Tribes and Tribulations

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July 21st 2015
Published: July 22nd 2015
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Sarah: On our last night in Luang Prabang we revisited the same wine bar from the previous evening (they give free nuts, try and keep us away!). A carafe of chilled Merlot later and we were ready to find some dinner. We wandered the nice relaxed streets of the old town before settling on a busy looking restaurant on one of the main streets. We still had an appetite for Lao food and so went for some local dishes: a delicious vermicelli noodle dish for Nick and a simple but yummy fish stew for me. The next morning was our third early morning in a row to get our minibus north to Luang Nam Tha. Whilst waiting for our brekkie 45 minutes before our departure time the owner of the guesthouse (who had sorted out our bus ticket) told us that our pick up time had been moved forward 20 minutes. He hadn't bought the ticket yet so we needed to get to the bus station early to make sure we were on the once daily minibus. Hmmm. We were due to start our 3-day trek the next day and so could not miss that bus. Breakfast and last minute teeth cleaning and packing turned in to a very rushed affair which was not a nice way to start our journey. However, on arrival at the bus station we did manage to get hold of two of the last three seats on the bus and before long, we were on our way!

The first part of the journey was on a bumpy dirt road, which was uncomfortable but did serve to moderate the bus driver's need for speed! After the lunch stop we reached the tarmacced part of the journey the driver drove with even more verve, overtaking at speed on a bend whilst answering the phone being a particular highlight... Anyway, about 7 hours later we arrived in to the bus station and hopped on a tuk tuk in to town with our fellow bus passengers. It stopped on the main street and we all dispersed to our nearby guesthouses. We packed our small bags for the trek the next day, wrapping as much as we could in plastic bags for waterproofing. We were well prepared for a good ol' soaking. Bags packed, we popped across the road to a nearby cafe to grab our 'last supper' before three days of trekking/cycling. The cafe had a folder of staff profiles - all of the staff came from local tribes and had come to town to learn English and the cafe had trained them in cooking western food. They had also pulled together and built a wood-fired oven for pizza - hurrah! With three days of local village food ahead and a lot of Lao cuisine under our belts already, a freshly made pizza was more than welcome. The pizzas had lovely crispy bases and just the right amount of sauce, cheese and toppings. They were washed down with a couple of cold beers and just as we were finishing, two shots of Lao Lao were produced by the waitress: free shots of the 40% proof and above spirit made locally from sticky rice. One of the shots had a slightly greenish hue and we were told this one was the stronger of the two. Not normally one for shots, I have acquired quite the taste for Lao Lao, which strangely seems to get tastier the more you drink! However, one was enough - we needed our rest, so it was back to the guesthouse to enjoy a proper bed before setting off in to the jungle.

We'd been a little apprehensive about the two day trek plus one day cycle that we had signed up for, particularly with the heat and 'facilities' that we would be provided with whilst being away, after becoming air-conditioning junkies since arriving in Asia. However, it was definitely cooler since we had arrived in Luang Prabang and there was no going back now. We left our big bags at the trekking office and went in search of some breakfast. We found a cafe and both settled on an egg and ham bagel each which was nice and stodgy and filling. We convened with our fellow trekkers at 8:30; a French couple and an American, as well as our two guides. The minibus was loaded for a short drive to a nearby village where our trek was to begin. We were each provided with three litres of water for the day and were joined by a girl from the village who was to carry our lunch for the day, after which she would head back home. They rotate this job between the villagers for each trek so that no one family is earning all the money from the tourists.

