I have been traveling through Laos for about a week now and have found myself feeling continually exhilarated by the places I see and the experiences I encounter. I know that I have said it before, but I find it very difficult to sit still long enough to put my thoughts and feelings into words (especially in email form...).
Let me relate to you one amazing experience that I had the good fortune of having. The second night that I was in Laos I, along with a few friends, was invited to attend the reception for a newly married couple in the small riverside town of Pak Beng, Laos. Pak Beng is a town halfway along the slow boat journey from Huay Xai (the Laos border town across the river from Chiang Khong, Thailand) to Luang Prabang. A group of traveler's from the slow boat met up at a restaurant for some food, drink and good conversation in the evening. During our time there the owner (Lai) told us of a local wedding party that was taking place that we were welcome to come to.
We wound up our meal and headed to the party with Lai after he closed the restaurant. Sam and I (Sam is a young British fellow that I've been traveling with since Pai) wound up ahead of the others in our group. When we arrived at the outdoor event we each placed a small cash gift (as instructed by Lai) into a wrapped box at the entrance. Just doing this turned some heads and created a bit of chatter among some of the locals.
As Sam and I made our way into the crowd we were immediately, and somewhat painfully, aware of the fact that we were the only ones in attendance that were not Laos. Our fears were instantly put to rest as we made our way in and exchanged countless greetings and handshakes from all of the men we passed (it felt a bit like we were politicians greasing the constituents). I don't think that I've ever felt so foreign in my life. All heads were turned our way. It was somewhat terrifying feeling so very different and so, inappropriately, at the center of the attention.
Sam and I stood smiling (like idiots) and uncomfortable without our host, (Lai had disappeared into the crowd) not quite knowing whether to stay or turn and run for the relative safety of the touristy restaurants of town. Fortunately Lai spotted us and waved us down from across the sea of faces and tables. We immediately made our way to the table and were greeted warmly by a group of men who offered us beer and food without hesitation.
Although I was already quite full I obliged and tasted each of the dishes presented. The tripe salad was surprisingly good with a nice crunchy texture and a fresh tasting flavor from the fresh veggies, herbs and nicely, balanced sweet, spicy and tart dressing. There was also an interesting water buffalo skin stir fry that had a wonderful ginger, garlic and anise flavor. Lai said that they prepare the skin by cleaning and drying it in the sun. They then burn the exterior (to remove hair and other matter) and scrape off the burnt material. After which they soak it in water to rehydrate and then prepare the final dish. The texture was chewy and a bit strange but the intense flavor made it very enjoyable.
Also on the table was a plate with block ice that is broken up and put into small cups for beer (I know, beer with ice in it--sacrilegious, but cold, at least). According to Lai, traditionally beer is poured into the cup and passed forward. The person receiving the small cup is to drink the beer quickly (chug) then refill it before the next person does the same (and so on). We were encouraged to drink a lot (Lai said it is customary at a wedding to finish 5 large Beer Lao's before anyone can normally leave!).
We ate a bit more and the others (Danny--from Greece, Lisa--from Austria & James and Melissa--from Australia) arrived--looking as out of place and uncomfortable as us. It looked as though they were feeling overwhelmed and ready to flee when we caught there attention and the party began. We ate, drank and socialized with the locals. A Lao man asked Melissa to dance and she obliged. I wanted to dance too but felt nervous about the spectacle of doing it alone. Eventually I grabbed Lisa and we hit the dance floor.
The music is obviously Asian style (high vocals and not really that great) but has a decent bass line beat that is very danceable. It was great fun dancing. The Lao people are very subdued in their movement--the women particularly so. They do a sort of two-step shuffle with arms held in front and close to the body (kind of like a t-rex). The men are a bit more relaxed and seemed to enjoy goofing around as Lisa and I did.
Songs are played one at a time with an interlude between in which the DJ (or MC) talks and they do a few second preview of the song to follow (maybe to let people know whether they want to bother to get up and dance to it??). It was strange to stop dancing and clear the floor after each song...interesting cultural difference. We all drank more (drunken fun), danced more and eventually decided it was time to call it a night.
We thanked our host and greeted the bride and groom (bride 15 and groom 21...) and left with big smiles on our faces, full bellies and warm hearts. Such gracious people to invite strangers and foreigners to such a personal event. So f***ing wonderful.
Laos has been a wonderful place--I look forward to another 10 days or so exploring before heading back to the islands of Thailand for some R&R (it's a tough life, isn't it) then on the Cambodia and Vietnam in the coming months.
Here is a link to some more photos:
I wish you all the best and will do my best to find time to update you again sometime soon.