Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dong Phu Vieng NPA

We signed up for an eco-tourism trek to the Dong Phu Vieng NPA in the Savanakhet province. The trip began with a 161 kilometer ride in songthaew to the Solidarity monument. The monument celebrates the joint forces of Lao and Vietnamese people against Americans during the Vietnam war.

An old war relic remains next to the monument.

Nothing like celebrating your own country's defeat to start the day.

After the monuments, we drove another 21 kilometers in incredible dust. The only thing that helped us through it was our guide Nicki, who brought tons of unique Lao snacks for us to enjoy during the ride. Once at the trailhead, we plopped onto the ground for the typical Lao trekking meal, sticky rice with vegetable, sauces, and meat. The first day's hike took us to Ban Vongsikeo, a Katang village next to the Dong Sakee sacred forest. We were quite the highlight upon our arrival.

The village appeared to be self-sufficient with chicken, pigs, goats, buffalo, and dogs running around everywhere. Dry rice fields encircled the village of more than 500 people. In the center of the village lies a water pump, squat toilet, and concrete school building; these were all thanks to a joint cooperation with a Canadian group. After a walk around the village, it was obvious the women were doing their part. Young women pounded rice.

Others weaved sarongs, one of which had an impressive array of colors.

We also saw village women make our meal. Village men appeared to be on vacation (we did see one weaving a basket). That evening, our guide Nicki reminded us of the strange customs of the Katang that we had to follow.

1) Please remove your shoes and hat before entering a house.

2) Men and women are not allowed to sleep in the same room, even if they are married. This is a strict taboo with serious consequences for the villagers.

3) Do not clap your hands in the house without permission.

4) When sleeping, do not point your feet at another person's head or the outside wall of the house. Your head should point in the direction of the outside wall.

5) Do not bang on the walls of the house.

6) When in the house, do not enter the owner's bedroom or touch the spirit alter.

The village chief visited us after dinner for a fun Q+A session with his family. The highlight came when I asked if he preferred lao-lao, Beer Lao, or tobacco. Somehow, this prompted him to take out a bag of beans and our group shared the bitter beans with him. After, we each got a drag off his freshly rolled cigarette. Still not certain what the answer to the question actually is. Throughout the meeting, we only clapped three times and wore our shoes and hat inside; our intentions were to represent farang well. Afterwards, males and females split up for the night.

These villages get started early. The roosters go off around 4 AM and women are pounding rice by 5:30 AM. We awoke with the villagers to prepare for our long 18 kilometer hike to another Katang village, Ban Nhang. Throughout the day's hike, we were introduced to numerous insects, plants, and sacred locations. Among them was a coffin cave.

Once upon a time, villagers hung their dead in their coffin from a tree. Once only bones remained in the coffin, it was moved to a coffin cave. Another highlight was a tree in which villagers carved out a hole, set fire to the hole, then collected the melting tree oils in the hole. The sap takes time to flow to the hole, so we found one about half full.

The cutting nor the burning kills the tree; multiple holes can be made and the tree can still heal itself. We found our share of insects also. This spider was as large as my hand.

According to our guide, these white bugs would eventually become butterflies.

Finally, we found these nasty remnants of war.

Our arrival to Ban Nhang was celebrated by another massive group of curious onlookers. The village surprised us with a solar panel that was used to charge batteries for flashlights (no electricity in any of the villages).

Being sweaty and tired from our long hike, we jumped into a tractor for a ride to the river for a much-needed bath.

The river swimming and bathing hole was spectacularly refreshing and renewed the day for everybody.

That evening, the villagers invited us to a baci ceremony where each of us received blessings from village elders in the form of string wristbands. We followed the ceremony with fireside singing and dancing. The Katang played a pan flute-like instrument and sang beautiful traditional songs. Our group was asked to return the favor after each of their songs. We chose:

1) If you're happy and you know it, clap you hands...

2) In the jungle, the might jungle, the lion sleeps tonight...

3) Head, shoulders, knees, and toes...

These choices just beat out "100 bottles of beer on the wall..." It certainly wasn't much like getting Sheryl Crow or Bon Jovi as a guest. The evening ended with some tribal dancing around the fire.