The day started off relatively cool with quite a lot of cloud cover. As we walked through the village, Kit, our guide, showed us the various features of the rice stores - on stilts with concrete or metal around the legs to protect from rat attacks. Coming out of the village we entered the Nam Ha Protected Area, which we would be trekking through. Within 10 minutes of walking, the path started to climb through relatively sparse jungle vegetation which awoke both our calf muscles and our sweat glands. It was a hard start! Within about half an hour the path had levelled out and we were tramping along a ridge with a fine mist of rain cooling us down. Kit was setting a good pace and our other guide, Tseng, kept us going from the back. Of course we were all walking in our hiking boots along the sometimes muddy and slippy path whereas the local village girl was wearing a pair of flip flops and barely breaking a sweat! We soon arrived at a little bench and shelter made from bamboo and palm leaves for the roof. Large banana leaves were laid out on the table for what I thought was a very nice tablecloth. However, our lunch was soon placed on to the leaves and so they formed a tablecloth-come-plate! Each of us was given a banana leaf-wrapped portion of sticky rice and told to tuck in. We were eating as the locals do - getting a ball of sticky rice and using it to pick up the main dishes. The first lunch was a portion of omelette, an aubergine dish, a tofu dish and some greens. It was all really tasty and served to assuage some of our fears as to what kind of food we might be getting over the next few days!

After lunch, the seven of us continued in to the jungle. We were mainly walking in single file and when we stopped for some water, Nick asked me if I'd seen the leeches? Leeches?! What leeches?! 'Oh, there's one' said Kit, bending down to pick one of the little buggers off my sock as it made its way with fierce intent towards my bare flesh. Everyone was soon checking themselves for leeches, with our American companion winning the prize for the most blood sucked - a rather large leech had attached itself uncomfortably close to his groin! It was soon picked off and chopped in half with Kit's machete. Everyone loaded up on leech repellent after that and we were back on our way. We were definitely in leech territory - they were squirming out of the ground and once they latch on to your boots they quickly and quietly seek out some blood to suck, injecting anti-coagulant to give them a free-flowing lunch. Although I didn't get one sucking my blood, I do wonder if the first one on my sock managed to inject a little anti-coagulant, as a cut from a thorny branch on my ankle didn't stop bleeding all afternoon!

The afternoon trekking was pretty hard going. There was a lot of downhill after our mornings climb and phrase of the weekend has to be 'watch out here, a little bit slippy'. We both had several mini-heart attacks nearly going over but miraculously managed to stay on our feet! There was also the constant checking on our boots for leeches before they made their way up our legs. I found that hanging at the back in front of Tseng was the best strategy as he was very vigilant leech watcher and leech remover. The walking was a little easier later on in the afternoon as we crossed paddy fields, passing grazing water buffalo and cows on the way, always surrounded by the mountainous jungle. We stopped for our last break in a village where a Khmu tribe live. All of their houses are built on stilts so that they have space for storage and animals beneath as well as protection from flooding. The village was relatively quiet at the time of day that we were there, but we took some rest next to a house where a young pregnant woman was watching the world go by with her grandmother. There were some pigs resting nearby as well as several chickens - mostly fighting for scraps!

After another 20 minutes walking we had reached our accommodation for the night, a Lantern village. This village is only accessible by foot and so facilities are obviously basic, but we did see a western toilet - albeit one that is flushed by throwing a scoop of water down after your business. (As an aside, a toilet flush that does what it should do, first time, every time, is one thing that I'm looking forward to on our return to the UK). The Lantern tribe are a very small community, descended from the larger Hmong tribe. Their houses are all built at ground level as they have not traditionally been located in areas at risk of flooding. They have a generator for one of the houses but otherwise no electricity. The showers consist of a few taps scattered around the village. The village we were staying in had a population of 107 people and about 10 times that in pigs, chickens and dogs! There were two things that struck us when we met the villagers. The first was that most of the women had incredibly blue hands and feet. This is from making their own dye from the indigo plant to dye their clothes that they make from the cotton that they grow. The second thing that struck us was that a very high proportion had genetic deformities/disabilities. Although tribes are allowed to inter-marry, I would think this is not very common. Apparently relationships are reviewed by the families to check that couples are not too closely related, however, I suspect that in this small community there is a high proportion of inbreeding which leads to these problems. However, they came to greet us on our arrival, bring homemade bracelets and bags for sale as well as some warm cokes and beers, which someone would have carried on foot for about 6-7 hours to get to us. Appreciative of their efforts, we bought a bracelet and a few beers.

