Though I resisted the idea of climbing out of my cloud-soft king size bed and leaving Luang Say Lodge, my cruise boat beckoned for a second day of sailing down the mighty Mekong River in Laos. As the captain expertly piloted our white yacht through rippling rapids encased by jagged rocks, I swayed with the gentle motion of the boat and made my way to a cushy leather captain’s chairs in the bow. By 7 a.m., a searing sun was burning off mists clinging to the liquid mud flowing past our hull, gradually transforming the surrounding landscape from sepia to a vivid palette of greens and golds.
I savored my morning Lao tea, brewed from local ginger root wrapped in gauze balls and pondered the notion that if ginger is an Ayurvedic cure for high blood pressure, the combination of Lao ginger tea and the Luang Say Cruise with Mekong Cruises must surely be the cure for any stress-related malady. From my backpack I pulled a dog-eared paperback book and flipped to my bookmark, but the soothing sway of the boat lulled me as it had the previous day; my chin drooped and I was soon fast asleep.
Excited chatter snapped me back to consciousness. I peered over the side of the boat just in time to see hill tribe fishermen pull up to the side of our vessel. Our eagle-eyed captain had spotted a large catfish in their flat-bottomed wooden boat and wanted it for his dinner. He drove a hard bargain, buying the fish for 30 Thai Baht, about one US dollar. Still groggy, I shook my head. We were no longer in Thailand, so how could I understand what was being said? Sensing my confusion, our guide magically appeared at my elbow and explained, “Thailand and Laos are the only two countries in the world that need no interpreter to understand each other because our spoken language is so similar. Plus, Lao children watch Thai TV, so most of them understand Thai. And of course, Thai Baht are accepted almost everywhere in Laos.” A surprising side benefit of many years spent traveling around Thailand was that I could understand much of what was being said in Lao.
With his dinner secured, the captain turned our boat toward the shore and placed its nose onto a glittering white sand beach, where we disembarked for a visit to the hill tribe village of Ban Baw. For over 600 years the village has been inhabited by three different ethnicities: Lao Loum (the majority in Laos), Tai Lue and Shan. The 180 residents live together in harmony as family, communicating in Lao rather that their native tongues. Over the years they have developed similar customs, wearing indistinguishable clothing and celebrating events such as weddings in the same fashion.
While this ethnic diversity is interesting, the village’s real claims to fame are the products produced by its residents. At the top of the hill, hand-loomed textiles were displayed on blankets lining both sides of the main dirt road. Woven from locally grown cotton and silk thread purchased in Luang Prabang, scarves and shawls were interlaced with gold lame thread that highlighted their intricate designs. I wandered between the women, looking for a more muted option among the brilliant reds, oranges and golds. Finally an ochre scarf with gold thread and brown fringe caught my eye, a perfect complement for my mostly khaki traveling wardrobe and only $5 US.
While the women riffled through scarves the men had congregated around the still to sample Ban Baw’s other famous product, Lao Lao whiskey. Husked rice is soaked in water overnight, after which it is steamed, rinsed with clean water, then mixed with powdered steamed rice flour and the leaves of the sang bong tree. The mixture is placed in a large clay jar and left to ferment for about ten days. Finally, the stored rice mixture is boiled in a large pot where the steam rises and is caught on the pots lid. As it condenses and cools, the liquid drips out of a spout and into a waiting jar. While I did not sample, I was assured by those who did that it had quite a kick, as well it should have, given its alcohol level of 45-55% proof. Continue reading