sign in a cave in Laos

18 July 2008

Trekking in Northern Laos - WildAsia

Among the Akha, Hmong and Khmu: Trekking in Northern Laos

Exiting the tourist haven of Thailand to Laos, LIZ PRICE traverses across dusty highways and leech-ridden trails to discover the diversity of tribes and customs of people having migrated from Vietnam, China, Myanmar and Thailand.

[published on Wildasia 04 Apr 2006]

The hillside was so steep I had to pull myself up using tree branches and roots. The terrain underfoot was really slippery, as the carpet of dry bamboo leaves provided no grip for my shoes. It was actually more difficult than walking on mud as the dry leaves tended to slip downhill whilst I was trying to go up. It was frustrating how the local guides just sped up the hill in their slippers as if it was a Sunday stroll.

And of course there were leeches, even though it was the dry season. Actually I don’t mind leeches as hundreds over the years have bitten me. Quite often I don’t even feel the bite, its only when a bloody patch appears on my socks that I realise the leeches have gotten me. But this day was different; I felt something on my kneecap and looked down to see red seeping through my trousers. I managed to roll up my trouser leg and found the culprit. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a leech bite my kneecap. I didn’t think there was enough blood there to make a good meal.

We were in northern Laos, close to the Chinese and Myanmar borders. We had our base in the small town, or more accurately a large village, named Vieng Phoukha, which lies on route 3 in Luang Namtha province. Very few tourists venture up here as they generally concentrate on the more popular areas of Vientienne and Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site.

However Luang Namtha will soon open up to the world as China and Thailand are constructing a highway through this area to connect their respective countries. Consequently the journey from the border was incredibly dusty. Our rucksacks were on the roof of the pickup and when we arrived all the packs were the same shade of red-brown and covered with dust!

We had entered Laos from Thailand. From Chiang Rai we went to the border town of Chiang Khong, took a ferry across the Mekhong River to Huay Xai. Immigration was a breeze as we got our visas on arrival and found our transport waiting for us. It then took 3 hours to do the 120 km of dusty track. It was absolutely amazing to see the highway construction, vast swathes of terrain had been cleared as earth-moving machines ate up the land and cleared steep hillsides.
Several times we had to stop and wait whilst bulldozers cleared huge boulders and rubble, which had been brought down from the slopes. It really was a mammoth undertaking.

We reached Vieng Phoukha and went to the Eco-Guides office to arrange a trek. This area is the newest trekking area in Laos, and the Eco-Guides Service is a community-based scheme being helped by the Provincial Government and the European Union. They currently offer 4 treks, ranging between 1 and 3 days, which visit various ethnic minority villages.

I was surprised to learn how many different ethnic groups live here. The main ones are Akha, Hmong, and Khmu. Over the years people have migrated around Burma, China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The people wear their traditional clothes every day and as we went around the market our guide pointed out the different tribal costumes and hats. The women from two different groups wear their hair in a bun on the forehead, with or without ornaments. Some men sported colourful jackets, but generally the children were dressed in western style clothes.

Our trek started by crossing dry padi fields, and we met a trio of girls who were carrying nets and baskets. Our guide explained that they were looking for animals. These people eat virtually any animal that they can find, so search the padi fields and forests. They use bamboo traps to catch birds and small mammals and they go into caves to hunt bats during the right season. This area is rich in limestone so there are several extensive cave systems, some with some stunning stalactite formations.

The first obstacle on our trek was crossing a small stream using bamboo poles. Three poles spanned the stream and each one bounced in different amounts as you stood on them, which was a bit unnerving. I learnt just to go across quickly and not think about it, but one of our group resorted to crawling across on hands and knees. We then entered the forest and began the uphill climb. I was surprised how cool the forest was. In Malaysia I always find the forest to be a hot, humid and sweaty place, but here in northern Laos the forests were definitely cooler.

We followed a pleasant trail alongside a small river. Then we were surprised to hear a banging sound and our guide Hong Tong told us it was rice-pounding machines. Intrigued we went to have a look. We saw an ingenious system of bamboo pipes attached to a large wooden pounder above a pile of rice. When the pipes are full with water they tip down which in turn forces the pounder onto the rice. I later saw a manual version in the villages where the women were using a treadle system to deploy the pounder.

Throughout the trek our guides pointed out various leaves and shrubs that they use for medicine and food. Lunch was a pleasant meal; we came to a clearing and one guide cut several banana leaves and laid them on the ground as the tablecloth. Then whilst one guide unpacked the food he had carried, the others disappeared into the bushes and came back with an assortment of ferns and leaves. We ate these with sticky rice, some vegetables and Laotian sambal. I found the sambal to be rather bitter despite the strong chili flavour. The bananas were always nice although somewhat battered after being carried for a while.

That evening we stayed in a Khmu village. We arrived late afternoon and went down to the river to wash, even though the villages now have 2 or 3 communal taps. I found the river water so cold I couldn’t fact totally immersion. Luckily I hadn’t sweated too much during the day. We sat around under the house waiting for dinner and lots of villagers came to sit and watch us. The women smoke from long stemmed silver pipes. Earlier we had watched a Chinese peddler selling his wares and I was interested to see he was buying human hair.

As soon as the sun went behind the hills it really cooled down and I was quite cold huddled by the small fire. I was also very hungry so was relieved when we were given plates of pumpkin to snack on. It tasted good and the village dogs enjoyed eating the rinds. After what seemed hours we were called to dinner in the house. The village houses have no furniture, so we sat on the floor. A blue plastic sheet was covered with the ubiquitous banana leaves. Piles of sticky rice were laid out, then different dishes of vegetables, chicken parts and bowls of chicken bone soup. The guide opposite me took the chicken’s head out of the soup and ate it with relish. We had bought a pig for dinner, but all we were given were small piles of fat, there was no meat to our disappointment.

Before we could eat the village headman gave a blessing and we had to toast him with lao lao. This is the local rice whisky and you drink down a small glassful in one go. The people here are all animists, and some groups, particularly the Khmu have a hierarchy of spirits, the most important ones have guardianship of villages and houses. We were told not to pass straight through villages, that we should stop and chat, otherwise the villagers think evil spirits have visited them. The following day we went to a cave and before we entered the guide had to ask permission from the cave spirit. The cave, Tham Nam Eng was really impressive with some very large chambers and passageways, and lots of beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.

Over the 2-day trek we visited 3 different villages, Akha, Khmu and Lahu, but different groups live together in one village, so we also saw Black Hmong and Hmong Mien. They build houses of differing style and of course their clothes are different. The locals were ok about having their photos taken even though it is a new concept for them.

The best thing about trekking in this area is that the idea of tourism is still new; therefore, the ill effects of tourism have spoiled nothing. And because it is community based, the local people benefit. The project was set up in September 2003 and the guides are learning English. It was certainly a great experience to go somewhere off the beaten track and get away from mass tourism to see villages totally unaffected by foreign visitors.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

Travel Notes
Vieng Phoukha has 4 guesthouses. We stayed at Thong My Xai, which charges approx US$3 per room. Accommodation is basic, and the only electricity is a generator used about 3 hours each evening. Breakfast and dinner can be arranged, or there are local eating-places in the village. Click here for information on travelling to Vieng Phoukha.

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