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Saturday 29 Jun 2013
Ban Lad Khammune, Laos

Coconut harvests and muddy river swimming

Another day on the Mekong saw us drifting down the wide muddy river past lush green hills and palm trees. We passed the day much as yesterday, playing cards and dice and getting to know each other.
In the afternoon we stopped off at a small village where our boat captain, Mr Wan Dee, used to live. We were all feeling quite lethargic and reluctant to move at first, but then decided it would be rude not to go and say hello. It's not often we have a chance to visit a village so completely untouched by outside influences. We had a steep climb up the bank to reach the village, where we were greeted with stares. It seemed that almost the entire village came out to see us, but made no move to interact with us, even when we smiled and tried to say hello. Most of them have never seen a Westerner before, so we must have looked as strange to them as they did to us. It was actually a bit awkward and made me feel as though we were intruding into their space.
Our reason for stopping there was to pick up a load of coconuts from the small plantation to take back with us for dinner. We all went to watch as one of the young men scampered up the coconut palm using a sling around the back of the trunk as his only means of support. Once up there, he straddled a couple of leaves for balance and looped a rope around a thicker leaf stem. He then tied the end to one of the coconut branches and used his machete to hack through the stem. The men on the ground slowly released the rope to lower the heavy coconut bunches down to the floor. Once they had harvested four or five of these, with six or eight coconuts on each branch, the guy slid back down the coconut palm using just his hands and bare feet. The village kids then dashed in to help carry the bunches down to the boat for us, taking one bunch between four of them and tripping each other up in their eagerness. We climbed back on board and waved to everyone on the bank as we pulled away, cheering as several of the boys stripped off and did somersaults into the river. It was an unexpected outing, but fun despite the initial awkwardness.

Shortly afterwards we reached Mr Wan Dee's home village, which would be our home for the night. The reception here couldn't have been more different as the kids hurtled down to meet us at the water and lead us up into the village like celebrities. They latched on to us and I found myself being led by the hand by three beautiful little girls, whose ages could have been anywhere between 6 and 10. The boys were very cheeky, pulling faces and wrestling with each other. They were very familiar with having Western visitors and loved posing for photos and looking through them on the camera screen. The adults were equally friendly and waved hello as we went past.

There are a number of houses in the village big enough to host Stray's groups and the visits are rotated around so that the money gets shared out. Part of the money we pay goes to the village elders for the benefit of the whole community, such as funding a new road connecting with other villages. It also helps to pay for the food at the welcome ceremony and blessing that we would have in the evening.

But before all that, we dropped off our bags and let the kids lead us around the village. We were shown their school, football field and their village temple, where we sat on the grass and our Lao guide, Lit, told us a little more about the area. The village is a farming village where the main crop is rice. Some families are incredibly poor, while others are better off but by no means rich, even by Laotian standards. Laos is still one of the porest nations in the world. Children attend school while they are young, but after the age of 14 or so most boys will start working in the fields and many girls get married. The new husband will live with the wife's family and 'earn' his bride by working for the family for several years.

The kids lead us on through the village, out through some of the cultivated terraces and along their new dirt road for about 15 minutes. We were then dragged down a treacherously steep and very slippery muddy trail that led down to the riverbank. The kids still had us by the hands but we had to free ourselves to hold onto trees and bamboo while they scampered up and down like little mountain goats, laughing and singing the whole time! The river was a shallow tributary with a pool near the bank and just as muddy as the main Mekong but the kids didn't hesitate to strip off and leap into the cold water. The bigger kids had shorts while the younger ones just leapt in naked. Mike (our Stray guide) and I both swam too, though I kept my shorts and t-shirt on. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it was quite heartwarming to see such childhood innocence and simple pleasure all around us. There must have been at least 20 children there - the boys doing flips off the bank or bouncing and springing off partially submerged trees, while the girls clung to the rocks or helped each other swim in the current channels. I loved it. Kye had burned his foot badly in a beach bonfire accident shortly before coming away and was still applying fresh dressings each day and keeping it as clean as possible, so he couldn't swim as much as he wanted to.

We slipped and scrambled our way back up the muddy path to the road and dried off in the sun as we walked back to the village. I had a bucket shower in the very dark corner bathroom of the house. Laotian bathrooms traditionally have a large trough of water in the corner with a plastic bowl or scoop. The same water is used for everything, from flushing the toilet (pour a few scoops of water down the hole) to showering (use the scoop to pour water over you and it drains into a corner and away). It is considered bad form to dirty the water in the trough. This bathroom was separated from the kitchen by a rough wooden wall and I had to share it with a rather large cockroach and a lot of spiderwebs.  I'm not sure I was necessarily clean after my shower, but I was at least less obviously muddy.

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Zobeedoo's Big World Adventure, Part I

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