Posts Tagged 'ban natane'

Adventures in Lao Transit: Ban Natane to Savannakhet

One hand tractor, a boat, two sawng thaew and a local bus so packed I had to crouch in the stairwell amid the rice sacks for 87km—I’ve had my Lao transit experience.

Tell other travelers you’re headed to Laos, and you’ll hear two things: “The people are so friendly, so nice!” and “Ugh, I was on this 12-hour chicken bus…”

Picturesque breakdown

Lao transit is infamous for being some of the ricketiest, breaking-down-ist in the SE Asia, maybe the world. Travelers hang weary heads over bottles of Beer Lao, swap war stories: the number of people standing in the aisle, the amount of livestock on board, the various strange cargo, number of break-downs and length of time to go 370km (12 hours is actually purty good). Instead of garnering scene cred, it seems more like commiserating, deriving solace from a shared trauma.

Given that context, my mission from remote Ban Natane to bustling metropolis Savannakhet was smooth, seamless, enjoyable even. An at a cool 10 hours, it could be said that I lucked the fuck out.

I awoke in Batane to a breakfast of fish soup, sticky rice and Nescafe. One of the men from the Baci ceremony a few nights prior came up the wooden ladder, chatted with Pauline’s supervisor. They nodded, glanced over at me. “Okay,” the supervisor said, “you go with him.”

With my transport clearly mapped out for me, I gathered my bags, said my good-byes. I left Ban Natane in a spray of brown water, thrown up from the wheels of another hand tractor. I’d gotten a little better at riding, crouched down, clutched the railing, teeth chattering with every dip and tree root. It’s a little like the squat toilet—it takes time, practice, to hone your particular method.

A half hour later, we arrived at the “dock”—a dirt slope where wooden boats lay half-submerged in the still river water. A small local group of men gathered, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, all with the lean muscles and chiseled features of people who’ve done hard labor their whole lives.

They commenced to scooping out water from one of the boats with a halved gasoline canister, assembling the engine and oars. Now, if you take the tourist boat, they allow a maximum of three passengers with two boatmen. But this was not the boat of life vests and Tevas (which would have been useful); this was the local boat, whose main purpose wasn’t to transport people but goods.

We piled six people, about a dozen parcels and one motorbike on that baby and cruised into the cave.

This is how we roll/paddle

Suffice to say, we bottomed out a half dozen times. Hopping out, pushing the boat, scooping water out, the crunching sound of rock—through a particular patch of rocks, the men had to unload the boat entirely, then reload it. They wouldn’t let me help. I stood in the damp cool and watched a sixty-some year-old man carry my backpack.

As they stood ankles in the water and moved boxes, one of the men lit a cigarette. In the light of his headlamp, I thought the dance of the smoke was about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was all still magical, majestic to me—the cave, the village, the way of life. But this was these men’s reality. They moved with efficiency, knowing the cave like I know the rhythm of the stoplights and crosswalks and trains. They seemed neither annoyed nor frustrated with the archaic and cumbersome method of transport. They had the expression of commuters. Except they smoked and laughed more.

On the other side of the cave, I bowed and said my thank-yous. I rode two largely uneventful sawng thaew—one back to Ban Na Hin, another to the Highway 13 crossroads. The sky thundered and the plastic bags of produce whipped and whistled in the wind.

It began to rain as I climbed off, hoisted my bag over my shoulder and dashed for an awning. I’d been told that buses to Savannakhet pass through the junction “all the time”—though what that meant in rural Lao speak, I wasn’t sure. I stood in a place that seemed like it wanted to be a bus stop, amid the fruit and sticky rice vendors, crouched down against the rain.

An old Korean bus rattled by, slowed to a stop. The tout leaned out the doorway, waved his arm at me as I jogged through the puddles. “Savannakhet?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” he nodded and ushered me in before I could think twice.

I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.

For the last 100km, managed to score a seat in the back. Catch: I had to climb over the piles of luggage to get there.

