It was a long eight hour day in a bus before we arrived in Muang Sing, but quite an interesting trip as we passed dozens of tiny poor roadside villages as the bus wound it's way around the hilly roads. Along the roadside, for literally the entire trip, we passed grass fronds drying - all carefully laid out in rows of bundles. It was the bushy heads of a natural grass which dotted the hillsides - we found out later that it is harvested and sold to the Chinese who use them to make into brooms Those horrible short brooms which you have to crouch down to use! After arriving in Luang Nam Tha we easily found a guest house and then set off to explore the city in the twilight - we certainly needed to stretch our legs. It was a very quiet town, comprising of a very wide main street with a grid pattern of streets running through it. Much smaller then we were expecting as well, though now firmly on the tourist map as the area is renowned for it's trekking and many ethnic villages.
Next door to our guest house was a great cafe which had wifi
and fabulous food - plus most of the tourists in town. We hired a bicycle each next morning and spent the day exploring the local markets and surrounding countryside. It was very pretty and all the locals were very happy to see us. We enjoyed a tea stop in a tiny village where an old lady made us tea before trying to encourage us to have a meal as well - there was far too much chilli involved for me.... The town was surrounded by fields of vegetables, once again all grown for the Chinese market. The current crop was cabbages - the air was thick with the smell of them!We spent the evening wandering the night market and few shops in the main street. Though it is actively promoting tourism there were no real tourist shops, which was great to see. We love towns where tourism is second to the local infrastructure.
Early next morning we were collected in a minivan - we had hired a driver and guide to take us away for an overnight trip to the town of Muang Sing, northwest of Luang Nam Tha and only five kilometres from the Chinese border. Foreign tourists cannot
cross into China at this border town - they must cross at Boten which is in the oposite direction out of Luang Nam Tha. A fabulous couple of days followed! Bunta, our guide from the local tourist office, was very knowledgable. He had spent many years taking tourists to visit remote villages within the now protected forrest so was very familiar with the local customs and traditions. Today all the villages have been removed from within the protected area - this was done to try to protect remaining wildlife, and to stop the villagers clearing the forrest to plant rubber and other cash crops. Unfortunately this destruction has only been slowed, not stopped totally.
During the next two days Bunta took us to a dozen different villages where we wandered and spoke, via Bunta as a translator (though even he had trouble understanding some of the time) with local families. The villages were all very poor, some extremely so. Schools had closed for holidays so all the children were playing on the dusty areas between the houses. Each older child seemed to have a baby in a back sling - most would have been siblings but as girls have babies
here at a very young age maybe not all were. I suspect that when the children attend school the babies go to! The houses in each village were very similar - all constructed from palm leaves and wood, with the odd tin roof. Many seemed to be very lopsided. In one village we spoke to a group of Chinese business men who were in the process of negotiating a price for the piles of grass heads we had seen lining the roads since leaving Luang Prabang. In another a bus stopped and a man tried to sell a dead native cat to the people on it. Bunta said that the cat was trapped illegally in the forrest - as they are worth a lot of money poaching is still a major problem in the region. Some of the women were weaving fishing baskets from very fine nylon cord. In another we used a home made (from bamboo, rubber bands and a knife) speargun which the boys used to catch fish with. Their aim was better then ours!
Many of the women were wearing some form or part of traditional dress - the detail of the embroidery on the trousers and
tunics was incredible - the stitches minute. It can take 18 months to decorate a pair of trousers alone! All the kids were dressed in tshirts and sarongs, the boys in raggy trousers. Some of the villages had 'little houses' in which the young men 'try' all the young women of the village before deciding which one they shall marry. After marriage the couple still sleep in it as it offers a little more privacy than the companion large house. We watched a lady slice bamboo very finely to use as pig food - hard work. As we wandered through the villages we gave out presents of laundry powder and cakes of lux soap. The women all tucked the soap somewhere amongst their clothes as soon as they were given them. We also emptied our suitcases of our travel worn clothes - all were still in better condition then most that the kids were wearing. All were thankfully received.
Most of the village houses used old bottles with the necks buried in the ground as boundary fences and wall decorations. We visited two houses were there were Shaman ceremonies occurring. The Shaman (witch doctor) was praying and doing rituals to
ward of bad spirits which had caused people within to become ill. Fascinating. At one house the men were slaugtering a pig to use after the Shaman ceremony - the Sharman got the prized parts of the animal, including the brain. There was alcohol involved too - quite a lot I think!
