Houaphan Province – exploring the hometown of Ms Khamsee Thanbounheuang
It’s not necessary to go far and wide. I mean you can really find exciting things within your hometown. (Daryl Hannah)
This quote by the American actress Daryl Hannah is very true for my tandem-teacher Ms Khamsee Thanbounheuang and her hometown. She was born and raised in Sam Neua (sometimes transliterated as Samneua or Xam Neua), the capital of Houaphan Province. It is situated in the northeast of Laos, close to the Vietnamese border.
Khamsee had to leave her hometown in 2015 for her studies. She always wanted to return, but could not find a job as a teacher there. In her opinion, this is due to the fact that Sam Neua does not have many inhabitants (about 46,800) and therefore does not need many teachers. When it came to conversation practice in our English lessons, she often started to tell me about the beautiful sights in and around Sam Neua. The more photos she showed me, the more I wanted to go there myself. When Khamsee asked me one day if I would join her for her trip during our holidays, I did not hesitate to say yes!
I wrote everything down in my travel diary so as not to forget any of my experiences. I would like to share with you the following extracts.
Monday, 28 January 2019
I took the overnight bus from Luang Prabang ( A province in the North of Laos, which I visited just before my trip to Sam Neua) around midday and the journey took about 16h. It was pretty tiring, as I was not able to fall a sleep, sitting upright in the tight seat and with the windows open as well. The temperature sank very fast the further we got into the mountany area of Laos.I got to Sam Neua bus station at approximately five in the morning, where Mr Bounphay Inthipseng, Khamsee’s boyfriend, awaited me. I jumped on the motorbike and we rode to the house of Khamsee’s aunt. Although it was dark, I instantly noticed the biggest difference to Vientiane: Sam Neua is freezing cold! It must have been around eight degrees and even with my pullover and the long trousers, I was shivering! However, when Bounphay and I got to the house, we were warmed by Khamsee’s welcome as she stood waiting at the door to greet us.
The house had two levels. Entering the front door, I would have expected to get into the actual part of the house. However, I found myself standing in an anteroom, which was not much different to the outside area: The floors where still made of concrete and the temperature did not change a bit. The room contained a little kitchen, which consisted of a fridge, a little storage space, and a hotplate. The next door was already open and led into the house. There were three couches, all used for the luggage Khamsee and Bounphay had brought. Three steps into this room I almost stumbled over Ms Naphatsone Phetmeesay, Khamsee’s cousin. She slept on a thin mattress on the floor in front of the TV. Khamsee led me into the last room of the downstairs area, which was not actually a room but rather a little cave with a mattress, about two to two meters square. It looked very cozy and Khamsee invited me to rest there for the upcoming adventure.
After two hours, I got up again and looked for Khamsee. She was not in the house, so I decided to go outside and check the yard in front of the house. There I found her, Bounphay, and Ms Thay Alounthong, Khamsee’s aunt, cooking breakfast. I realised that they used the fireplace in the yard and not the hotplates in the kitchen (as most Westerners would). Open fire for cooking is the obvious choice for most Lao people, as I should have known at that moment, after having spent about five months in Laos already. Ms Thay Alounthong greeted me very warmly and invited me for breakfast. There was some fish, some meat, and lots of spicy food.
I am a vegan, which does not make it easy for me to find food when I am invited. Lao dishes often seem vegan/vegetarian, but most of the time the seasoning contains fish- or oystersauce. One can simply replace these by soysauce and thus turn traditional dishes into plant- based ones (cf. “Vegan in Laos“). Khamsee already knew about my diet, therefore she could show me what I could have: Sticky rice and bamboo shoots, and I also got stuffed with bananas by her aunt.
After everyone was sated and we had cleaned up, we – Khamsee, Bounphay, and I – jumped into the car with Khamsee’s cousin Mr Somchit Thanbounhueang and his girlfriend Ms Minta Phoutsavanh. The plan was to go to Vieng Xai to see the caves, but our first stop, after driving about 30 minutes, was somewhere in the mountains. Somchit wanted to go for a little hike, therefore everybody hopped out of the car. We did not have to go far, as Somchit had driven us far up the mountain already. The view was stunning – there were high green mountains everywhere around us, and in the distance you could see a herd of cows next to a little lake. As everybody got hungry – excepting me, still stuffed from the bananas – we soon went back to the car and drove further to find some noodle soup.
