As I stood there dressed in Hmong celebratory regalia holding a shot of homemade rice whiskey about to lead a dance among highland villagers, I pondered our serendipitous turn-of-events. I signed up for a trek in the mountains of Laos to see waterfalls and nature and stay overnight in a village; I did not anticipate arriving during a New Year’s party and being thrust into the middle of a celebration, yet, here I was. Often, it is the unexpected, unplanned events that make travel exciting, and this was no exception.
Trekking in Northern Laos
We began the trek about an hour’s drive outside Nong Khiaw in northern Laos. The first hour, we passed rice fields and small thatch huts, before scrambling over rocks and tree roots alongside a series of waterfalls for about a mile. At the top of the falls, we followed a winding trail through the jungle and more rice fields to the top of a mountain. With each step, we were rewarded with increasingly dramatic views of the valley below and jagged limestone peaks in the distance.
As we crested the peak and began the descent to the village, we could hear the party before we arrived. “They are having a new year’s celebration,” our guide told us.
“It is December 27. How long do they celebrate new years?”
“About two weeks,” he said. The Hmong know how to party.
As soon as we arrived at our guesthouse, our host dressed us in colorful traditional clothes and paraded us to the town square. Let’s take a minute to understand our sudden change of fortune – one minute, we are hiking in silent mountains and the next, we are dressed in costume walking through a remote village. We caused countless cases of whiplash as surprised villagers strained thier necks doing double takes. Then, at the town square, our host sat us at the table of honor with a local political official and partiers took turns filling our cups with beer and giving enthusiastic toasts. We were suddenly the center of attention.
Although we felt extremely conspicuous, we dove right in. This, after all, wasn’t our first (or second) wild new year’s party in Southeast Asia. We dutifully drank the warm beer and participated in the festivities as though we were natives.
Hmong New Year Party
All afternoon, the villagers danced in the town square. Before each song, a master of ceremonies called up a few people to lead the dance. The leaders took ceremonial shots of homemade rice whiskey known as Lao lao before launching into something akin to a country line dance at a school for awkward teens. As each dance began, everyone got up from their seats and formed two large circles – the outer ring consisting of women, the inner circle of men. Everyone danced and moved to the left, causing the circles to move like a wheel.
I don’t dance. Moving my body to music isn’t something that brings joy to me or anyone who happens to look upon my arhythmical flailings. But there was no getting out of this. As each dance started, locals dragged us to the circle. Luckily, in the Hmong, I found a group of people whose dancing is so stiff and awkward that I fit right in.
To our surprise, the master of ceremonies called us to lead a dance. We dutifully took our shots of face-contorting rice whiskey and led the festivities.
Having been given so much free beer, we decided to return the favor and buy a couple of bottles for our generous hosts. This proved difficult since there are no stores in the village, however, everyone in town seemed to stockpile enough beer at their homes to last through a protracted siege. My wife found a man who’d converted his living room into a Beer Lao warehouse and bought a couple of bottles from him. I married well.
By late afternoon, hundreds of empty beer bottles and enough styrofoam to choke a whale littered the courtyard, and mercifully, the locals took a break.
New Years Party Round Two, or A Sleepless Night
Back at our homestay, we ate dinner, then my wife summarily passed out. A day of heavy drinking, constant dancing, and hiking 10 miles up the side of a steep mountain, did her in. I returned to the party and chatted with a couple of English-speaking locals who told me about the struggles and joys of village life. During the rainy season from May to November, the village is cut off from the outside world, only accessible by foot or motorbike. If you are dating a girl or boy from a neighboring village, need to go to the hospital, or need supplies like Beer Lao, then getting in or out of the village is an adventure, they said.
Soon, locals flooded the courtyard, and the partying began again, but I couldn’t hang. I retreated to the homestay, took a bucket shower in icy water, and crawled into bed. We were probably a quarter-mile from the party, yet the vibrations from the booming speakers shook the walls. I drifted in and out of drunken sleep, with the revelry invading my dreams. Then, mercifully, the music stopped, and all was silent – for about five minutes.
As soon as the party stopped, a deluge of Biblical proportions began. Fat waterdrops hammered away at the corrugated steel roof of our homestay, filling the room with soundwaves so intense I felt the vibrations in my internal organs.
After four hours, the rain abated, and silence returned to the world. To celebrate, the roosters, accompanied by a chorus of enthusiastic yet off-key dogs, serenaded us with songs of joy. I awoke in the morning to more pounding rain, a killer headache, and to the realization that we were stuck. The roads were impassable and we didn’t have the rain gear to hike without getting utterly soaked. This was, after all, the dry season so, we weren’t outfitted for rain. We decided to hang out at the homestay and wait for clear skies.
After breakfast, the men invited me to drink Lao lao. “Oh, it is too early,” I said. One of the men scoffed at me, and like an insecure teen, I succumbed to peer pressure. I sat on a tiny wooden stool in a dimly lit, smoke-filled room and took a shots of gasoline with my Hmong buddies. The bottle, I noticed, was packed with herbs. “Why are there plants in the whiskey?” I asked.
“It gives you man-power,” one of them said with a wink. On a side note, we are expecting twins in the fall.
Late morning, the skies cleared, so we went for a walk around the village. It was Sunday, so we were able to see how highland people enjoy a day off. At every turn, I saw men playing bocce or football, kids frolicking in caches of corn, women hanging laundry on the line, families chatting on the porch. In one clearing, I saw a boisterous gathering and went to investigate. Turns out, it was the local cockfighting arena. Disturbed yet curious, I watched as a series of birds did battle as locals placed bets and money changed hands.
Living amongst the people were hundreds of animals. We passed free range ducks, chickens, roosters, dogs, monkeys, goats, cows, and pigs. Life is pretty good for these animals, I suppose. They live a life frollicking in the village, and then one day, in an instant, they are food. It sure beats living in captivity or dying at a slaughterhouse.
Walking around, we understood why the villages are cut off during the rainy season. After just a few steps, heavy mud accumulated in massive clumps on our feet, making each step a chore. Imagine trying to walk in ski boots in wet clay, and you’ll understand.
Escape from the Village
In the afternoon, after several sunny hours, a driver with a van determined he could make it up the road and offered us a ride to Nong Khiaw. He clamped snow chains – or mud chains – on the tires, and we took off on one of the most exhilarating and dangerous drives of my life, sliding around hairpin turns and hydroplaining on rain-slickened roads along sheer cliffs. Luckily, I was distracted from our near-death experiences by gorgeous views that stretched forever.
Although the rain messed up our trek, it couldn’t have turned out better. Most visitors who trek in the highlands never get to dress in Hmong clothes and participate in a festival, and spending the day among the villagers turned out to be a highlight of our trip to Laos.
Have you ever had serendipity while traveling?