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Sunday 7 Jul 2013
Xe Champhone, Laos

Phallic turtles and scary monkey ambushes

Another two Australians, Lucy and Megs, joined us today, which meant we had to stack the bags on the roof as there was no longer room inside the bus. We carried on south for our next homestay in a small village in the Xe Champhone area. The bus couldn't take us the whole way there this time so we had to transfer into a songthau, a local mini truck with bench seats lining the back. Carl had a mysterious reaction to something, leaving him with a nasty looking rash over his arms and legs, so our bus driver offered to put him up for the night at his home instead of coming with us to the village. Tah borrowed a motorbike and drove along side us in the songthau.
It took us about 45 minutes of bouncing along the dirt road to reach the lake where we stopped to see the sacred soft-shelled freshwater turtles. I love turtles, but I've never seen such a strange looking creature in my life! Its shell was leathery and rectangular, lying across its back like a soggy carpet tile. Its flippers ended in clawed fingers rather than the usual paddles and it had a very pointy face more like a mole than a turtle. When it retracted its head, instead of disappearing under the shell, its neck bunched up around its face making it look... well, like a willy! (Someone else pointed that out and I couldn't disagree!) We bought bags of puffed corn to feed the turtles. The couple who came to the shore fared much better than those in the water. When we dropped corn off the jetty to the turtles in the water the fish darted in and ate the corn before the turtles could even react.
Simon hitched a lift with Tah on the bike for the rest of the way to the village, darting off ahead and then raising a cold beer at us from a roadside cafe as we drove past them. The road led us to a river which we had to cross in flat long boats. We'd only brought small packs with us, plus the bags of food for tonight's dinner, but the boats were so shallow that the water was barely a inch below the gunnels as we crossed over. The boat next to us had a scooter balanced on it - they were so nonchalent about it that this is clearly a regular crossing, but it still looked precarious to us.
Over on the far side, we had to walk along the beach and then down a path through the monkey forest. Monkeys are also considered sacred animals and the villagers feed them regularly, as do all the homestay groups who visit. This makes it quite daunting to get through the forest with our bags of food and bananas. Tah led me, Simon, Kye, Heather and Krysia over in the first boat and we'd barely made it out of the boat before we noticed a grey monkey skulking out of the trees. We hurried up the beach while he flanked us and then suddenly darted forwards and made a grab for the bag in Krysia's hands. She screamed and dropped it, but Tah yelled at the monkey and scared him off before he could get away with the fresh bamboo for our dinner. We then had to run the gauntlet through the forest trail. I've never giggled so much coupled with a pure adrenaline rush as we tried to watch all directions at once. Simon was at the back with the bag of bananas and feeling very nervous. It was all quiet at first, then Heather screamed as she spotted a monkey sitting on a branch directly above our heads. Suddenly they were everywhere and we just had to run for it and shout at any that came too close, all the time expecting one to drop on the back of our necks. We finally tumbled out into the village, laughing manically and celebrating the fact that we still had our dinner.
While we waited for the second group, we started chopping all the bananas into pieces for the the monkeys. Once all together, we headed out into the temple and the trees just outside the village accompanied by a few of the village children. This time the monkeys were a bit more shy to begin with, waiting for us to throw the bananas to them, but they gradually got more bold and came over to take the fruit straight from our hands. I was carefully watching one monkey and getting ready to offer him a banana, when I got mugged from behind! I suddenly felt a small strong hand grab the bananas straight out of my other hand. I gave a natural reaction and screamed, much to the amusement of the village children. There were a lot of females with babies who weren't brave enough to come right up to us, so I left pieces of banana in the crook of a tree branch and stood back to let them pick them up from there. While I was watching this, one of the children appeared by my elbow and made me jump again. Far too much adrenaline for one afternoon!

When we'd run out of bananas we headed back to our homestay. Unlike the last village, this was all we saw of the village children. They didn't come to see us at the homestay or want to interact at all, which was a shame as I had brought them the books from Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang. In the end, I gave them to the home owners and their young daughter, who gave me a big beaming smile in thanks. Hopefully the books will get spread out around the village a little when she's read them.

This homestay was far less interactive than the previous one in general. We were fed and put up by one family - another delicious meal of beef laap, bamboo, noodle soup and sticky rice - but they didn't make any move to join us. Mike had said something about them showing us some traditional dancing after dinner, but this didn't happen either. It felt more like we were staying in a guesthouse rather than a village. Not to be put off, Mike and Tah produced a couple of bottles of Lao-lao and a bowl of chillies. Heather and I bribed Simon and Josh with beer to chew a green chilli each with predictably funny results. We spent the rest of the evening playing card and drinking games. Another great night.  Although the group is much younder than me, it has been a lot of fun travelling with them.  Some have graduated uni and are heading off for their first jobs, while the rest are going back for further studies.  It made me remember working in Germany and the feeling that anything was possible...

 

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