On a whim, we decided to stay in Thailand and check out the northeast provinces, rather than go back into Laos. Oddly enough, we spent most of the past two weeks within sight of Laos, sticking to the area along the Mekong River. We left Udon Thani with vague instructions for reaching a village homestay…it has a great reputation, but it is a long way from the beaten track! Nevertheless, every second we put into finding this homestay was worth it.
After getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere, the hosts arrived on their motorbikes to whisk us off to our own personal heaven for a week. Bun Loed built the bungalows and planted the garden and orchard all with his own hands. He used to be a prominent figure in the local district government, overseeing nine villages. We noticed during our stay we had only to mention his name to get looks of respect and to receive royal treatment anywhere we went. Of course, we liked him more for his generous hospitality, his cooking (green curry from scratch, with herbs and spices from the garden!!), and all the fresh-of-the-tree litchis we could eat. The other half of the hosting team is his partner, Angelina, a woman from the north of France who traveled the world and decided that the tiny village of Kham Pia (that’s “little tamarind” in Thai) was her destiny.
We even helped to harvest the litchis and rode along to sell them in the local farmer’s market. My favorite part was making the litchis into pretty bundles to sell…Sangbyeong’s favorite part was catching the acid-spraying stink bugs that live in the litchi trees. The locals deep fry the stink bugs and eat them! Actually they do that with pretty much all of the insects. When the boys weren’t crunching on them, we were also feeding them to the resident gecko family. As it turned out, Bun Loed is also an expert trekking guide, and he took us on a wild jungle trek through the Phu Wua Wildlife Sanctuary. Unfortunately, it was the wrong season for seeing elephants…the park has a wild herd living on the grounds! Next time we will come back to see them. As it was, we saw all sorts of lizards, snakes, insects, birds…and a lot of interesting plants and mushrooms.
We ascended the mountain, crashing through dense foliage, but at the top, it opened out onto an almost surreal Mars-like, rocky landscape. Dark red rocks stretched for miles around, forming the flat top of the mountain. In parts, it was obvious that his was a part of the seabed long ago. There are also odd holes that fill with water, adding to the strange structure of the landscape. In the rainy season, a river forms over the top, and now that it is the end of the dry season, all that is left is shady pools here and there. We stopped next to one for lunch, where nature provided the group with snakehead fish, freshwater shrimp, fire ants, ant eggs, wild galangal, and sour leaves for lunch (we added the salad, rice, chillis, and pineapple that we had packed). It was a memorable meal!
As the afternoon wore into evening, we made the last bit of climb up to the viewpoint, where even on a hazy, hot day, we could see 40 kilometers in all directions. Finally it was time for the descent back to the village and the shower. We took the “shortcut,” which was a nearly vertical path covered with slippery sand and fallen bamboo leaves! When we finally reached level ground again, we passed through a cave belonging to a hermit monk that has lived there in the park for years. Sadly, he was not around when we dropped in, but we picked up some of the delicious wild jungle ginseng that he harvests and trades for supplies (Bun Loed and him are, of course, good friends).
At last we arrived back at our bungalow, exhausted and exhilarated by the day’s adventures. We spent the entire next day deliciously doing nothing. Except eat more litchis. After our day of rest, we borrowed Bun Loed and Angelina’s motorbike and headed to the nearby Wat Phu Tok with Clement, a Frenchman who has stayed in the village for four weeks. I had read a little about Phu Tok before we went, but I was in love with it from the moment we drove up. Perhaps it has to do with the symbolism they built into it. The wat is built around a mountain, with seven levels to represent the ascent of the consciousness to nirvana.
It starts with Step 1, which is still flat and connected to the front gates. Then you climb up and up through the different steps. At Step 4, there is a large temple cut out of the rock, housing many sacred books for the monks. Levels 5 and 6 consist of rickety wooden walkways that cling to the sheer cliffs and circle the mountain, giving you amazing views. The seventh step is the mountaintop, which has been left completely to nature, with only rough trails cut through the wild growth (we saw a baby king cobra in the bamboo…no picture, as I was trying to stay very still!) Anyone who knows about my love for Dante’s Purgatorio will see why this place captured my imagination…it is almost exactly like that island, I think…complete with Eden at the top!
On the way home, we stopped in several local villages to watch the different styles of fishing. In only a few kilometers, we saw net casting, nets on rods, boat trapping, and basket catching. The road passed through several beautiful swamps, too. Suddenly, as we neared home we were caught in a huge tropical thunderstorm! We pulled over into a bus shelter and watched the natural fireworks of wind, lightning, thunder, and rain. Once the rain subsided. the evening was so fresh and cool, it felt wonderful after so many days of 38-39 degree heat (that is well over 100 Fahrenheit!). We had to have dinner with candlelight, though, as the power and the water supply went out. Oh, the romance!
After a week of perfection, we were sad to leave Kham Pia, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we will be back…