Such Great Heights

July 5, 2011

Certain human rituals are so macho, so reckless, so testosterone-fueled, that only men could have possibly come up with them. Spanish men decided it would be a good idea to run down a narrow alley while being chased by bloodthirsty bulls. Red-blooded American males gifted the world with the Monster Truck Rally (we are forever grateful.) Japanese men, possibly after a raucous sake binge, thought it would be cool to pit two severely obese dudes in a ring and watch them smack into each other. Every Tadschikistani male must wrestle a wild bear nude and blindfolded on his eighteenth birthday. OK, ok, I made that last one up. Nevertheless, it should be of little surprise that at some point in their history, enterprising young males from the Tai Lue tribe in Southeast Asia spotted an unwanted bamboo grove and a novel idea was born. Why not chop these stalks down, stick gunpowder on them, and turn them into rockets? And then compete to see who can shoot their bamboo rocket the farthest! I for one am glad that such a wise revelation occurred. Why? Because I happened to visit the town of Muang Sing in Northern Laos just as the Tai Lue rocket festival was getting underway. My inner macho was very pleased, indeed.

James The Gentleman

Since celebrating my birthday in Chiang Mai, I had stopped in a northern Thai town called Pai, where I had hung out for a couple weeks. There I met James, an American musician from Missouri who was just starting a four month holiday in Thailand. We quickly became friends after jamming together on stage at an open-mic session. I persuaded James to travel with me into Laos, and one morning thereafter we took off on the two-day journey from Pai to the Laotian frontier. We crossed the mighty Mekong river by boat, and traveled by bus through the Laotian towns of Huay Xai and Luang Nam Tha en route to Muang Sing.

View from the Guesthouse Balcony
The first order of business upon arriving in Muang Sing was to find a decent place to stay. As we were in a small town in one of the least developed countries in Asia, we were not searching for the Ritz Carlton. But when we found a place with a balcony overlooking a stunning and serene backdrop of valley and mountains, the decision became easy. This balcony proved to be a perfect spot to play guitar, and we spent many hours plucking tunes inspired by the scenery around us. Sure, the beds were hard and uncomfortable, our rooms and the halls were overrun every night by thousands of crickets, and the rude staff woke everyone up at 6am every morning. But, only $8 a night to enjoy the use of that balcony? A steal!!!

The next morning I roused early to walk to the morning market. This region of Laos is home to hundreds of villages hosting many different ethnic tribes, and villagers wake up before dawn to come down to Muang Sing and trade. The market was bustling and crowded by the time I arrived, and despite the nearly complete lack of other Westerners, most people paid me little attention. They were too busy to notice!

That afternoon James and I met up with two American travelers from San Francisco, Sasha and Ra, and headed out to the giant field where the Rocket Festival was to take place the next day. Mighty clouds above threatened to unleash a storm but in doing so created a majestic portrait of the heavens. Some local children spotted us and rushed up to show off the few words of English they had memorized in school. Laughing at our incomprehensible responses, they led us over to the rocket launching platform and climbed to the top, beckoning for us to follow.

The kids were ecstatic when we joined them at the top. The combination of the presence of funny foreigners and anticipation for tomorrow's festivities had them giddy with excitement. After looking around at the jaw-dropping views, we climbed back down the platform. On our way back we passed locals hauling bamboo rockets, so we helped carry a few over to their resting spot. By now, we were just as excited for tomorrow as our little friends!

The Bamboo Rocket Haulers
Then came the big day. Overnight rains had turned the festival staging grounds into a muddy mess, but that didn't stop the women from donning beautiful and brightly colored traditional dresses. A multitude of novice monks in flowing orange robes were also in attendance. Carnival games were setup along side food stalls selling spicy papaya salads and fried meats on sticks. Karaoke booths competed with sound systems playing traditional music to formally dressed traditional dancers. It was, in essence, a big Laotian county fair.

All of this was nice to see, but after consulting with my inner macho, I concluded that what I really wanted to watch was some rocket launching. And the festival did not disappoint. A continuous stream of men carried giant trunks of bamboo up the wooden launching platform, precariously aligned them on top, ignited the wick and hurriedly scurried down to get clear of ground zero. Accompanied by a deafening roar, the rocket would then take off upwards and arc towards the empty field, tailed by a long plume of black smoke and urged on by cheering masses. Some of the rockets went so far in the distance that I lost track of them in the sky. I captured this video that gives some sense of the spectacle:

I was struck by how many similarities I observed between local festivities in Muang Sing and celebrations in the High Andes of Peru and Bolivia. In these two opposite corners of the world, both peoples wear brightly colored clothings, perform traditional dances that are similar in their basic repetitiousness, and move to a common rhythm. In both places, liters of bottled beer are passed around as the drink of choice. And most compellingly, some of the indigenous tribes-people I came across in Muang Sing bore a striking physical resemblance to individuals from the South American Andes. Tong, a friendly member of the Hmong Tribe with whom I would visit as part of a homestay experience, looked so Andean to me that I wouldn't bat an eye if we crossed paths in Peru.

