sign in a cave in Laos

8 June 2008

Trekking Northern Laos - Star 2006

Trekking Northern Laos

By Liz Price

THE STAR Lifestyle
Saturday March 11, 2006

The hillside was so steep that I had to pull myself up using any available tree branch or root. The terrain underfoot was slippery as the carpet of dry bamboo leaves provided no grip. It was actually more difficult than walking on mud.

The local guides, however, 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. Often I don’t feel the bite. It’s only when I find a bloody patch on my socks that I realise I have been “leeched”.

A jungle lunch — Pictures by LIZ PRICE

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) of Vieng Phoukha, on Route 3 in Luang Namtha province. Very few tourists venture up here as they generally concentrate on 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 the area. Due to the construction, the journey was incredibly dusty. Our rucksacks on the roof of the pickup were the same shade of red-brown and covered with about a millimetre of dust by the time we arrived!

We had entered Laos from Thailand. From Chiang Rai we went to the border town of Chiang Khong and took a ferry across the Mekong to Huay Xai. Immigration was a breeze as we got our visas on arrival. It then took 3½ hours to do the 120km of dusty track. Vast swathes of terrain had been cleared as earth-moving machines ate up the land and cleared steep hillsides.

At Vieng Phoukha, we went to the Eco-Guides office to arrange a trek. This is the newest trekking area in Laos, and the Eco-Guides service is a community-based scheme that currently offers four treks that stop at various ethnic villages like the Akha, Hmong and Khmu.

We began by crossing dry paddy-fields, where we met three girls carrying nets and baskets and hunting small animals.

Our first obstacle was crossing a small stream using bamboo poles. Three poles spanned the stream and each one bounced to different degrees as you stood on them, which was a bit unnerving. We then entered the forest and began an uphill climb and followed a trail alongside a small river when we heard a banging sound. Our guide said it was rice-pounding machines.

Tough terrain.

Intrigued, we went to have a look. We saw bamboo pipes attached to a large wooden pounder above a pile of rice. When the pipes are filled with water they tip down and force the pounder onto the rice.

Throughout, our guides pointed out various leaves and shrubs used for medicine and food. When lunchtime came, a guide cut several banana leaves and laid them on the ground. Another unpacked the food, while others disappeared and came back with an assortment of ferns and leaves. These we ate with sticky rice, vegetables and Laotian sambal.

That evening we stayed in a Khmu village. We arrived in the late afternoon and went down to the river to wash. Later, as we sat around under the house waiting for dinner, lots of villagers came to sit and watch us.

As soon as the sun went behind the hills, it really cooled down and I huddled by the small fire. We were given plates of pumpkin to snack on. It tasted good. After what seemed hours we were called to dinner.

The houses had no furniture, so we sat on the floor. A blue plastic sheet had been laid down and covered with banana leaves. Piles of sticky rice were served, then different dishes of vegetable, chicken and bowls of chicken bone soup.

We had bought a pig for dinner, but all we were given were small piles of fat and no meat.

The village headman gave a blessing and we had to toast him with lao lao, a local rice whisky.

Hmong people.

The people here are all animists and a bit superstitious. We were told not to pass straight through villages, that we should stop and chat, otherwise the villagers might think we were evil spirits.

The next day we went to a cave, whereupon the guide asked for permission from the cave spirit to enter. The cave, Tham Nam Eng, had some very large chambers and passageways and lots of beautiful stalactites and stalagmites.

Over the two days, we visited three different villages, Akha, Khmu and Lahu, but different tribes will sometimes live together in one village so we also saw Black Hmong and Hmong Mien. They build houses of another style and, of course, their clothes are different.

The best thing about trekking here is that tourism is still new. It was a great experience to go off the beaten track and see villages unaffected by foreign visitors.

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