After a little relaxation time we had a tour of the village where we were shown the vats of indigo dye and the husk of an enormous squash seed that they use as a scoop! The village life here is extremely basic and just about everything they use and eat is made or grown themselves with what they have in the surrounding jungle. It is difficult for them to make any money from their goods due to the lack of roads connecting the village to any markets where they could sell their wares. Kit assured us that they were happy to have us and it certainly didn't feel like we were unwelcome. The treks are run irregularly (whenever people have signed up for them on their chosen day) and there is no way of communicating our arrival to the villagers. Despite this they were still able to pull some food out the bag for us and set up our beds for the night. After our tour it was time to grab some dinner that was being cooked by one of the locals in our little lodge for the night, which consisted of a raised ledge on one side where we would all be sleeping and a cooking area on the other side. We had more sticky rice for dinner along with some greens in broth, a tomato stew and a pork dish. Given what the villagers have it was all very tasty, but I suspect that some of this has to do with the little pack of msg that Kit carried around that he enjoyed sprinkling generously in most of the pots and pans on the open fire!

After a rinse under the village taps (very tricky to get properly clean under one whilst also retaining your modesty and not offending the conservative locals) we chatted with Kit who knew a lot about the practices and traditions of the tribes after 15 years of guiding, before which he worked on a project to help prevent opium use among the tribes. It was all fascinating stuff. With little else to do and quite tired from the days exertions we hit the hay (or bamboo ledge, if you will) under our mosquito nets. I got to sleep no problem but was woken regularly from about midnight onwards by a rustling and squeaking in the rafters. Most of us (including Kit) found it a little difficult to sleep with the sounds of rats very close above our heads and it was also quite stuffy in the room where all the cooking had been done over an open fire just a couple of hours previously. By the time 5:30 rolled around, the cocks were crowing and the fire was being lit for breakfast.

We laid around in bed for an hour or so before giving in and getting up to start a new day. We lazed by the river while breakfast was being prepared watching the pigs and chickens trot around us looking for more food after feeding time earlier in the morning. Kit brought us out a very welcome Nescafé made from a 3-in-1 sachet (milk and sugar included). The sweetness was quite welcome with the prospect of another days trek ahead! Breakfast was a delicious (probably msg laden) omelette with sticky rice, which we ate while our lunch was being prepared. As we couldn't carry all our water for the three days and the villagers do not have bottled water, we refilled our bottles from some boiled tap water. Our bottles were passed back to us with brown water inside. Kit had added some tea to try and make it taste good but to be honest, it tasted really smokey and rough. But, it was the best that could be done. At least it was safe and in the words of Mamma Fratelli from The Goonies "It's wet ain't it?". Once lunch was prepared and Kit and Tseng had negotiated the rate for our stay with the village chief we were on our way, accompanied by two villagers who were again carrying our lunch for us.

We were blessed with another dry morning and the walk started off at a nice gentle pace along the river bank, passing corn and cotton fields. We were still wary of leeches but had been assured that we wouldn't see as many that day, which was a relief! We came to our river crossing which was a sturdy enough looking bridge, although it did list sideways towards to end and the hand rail was rather low. We all made it safely across to our first stop at a campsite used by other trekkers. Kit showed us a piece of bamboo cut in half lengthways that would be used as a cooking / eating vessel, after which it would be used as a little stool for sitting on in the classic Asian squat position, after which it would be used again as a pillow for sleeping on. Good ol' versatile bamboo. More uses to be demonstrated later...

After a short break we were back on the trail which was a bit harder going than the first part of the morning ('watch out here, little bit slippy'). I did go down once, starting to slip and using the 'give in to gravity and sit down' damage limitation technique. Shortly before lunch Kit, Tseng and the villagers picked some bamboo shoots and trimmed them up with their machetes. We could be sure that they would be appearing on a table near us very soon. We sat in a valley for lunch, again, banana leaves were laid on the ground with dishes of boiled bamboo, little chunks of pork and some green beans tipped out on them to share. Banana leaf stem chopsticks were provided but we're not much use for the sticky rice accompaniment and so it was in with the fingers once more. There was also a yummy chilli paste that we could dip in to to add a bit of spice, all washed down with some smokey water! Before leaving us, the villagers who had carried the lunch gave us gifts of a little handmade bag each, which was very touching.

