Faith of Laos

At first, it itches. But eventually you get used to it. Trekking in the jungle.

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Especially when you find yourself facing a bunch of kids playing in the dirt or jumping in the opaque Mekong in their birthday suits. It gives you perspective. Not only because the scenery is a masterpiece of lights meeting shadows, peaks drawing the skyline, and greens highlighting the red dirt, grey clouds and blue pieces of sky. It gives you perspective because you needed to be so far from home to appreciate everything you always took for granted.

If you are born in one of the lost villages on the other side of the river, you will not be given a chance to grow up anywhere else. Every village does have a primary school, and both girls and boys are accepted on their benches; but you need to pay for education. How do you afford school when you do not even have running water or electricity? Few tour offices – including the one I used for this trekking day- do offer the option to villages families to help them rebuild their houses so they can be ‘’homestay’’ for hiking farang. But the income only is guaranteed on the high season and the investment is too big for many families, as the potential income would cover the cost on a too slow pace. Long story short : you are born poor, you remain poor.

Kids are playing, as they do all over the world. They have enough with a wooden plank and an empty plastic bottle. They look after each other; they run, make fake tattoos, laugh and cry. They are just like any other kid, born on this planet. Only they will not have a chance for education, they have no other option than being happy in this red mud, in this skin burning sun.

The smiles here are the most genuine I have seen so far. There is nothing to be sold, only time and attention to be given. And despite the fact that everything seems to be between us, the villagers smile at you. Carrying wood for the week on her bended back, this mom sings from 1 to 10 in English to her two young kids. The wife of the teacher rocks her baby to sleep in the shadow of the unique shop. This dad is cleaning up his toddler with a stick, to rub the dirt off.

Dogs are skinny, pigs are tiny, chicken are many. They all share the playground, looking for shadow under houses inside of which the tired faces of Laos are finding some rest. And as we walk by, they smile and cheer ‘’Farang! Farang!’’

I will never stop counting my blessings; starting with my freedom which really takes all its dimension in the options I have and that I can unlimitedly take.

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The morning market was in full swing when we drove away from Luang Prabang. A tiny boat took us to the side we would soon explore, after an obligatory stop by the elephant camp. I did not want to do anything with elephants here – riding, feeding, washing – as I cannot stand the fact that they are chained and potentially mistreated. The place we walk through actually was the end of the riding parcours, and soon a group of about 6 elephants and their allocated tourists walked through the river to join us on this side. Two babies were caged, ‘’only a few hours a day’’ according to the manager. The company knows this place is the start of the trek and they ‘’just want to give the opportunity to hikkers’’ to see and feed the babies. I am being explained that these cages are meant to secure both the animals and the people, but I have a hard time being convinced that this is the right way to do it. Since when do we need to cage what we want to protect? When did protect and possess became the same thing in people’s mind? It is hard for me to judge if the playfulness of the babies is genuine happiness, education or fear of a sentence. Either way, it does not seem right; but again this is a problem we created.

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The rest of the trek was one huge green bath; pigmented with red roads and adorable purple flowers. From the rice fields to the rain forest, we walked for about 6 hours. When our guide Lue – second boy out of 23 kids – told us in his best French ‘’ca va monter’’ he was not lying. My toes were holding on into my shoes, soaking wet after we crossed a few streams. On top of one of the world’s roof, we shared our lunch with one very hungry and soft dog. The way down was just as spectacular, and I stopped counting the long legs spiders as my own sweat started burning my eyes.

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As we were about to embark our yellow boat again, we skipped a few stones on the river with the kids bathing in the river. They push our boat back into the stream and cheered us goodbye, until the courant took us away from their sight.

We cruised down to a waterfall, where I will go back tomorrow for some zip-line… The rain season has started, and the waterfall is pretty again. There is another cascade, on the opposite direction, which I hear is much more impressive. As soon as I am back – and showered – , we organize with a group of Belgian-Dutchies I met in town 2 nights ago to go visit the waterfall the morning after.

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After a morning yoga session – with a view on the Mekong – and some rough negotiation with the tuktuk driver, we make it to the waterfall park. The way up is challenging, but it has not been raining for a few hours so we are lucky the ground is not too slippery. Panting and dripping, we make it to the top and the view is rewarding. The power of the water is impressive, just as the flourishing nature all around. Trees grew strong together, building a jungle of massive yet comforting heights. We stayed there for a while, contemplating the immensity and refreshing our sour feet in the water. We found another paradise.

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This was the feeling prior descending. Except for the wooden stairs built on the side of the water stream, the way down was one big slippery drama. I owe my muddy shorts to voluntary slides and to an unplanned but graceful fall – I bounced on my cheeks, it actually was fun. Safe, sound, and exhausted, we all went for a refreshing bath at the waterfall feet; in a pool inhabited by biting fish, blood suckers and happy hikers.

Not that it was needed, but we ended up the day on a high note. Dinner in the oldest family owned restaurant of Luang Prabang – the soups they have is perfectly seasoned, with hot ginger and juicy shrimps – followed by a walk along the river. Laos sure knows how to turn off the lights…

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Last flavor of the day was a perfect mango sticky rice, served in a library screening movies every night. Looking at their breakfast menu, we all agree to meet up here after our morning yoga session. I mean, they have homemade peanut butter so… no need to say more.

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