Trekking from Muang Ngoi - Lao Lum, Khmu, and H'mong villages, transforming landscapes, spending a night in the 18th century and rejoicing at the thought of bathing in icy water...


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Asia » Laos » North » Muang Ngoi Neua
January 23rd 2013
Published: February 5th 2013
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Our trek began with a boat ride south on the Nam Ou, adn a visit to Se Kong, a Lao Lum (a tribe of lowland Lao) village (in retrospect Meagan pointed out that this visit was probably because our local guide was late, but we didn't notice at the time...). We soon began trekking and the scenery was gorgeous, lush mountains one minute, then traversing dry rice paddies, strolling through animal farms (usually situated about a 30-minute walk from the villages) and then through jungle landscape.

We stopped at Ta Lem, a Khmu village, and then for lunch in its H'Mong counterpart, Yong (many hilltowns are divided in two by tribes), where we could see people's activities during the dry season, since they are not caring for the rice fields. Everywhere people were tending to their roofs, families coming together to help each other, women sitting tearing the rattan appart with their teeth whiel chatting and braiding it to make new flooring for their huts, while kids played around everywhere. There was also a lot of red bark hanging to out to dry, and when we asked about it they said they sell it to the Chinese, who buy it
Local kids at building siteLocal kids at building siteLocal kids at building site

The kids was running around, both naked and dressed, with hammers and bricks helping the grown ups
in heaps, but they have no idea what they do with it. The amount of food we were given at lunch should have been an indicator for what lay ahead. After the first 3 hours of hiking going rather smoothly, we were faced with endless steep climbs for the next 5. And we mean steep, and straight up. It was rough on all of us, especially Mike and Oyvind, who not only were carrying bigger packs but were also about 2 feet taller than the local guide, who only used his machete to cut a whole in the jungle big enough for him to pass through. Both of them were pretty scraped up by nightfall.

As darkness fell upon us we could see the smoke from the village, Huin, where we would spend the night. It was late by local standards, and because of that we were all given beds on the floor in one of the larger homes in town. Another 13 family members slept wooden beds in our same house, while the seven of us were given blankets and the luxurious surprise of a thin futon on the floor. After bathing in the dark by the communal
H'Mong girlH'Mong girlH'Mong girl

she was a bit confused about why we were sitting at her place when eating lunch
spicket outside in the middle of town (my sarong everyone's envy - of course I shared), we were served another delicious meal (the seasonal H'Mong specialty of sticky rice, squash, morning glories which we had bought from a lady who koined us for the last leg of the hike) and boiled chicken, and after warming by the fire we retired to our stretch of floor.

We awoke to the usual cacophony of roosters and stirring children at about 5am, and after breakfast were able to look around the town. One of the reasons we were also sold on this trek was that we were lucky enough to be in Huin while they were celebrating the H'Mong new year, so we got to witness people in their traditional costumes and celebrations not because of us, but because that was what they would be doing regardless. We got to participate in the traditional game of throwing a ball back and forth, which is how young girls and boys from different villages get to know each other, and offers a modets way for them to be able to look each other in the eye. We did it for a half an hour
Night is fallingNight is fallingNight is falling

It did take us a long time to get to the village we were staying the first night, but it sure looked great when we came close to it
and were bored out of our skulls (we really wanted to just take pictures of all the lovelinessa round us), but they do it all day. For days 😊 Around us were stalls for photography, where locals could pose in their best costumes and be photographed and get the picture printed immediately. Every home we have been in is adorned with these photos, the background a gaudy waterfall, like a prom picture on steroids.

Our walk that day was kinder (incomparison everything would be) and though the climbs were steep and tough they did eventually come to an end and did even reveal a few chances at views. We found a shady spot for lunch and ate with our hands off huge banana leaves in the junlge. The next part was a witness to how little travelled our path was, and the trail led us along an impossibly thin and loose ridge, where the jungle was thick and vines were clawing at us, and every stop to machete our way through meant red ants and mosquitoes attacking viciously. After almost an hour of this, our guides realized there was no way through, called a jolly man from our next village to come and meet us, and we turned back. After spending 2 hours on a sidetrip to nowhere, the man met us by a little stream and brought some bananas and cookies, which seemed to make us all forget how cut up and bitten we were. We headed into the valley and reached Ban Tap, our last H'Mong village, well before nightfall.