The walking after lunch was quite a challenging affair, a lot of steep muddy hills that were hard work going up and equally as tough if not more so going down again. Some of the paths through the jungle were very narrow with steep drops and so a few more nerves were frayed trying to negotiate our western sized feet along them. After we did our last 'up' of the day we took a well-deserved break. A bit restless however, Nick started to throw little nuts from the floor in to a piece of bamboo. Kit soon got involved and cut down a bigger piece of bamboo with his machete for a more realistic target and set up an oche line from which we were throwing from. We all got close but only Tseng scored a direct hit in to the tube of bamboo. The two of them continued to beaver away with their knives and bamboo and Tseng had soon made two recorders/flutes and Kit had made a (albeit a bit ineffective) blow-gun for launching the nuts. So, bamboo: practical AND fun! Boys being boys, they all took their turns hacking at the bamboo with the machetes.

The walking from there on was much easier. We saw some weird and wonderful creatures including a jungle crab (who'd have thunk it?) and a crazy giant blue-green-bodied centipede with turquoise legs and a bright orange head which I spotted. Kit had never seen anything like it in those colours before and concluded it was probably 'little bit poisonous'. We moved swiftly on! The last part of the day we were again walking through paddy fields and leaping over streams. We finally approached a large fast-flowing river with two narrow boats moored up on the banks. We were ushered in to the wobbly boats and set off sideways down the river. As it turned out we only needed to get to the other side so sideways was fine but it was not the most stable of boat rides I've ever had! On the other side of the river we had reached the road and our village for the night. Being on the road and having a much easier access to markets for buying and selling, this Khmu village was much more affluent that the Lantern village of the previous night. We were told they even had cold drinks. Sadly our hopes were dashed when we were told that the refrigerator was broken. A warm coke it was.

That night we were staying with one of the families in the village in one of the typical Khmu houses built on stilts. The daughters prepared us dinner while we once again showered under the village taps with the young children watching as I tried to get as clean as possible whilst showering in my bikini and half covered with a towel... Whilst the walking had been quite hard going the last couple of days, the heat and the sweat were probably the toughest part and so not being able to really scrub yourself clean was a bit grim but definitely better than nothing! The people in the village are big smokers, smoking some super-strong tobacco rolled in dried sweetcorn husks. There wasn't any evidence of lack of genetic diversity that there was in the Lantern tribe and the village had a population of around 300. The Khmu tribe are a lot larger and being on the road gave them a lot better access to other villages and markets at which to sell any goods they produce. It was another eye-opening experience. We sat down to dinner with the head of the household, who apologised for the food even though it was really good (pork stew, chilli paste, green ferns and, you guessed it...sticky rice). He asked us all (through Kit) about our jobs and what we did, and told us a bit about his work as a farmer, although no-one had gone to the rice fields that day, they get a day off when a baby is born in the village, which one had been within the previous 24 hours. He brought out some of his homemade Lao Lao which was mighty tasty and a nice little tipple to help with sleep as the rain (which we had again luckily missed) hammered down outside.

After two days walking and a rough nights sleep the night before I slept like a log that night, Nick less so, but we both felt well-rested if a little achy here and there the next morning. By the time we were up, the girls of the family who were in their late teens/early 20s had already been up for about two hours preparing our breakfast and lunch. Interesting, while we were there, their brother (for whom they are trying to save money to send to school) did pretty much bugger all and slept in until about an hour after we did. Of course the girls don't know any different but it did make me very grateful to have been brought having exactly the same opportunities as my brothers. We were given a corn on the cob for a breakfast starter, followed by another omelette with sticky rice (despite the amount of sticky rice we had during this trip, it was really good and I wasn't especially bored of it, even after three days).