That’s because I couldn’t move any further. The crowd of people, luggage, cardboard boxes and rice sacks was so thick I had to wedge myself into the corner the bus door vacated when it closed, the leaky seal splashing a refreshing mist of Lao rain on my face.

Two grim-faced Westerners stood out in the crowd: a boy sitting on a blue plastic cooler, a girl standing behind him, trying to clutch anything she could. When a lumbering cow in the road made the driver screech and swerve, the girl lurched forward, toppling into several people and inspiring a chorus of “ooh”s.

“Twelve hours of this shit,” the boy told me later at a side-of-the-road piss stop (which I actually prefer to the squalid squat toilets you have to pay to us). “They told us when we got on in Vientiane that there’d be seats open at the next stop.”

They had twelve more hours to go, and were thoroughly spent on the authentic local experience.

We shared a what-the-hell-are-you-gonna-do laugh and crammed back on, men pulled zippers and stubbing out cigarettes. When the door closed, I wedged myself back into my corner, where I had just enough room to shift my weight from time to time. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.

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Hand Tractors and Impending Tourism: Day Two in Ban Natane

My first morning in Ban Natane, I woke up with the sun and the roosters. It isn’t saying much—it could have happened somewhere in the States—but it was still a first for me.

The morning was misty and, as I sat up and peered through my mosquito net, I could see out the open-air common room into the dirt paths of the village, the common room of the next house over, where the TV already blared and the family sat on the floor around a metal table of steaming bowls. The day had begun.

I’d had to sleep with ear plugs. I’d become accustomed in SE Asia to geckos bellowing and incests buzzing, but I wasn’t used to the noise of the village: animals snorting, grunting, squawking, chirping, thunder booming and rain drumming. The houses are all open in the village—no windows or glass to enclose things—so you could also hear the neighbors talking. There were less filters, less divisions, more of a meshing of life, I thought as I crawled off my cot. I poured a cloudy glass of water that had been boiled and purified with local herbs, and swallowed my malaria pills.

I’d had plans to ride a hand tractor, then hike an hour out to a river, possibly visit some caves. “Too much rain,” Pauline’s supervisor—whose name I could never get straight—told me over our breakfast of sticky rice and more frog. It was determined, as we dipped clumps of rice into red chili paste, that I would instead ride a hand tractor around to the check out the neighboring villages.

This is romantic in theory. And it is pretty cool—the hand-crank wrench, the rumble, the foot pedals and gear shift, all the machinery exposed, retching and rumbling through brown puddles, water whooshing into waves beside you. Standing on a vehicle like that without falling over is another matter. I tried squatting, clutching the wooden railing, but the lurching started to make me nauseous. For some reason, I determined that sitting was my best option. (Three days later, I’m still paying for this decision with a bruised tailbone…)

Two guys from the Ban Natane took me around to three other villages. Which gave me more of a feel for life out there. It looks like this:

I suppose what struck me most was how much life there was, how much constant movement. It wasn’t exciting like a city, but there was this constant bustle, animals and people, babies of different species. It was intoxicating—I felt like I could sit for hours and just watch it pass.

Again, there seemed to be less divisions: the pig that snorted around today, for instance, could just as easily be dinner tomorrow. Even the land see more involved, more implicated, more imminently a part of life. We talk a lot about sustainable living in the West, but this was the real deal. It wasn’t ideal—there was plenty of trash strewn about, mostly wrappers for the products transported through the cave, and other trash, people still burned. But it was the closest I’d ever seen.

I met Pauline and her supervisor in one of the villages for lunch—another family’s house, another bare wooden room with modest Lao girly posters on the wall, an exposed shoulder, perhaps. On a cot on the floor lay an impossibly thin woman, skin loose on a coat hanger of an arm she raised to readjust her blanket. “She is sick,” Pauline told me, “with cancer.”

I tried not to watch as her family members brought a glass of the murky, purified water to her lips, as they rolled her over, readjusted her pillows. I stared at my frog lunch. These villages were traditional, isolated—and this was part of that too. It wasn’t just the agrarian ideal, the simple life; people here were also poor, didn’t have access to the arguably good aspects of modern life, like health care. It was all fascinating, intoxicating for me, glimpsing in for a few days—but this was these people’s lives. And this, too, was what it looked like.

