There was a crazy storm last night. As we walked home from the restaurant, sprinkles of rain started and the sky was lit with flashes of lightning from at least 2 sides-- a convergence of storms perhaps. I decided to stay inside the bungalow while Rowshan went out to take photos. Then the rain began to rush down in a torrent. The wind picked up, shaking the trees so the scene resembled the news video I'd seen of tropical hurricanes. The storm went on gushing down on the roof. I was glad we'd opted for a newer bungalow with fiberglass roofing and wood interior walls. I wondered how the hole-filled bamboo thatch ones were surviving.
The storm went on through the night. Then it stopped. At 4AM the roosters woke up and started crowing only to be silenced by another violent storm. It didn't look like promising weather for a trek.
It continued to rain intermittently through the morning. We tried out the banana pancakes with homemade peanut butter and honey at the restaurant we've been eating at. They seemed a bit small and a little salty but with honey added they were pretty good.
The rain started up again. We watched delighted ducks waddling, shaking their tail feathers, shoveling with their bills in mud puddles and copulating. They seemed to be rejoicing that the chickens who usually fill the streets were hiding under the houses trying to keep out of the rain.
Chickens hiding from the rain
We weren't as pleased with the rain. The main road became full with mud which alternated between slippery and sticky. But we were happy about the rain forcing people to stay indoors.
We walked back and noticed some people eating pho in a covered area. A young man was singing very well, accompanying himself by clapping. Later he was at the restaurant across the street from our hotel. A woman, perhaps our guesthouse owner, told me, "He is very poor and has no mother, no father. He sings for money." I passed this info on to Rowshan who gave him some money.
Traditional Lao singer
It looked like things were clearing up. Then it started to rain again. Then it stopped and we decided perhaps that was it for the day. I remembered John, the bird watcher, had said, "Here it rains every day. You just don't know when.
We set off for the trail. The trail was easier to walk on than the main road. For some reason it seemed to dry quicker and the mud was less difficult. The rain had stopped but the weather hadn't become hot and heavy with humidity and heat yet. Near one patch of stream/mud we saw a huge black spider (about the size of my hand) with a huge web. Rowshan edged around a down tree nearby to try to get a better photo of the spider. Just then I noticed a leach crawling up my shoe. I sounded a leach alert and Rowshan quickly left the muddy area in time to scrape a couple leaches off his shoes before they got to the more succulent ankle area above. After the leach ambush, we tucked our pants into our socks and conducted periodic checks.
A very big spider
Next we came to Tham Pa Kaew which contains a couple caves next to the river. Here we had to pay admission and sign a book in order to continue on the trail.
We forded a shallow river and came to a stretch of fallow rice paddies with ruined bamboo woven huts/ shelters. We'd already passed many other rice paddies with rice so I wondered why these were empty. Here the trail got a little confusing since there were many trails through the fields. Then I noticed a sign "Huay Xien Guesthouse with an arrow that would have been pointing left if the sign hadn't been positioned upside down. I assumed the sign in its upside down condition pointed in the right direction and had just been placed upside down due to lack of English knowledge. If it had been right side up it would have pointed back to Muang Ngoi.
Fallow rice paddies
View of mountains across rice paddies
As we followed the trail pointed out by the sign we saw a fairly obvious red clay path directly across from us. We decided to take that. Soon we came to a stilt house woven bamboo walled village. We were greeted with the angry grunts of a sow trying to protect her 6+ piglets who ran willy nilly trying to simultaneously get away from us and follow their mom.
Ban Na seemed like one of the busiest Lao villages we've seen. Most of the houses seemed to have someone from older men to young boys and women, weaving baskets from strips of bamboo. They used both white inner and green outer parts making pretty patterned baskets, delicately tucking the long strips under and over each other.
The village of Ban Na
Bamboo basket weaver
Off to work in the fields
We also saw a blacksmith hammering a metal spike into shape which he grabbed with metal thongs. There was also a weaving loom which we passed. However, we were dissapointed that only one person even made an effort to sell us a basket (unfortunately a little too big-- we want a small sticky rice basket).
