Blasting off with the hill tribes...


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Asia » Laos » North » Luang Namtha
April 29th 2009
Published: May 13th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

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Along with Max & Yinca, we all had high hopes of what we could do in the Luang Nam Tha Provice.. promises of experiencing the hill tribes, trekking through the Nam Ha NPA (National Protected Area) all awaited us but sadly it was not all we had hoped...

After getting dropped off at the usual bus station arrangement 10km outside the town we protested against paying the 10,000kip cost to get us into town and told all the greedy drivers we'd rather walk than pay nearly half the cost of what it had cost us to do a 7 hour journey, so headed off along the main road bound for town. We didn't really want to walk as it was so hot but we were getting a bit fed up of this arrangement and just hoped that luck would be on our side and we wouldn't have to do the walk in the heat with our heavy packs. Thankfully karma was on our side and a tuk-tuk driver pulled over and we managed to negotiate a more reasonable price of 7,000kip each despite all the other drivers passing by and telling him off for doing this. Best of all, because our ride wasn't loaded to the hilt with other passengers we overtook everyone and managed to get to town first for the pick of the guesthouses. Again we struck lucky and got fabulous rooms for just 45,000kip.. spaking new rooms complete with hot water and English channel tv's made us feel quite smug!

The next day we were all up early to visit the various tour agencies that provided 1 - 3 day treks in the surrounding countryside taking in the NPA and the many hill tribes around here. Sadly for us the tour agencies have seen the potential in these treks and charge exhorbitant amounts to do them with the best price being just shy of $100 for a 2 day trek.. way more than any of us could afford. We were all a little disheartened to learn that we'd travelled all this way for seemingly nothing but then Max found out that there was the Bun Bang Fai or Rocket Festival going on today in the nearby town of Muang Sing so we decided to hire out motos and drive the 50km there to check it out.

The ride there was a long one but took us though the centre of the NPA passing lots of little bamboo villages and hill tribes on the way. We stopped for a breather half way and could even swear we heard a wild elephant that are rumoured to be in these parts along with tigers and leopards. After about 2 hours we reached Muang Sing, a small village that is heaving with various hill tribes in the surrounding area and immediately found the area where the festival was at and followed the countless motos heading for the field entrance and parked up.

The festival was really fun and kind of like what a school fair would have been like a few years ago with dart balloon popping games, music and many many food stalls. The best bit though, and the main attraction was the home made bamboo rockets that were launched into the sky at regular intervals. This village is also home to a group of novice monks who were clearly in the learning stages of their religion as they all walked around with toy guns slung over their shoulders wearing baseball caps and generally causing mischief whereever they went.. we noticed a lot of them loitering around the biggest rocket of them all and dreaded to think what a group of teenage boys would try to do to make things more fun monks or no monks!

The Rocket Festival is held all over Laos at various times throughout May, it is celebrated as a Buddist ceremony to bring rain to the country. There are hundreds of rockets lined up each handcrafted by the local men, some being tens of metres long and looking quite scary. About every half an hour the family and friends of the relevant man join in the middle of the arena and start to do traditional dancing, they then parade round the festival with the creator sitting on a bamboo seat held above his friends on their shoulders. Everyone then congregates by the bamboo scaffolding while the rocket is put into position and then it's blast off... The rockets all go up with varying degrees of success.. those that go high into the sky are met with cheers, lots of Beer Lao and more dancing while those than nosedive leave their maker shamefaced and skulking back into the crowd. It's all a lot of fun and kept us all amused for hours on end.

Food here was errr... different. We were all a little peckish but were a bit put off by the fresh cow and goat heads nailed to the marquees and dripping with blood which we could only assume were to advertise what they were selling. Needless to say we didn't fancy eating anything like this so made do with sticky rice and lots of cokes in a bag with ice.. it was absoloutely boiling and we couldn't get liquid down us fast enough before we sweated it all out... nice!

After watching the rockets for quite a few hours we decided to head off on our bikes and try to find the famous Akha Hill Tribe villages that were only about 10km down the road towards China (Muang Sing sits pretty much on the border). We weren't entirely sure where we were going even after asking at guesthouse and were sure we'd gone the wrong way when we started going up tiny dusty footpaths along a steep hillside. Our thoughts were confirmed when we met a man with a very large hunting gun who indicated that we'd completely missed the village so we had to head back along the very tricky road with Yinca & Sophie holding on the back of the bikes for dear life.

At last we found the village.. well for the 2nd time as we'd actually passed straight though it the first time not realising that we'd found it. Dale got off to make friends with the villagers and carried out his good deed of the day by helping a local lady who'd managed to take a chunk out of her leg with a machete whilst cutting vegetables. It had become quite infected so he used some antiseptic cream & wipes to do what he could and she was very grateful for the help he gave. It is quite difficult to communicate with people who don't speak any english at all so after all the children had asked for money (which we refused) we set off again to go the 50km back to town. This was quite an experience too as we'd left it quite late and had to go back in the dark with millions of giant bugs splatting in our faces as we went.. Sophie was not amused and tried to hide behind Dale so he took the brunt of the onslaught!