Now we were energised to climb the next mountain close to the caves. Mount Phat Nang Mone was not too high and there were stairs, but in the midday heat (approx. 30°C) it was still very exhausting to get to the top.
On the top we could see the mountains with the Viengxay caves and a small lake in front of them.
Subsequently, we finally made it to the caves. Khamsee booked a guided tour for the first cave we wanted to discover. The guide told us that throughout the “Secret War” (1959-75) the caves had served as the base of the Communist party Pathet Lao, to protect them from the incessant heavy bombardment. The tour was held in Lao, and even though Bounphay tried to translate some parts, I did not receive as much information as I would have hoped to get, I guess most got “lost in translation”.1
However, I still saw the place where the members of the Pathet Lao had rested, where they had prepared their meals, and where they had held their meetings, as well as a bunker for emergencies and some more small “rooms”. Somchit and Minta had been to the caves several times already and decided to stay in the car and wait for us, so after discovering the second cave we did not want to make them wait much longer and went back to the car to return “home”.
After approximately one hour on the curvy road through the mountains we got back. Khamsee’s aunt seemed shocked as she found out that I was supposed to sleep in a guesthouse for the next few days. She talked to Khamsee and Bounphay in Lao and then turned to me and kept on talking. I was a little bit overwhelmed as I had no idea what they were saying and if they might be angry with me for some reason. But then Bounphay clarified the situation: He said that Ms Thay Alounthong (I call her Aunt Thay) wanted me to stay in the house with Khamsee, Bounphay, Naphatsone, and Khamsee’s brother Bounpeng Phetmeesay. I could sleep on the mattress in front of the TV, while Namphatsone would sleep upstairs with her brother Bounpeng. I looked helplessly to Khamsee as I was not sure if she would want that. But she smiled and asked me to stay if I wanted, but left it up to me as she knew I was not used to the Lao way of living (sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor, squat toilet, Lao food etc.). I did not hesitate – I wanted to experience Lao life and therefore stay with Khamsee.
Soon it was time to prepare some dinner. Naphatsone, Bounphay, Khamsee and I went over to the house of Khamsee’s aunt, were she and a few more family members were sitting around a small table in the court. While we prepared the noodle soup, I was already wondering “who is going to eat all that food, the pot is huge!?” when all of a sudden Naphatsone yelled something in Lao and about 15 people from the neighborhood showed up in our court. Some were family members, others friends of the family. We put up two more tables and everyone took a seat around them. Then we brought out the soups and some seasoning sauces. It was delicious!
I am not used to spontaneous dinner parties such as this one. Whenever I have people over for dinner in Germany, it takes at least a week for me to plan in advance. I hope to take some of this spontaneity back to Germany as it seems to lower the stress level a lot.
After I finished my soup, I sat down at the table with Aunt Thay and some other women. Then they started to ask many questions about me and my life, which Bounphay had to translate. Most questions seemed to be about my family and when I would get married to have my own family. I was released by Naphatsone, who asked me if I would like to join her, Khamsee, and Bounphay for going home to find some rest for the next day. Yes, this was a good idea! I had felt a little bit uncomfortable answering Aunt Thay’s questions, as they appeared to touch on very private information about me, but a few days later, Somchit explained to me that these questions are the normal ones to start a conversation with in Laos – it just means you get to know another person very quickly.
Tuesday, 29 January 2019
After breakfast Khamsee, Bounphay, Khamsee’s six-year-old cousin Ms Natxa Sayatham and I went on a walk around town to meet Khamsee’s relatives and friends. They were all very welcoming and offered us some fruits, sugarcane, or tea. I got stuffed with bananas again as Khamsee told everyone that I do not eat meat or fish, and consequently they thought I must be hungry all the time. This is how I found out that there are more types of bananas than I could have ever imagined. One of the many that I tried stood out significantly, as that one had the soft texture of a banana but tasted sour like a lemon. As a westerner I am mostly aquainted with the soft and very sweet banana types like the giant-cavendish, therefore this was an extraordinary taste of banana for me.
Our next stop was Khamsee’s old house up on a little hill by a small slope. Since her parents moved to Vientiane in 2018, no one lives there anymore, but Khamsee is sure that one day she will renovate it and move back here.
