Blog // Tales from the trail
What do you get if you cross an ex-monk with a deadly centipede?
A drunk monk and a very dead centipede by the looks of things, as we watched hypnotised as the ex-monk, let's call him Dan, proceeded to slowly top-up the bottle with potent rice whiskey. We had entered the small bar-handicraft establishment about an hour ago, because it was the first time we had seen it open during our couple of days in Muang Ngoy and we were curious, it looking quite bohemian - cushions scattered on the floor around small tables, art on the walls and candlelight - in the otherwise very sleepy, rural town. The sign outside saying 'Gin&Tonics' was also very appealing after our long walk in the sun that day. 'Dan' looked sheepish as he busied around getting ready; 'I've just got back from fishing with my girlfriend; excuse me while I just have a shower'. His English was very good. Little snippets from him as he got ready and then started to mix the G&Ts: 'If you like, you can help us eat the fish we caught'; 'My girlfriend is Japanese'; 'I used to be a monk but now I own a bar!'; Mischievous and friendly, we were enjoying the chit-chat and settling into our drinks when suddenly he cried 'I need an aubergine for my fish, I'm going to find one. Wait here!' and off he went. About 15 minutes later he came back, not clutching an aubergine, but a plastic water bottle and a deadly black ninja centipede with a pair of tongs. 'This is very dangerous in our village. They bite our children and they can kill!' He took the top off the empty bottle and gingerly forced (if you can imagine gingerly forcing a poisonous beast to do something) the centipede inside, just as his best mate and girlfriend arrived to witness his find. Once in, it took up the length of the bottle. A slit was cut into the top of the lid and he poured some water in, rinsing the centipede, and then draining it. He did this a few times. 'Why?' we wondered. It was soon apparent, as the next stage was to fill the bottle with potent rice whiskey, drowning the beast inside. This was not what we expected, certainly an ex-monk, to be doing. As much as we weren't keen on centipedes, surely this was a cruel way of killing it? 'In Buddhism, can you be reincarnated as anything?', we asked, curious. Dan stopped briefly, considered the question and replied, 'It's complicated'. Very curious. By this time the centipede was fighting for his life, defensively shooting out its poison into the whiskey and at one point trying to climb out of the bottle as the lid was lifted, to pour the whiskey in more quickly, in a vain attempt to stay alive. It was not to be. Once dead, the shot glasses were handed out and the three of them drank shots of the whiskey, claiming to be getting stronger as a result of the poisons flowing through their bodies. At this point we could see the idea of fish was becoming a mere glimmer in Dan's eye and feeling hungry and a little 'weirded out' we decided to make a swift escape. Walking back past Dan's pub after dinner they were sat outside, lights off, still drinking the whiskey.
We had arrived in Muang Ngoy by boat a few days ago from Nong Kheow. We had bought our tickets early waiting for the boat to arrive, but the ensuing chaos when it did, and mixed messages about the appropriate time to board from the usual busy-bodies who hang round and claim to know best, meant that we were the last on the second boat and had to clamber across an already-full boat to get a seat on the floor of ours. The journey upstream wound through the bottom of the valley, the two boat drivers competing for first place, which was entertaining until the 'rapids'; time to revert to my closed-eyes-and-tight-grip mode.
The view from the boat showed the village as a haphazard cluster of colourful properties, vying for space on the banks of the Nam Ou river. Prepared to be greeted by keen guesthouse owners advertising their accommodation, instead, as we made our way up the steps, there was a curious apathy. At the top of the steps, we had two options; go right or go left down the single main road off which everything existed. We went right and found a modest guesthouse with bungalows on the river; not a bad spot at all for a few days.
We relaxed in hammocks while the heat of the day burnt off before deciding to brave a trip up to the town's view-point, which whilst a relatively short uphill hike, was certainly a rugged one. Not only did Keith's trainers give underneath himself a few times, he also made enemies with a couple of hornets. We couldn't argue with the view though.
The small village seemed to us to gave mixed messages - plenty of sign boards offering exciting and authentic tours, but no one was around trying to sell them. Muang Ngoy in theory seemed to want visitors, but in practice weren't really bothered; we felt a little awkward, like unwanted guests at someone's birthday party. Unable to shrug off the feeling, we opted for a trip out of town.