The rain had hammered down all night but the gods shone on us once more and the rain had stopped by the time our mountain bikes had arrived in a van, which had also brought some fresh water. Thankfully we could ditch our smokey rations for that day! The van was to follow us on our bikes all day so we could also give our shoulders a welcome respite from carrying our rucksacks. It was around 28km back to Luang Nam Tha, approximately 19 of those on a bumpy road. Although I enjoy it very much, I am not a natural cyclist and for me, it was hard going. I was shamed that 62 years-young Kit was cycling with ease ahead of me (as well as everyone else!). Thankfully, Nick hung back with me most of the way and every now and again Tseng would catch me up in the van to check I was doing alright, to which I replied with a sweaty thumbs up and a smile! Also, most of the cycling was downhill following the river, so it wasn't too hard (or maybe I'm misremembering now it's all over?).

We had a short stop at 'cow rapids' so-called due to the loss of cows being transported through the rapids on bamboo rafts before stopping for lunch at a little hut in the shade of the rubber trees . These were everywhere and the rubber is collected and sold to the Chinese. We had another sticky rice packet, served this time with my favourite dish of the trip: the bamboo shoots that had been picked up in the jungle the previous day had been stuffed with herbs, lemongrass, shallots and garlic (amongst other things) and then deep fried. Greasy but delicious! The last 10km or so were on tarmacced road which was a relief for my very sore backside! I was still languishing at the back, a shoe in for the 'Lanterne Rouge' (topical Tour de France reference for you there). I did indeed rock up at the office in last place but happy to be back after what was an incredible three days. It was completely different to anything that I've ever done before and I'd love to do it again. The people and natural sights were fascinating. Our guides and companions were excellent and the activity level challenging but just right. Amazingly, our ponchos had stayed packed away too and our boots, although caked in mud were not too wet and smelly.

We dragged our weary feet back to our guesthouse and showered off (in private) all the mud and grime. It felt divine! We couldn't resist going back for another pizza (sorry sticky rice), some cold beers and more Lao Lao whiskey. We were later joined by our American trekking companion chewing the fat and enjoying the cold beers until we were kicked out at closing time. We sank in to our proper bed, with AC and fan blasting and had a lovely sleep. However, there is no rest for the wicked or for intrepid travellers such as ourselves and so we were up at 6am to start our journey to Chiang Mai in Thailand, which began with a trip to the same cafe where we had our bagels before the trek and repeated our order that morning. We had bought our bus ticket through a travel agency that was a little sketchy about the details of our trip across the border but we were satisfied that everything was in order. Anyway, to cut what was for us a very loooong story short our journey involved a tuk tuk to Luang Nam Tha bus station at 7:30am, a 4 hour local bus to Huay Xai bus station on the Laos side of the border, a confused 15 minutes trying to work out how to get to the border which was included in our tickets (whilst other travellers came to us as the font of all information, money exchange etc.), a tuk tuk to the border, a 5 minute bus from the Lao side to the Thai side, a 5 hour wait for our minibus to Chiang Mai, a 5 hour minibus to Chiang Mai and finally a 5 minute tuk tuk to our outstanding new guesthouse that had waited up for us to let us in at 11pm. Dinner had consisted of some miserable 7-Eleven sandwiches, all of our clothes and bags stank from our trek, we were tired and had had emotional up and downs all day. However, on arriving in our room we found a minibar well-stocked with cheap beers and a strong, hot and powerful shower.

So, thus concludes our time in Laos. I really, really loved it, particularly the chilled out Luang Prabang and our amazing experiences in Luang Nam Tha. I would love to go back one day and explore some more. Having said that, it is nice to feel like we are back in civilisation and have a chance to give our trek weary bodies a rest!

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17th September 2015

Great blog, we will visit Luang Namtha mid October so this was really interesting to read. Safe travels!
17th September 2015

Happy travels!
Thanks for your comments, we are now sadly back at work in the 'real world' so it was a timely reminder of the fun we had travelling! Enjoy your trip.

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