There all the women were able to borrow sarongs (of course I kept mine) and we frolicked under the icy water from a bamboo pipe, and washed like the locals in the river. We warmed by the fire (and attempted to dry all our clothes as the nights were icy), and had another delicious meal. Before it, we were honoured by the village chief and his family and were blessed by each one of them. The chief first warded off all evil spirits, and then proceeded to bless us by tying small white yarn bracelets on our wrists. Then his family and our guides also tied some on and blessed us further. We had seen many tourists in Luang Prabang with this sort of bracelet, and had wondered where they came from. Well, we can't imagine
Morning glory 1Morning glory 1Morning glory 1

when we walked down from the mountain, we started above the clouds, but had to dive into it all. But we the clouds gave us a great send-of before we had to dive in
there is anything more authentic than what we experienced. It was dark and smokey and quiet, and the air felt still and full of wonder.

We all got divided up to sleep, and Oyvind and I were led to our home for the night, where a rattan platform with a blanket and a pillow for each awaited. The house was large and there was a hearth in the middle of it, the thick smoke hung in the air and made its way towards a hole in the ceiling. The mother sat by us while we settled in, and retired to her corner after tending to the fire. Next to our feet was a small cot, which housed both the roosters and the grandmother of the house, a frail old lady with a kind smile. The space was so small, she must have slept curled up with all the birds.

The bed was of course hard and the crowing incessant, but at 4:30 the mother of the house got up to tend to the fire, which had been smoking all night. She carefully shaved wood for a myriad of pruposes, to steam rice, to make smoke, to boil water.
Early morningEarly morningEarly morning

when we woke up, it was still dark, the fire had been going all night and today's work was all ready started
She then prepared her family's food, and slowly the hosue crawled to life. The grandmother came out of her shack, her husband came out as well.

But that early morning in silence, lying in our bed while the smoke filled the air and she carefully got ready for the day as people has for centuries on end, the rythm of her movements and the certainty that this was what needed to be done, yesterday, today and the day after that, that memory will stay with us for forever. It was a glimpse into a simple, hard life, a life where hard work is a matter of course and things flow into one another and have reasons of their own. We are truly thankful for the experience.

We ate breakfast together and said goodbye to our families and walked off the mountains, one steep long descent into civilization. It was only three days, but we felt like we had left the world behind. And for that, and truly the whole trip, we are grateful...


Additional photos below
Photos: 56, Displayed: 27


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Not a cat in a hatNot a cat in a hat
Not a cat in a hat

but a cat on the roof, or maybe in the roof?
Sharp girlSharp girl
Sharp girl

also in Ban Tap we found cute kids with sharp knives
Having funHaving fun
Having fun

the local villagers had fun with looking at the pictures we were taking. To some it was fun to see how they looked, as a mirror was not something you would find in every home
Crawling upCrawling up
Crawling up

As we continued the trail got more and more challenging, but we pushed on
House buildingHouse building
House building

in the second village we visited, house building was a main activity, both among the Khmu, and the H'Mong people.
Getting startedGetting started
Getting started

Our best experience so far started about 30 min down river
Building materialsBuilding materials
Building materials

Bamboo is used all over the houses, here some of the materials to bind the walls together
Village farmVillage farm
Village farm

Most animals are kept some way from the villages, this is to keep the villages clean, and have all the animals in a fenced area, almost like a barn/stable/henhouse combined
Jurrasic parkJurrasic park
Jurrasic park

We walked through some fantastic and changing landscapes. Here we walked in to something that looked like we were taken a long time back
Summer cottageSummer cottage
Summer cottage

In summertime, the farmers use small cabins like this when farming and keeping their animals and a big family can stay here for long periods of time
Drying clothesDrying clothes
Drying clothes

As it was many hours walking straight up, we had a lot of clothes we tried to clean when we got to the village, some of our clothes were still wet the next morning but we didn't care to much about that


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