After lunch at aunt Thay’s house, Khamsee’s friend Ms Phonechit Siyotha came to pick us up with her motorbike so we could go to Wat Ong Teu, a temple on a hill in Sam Neua. She did not speak much English, but one does not always need many words to connect. Bounphay took Khamsee on the back of his scooter, whilst Phonechit and I shared hers, and off we went. The temple was beautiful, decorated with Buddhist ornaments and covered in red and golden paint. Even more stunning was the view of the city, for which we had to turn away from Wat Ong Teu and take the few steps down to a little plateau. After taking plenty of photos, we went back to the motorbikes.
Our next stop was Nuay-keo, a famous abstract sculpture on a roundabout. We took a ride around it and went back to the center of Sam Neua, which we had already passed with the motorbikes before. There, we saw the remake of the landmark of Sam Neua, Hin-tang, nine tall square rocks. Across the road of the park was a small football stadium, and in front of it people started to build up a little night market. We decided to have dinner there before heading back home to get some rest for the next day.
Wednesday, 30 January 2019
Today we – this is Naphatsone, Khampeng, Bounphay, Khamsee and I – went to mount Pha Thi. We had to get up a little bit earlier, as it is about two hours away and we did not want to hike up there in the midday heat. Khamsee’s uncle Mr Sengkeo Alounthong drove us there. It was a difficult but beautiful road. We had to go up and down the mountains, through a shallow lake, past some small villages and a military station. At the military station, we stopped briefly to drop off some food for another cousin of Khamsee’s, who is a soldier.
Finally, we arrived at the foot of mount Pha Thee, where we could already see the many, many stairs that lead up to its summit. I felt exhausted already by only looking at them, but I was very excited at the same time in anticipation of the nice views we would get from up there, and so I could not wait to climb the stairs. Uncle Sengkeo was not as eager and decided to stay in the car. It took us only about thirty minutes to get up the stairs, but this was not it – we also had to hike through the forest, which was already very beautiful. We saw many exotic – at least for me – plants, goats jumping around, and a few war relicts that I could not identify. As this mountain is the highest peak in the area, it was used as a military installation during the Second Indochina War.2 Before we started the hike, we were told not to touch any unexploded bombs (UXOs),3 which scared me a little. Luckily we did not see any, or better to say, luckily we did not step on the ones we did not see.
The view from the highest point of the mountain was breathtaking and absolutely worth climbing up all the way, even if I looked like a sweaty tomato up there. I could see far and wide: I saw green mountains, blue lakes, and a helicopter landing field. 360° of pure beautiful nature, stunning!
I did not want to leave this place, but unfortunately all our stomachs started to announce themselves and demanded we make our way back through the forest and down the stairs as fast as possible. Uncle Sengkeo awaited us at the car to start the way back.
We took a different way this time and stopped in a little mountain village. The villagers told us that the little river that leads through their village is a hot spring. We wanted to find out for ourselves and left the car to touch the water. I thought it would be slightly warm, but the water was surpringly very hot. This must be great for the cold nights in the mountains of Houaphan Province, to take a hot bath, as hot water is rather unusual in a houshold in this area of Laos.
Soon after this, we found a nice spot next to a tiny lake, where we took our lunch. Bounpeng went to cut off some banana leaves to lay on the ground as a mat for the food. We perched around it and gobbled our lunch. As we finished, we packed everything together, except for the disposable “tablecloth”, this we left behind and hopped back into the car. Soon, we were back “home” and I went to rest on “my” mattress.
In the evening, we were invited to another cousin’s of Khamsee’s, Ms Maikham Thanbounheuang, for dinner with her family and freinds. Her daughter Beola had a Baci earlier that day – apparently it is a Lao tradition to receive a Baci ceremony at this age – and the celebration was still going on in the evening, family and friends had dinner together. I enjoyed the company of Khamsee’s very welcoming family a lot!