Some of the costumes worn were very interesting - check out the photos I've attached. I loved the red wool collars worn by the Mien women. Jerry played his whistle in most of the villages - everybody loved it, particularly the kids, who followed him around as he played. At the Akha villages we were warned not to touch or pass through the bamboo gates at the entrance - if we did the villages would have to sacrifice a bullock to appease the spirts - the gate was only to be used by the spirits. Each Akha village also has an enormous swing (similar to those we saw in Nepal) which again is out of bounds, even to the villagers, except for a certain festival held yearly. More sacrifices would need to done if we had touched. You need to be very aware of doing what your guide
says when you tour ethnic areas - if he says 'don't touch' or 'don't go there' it can be very damaging spiritually and financially to the local tribe if you disregrad his warning.
We overnighted at a new hotel in Muang Sing which was on the edge of town directly opposite the site of the morning market. Muang Sing wasn't very large, really just a long street with some smaller lanes leading off it. The town was surrounded by vegetable gardens, predominately full of water melon plants to feed China's craze for the fruit. It's about the only thing you get offered as a dessert in China. I was so sick of them after our year living in China.
That evening we walked into town to find a cafe - thankfully we weren't planning on doing anything else - we seemed to be the only people on the streets. We did pass Bunta and a group of his friends on the way back to the hotel - I left Jerry there having a drink with them and wandered back to the hotel down a long dark road. When Jerry returned he said it had been an interesting experience as instead
of everybody getting a glass of beer, one glass was filled and passed around the group - everybody took a turn to sip, when the glass was empty, it's refilled and it then starts it's progress around the group again! We were up early next morning - it was foggy, cold and still dark when we entered the market grounds. The markets were large though not as ethnically interesting as those we had seen in Vietnam. I loved the row of women selling rice wine at the entrance of the market. At 6am all the men were having a great time taste testing - one man couldn't make up his mind - after trying three he decided to buy all of them so the women poured them all together into a container. The containers were great - they had found a new use for old hospital drip bottles! I did find the buffalo head for sale a little off putting though - it had been freshly killed in the back of a truck nearby. You can't help but enjoy the colour and life of markets - I never tire of visiting them. A man rode in on a bicycle with
a large tin box on the back - the box was full of water and fish....
After breakfast and our market trip we wandered around the town again - wooden houses, wide street and still not a lot of people - though I guess that they were all at the market. We visited a beautiful wooden buiding, decorated with wooden flower panels over the windows. A local prince lived there once but now it houses an interesting, if dusty, display of colourful tribal costumes. Leaving Muang Sing we headed off down some more dusty roads to visit some more villages. We left a large parcel of books, pens and crayons, plus some bamboo balls with a schoolteacher in one of the vilages. His school was very poor, just a long room with a few desks and a very battered blackboard. The tall bamboo flagpole was impressive as was the bamboo 'naughty' seat which stood on tall legs at the edge of the playground, just outside the classroom door!
On the way back to Luang Nam Tha where we were intending to spend another night we stopped at a Lenten village which was celebrating the Lao New Year with a party
Waiting to sell piles of grass to the Chinese
Bundles of this grass lined the roads everywhere - the Chinese made their traditional brooms from it.
and copious amounts of rice wine. Most people were dressed in tradional dress in honour of the occasion - indigo tunics and trousers trimmed with bright pink wool and embroidery, worn with white leggings. The women seemed to shave their forehead hair, though they pulled hair from the back forward and over it for some reason. The men were all very drunk as we discovered when we were invited in to join the party. After a drink of very fiery liquid and a mouthful of the offered food we decided it was time to leave. Each village celebrates the Lao New Year on different dates dependent on the end of harvest etc.
We arrived back in Luang Nam Tha on a high as we had thoroughly enjoyed our couple of days visiting the area. Bunta was a great guide who really gave us a great insight into local life styles. A quiet meal and early to bed followed as next morning we had a long day of travelling ahead of us. We were leaving Laos - a country I really loved - less touristed then Cambodia or Vietnam. It was a country full of friendly colourful people, fascinating markets and
glorious temple colourand crossing into Thailand. Enroute for our return to Australia in a fortnight time.....
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