Cruising the Mekong Delta into the open arms of the local hilltribes

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It was time to leave Laos, but rather than fly out back to Thailand we were leaving on Laos time, slowly, slowly down the Mekong Delta. We hobbled down the river bank with our heavy backpacks and jumped, quite literally as the boats were quickly separating leaving a big gap to fall into the water, onto our long boat where we would spend two days sailing down the river, eight hours each day, with a stop off to overnight at a local village. We quickly settled into our seats and got comfortable for the long journey ahead. We powered down the muddy waters, with an endless expanse of green forest on either side, until we eventually reached a small beach area. We jumped off the boat again and hiked our way up into the hills eventually reaching a small village. In the village lived three different tribes, the Hmong, Khamu and Laos. We dropped our bags off at the chief’s house, the only house made from bricks and mortar, the others being wooden shacks, and went for a walk around our home for the night. As we started walking two new members joined our group, a beautiful young girl around eight and her naughty little brother who started swinging on a few members of the group as we made our way around the village. The little girl came to hold my hand as we walked past chickens, pigs and other children playing. When we arrived back at the chiefs house a feast of local Laos dishes had been prepared for us and after we enjoyed the best meal we had eaten in the country we set about handing out the socks we had bought for the children. One by one all the children from the village arrived and they stood, quietly and patiently, in line to receive their gift. The smiles on their faces when they received such a small gift that we take for granted was so humbling and their appreciation was overwhelming. After we handed out all the socks the children sang a thank you song in the local language for us and then came to play with us before it was time for us all to go to bed. One little girl pointed at my camera straight away so, through spontaneous sign language I asked if she wanted me to take her picture and she nodded her approval. She held up her new pair of pink socks and when I showed her the picture she started laughing which started off a whole hour of taking pictures and laughter. They were fascinated by seeing themselves on screen and when one member of the group started to show a little boy the photos she had taken of our trip so far he was amazed at all the things he was seeing on this tiny little device. Each time he came across an image that delighted him he would show it to the other children with animated chatter. We couldn’t understand what he was saying but it was clear from his body language that he was very excited about what he was seeing. One by one everyone’s iPhones came out as each child flicked through the photo libraries and compared images in excited voices. Photos were being shown to each other left right and centre until at one point two children showed each other an image on the different phones they were holding and it happened to be the exact same picture of a reclining Buddha statue that they had stumbled across at the same time. Of course this brought a round of enormous laughter from them both, and from the rest of us who were just as amazed as them at the coincidence. It was unfortunately soon time for bed as the sun had set and the village only has a few lights operated by solar power as they do not have electricity. The village sleeps when the sun goes down and wakes when it rises; it was exactly my kind of place. The group was separated into trios and we headed off to the homes of our hosts. A small woman with long, dark hair greeted us with a shy smile and showed us to our mats on the floor protected by mosquito nets. As a thank you we had bought a scarf for each host from the local night market and when we handed it to her she accepted it with a shy smile and nod. As we were getting ready for bed she came into the room, after opening her gift, giggling and smiling and nodding at us holding the scarf in her hand and then wrapping it around her neck and shoulders, you could see the sheer delight and gratefulness in the smile that touched her eyes. I asked her if she would like a photo, again through made up sign language, and she held up her finger to tell me to hold on one minute whilst she quickly fixed her hair. When she was ready she sat with a very sombre and serious look on her face and I quickly took the snap. I showed her the image and she fell into a fit of giggles again as she saw herself on my screen. ‘You look beautiful,’ I said and again she giggled away whilst bowing with her hands in prayer position to say thank you. Her reaction was the icing on the cake to what had been a brilliant evening spent with these warm and welcoming people.

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