Later that afternoon, I walked down to the stream by Ban Natane with Pauline. It was where locals bathe, wash clothes, where boys clutch bows and arrows shoot them into the water, actually managing to catch some fish. Pauline laid down on the shallow rocks—clothed, as they do in Laos—and let the water run over her.

“All the people I interview,” she told me, “they all want the tourism. They think it will be a good thing.” She looked over at the boys fishing. “But I’m not so sure. I think they will lose their way of life.” It had already happened, already begun, with the introduction of TV a few months earlier.

I thought of the sallow skin and boney elbow of the woman at lunch. “But who are we to say how their lives should be? If they support the tourism project—” I shrugged, made that French popping noise I’ve picked up— “maybe it will bring positive changes too.”

We talked for a long time about it—about the preservation and loss of culture, about isolation and poverty, about the role of outsiders and tourism, whether it ever does any good or not. I thought of a story I’d heard once, about some now-famous Greek statue that was discovered by Englishmen or Frenchmen, the locals unaware of how valuable and precious it was. They were going to smash it, until the explorers stopped them. I couldn’t remember the name of the statue, or where I heard the story or if it was even true or not. But I thought of broken-off noses and missing limbs in European museums, and wondered if the sanctity of some things might be seen better by outsiders, who have more of world to compare it to.

But again, I thought of the woman on the cot, barely moving. I thought of the earthy taste of the purified water, imagined that taste in her mouth as well as mine.

“There is not an easy answer, I think,” Pauline said, as the water ran over her clothed limbs.

I nodded.

Blessing of String and Sticky Rice: Day One in Ban Natane

The man held my open palm in his. In it, he placed a small clump of sticky rice and pork. He raised his right hand to his face, murmured blessings in a language I didn’t understand. He waved a piece of string, then tied it around my wrist.

“He wishes you good health, good luck,” Pauline translated.

I smiled, bowed. Outside the open-air room, lightning stuttered the night sky white.

Sometimes you end up some weird-ass places traveling. Not that they’re weird, so much as it’s weird that you’re there, that you ended up there—that the gods of circumstance conspired, whispering in their thunderous perch above grey rock, to bring you there. And it was like that in Ban Natane.

To say Ban Natane is off the beaten path is an understatement. Cut off from the rest of world by impassable roads, the only way to reach it and its neighboring four villages is through the Kong Lo Cave. Which is how I got there.

I met Pauline trolling the town of Ban Na Hin for travel companions. The boat ride through the cave costs 100,000 kip, so I was on the lookout for people to split the ride with. Pauline sat on the computer in front of her guesthouse. As it turned out, she was a French anthropology student doing her Masters research on Ban Natane and its neighbors; she was meeting her local supervisor and translator the next day and headed back to the village for another 10-day stay. “If you’d like to come with us,” she made that characteristic French popping noise, “it’s no problem.”

On the sawng thaew ride to the cave’s entrance, she filled me in the details. A French NGO was sponsoring the development of eco-tourism in the Ban Natane area. To date, all homestays and eco-tourism in the area have focused on the Ban Kong Lo side of the cave—you take a boat ride through, come back and sleep on the more developed side of the cave.

“No one stays on this side,” she told me, “because tourists don’t know the villages are there.” Since the only viable way to reach the villages is through the cave, Ban Natane and its neighbors have remained quite isolated, not reaping the rewards/wealth of tourism. “In all of last year,” Pauline told me, “only 20 tourists came to Ban Natane.”

The eco-tourism project was focused on developing facilities for homestays and training locals to act as guides into the caves and waterfalls that surround the region. Pauline’s project focused on documenting the traditional agricultural way of life, interviewing locals about the history and their feelings about tourism, and then studying the impact.

Emerging

So the Kon Lo cave became, not my destination, but the passageway into another world. Which actually what it felt like—a limestone cavern like a mouth, dripping with stalagmites, the squeal and swoop of bats, where mist floated off the cool water like thin ghosts. It felt like moving through some deeply internal part of the earth, through its innards or petrified organs.

