bank, while smaller aviators with black-and-white striped tails seemed to skip across the surface, pursuing some subaquatic prey, perhaps. Branches overhung the river, and I pushed them out of my face with my paddle as we passed, wary of the gigantic spiderwebs that spread among their crevices.
After a while, we stopped on the right bank for lunch. Ket took a kayak to the other side to climb a banana tree and cut down some of its huge leaves with his knife, to use as both table and chairs, of a sort, back where the three of us hovered helplessly waiting for our leader to return. At this point, I was still a bit afraid to take out my camera, so lunch, like just about every other meal during the trip, passed unrecorded, except in my memory. The company staff had prepared a bountiful lunch of pork stir-fried with green beans and cauliflower, the smallest, freshest peanuts I’ve ever tasted, an omelet with dill and other, unidentified herbs, sticky rice in a bamboo basket, and wonderfully spicy chili paste, pounded with jungle-green herbs, into which we dipped our balled-up rice. After eating, I abandoned my fear and took my camera out of the dry sack, and we walked up the hill to the rice fields that soared above the river along this stretch of shore. There, we saw a hut used by the locals for resting and eating while they’re working the fields, and Ket explained to us what many of the plants would yield in a few weeks’ or months’ time: sticky rice (grown not in flooded paddies like the more common variety, but in dry fields), eggplant, cucumber, pumpkin, sesame seeds, thai basil, and ginger, among a number of others for which he didn’t know the English name. Not surprisingly, I couldn’t identify the vegetables from the plants either.
After lunch we resumed paddling until we noticed some huts rising above the river on the left. We had reached Ban Nalan, home to some 400-odd members of the Khmu tribe. Ket showed us around the village, pointing out the school, which was built by an NGO about eight years ago, the source of running water, in place for only a year, and the solar panels, another gift of some development agency. My favorite part was all the farm animals running around, particularly the piglets, some of which were as young as five days old. I wanted to take one home, but I figured that might be a problem at Customs (disregarding the problem it would be when my mom saw it jump out of my backpack).
Once we’d had our fill of Ban Nalan, we pushed back into the river and headed another hour or so downstream to Ban Nalan Tai, or the southern village of the same name, also inhabited by Khmu people. It was here that we were to spend the night.
First, we changed out of our wet suits and shorts (and I realized that my legs were lightly seared, like good steaks should be) into warmer and drier outfits. Then we explored the village, saying hello to the women and children hanging listlessly around outside (the men were still in the rice fields, and many of them would stay there overnight, as the fields were well over an hour away from the village), soaking each other in. As the light began to fade and the mist move in (around 5pm), some of the village women came over to our hut and started preparing our festive meal. One of them slaughtered a chicken and threw it in a boiling pot of water on the fire stove inside our hut. A young girl joined in, cutting dozens of small water squash into slices, to be made into squash soup and squash curry. Later, when the cooking moved definitively inside (as the sun had certainly sunk behind the mountains), the same girl mashed up chilies with a fragrant herb called lemon balm, to make a distinctive and delicious jeow redolent of lime juice, with the nice crunch of salt to balance the sour and spicy flavors. Through Ket, who speaks not just Lao and English but also the Khmu language and that of a few other hill tribes, we found out about the culture of the Khmu, and some details of the lives of the women who had prepared our meal for us, and whom we had asked to share it with us as well.
Then, no later than 9pm, with the sky pitch dark, our bellies full, and our tongues burning, we strung mosquito nets from the ceiling and crawled inside them on the mattresses that had been laid on the rattan and bamboo floor. While it had still been light, I’d inspected my set-up for scary creatures and rated it okay, and the mosquito net instilled a sadly false sense of comfort in me. I was zonked out within five minutes of lying down. However, in a couple of hours I woke up, jerked from sleep by the sensation that things were crawling on my face and back and, lo and behold, they were. I had ants on my face, on my neck, and, yes, in my pants! They were tiny ants, nothing to be frightened of, but I was still petrified, and spent most of the night turning from side to side and swatting myself with my sleeve. It’s not like there was anywhere else to go, so I just snoozed and swatted alternately until 7am or so, when I got up, made my way to the surprisingly modern toilet, and literally shook as many of the insects off me as I could. I was ecstatic when, after a breakfast of fresh-laid eggs and sticky rice, swallowed down with two cups of Lao coffee (sweetened with condensed milk but happily likeable), I was able to jump partway in the water as I climbed back into my kayak. Ants can’t swim, can they?
Today, we visited a village that the Lanten people call home, though this cluster of huts was in sorrier shape than the other villages we’d seen on the trip. Ket said that the Lanten people, especially in this village, have a huge problem with opium addiction, and that the addiction was at the root of their relative poverty. Even here, most people seemed to have enough to eat, what with subsistence agriculture and all, but a woman came up to us and held out her baby, whose head was a gaping, oozing, wound, and asked us (Ket translated) for money to take him to the hospital. Ket told us that his company sometimes helps the people here get medical attention, that part of the fees we’d paid go toward helping the inhabitants of the villages we visit, and that we shouldn’t give them money because they would spend it on opium. Sadly, we agreed with him and walked away. We didn’t spend too much time in this village, though each of us did buy a little handmade bracelet woven with a traditional Lanten pattern of multi-pronged asterisks.
Upon leaving the Lanten village, we made our way over the largest rapids we would encounter, though even they were nothing much in the dry season (Ket said they were probably only class 2 right now, though in the rainy season the same rapids can be class 3 or even 4). Then we stopped a bit further down on the left bank, sat down on some more banana leaves cut from the tree by Ket, and devoured our lunch, another chicken from Ban Nalan Tai, which they’d barbecued over a spit for about three hours before we left this morning, accompanied by more sticky rice and perhaps the best jeow yet–very salty and sour, and not quite as hot. After lunch, we only had a short way to go before the Nam Ha joined the Nam Tha and we pulled our boats out of the river, at yet another Khmu village, this one just a tiny agglomeration of homes overlooking the broad and muddy Nam Tha. We waited there for a bit until a tuk tuk came for us, and then we clambered back to town, climbing all the way over a rocky road mirroring the turns and dips of the Nam Tha.