The following day we wanted to meet more of the hill tribes and try to make the best of our time up here.. Dale was still particularly keen to find the Akha tribe after hearing that there were topless ladies so off we went to the back roads of Luang Nam Tha to see what we could find.

After stopping off at the Stupa on the way we carried on through a few villages for around 12km along a dusty mountain road until we passed some local people carrying firewood. They spoke no English but Yinca got out her picture book and we managed to find out that they were from the Akha tribe and their homes were just down the road so on we went until we reached the village at the end of the road.

Tourists obviously don't come here very often as all the villagers rushed out to greet us with most of the children just staring rather than waving the usual Sabidees at us. As soon as we got there we could see why the Eco-Tourism projects in this area work so hard to restrict the number of tourists that just come plouging their way into these communities... as soon as bus loads of people start to come here their way of life will be changed and the kids will start to beg for money, sweets etc as we'd seen in the tribe the previous day which is quite sad. We really enjoyed our time there but felt a bit awkward as though we were spectators in a zoo because we could not communicate at all with these people and had to just wave hello, smile and then have a little walk around which must seem quite rude to the people who live there. They were all really friendly though and we don't think they minded us being there at all but we can imagine that if this starts to happen on a regular basis then they could be quite put out by it all.

The village is very basic but we did notice that a lot of them had solar panels built into their houses which seems like a good step forward for them, as with every village we've seen thoughout Laos there were the usual amount of pigs, piglets, chickens and chicks all running around everywhere and it's always interesting for us to see how communities like this live as it really is so far away from our lives back in the UK. As we were leaving we decided to have a look just over the hilltop and Dale's day was made when we managed to find some of the topless ladies going about their daily chores. This tribe used to be all topless but as Western cultures have started to seep in they have started to wear jackets to cover their modesty but some still carry on with the traditional dress.. Dale was quite upset that one of them was an 80 year hold granny so not quite what he'd had pictured in his head!

We didn't want to intrude any longer so headed off the way we'd come and got back to Luang Nam Tha to decide what we were all going to do next. We were all quite undecided about whether to head south, east or west so agreed to sleep on it and decide in the morning.

Our minds were made up the next day when we awoke to find that HBO had been switched off and the one option of having a relaxing day doing washing and watching tv was blown out the window so packed up our things and headed to the bus station to make a rash decision there on what bus was going first... Udomaxi it was so we booked ourselves on and headed back south to see where our day took us...


Additional photos below
Photos: 81, Displayed: 29


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3rd December 2009

knowledge behind the pictures
Dear Sophie and Dale, thank you for the pictures which have been created be mere chance. In displaying, you could have better separated the Tai rocket festival and your visit of the Akha village in your presentation. The Tai rocket festival is in spring time when the first rain has been coming, that is why the large maeng mau insects, which fly in millions in the evenings after rain. You may collect them and make a nice dish. Muang Sing is a region of the Tai Lue, the same Tai group as in neighboring Sipsongpanna of China. You have been very lucky to watch the bang-fai festival (rocket launching) which is a religious festival (actually prior-to-Buddhism), wich is also widely celebrated among the Lao and other Tai tribes. It is also called the Naga-rocket festival, invoking the age-old (re-named in Buddhist terms) Tai god of the rain, water and prosperity. This is a very festive day, and one of its characteristics is a little bit an obscene character, like carnival, etc. Due to the background of fertility, this day is also sexually explicit, by displaying pappe-mache models of sexual organs, etc., in some places. This means, men and women and children dress in odd costumes, everybody is kidding, even small monk kids are allowed to play around, in this case even with playing guns... which in normal life is not acceptable. The fire rockets made of bamboo which are 4-8 metres long, are carried in a procession to the launching place. This is a competition for the best ornamented rocket, long rocket, and the manner of joyful procession by the carriers and followers. the followers may come from the same village, or same extended family, etc. Muang Sing, as many other regions in Laos, are miedly composed of different ethnic groups, wheras mostly the Tai have a higher social development since a long time. Dominant in Muang Sing are the Tai Lue, settlement of many Tai Dam (Black Tai) villages in the recent time, and such ethnic groups as Iko (Akha) and Len-Ten... You were very lucky to have been in the region, to see this event, and meet some of the peoples. There, you was also safe-guarded by a man with a real weapon who was for sure not "having an eye on the small monks, or novices". The region is situated directly at the national border, and in some surrounding villages on top of some hills there are living peoples who are a little bit back in their social development and hove partly differing ideas on force and conflict management. Unfortunately, not every of your comments is fitting for the respective photographs. Best regards, ai lii (a researcher on Tai cultures)
27th June 2011
Traditional topless Akha hilltribe lady

photos
very good

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