After the rocket festival, there was one more thing left on the agenda to fulfill before heading out of town. A visit to this remote area of the planet wouldn't be complete without seeing some of the hill tribe villages around Muang Sing. Tong is in charge of a local ecotourism agency that offers guided tours which include a homestay in his household. I signed up for a two day, one night bicycling tour, and was happy to have Sasha and Ra join me on this adventure. James opted not to come along. Our guide was Tong's cheerful nephew, Seeno. Seeno showed up the morning of the tour wearing a jacket and long pants, proceeded to wear them throughout 90 degree heat with high humidity, and barely broke a sweat all day. (How Southeast Asians perspire so little perplexes me. I must seem like a sweaty pig to them!) My bicycle was intended for someone about a foot shorter than me, so after an hour or so my whole body was aching terribly. In addition, my bike chain fell off repeatedly during the course of the day. To make things even more challenging, by mid-day I had developed a nasty case of heat exhaustion. The expenditure of any energy became a grueling and joyless task. Nevertheless, I did my best to take in my surroundings and make the most of the experience.

Seeno and I outside his home

We rode over dirt paths, past green fields, and through many different villages. Seeno explained some of the customs and beliefs of each tribe, some of which seemed very superstitious. It turns out that many tribes in Laos are actually animist, meaning that they believe in spirits. I think this was why many village children laughed and ran away when I tried to take their picture; perhaps they did not want my camera to capture their spirit! Many of the villages were very poor, and some kids walked around stark naked. When we stopped in one village housing an animist "Akha" tribe, all of the children wandered over to observe us with a cold measure of shy curiosity. But they warmed up a bit when we offered to share our snack of dried fruits.

Legs aching from peddling my undersized bicycle, skin soaked with sweat and covered in dust, and body suffering from heat exhaustion, I was utterly relieved when we finally arrived to Seeno's village. After a quick rest he gave us a walking tour. Most of the construction, including the home where Seeno lives with Tong's family, consisted of little more than thatched roof huts. The village restroom was an outhouse with squat toilets, and there was a communal water source which basically was an elevated faucet perched over a cement block. People washed their clothes, brushed their teeth, and showered here. And yes, I stripped down to my underwear and bathed in public. It was a liberating experience. Thankfully my privacy was respected, save for a couple of kids who couldn't help but peek around a hut to gawk at the giant naked white man.

The Village
Communal faucet where I bathed
Shaking hands with a mesmerized village kid!

That evening Tong's wife prepared a meal of pork soup, green beans, lettuce, an omelet and sticky rice. Soon after dinner the family prepared to go to sleep. I was surprised to discover that their family of eight all sleeps under the roof of their one-room house. Except for Tong's mother, everyone shares beds, with little more than curtains partitioning off different sleeping areas. Ra and Sasha were given a bed to use but I was told that I'd be sleeping in the same bed with Seeno and his male cousin. I wasn't too excited about this prospect, but I told myself "this is how they live, and I'm here to experience it." I barely slept a wink all night. The bed was uncomfortably hard and the room was hot and stuffy. I was routinely startled by the barking of roaming dogs outside the hut. Even worse, I still felt nauseous from my bout with heat exhaustion. Needless to say, the morning sunlight came as a welcome relief. After breakfast I was eager to get back to the relative comfort of the guesthouse. I thanked Tong's family for their hospitality and climbed back on to my asian-man sized bicycle.

Dinner at the village home where we stayed the night

It had been an enlightening experience to stay with a local family in their home. Compared to Seeno and Tong, the average Westerner lives in a world of incredible luxury and freedom. This opportunity gave me a chance to reflect on how fortunate that I have been in this life. Of particular note, I was really amazed by how little privacy the members of these village families possess. Living in a one-room house, they are likely always in close contact with other people, nearly 24 hours of the day. This is one place where it would be hard to keep a secret.

Sitting in the aisle of the bus

That afternoon, James and I raced to the bus station to catch the day's last scheduled ride out of town. There were no remaining seats, so we crouched down in the aisle and readied ourselves for the bumpy three hour ride back to Luang Nam Tha. Attempting to take it in stride, I jokingly told James "let's just hope the bus doesn't break down." Which of course it did. The driver quickly changed a flat tire and we continued on. (He obviously had a lot of practice!) That evening I would embark on an arduous four day ordeal with food poisoning. I suspect that something I had eaten in the village home had gotten me sick. While ill and bed-ridden, I decided that I wouldn't seek out any more tribal homestays. I had appreciated the opportunity to experience a different way of life, but one had turned out to be plenty enough. On the other hand, I gathered that I wouldn't mind attending another rocket festival. A dose of that energizing adrenaline rush was just what this sick man needed. Who knew that bamboo was capable of reaching such great heights?



  1. Another inspiring article Adam. Your blog is that rare thing: a jewel of well-written, beautifully photographed, genuinely interesting insights into your travels -- contrasting with the ocean of banal "me too" travelogues sullying the interwebz...

  2. Thanks Paul, that's what I aim to be. I'm glad you consider it a success!