The following morning we awoke to roosters and rice pounding.

We took an early morning stroll through the village. The number of children,

chicks, puppies, baby pigs,

and baby goats

that lived in the village was amazing. This little guy took a liking to Laura.

During breakfast, the village chief's father payed us a visit. He spoke endlessly in Lao to us seemingly unaware that we didn't understand. His happy face and bursts of laughter were a joy.

Our trek ended with a beautiful ride down the Xebanghieng river.

We are now traveling to Pakse, Champusak, and the 4,000 islands. FYI, the Hmong riddle answers have been posted to the Christmas with Khmu comments.

Now, a break from the travel blog to discuss the treatment of animals in Laos. I warn sensitive animal lovers now that the following reading may not be suitable for you. In one of our numerous guidebooks, we were warned that a traveler is sure to see extremely poor treatment of animals in Laos. The book warned of caged monkeys, beaten dogs, and tortured birds. It's easier read than seen! Caged forest birds and monkeys are common sights in Laos. In fact, we've seen a Buddhist wat that had 5 or 6 caged monkeys and one bus stop contained a caged monkey, parrot, hornbill, and other forest bird.

These could be for entertainment but more likely are being sold at the market to high price buyers. This is partly why Lao forests are so empty. We saw the tiger skins in one Khmu village and saw a dead cervit at a market; both animals are endangered in Laos and illegal to kill. During our last lunch in Dong Phu Vieng, a grinning man came down to the boat landing with a beautful forest bird.

He had a 3-meter long string tied to its leg and he continually whipped the bird around to show us how it flew. After not getting any financial offer from our group, he left the bird tied to a tree where we were essentially forced to watch it suffer. Finally, Laura and another girl couldn't stand it and cut the bird free. On the advice of our guide, they kept the bird to release in another forest. As we left for our vehicle, the man intercepted our guide and asked for payment for the bird. Although we couldn't interpret the conversation, it ended with our guide handing him 5,000 kip despite our objections. It is sad to think these people will continue to make their living this way and the forests of Laos will remain silent until the government decides to protect it with manpower. We did happily release the bird 15 kilometers down the road.

In Buddha park outside Vientiane, Laura and I were atop a monument for a panoramic view of the park. As we stood there determining where the best photo could be taken, we heard a hellish yelp of pain from an animal. Our eyes scanned the area for the noice source when another thud and yelp followed. My eyes finally landed on a man who brought down a hoe on the side of a black female dog. The dog squealed out louder than ever. The man must have felt the presence of onlookers as his eyes met mine, and he turned and walked briskly away. The female dog struggled to her feet as blood poured from her open mouth. She moved slowly and cautiously back into the safety of the park where she rested next to the monument we were atop. After the sight of this, Laura nearly fainted off the monument, but instead, we both safely descended the steep stairway. We watched the dog walk off into a field which we hope won't be her final resting place. The painful sight caused Laura to search out the man. We found him with 2 friends in the adjacent garden where Laura reprimanded him in English. Some things don't need translation! Unfortunately, the laughing response was quite difficult to receive. It amazed us that nearby visiting monks just shrugged off the dog beating as if nothing had occurred.

Our society certainly has its share of issues. We've got zoos, our dogs are often chained, and birds are caged, but there are enforced hunting and caging regulations, citizens that will report poor animal treatment, and law enforcement to deal with reported issues. Now, Laos's wildlife is fighting a battle it cannot win. Mom and dad, I've found my calling; I'm founding PETA Lao!


Jeff C. said...

I can't help but notice the difference between this village and Vientiane. Despite the beauties we've seen in this blog, the contrast in poverty is hard to shake off (coupled by the fact that we can find this huge inequality anywhere in the world, including in our own communities.) All we can do, I guess, is try our best to help one another. I think Laura yelling at the guy beating the dog is a case in point: if we see an injustice, it is all our jobs to do something about it (even if it is a bit scary to take that risk.) My in-laws have an interesting bumper sticker: "speak the truth, even if your voice trembles." Even something as mundane as a bumper sticker can speak volumes.