We emerged on the other side. Where most people turn around, we began walking down a dirt road. My cheap flip flops had finally busted, so I walked the 2km barefoot. In the distance, the sky grumbled. We arrived in Ban Natane just as the afternoon storm erupted.

My homestay was with one of the wealthier families in town. They owned the town’s only shop (and thus had packets of Nescafe in abundance), goods that had all been transported on skinny wooden boats through the cave, as they had been for generations. Even the TV. “TV only arrived here three months ago,” Pauline told me. “So the children,” she gestured towards the little ones gathered rapt around the glowing screen, “they are like this.”

The storm cleared and she showed me around the village. Everything enthralled me—I am, as previously admitted, a total city kid, so the presence alone of ducks, pigs, chickens and goats was thrilling, let alone the sarongs and hoes and looms beneath the stilted houses.

We shared dinner with the family that night, as we would for all our meals during my 2-day stay. As isolated as it is, the food was all local, not by trend as it is in the Bay Area, but by necessity—foraged snails, fish, frogs. “Frog season has just started,” Pauline translated from her Lao supervisor, “so we will eat a lot of frog.” (Sure enough, I had it 4 meals in a row.)

Walking that night, we three were called over to a large house. I could tell it was a wealthy person’s home because it had a ground floor, constructed of brick—like the TVs, this was new, Pauline told me, as traditional homes were all stilted and wooden. “It means you need more space, and have the money to build it.” She paused. “So modernity is already coming.”

Men sat on the floor around a type of altar, banana-leaf adorned in white flowers. It wasn’t a mystical vibe—they sat in polo shirts and slacks, chatting casually. A large silver bowl of pig parts, a leg and half a head, lay beside baskets of sticky rice.

We were motioned to sit, a village-made scarf thrown over our left shoulders. The man in charge began talking—“a blessing,” Pauline whispered. He held another man’s open palm, put a clump of food and a plastic cup of lao lao in it, chanted, tied the string. Then everyone commenced to bless each other.

“It’s a ceremony called baci,” Pauline translated. “They’re having it for special visitors—the district chief came today.” People took photos with digital cameras; I assumed those to be the wealthy and important visitors.

We were soon called into the mix. I wound up with a bangle of string around my right wrist and an even fuller tummy. The storms continued in the sky outside. Old men smiled as they blessed me, as they blessed each other.

And I had one of those moments when your life feels like a dream, some foreign place you don’t quite understand how you ended up in. Yes, I rode an old wooden boat through a cave and walked down a dirt road—but how I really got to Ban Natane or that ceremony, I suspected, had little to do with that. It didn’t make sense, to my Western mind, why I’d be so welcomed, so embraced here.

And so blessed.

***

Travel Tips: Getting to Ban Natane

It’s actually pretty simple, even if you don’t have an anthropologist as your guide. Take your day bag, sturdy plastic sandals, a good flashlight and some snacks with you on your boat ride. It’ll still cost 100,000 kip, even if you only take it one way. So it goes.

Get off at the snack stands. Only buy the snacks if you’re desperate; since they have to be transported through the cave, they’re fuck-all expensive. Anyway, there’ll be a blue sign that haphazardly explains the homestays:

From the snack stands, there’s two dirt roads. Facing the sign, Ban Natane is down the road to your left. Straight ahead, across the bridge, is another closer village, though from what I understand, there’s less facilities for homestays. If you arrive in Ban Natane and say “homestay,” you’ll get hooked up. Or just show up and look like a Westerner, and they’ll know what to do with you.

Bringing a Lao phrasebook would be goddamn useful. There may be some people floating around who speak a few scraps of English; there’s rumored to be an English teacher at the school in the village, though she was out of town when I was there. If you can manage to communicate, there’s bikes you can rent or a couple good treks to go on, if it’s the dry season. Next month, an NGO will be holding a tour guide training course for locals, so I imagine there will be much more in the way of communication and tour options shortly.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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