Realizing that there were no Americans about to invite us to their Thanksgiving parties here in Savannakhet, Laos, we decided to make our own fun. We signed up for a two-day “trek” – that’s the tourism industry’s word for “expensive hike” – with the local eco-tourism cooperative. The package included a 10 mile hike, a homestay with a local family, a visit to a Buddhist temple and a few other odds and ends. It turned out to be an amazing experience, perhaps that best Thanksgiving I’d ever spent.
We met up with our guide, a petite, giggly firecracker named Thipphako (sounds like ‘typical’ spoken by a Frenchman) at 7 AM, and soon we were off rumbling through the streets of Savannakhet on a tuk-tuk, the ubiquitous half motorcycle, half open-air paddy wagon that serve as taxis here, and in Thailand too I think. It was a beautiful day, 70 degrees, and a strong wind. To our amusement, we learned that 70 degrees and windy qualifies as bitterly cold in Laos. We’ve seen several youngsters wearing hats and gloves these last few days.
By 9, we had met our park guide in Dong Natad Protected Area and had commenced our walk. The wind escalated throughout the morning, so by 10 or so, the four of us spent much of our time looking upwards for ‘widowmakers’, the lumberjacking term for dead limbs suspended in the canopy. A few times we narrowly missed being hit by falling debris.
Thipphako, who had grown up on a farm in the area seemed to know culinary or medicinal uses for half of the plants in the forest and she was giddy at the prospect of introducing them to us. I was game of course despite all the warnings my mother and CeCe have given me respectively about being safe and not eating unidentified vegetation without my spouse’s approval. (To her credit, CeCe gamely tried the tamer items.) We started with two different sweet tasting berries, one known tongue-in-cheek as Lao apples: lots of flavor, but almost no pulp. You’d need about 20 pounds worth to make a pie. If we had had more time, CeCe would have tried. Then we moved on to some tasty red leaves of the cardamom plant that had a pronounced citrus flavor.
Realizing we were into this, Thipphako upped the ante. First she presented some sour tamarind fruits, proved far too puckering to stomach. Thipphako downed them after dipping them in hot pepper sauce. Up next were the roots from which anti-malarial quinine is produced. They proved painfully bitter. I almost vomited.
Once the nausea had passed, Thipphako produced the most unlikely of foodstuffs: a swarm of red fire ants guarding their nest of eggs, laid within the hollow of two leaves somehow adhered. Fortunately, for me and the eggs, it’s to early in egg season to chow down on them, but the fire ants themselves are fair game. I ate three simultaneously. I’d like to tell you what they tasted like, but I was too distracted by the one biting my lip. (In contrast, the termites that we ate on our honeymoon in Belize two years ago, tasted powerfully like carrots.)
Wedged somewhere in between all of this, a Thanksgiving lunch materialized from a series of plastic bags Thipphako had tucked away. We happily ate: dried beef with sesame, BBQ chicken, steamed eggs, sticky rice, bamboo salad, steamed bamboo, pureed brown mushrooms with jack fruit, eggplant and onion, something called ‘pinko’ greens (my father-in-law would find that appropriate), fried Lao biscuits, bananas, the aforementioned tamarinds with hot sauce, and some mild macaboc nuts we had foraged.
Back on the trail, we saw locals making charcoal in sealed clay pits. A hip-high bag sells for $2. We saw local men fishing by damming a stream and trapping fish near the barrier. Among their haul was a foot long green eel and fresh water clams. We didn’t eat either.
Towards the end of the afternoon we arrived in the village of Phon Sim, a collection of 500 or so well-maintained stilt homes centered around three schools. We met our hosts, a farmer named Mr. Kiew, his wife, and five children aged 18 to 11.
Phon Sim was full of fun. CeCe met a spry 85-year old woman who sold her some indigo cloth which CeCe later had made into a sarong. We met a young boy named “One Day In Toilet”, an adequate description of the location of the boy’s birth. And around every corner, we found friendly faces welcoming us to their home.
After dusk we returned to the Kiews’ stilt home for the Baci ceremony, a ritual used to welcome guests. Over the next 20 minutes, we were prayed for, welcomed and had string bracelets tied around our wrists by each member of Mr. Kiew’s family as well as by a few other relatives. Thipphako translated the prayers. This accompanied the bracelet tying: “May the bad spirits leave you. May the good spirits enter you. We wish for you a long life.” And then we ate.
Following dinner, Thipphako adeptly translated all of the family’s and our questions and their answers. The dialog covered much, but the longest conversation was about wedding customs. Lao brides have dowries. We learned the following day that the average dowry is $2,000 some gold and a cow, more if the bride is beautiful.
And then we slept. Lao custom dictates that guests sleep segregated by gender, so I slept alone and well.
I’ll quickly recap the following day’s highlights. We visited the local Buddhist temple at 7 to give alms to the monks. One monk named something like Mangoman told me he watches CNN to hone his English. We had potent coffee at the town’s central coffee bar as we watched forty young women cram themselves into the back of a pickup truck to take them to their jobs at the nearby Hyundai plant. We returned to the woman’s house who had sold CeCe the cloth so that she could show us her materials. We learned that she’d use the proceeds from the sale to buy medicine.
We visited the local high school where I was coaxed into teaching two English classes. The second class’s lesson plan called for superlatives. I concluded the period by having the children scream, “loud, Louder, LOUDEST!!!” That was fun.
After saying goodbye to our hosts we visited That Ing Hang stupa, one of Laos’s holiest Buddhist shrine. Ever the trickster, Thipphako convinced me that to enter I needed to wear a sarong, which I quickly learned was for women only. Everyone laughed at me. I got my revenge by pretending to moon them, thereby adding a new word to Thipphako’s vocabulary.