Every once in a while something comes along and just blows your mind. These last two days, both food and otherwise, are one such thing.
We'd trekked in Thailand before, hiking our way through jungle till we got to a beautiful bamboo village where we enjoyed the evening eating Thai curry and listening to locals play the guitar. It was a great evening but the satellite dishes and cars we spied when we left the next day suggested it wasn't that remote or traditional a village, no matter what we were told.
Here in the North of Laos though you're meant to be able to find some pretty unspoilt villages so we set off from Luangnamtha on a two day trek with the promise of local tribes. Even the first village we visited, which was only a couple of hundred metres from the road, threw up some interesting sites. First off the entire village came out and stood watching us for a good 20 minutes and then on the way out we spotted this young girl smoking. According to the guide this isn't usual and it was propbably just some rolled up paper. She had the toking action nailed though, chugging away, inhaling and breathing out through nose and mouth.
We statrted trekking and I was wondering what we'd get fed once we got to the village but I didn't have to wait that long. 3 hours into the trek lunch was called and it was none of the fried rice in polystyrene containers you usually get on tourist operations in South East Asia. Wild banana leaves were cut down to make an eating surface and some real local food was laid out. We picked the leeches from our ankles, tried in vain to keep flies and ants off the food and cracked on.
The white coleslaw like stuff is rattan, which it seems has uses beyond furniture. The meat was water buffalo larb, slightly chewy but full of flavour. The greens contained manioc, sweet potato leaves, some fern and some other jungle plants the guide didn't know the English name for: some bitter, some sweet, some tender, some stringy - all interesting. The white leek like things were one of the most interesting for me, young galangal. I've used the rhizome in tom yam and curry pastes, where it's distinctive flavour has no subsistute, but here the shoots were a much more delicate affair, obviously the same plant but the strong spice was now just a hint of flavour. Tidying up was easy with the leaf and remains just being dumped into the river for the wildlife to feast on.
Lunch over we set off trekking again, on what turned out to be one of the hardest days trekking of my life. After our guide getting us lost we hired a local rice farmer to take us on for a couple of hours until our original guide recogised the jungle again. Along the way our guide picked lemongrass, ginger and loads of wild mushrooms ready for the evening meal. To add to these he found the biggest bamboo shoot I've ever seen, it was quite literally as big as my arm, and so far removed from the uniform rectangular strips bought in tins. I'd wanted to take a photo but it ended up getting prepared before I could.
Finally we arrived in the village which was just a few bamboo huts running wild with chickens, piglets, cows and local children. We were showed to our hut (home to 7 already) and it was something straight from a museum with hard mud floor, sparse bamboo funriture and an open fire. We were told they'd only let their first tourists in 4 months back and we were the 18th group to visit. We certainly seemed to interest them as within half an hour most of the women and children were sat watching us eat, the men all seconded to other local villages to help with the rice planting. Dinner was fried water buffalo and some greens along with a soup made from the mushrooms our guide had picked as we went along. All was flavoured with the spices he'd gathered on the trek. All was prepared under candlelight and cooked over an open flame, there was no electiricity or gas here.
We went to bed on our bamboo bed and had a pretty bad night's sleep. It was hot and clammy and there was noise a plenty from both the family two foot away and all the animals outside. I wouldn't have changed it for the world though. Whilst being woken up at 5.30am after hardly sleeping would normally piss me off opening my eyes to a local lady weaving cloth on her loom made up for it all.
Breakfast ended up being bamboo shoot fried with garlic and ginger served with fried rice. The type of bamboo we'd picked needed 4 hours simmering (which had happened overnight) and then a simple fry, other bamboo (I learnt) can be fried straight off after peeling and slicing. Even in daylight the huts still tended towards the dark side.