Thursday, 31 January 2019
Our program for that Thursday? “Tat Nam Neua”, a waterfall not too far away from “our” home. (“Tat” and “nam” mean “water” and “fall”, so “Nam Neua” is a compound noun referring to the place the waterfall is situated in, Sam Neua.) Right after breakfast, we got onto the motorbikes and started our journey. Unfortunately, the tyre of Bounphay’s and my motorbike went flat soon after we left Sam Neua, and we could not find a shop nearby in which we could have had it repaired. This is why we had to go very slowly until we reached Khamsee’s grandaunt’s house, which had a motorbike shop right next to it. While the tyre got fixed, we enjoyed sugarcane, tea, and bananas in her court, together with her daughter Mone Vonxay and her two children. It took quite long, but when the bike was ready, Mone, her son, and Khamsee sat on one and Bounphay and I on the other motorbike and we drove only a few minutes to Nam Neua waterfall. When we got off the bikes, I could already get a glimpse of the waterfall through the bushes – then we hiked through the forest and a bit up the waterfall. From there the view was even more amazing!
I had seen some waterfalls in Laos before and they were much bigger than this one, but they were in very touristic and therefore quite noisy areas. At Tat Nam Neua, the only noises we could hear were the sound of the water flowing and the different animal noises – this turned the waterfall and its surroundings into a rather magical place and thus became one of my favourite places in Laos. However, after a while, we got hungry again and we had to head back to Aunt Thay’s cousin’s to have lunch. Thence we made our way back to Sam Neua.
Sam Neua is famous for its bamboo shoots. They mostly get collected in the forest and are sold by children, teenagers, and their mothers on the side of the roads. That is were we stopped, as Khamsee wanted to bring many bamboo shoots back to Vientiane as presents for her family and friends there. If I say “many”, I really mean many – I had no idea how we were supposed to bring four big sacks of bamboo shoots to Sam Neua on only two motorbikes? For a second, I was worried that they would have to leave me in the middle of the mountains to bring home the bamboo shoots, but somehow they made me fit somewhere in the middle between them.
In the evening Aunt Thay invited us to a Hot Pot dinner at a small restaurant. Bounpheng, Naphatsone, and a few more family members were invited, too. Afterwards Naphatsone, Khamsee, Bounphay and I went to a bar and enjoyed our last evening together over a few pints of Beer Lao!
Friday, 1 February 2019
On my last day in Sam Neua Naphatsone, Khamsee and I helped Aunt Thay to prepare Khao Tom, a typical Lao dish made of stcicky rice, rice leaves, meat, and herbs. We first burned the rice leaves until they turned black. Aunt Thay used the ash to mix it together with uncooked sticky rice in a big mortar. Then we emptied the mortar onto a big flat bamboo bowl. She took the bowl and moved it in such a way that the rice got thrown into the air again and again. The ash from the leaves fell through the tiny holes of the bamboo bowl and what remained was now black-colored sticky rice grains. These needed to be steamed next. Therefore we collected wood and made a fire. Over the fire we placed a big saucepan, which we filled up to a third with water. We stuffed the sticky rice with the chicken, beans and herbs and wrapped it into banana leaves. These packages were then placed in the saucepan. Unfortunately, we could not see or taste the result for ourselves as we had to pack and get ready for our bus back to Vientiane.
It was hard to say goodbye, as aunt Thay and I had grown quite close during this short time. But what I did not know was that I would see her again only a few weeks later in Vientiane, as the family celebrated two Bacis for two family members there.
I feel very fortunate to have made such an amazing experience during my stay in Laos. It deepened my friendship with Khamsee, brought me closer to Lao culture, and left me with memories I will never forget.
Thank you for everything, Khamsee, you made my time in Laos very special and I am sure our paths will cross again some time in the future!
Text by J. Unterweger
Photos by K. Thanbounheuang, B. Inthipseng, P. Siyotha, J. Unterweger
1 Cf. Education in Laos (Part II) for further information on the Lao Secret War and the educational system throughout this time. Also find out how the caves helped keeping an important tradition undamaged in Traditional Lao weaving – an interview with Ms Khamsee Thabounheuang.
The reference “Lost in translation” refers to a movie about a Westerner’s culture-shock in Tokyo.
2 The “Second Indochina War” is called “Vietnam War” in the Western World, “American War” in Vietnam, and “Secret War” in Laos.
3 During the Second Indochina War, the US dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos, which makes it the most heavily-bombed country in history relative to its population. There are still unexploded bombs to be found, which make some areas in Laos especially dangerous. Laos has an extra Sustainable Development Goal to reduce the impact of remaining landmines (UXOs) in the country.