Adding some finishing touches to a basket
We both really liked the village. People were OK with Rowshan taking photos. They were industrious and the buildings seemed in relatively good condition. We came to a guesthouse/ restaurant just in time for lunch. The OB Guesthouse restaurant commanded a wonderful view of limestone mountain rising up like islands from a sea of rice paddies. Though the day had become hotter, a cool breeze made the spot even more alluring. There were several very basic bungalows for guests. The restaurant was also the owner's weaving studio. She had a loom set up with multicolored strings making up the warp.
The woman told us that Huay Xien was back down the road and off to the right from the fields about 1 hour away. Another village Huay Bo was up the road a little and to the left about 45 minutes away. She recommended Huay Xien. Going through town we came across a few more tourists. We were glad we'd gotten a head start (only 1 guy had signed in before us).
Back at the fallow fields we went right, past a shelter, and found the path ended. We went back into the fields. I noticed a limestone cliff and said we should head that way because a brochure I had said the hike to Huay Xien passes, "high limestone cliffs that typify the landscape in this part of Luang Prabang Province". We got on a path and soon came to a river which we had to ford. My leach-view socks (white and thick), are a bit tight so it took me a while to get them off (as well as my shoes). I hadn't finished putting my shoes back on when Rowshan called from ahead, "Don't bother, there is another river." We forded this one and then were able to keep our shoes on for a bit.
A hut in a field
Putting on my shoes again
As we walked under the huge limestone cliffs, we could see huge wild beehives hanging from the ledges. "They need to get cliff honey harvesters like they have in Nepal," I said. One ledge had a bunch of hives, hundreds of feet off the ground.
Wild bee hives on cliff (brown things in dark area
We walked quickly. The sun had come out but it was late enough in the day that it wasn't too hot and there were trees and cool stream gullies. From a small hill and were able to see the houses of Huay Xien in the distance, surrounded by forest and fields. We walked down the road and came to another river. This one, thankfully, had a down tree across it so I was happily able to keep shoes and socks on.
Butterfly with blue on wings
Tamia fording a river
Entering the village of Huay Xien
The owner of the guesthouse/restaurant, Kampong, greeted us. We told him we'd take a walk around town then come back. This was quick. I thought it was a nice enough village-- tidy with many houses in good condition. People said, "sabadi." Others just watched us from wooden windows. A couple had roosters leashed to perches outside the second story.
Rooster on perch
We had drinks at Kamopong's and I told him he needed to put signs in Muang Ngoi (with prices) so tourists would know about his place and that they could come and stay on their own without booking a tour. He was amazed we paid 60,000 in town. I responded, "But in town, an overnight trip here costs 200,000 kip through a tour company. People don't know a room is only 10,000 kip and they can come on their own."
We didn't stick around long because we wanted to be back before dark. On the way back we saw a group of men and boys carrying buckets full of pieces of a wild bee hive. A few bees still clung to it. Rowshan asked if they climbed to get it and they responded in the affirmative. But we think they climbed a tree not the cliff. It felt like a joyous return from a hunt. They let us sample a corner of beehive/honey and it tasted very fruity.
We came to the river, Rowshan found some butterflies to photograph. One pretty gold one landed on his shoe. Across the log, I noticed a small metal spinning rod connected to something that looked like a small motor. The rod was in the water and the whole thing was supported by a wooden frame and dam. A wire ran from it. It was a tiny hydroelectric station. Kampong had mentioned that they have electricity all night when in Muang Ngoi, they just have it for a few hours. This little hydroelectrric station had apparently been installed in a couple minutes before we got there, by some teens (perhaps it was being serviced).
Butterfly on Rowshan's shoes
As we walked back, the dusk turned the surroundings clear and golden. Birds sang and crickets chirped. The heat of the afternoon was cooled in the shade of stream gullies. The green of the mountain side was broken by pale trunks of leafless trees which stretched over the foliage like fingers of ghosts. Never underestimate what can turn out to be a really beautiful day.