After some debate about whether or not to go due to our limited time in Luang Prabang, Giovanni and I decided to accompany Mai to his village 3 hours away. Since the idea had arose, Mai was very excited and told us he wanted to show us his village. Also, he hadn’t been back to his village for a few years so he was curious to see how things had changed. He asked us multiple times if we could go and helped arrange our transport.
The plan was that I would ride behind Mai and we would pay another motorbike driver for the day to transport Giovanni behind him. The motorbikes were manual in Laos and Giovanni didn’t want to take the risks of driving a manual motorbike across dirt roads with potholes and rocks through the mountains. In hindsight, getting on the motorcycles of two Laotian men without helmets to go to a remote village was probably not the best idea.
However, we didn’t want to let this amazing opportunity pass us by due to our fears. So we set to meet at 7 am the next morning. Mai was ready to go and told us we would stop at the market to buy meat and veggies for lunch in the village. So Giovanni and I got on the backs of our respective motorbikes and Mai led the way to the gas station and market in town.
The market consisted of a single outdoor block with a few women standing behind wooden crates full of vegetables or meat. Mai approached the woman selling what looked like pork. What drew my attention were the white sticky sheets adjacent to the chunks of meat. These sheets served to protect the meat from flies, and thousands of flies swarmed around the meat and some of them would get stuck to these white sticky sheets. I watched one specific fly get stuck, then successfully escape and fly away. Mai returned with one kilo of pork and confirmed that we would be willing to eat the meat for lunch. We agreed. After buying some greens and what looked like bok choy or Chinese broccoli, we were back on the motorbikes ready for our 3 hour drive.
We passed onto this narrow bridge before leaving the city of Luang Prabang, in which each motorbike had to balance on a 2 foot wooden plank lined up behind other motorbikes. Now that required some balance! We then ascended into the mountains and watched the green landscape become more mountainous. We stopped a couple of times, so Giovanni’s driver could smoke a cigarette and the rest of us could stretch. Our buttocks were surprisingly sore!
We continued onward and followed a river which led to a lake on our right hand side.
Finally, Mai asked us and we agreed to stop for a late breakfast. Giovanni and I were starving by this point. It was like 9 am and we had already been on the road for like 2 hours. So the four of us sat down at a table with plastic chairs. We all ordered the typical Laotian breakfast of noodle soup, which was the only thing on the menu. A sweet looking woman with a nice smile prepared our soups, and Giovanni and I quickly asked for vegetarian. We definitely didn’t want an upset stomach while on route to village without electricity or bathrooms. Mai and the other driver both ordered meat noodle soups. We all wiped our chopsticks and spoons clean with paper napkins and enjoyed our meal together.
The noodle soup was delicious and cost 10,000 kip each ($1.25). Giovanni treated everyone and the woman was pleased and said to Mai that we were generous tourists. She also confirmed that we would be able to take the motorbikes all the way to the village because Mai was concerned about the condition of the road and told us that we might have to park the motorbikes and walk the last hour to the village. Phew, we were relieved to not have to walk in that heat!
We hopped back on the motorbikes and continued toward Mai’s village. Within half an hour, there was a small creek so Mai and the other driver asked Giovanni and I to get off the motorbikes. They were able to ride through the creek and waited for us on the other side. Meanwhile Giovanni and I took off our flip flops and crossed the single piece of wood across the creek one by one.
We knew we finally reached the village when Mai pointed to the shack on the hill, and said that was the village school. Apparently, the village had a single elementary school and no secondary education was available. Mai was fortunate enough to go to a different village in which his aunt (father’s sister) was a teacher and complete high school.
We pulled up next to his house, and Mai’s big smile showed his excitement. He pointed to some wires and said electricity. The village now had a few hours of electricity per week from a generator powered by the nearby river. Giovanni and I were surprised to see satellites on a few of the homes.
The village children were most interested in our arrival, and gathered to stare at us outside.
Giovanni and I removed our shoes and followed Mai into his home. After being introduced to Mai’s immediate family, we sat on the floor and watched him converse with his parents. His approximately 2 year old niece was also there and Mai had been informed of her birth but had never seen her in person. Giovanni and I communicated with Mai’s parents with the few words we knew in Laotian including “nice to meet you.”
Giovanni and I then went for a walk and left Mai to catch up with his family members. When we returned, we enjoyed a delicious lunch his mother prepared. Mai with his father, mother, aunt, and the other driver, along with Giovanni and I, were each presented with a bowl of sticky rice. Sticky rice is a staple of the diet and the families store bags of rice for the rest of the year, which they share with the extended family so that everyone has enough to eat.
We would roll the sticky rice between our fingers and then dip it into a green chutney or chili sauce which I learned also came from the same sticky rice plant. We also each received a soup spoon to share the two bowls of soup made from the pork and veggies that Mai had purchased from the market. We would take turns dipping our spoons into the small communal bowls and sip the liquid. I really liked the bamboo stew because it had a nice flavor.
We thanked Mai’s parents for lunch. His mother picked up the plates and bowls. And then Mai translated his father’s words that since it was our first time visiting the village, his family wanted to ask the local Buddhist monk to conduct a ceremony. We politely declined because we had to leave in a couple of hours and didn’t want his family to be burdened with the organization and cost of such a ceremony.
We followed Mai to his grandparents’ home. His grandfather was handsome and had a peaceful smile. We asked Mai’s grandparents to take photos with Mai, and his grandfather quickly went upstairs and put on his finest clothing for the photo. He also brought a dusty framed photo of himself in his youth dressed in military clothing to show us. Mai’s grandmother was shy about the photo at first, but Mai finally convinced her and Giovanni took a few photos of the three of them on the side of the home.
And shortly thereafter, it was time for us to depart. Before we left, I noticed Mai’s grandmother trying to give him some folded cash for his brother living in Luang Prabang. I remembered that Mai’s younger brother was going to high school in Luang Prabang, and Mai was paying for his brother’s rent out of his paycheck. Mai refused his grandmother’s money and reassured her that he would take care of him.
We got back on our respective motorbikes and headed back to Luang Prabang. Thankfully, the ride home was uneventful and we survived the potholes along the way!