Reading about a homestay in one of the villages further along, we set off on a walk the next day. There wasn't anything particularly special about this village other than the description of the walk to it that we'd found on a blog - something akin to an Enid Blyton story. An hour later, after turning right off the track at the described turning, taking our shoes off to cross a stream, twice, we found ourselves at the bottom corner of a gigantic rice field.
'Keep right, with the stream on your right, until you reach the far corner and see signs to Huy Bo.' If you have ever been in a rice field you will know that this is easier said than done, especially if you don't manage to find the 'official' route through the paddy. We fumbled along, trying not to fall off the narrow ridges into the wet rice plantation and trying to fold the razor-sharp stems out of the way without being sliced. A few plantation workers who had stopped for lunch, watched on, curious presumably, but not curious enough to point us in the right direction. And so our route took a little longer under the hot sun, particularly as we didn't see many signs for the village en route; we later found out from Huy Bo's village chief when we serendipitously bumped into him that, much to his consternation, the other villagers remove the signs when they see them, not caring much for visitors.
Taking our time was OK though; it was a truly delicious walk.
We found it eventually, a very basic affair even after Muang Ngoy, and stopped for a warm can of coke at the homestay which was being looked after Mrs Key. Mr Key, as we already knew, having bumped into him, had just gone out spear-fishing she told us in excellent English. We were entertained by some Laos-equivalent X-factor dancing by the neighbour's children, before meandering home again through those lush green fields, with the big sun now lower in the sky.
We stopped off at some wet caves on the way back which provided welcome relief from the sun in the form of crystal-clear, icy-cold water. The caves ran quite far underground, the further in you went, the deeper the water got and the darker it got too. Coming to a corner, almost at neck-height with no light left, I chickened out and turned back; Keith agreeing, but using his infected finger as his excuse...
Nong Kheow was our other stop in the vicinity, an hour's boat ride back downstream and back through the rapids. Situated in a beautiful valley, it too was a very quiet affair whilst we were there. Having checked into a guesthouse on the 'other side of town', across the bridge, and with a few hours of sunlight to go, we donned our trainers for a 'tough' hike straight uphill, to the viewpoint, which had just been recommended by the girls in the room next to us.
The viewpoint is marked off the main road, by a painted arrow, a sign saying 'Viewpoint 2km' and a warning that it would take at least 1.5 hours up and 45 minutes down, so don't leave after 4pm. Compounded by another warning not to stray off the path because of landmines and that we were handed makeshift bamboo walking sticks by the gate keeper AND that it was 4:20pm, I felt we were about to have a wee challenge on our hands. We blasted upwards; it was intensely hot in the jungle and the climb was steep. Within 10 minutes we were drenched and needed a few minutes to catch our breath. But no time for rest if we wanted to make it to the top for sunset. Scrambling at times and occasionally slipping (Keith landing in a big lump on his side behind me at one point as his inappropriate running trainers, 'fondly' known as 'the marshmallows', came out from under him again), we made it to the pinnacle with a good half hour of sunlight to go.
Bravo sprouts! Even doubled up in my breathless state for the first few minutes it was clear that this was a special view-point.
The scene from up there was much like we'd seen from up in the propeller flying over northern Laos on the way to Luang Prabang, hundreds of lush, green mounds, as far as the eye could see. A very peaceful half hour later we resignedly turned ourselves back down the hill.
Dinner that night was another strangely dissociated affair with us being largely ignored whilst the family of the family kitchen carried on with their nightly activities; watching the local soap, doing homework and ironing, only getting involved if we went up and asked for something, including the bill. Hearing from a few friends of our we had met who were cycling round Asia, they mentioned similar experiences in more rural Laos - they felt they were interesting to people but people weren't necessarily interested in them. Perhaps this is just the norm before tourism becomes the norm, which although a little awkward at times, was not a bad thing. Either way, we had certainly had some, let's say, memorable moments in Laos, with still so much of the country to explore.
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