I’ve spent the vast majority of the last two weeks doing nothing. Quite literally just sitting around, doing absolutely nothing whatsoever. Well, either that, or spending long, long hours on a little Korean motorbike I bought, trying to find somewhere that I can do something. Believe me, it’s not by choice. Aside from one beautiful, clear morning in Phu Khoun at the beginning of the trip, the weather has been awful. After that last post I wrote it’s basically been grey, windy, cold and often raining.
I finally arrived in Hua Phan province after 4 days of driving, and there I found some of the most remote and beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. Hua Phan definitely ranks in my top 3 list now of beautiful spots in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately it also happened to contain possibly the worst weather I’ve ever experienced in this part of the world. I think when I lived in Chiang Mai it was actually colder for about a week, but at least it was dead, dry cold. Not windy and foggy and wet like it was in Hua Phan. Ouch. Numbness. It was literally not possible for us to leave for 3 days, at least not on motorbikes. One day when it was dry we decided to drive about 55 kilometers to a town called Na Maew which is at the Vietnamese border. We went about 15 kilometers, very slowly, and we were so cold we just decided “screw this crap” and turned back.
We finally headed back to Xieng Khouang province, to a town called Mueang Kham on the 22nd of November because I’d been told by at least 4 people that the Hmong people in the area would be celebrating New Year’s there for one week at a cave called Tham Piu. Well, it was actually a “festival” to commemorate 374 people that were killed in the cave during an American bombing. So, it was basically Lao people playing bocce ball and volleyball and sitting around in tents getting drunk. We found out that the Hmong New Year festival actually started on November 27th in Phonsavan, so we decided to head there (about 60 kilometers away) and hang out until then and photograph the Plain of Jars.
Well, it sucked there, too. Cold, grey, crappy weather, nothing to do – we wound up driving over 200 kilometers back to Vang Vieng for the next 4 days just to get some good weather until the New Year’s festival started. Well, as we drove into Luang Prabang province the weather cleared up, we saw sunshine for the first time in about 10 days. The weather continued to be good through Vientiane province towards Vang Vieng district, and as soon as we were checked into our hotel I grabbed my camera and ran down to the river to take some shots. And the clouds rolled in, the wind began to blow, the rain started to fall, and we were cold and wet… again. Hans looked at me at one point and said “PLEASE get the cloud magnet out of your ass, Jake.”
Apparently I did get it out, ‘cause we finally got some great weather. Vang Vieng is best for landscapes, and while I didn’t get anything amazing this time through, I did drive all over the place and find some awesome spots to come back to and try again. All the rice has been cut there now, so there’s lots of yellowish brown fields full of dead, cut stalks. Not so picturesque. Next year…
We headed back to Phonsavan on the 26th, and pulled in early in the evening, cold and numb. The weather was awful again on the 27th, but of course we still went over to where the festivities were supposed to take place and there was… nothing there. A bunch of wooden frames with no stalls set up, nothing but a few people wandering around. I stopped and asked somebody what was up, and they told me the festival started at 4pm that evening. And odd time to begin a week-long festival, but whatever.
At about 3:30 we went back and it was still dead. We wandered around until we found some guys playing bocce ball and we stopped to watch. This bellowing drunk Hmong guy named Simon came over and invited us to come to his house for dinner and explained that a small ceremony happened at sunset, then everybody went home and had a “chicken party”, and the real festival would begin the following morning. I have a policy of accepting invitations as often as possible while traveling, so we stuck around.
At sunset everybody in the village gathered around a small tree that had been cut down and then set up with a long rope attached to it and a pile of axes beneath it. Our new drunken friend explained that everybody would walk three times in a circle under the rope, and then turn and do it in the other direction to signify the bad things from the old year leaving and the good things coming in the new year. Simon, in his drunken state, repeated this mantra over and over again, all night – “the bad things go and the good things come, the bad things go and the good things come”. The village shaman, with a big red hat, came out with a chicken, cut it’s throat, and while the chicken was still alive and struggling he flung it back and forth, spreading it’s blood all over the ground and the pile of axes. Then he rubbed the blood all up and down the trunk of the little tree, and then everybody walked in a circle in one direction under the rope, and again three times the opposite direction. As they finished, several men from the village who had been carrying rifles starting firing them up into the air, and some of the kids blew off some firecrackers. And then they all walked away.
We went over to Simon’s house, drank “Lao Lao” (of course) and ate these strange, sticky cakes made of deep-fried rice flour paste which we dipped in molasses, and then his mother took a basket of snacks and fruit and stood in the doorway with them, chanting and banging on the door frame with a pair of scissors. Again, Simon told us she was sending off the bad juju from the old year and inviting the good juju from the new year. “The bad things come and the good things go, the bad things come and the good things go…”. While she was doing this the father was walking around the house pasting up little squares of paper with gold patches and little red stars. Here and there I saw old, yellowed, curling, moldy ones stuck up, and Simon explained that they leave them on the walls until they fall off. Above Simon’s head on the wall was a little square altar with several of strange pieces of paper wrapped around the bottom. As his mother finished singing his father started chanting, then took a rooster out of a little wicker basket he’d been carrying it in, and proceeded to pray in front of the altar while holding it and some incense. Then he cut it’s throat. He bled it into a bowl for a few minutes, and then again while it was still struggling he lifted it up and smeared it’s bloody neck on three pieces of paper around the altar. Then he tore off three little swatches of feathers and stuck them in the blood on the altar. As he finished his wife proceeded to kill two more chickens, which were promptly put into boiling water so they could be plucked more easily. After this, everybody in the house had to eat a hard-boiled egg.
From what I understand, the village had ceremonially killed a pig earlier in the day, and then every family had to kill chickens. Following the chicken slaughter, all the men go from house to house together, drinking beer and eating chicken and rice in each home. It was Thanksgiving evening, actually, and so I was pleased to be able to tell my mom and dad that I did, in fact, get to sit around with a large group of people and eat poultry. And I did just that, in fact. I ended the evening standing outside in the freezing cold calling them up to wish them a happy Thanksgiving and then walking back to my guesthouse.
As I headed back I looked up and saw… STARS. Could this mean good weather for the next morning? Well, that’s part 2. And if you thought part 1 was weird, just wait! The last few days have been strange, for sure.