Hmmm...too much deep thinking for one post. I'm going to go back and read about the toilet hoses again.

Greg said...

Indeed the contrast between the standard of living in Capital cities and back country villages, which Jeff makes was the same in several countries we visited. It was most severe in - Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Egypt, Turkey, and Russia. It seems where the money flows [good jobs and often foreign input] the people live well. BUT .... and there always is a but EH? ...... happiness is not a direct relationship with economic success. See the chief's father's smile. No fake there. And excellent photo with a little touch up.

PETA ....... good God man my world has been chattered.

Great pictures of locals, digs and domesticated animals.

He who abuses an animal can abuse a person and thus not be trusted with anything.

Loved the apparently USSR-constructed statue at the beginning. Dogma is alive and well.

Time to prepare mentally for the Patriots -
San Diego playoff game in 40 mins. Not a lot of mental matter to prepare if you know what I mean.

From sunny heading for the deep freeze tonight..7 at 2:15 PM and heading to -14. Just as you predicted JP .. Vermont.


Greg said...

Riddles :

Your Dad deserve credit for Squash seed to squash ....... ok ok sperm looks like a tadpole .... but same concept. he and your momma are with family at Olive Garden today. Lucky stiffs.

No way the answer to: "When I ride the goat, it is happy to eat the grass. When I don't ride the goat, it is not happy to eat the grass. What is the goat?" is a knife. Who the heck rides a knife.

A bad case of sour grapes. EH?

Anonymous said...

As a founding member of PeTA (People for the Eating of Tasty Animals :-), you'd not expect this comment from me, but:

Your actions re: the tied bird reinforce what I've known all along- you two are a class act and are genuinely good people.

That's a generous helping of good Karma to help you on your travels.

-jav 2.0

J.Pallotta said...

Hey Jeff

Maybe we could start having a regular series in the comment section of the blog posts. "Deep Thoughts by Jeff Coburn". They could follow the example set by the great Jack Handey of SNL fame. What do ya think? By the way, love the bumper sticker.

Greg, I had trouble with the knife answer also but what can you do, I didn't say they were great riddles, I said they were Hmong riddles. Thanks for giving them a shot. Seems like engineering minds think alike since we got the same ones.

Can't wait to cash in on the good karma!

Bill H said...

My wife and I are travelling the other way (Cambodia, then Laos- looks like we missed you in Si Phan Don by a couple days!) and while searching for the Dong Phou Vieng trek came across your blog. Great description and we were wondering if you booked through the "Savannakhet Eco-guide Association" and if you would recommend the trek?


J.Pallotta said...

Hey Bill,

I did book through the Savannakhet eco-guide group. Cost was $110 for three days and 7 people on trek. I think 4 or less is $150. 8 or more is $65. Our guides were excellent, the best we had in Laos. The heat is brutal. The walking is easy besides the heat. The river swimming hole on the second day was the highlight for me. I think you have to be interested in seeing a minority village to really make this worth your money. The villages do seem to have these farang visits down... they've been through it too many times. We did a cheaper 2-day hike in the Nam Ha wilderness out of Luang Nam Tha and that hike was equivalent to this one and less than half the price (see earlier blog post). Plus, the village had much fewer visitors to make it a little more authentic. If it's your only minority village hike, then do it for $110 or less. If you get it for $65, then I'd do it. Rumor had it that if you could spend a few days in Savanakhet to wait, you'd get a cheaper hike for sure. If you're traveling to Nam Ha wilderness, I'd choose there for my hike. I think this one might be so expensive due to the wonderful write up they got in Lonely Planet. Hope this gets to you before you make your decision. By the way, have you read Lonely Planet's motorbike day trip in Savanakhet (latest Laos guide)... heard it is real cool if you can find your way. We missed out on it due to visas running out. Have a great trip!

Bill H said...

Thanks for the info, we did a 3 day motorbike loop out of Pakse and ended up short on time for Dong Phu Vieng. We've heard good things about the area around Luang Nam Tha- just like you said- so we're planning on finding something there. We will defintely look at your post. Thanks so much and happy travels!

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