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Straight out of National Geographic: Visiting the hill tribes of Northern Laos

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Scott and I weren’t really sure what to expect from the two-day tour we had signed up for in Laos; the itinerary was a two-day adventure beginning with a trek to a remote village north of Luang Prabang where we would spend the night, followed by some kayaking and a ride on an elephant. With open minds, we embarked on our next chapter in the Excellent Adventure saga.

Hiking through the mountainous terrain on the way to the remote hill tribes

Hiking through the mountainous terrain on the way to the remote hill tribes

Our trek started off with a bang: after a two hour drive north of Luang Prabang, we started a very vertical hike up in the mountains. The hike was HARD. It was steep, and the temperature was about 42 degrees. Sweat poured down us and we were panting like dogs even though our guide, Sakone, gave us a break every half kilometre or so. We were worried we didn’t have enough water – we each had three litres and we were consuming it pretty rapidly. The worst part about the hike was our bag situation…not really thinking it would be a difficult trek, we hadn’t chosen our gear carefully and poor Scott was lugging his full 15 kilo travel pack around and I was yanking a 3 kilo purse (very uncomfortable) up the hill, instead of our smaller day bags. To make it worse, Scott was carrying all the water, making the pack weigh in at probably about 20 kilos. Things weren’t looking up.

After about three hours of hiking, we made it to the village. The hike was quite lovely even though we were melting – we wound through Laos’ gorgeous mountains and valleys and saw lots of sticky rice cultivation along the way.

The Hmong village - all houses are built on stilts, as opposed to Khmu villages which are all built on land.

The Khmu village - all houses are built on stilts, as opposed to Hmong villages which are all built on land.

Upon arriving to the village, which consisted of small shacks built on stilts, we were told to take a seat at a picnic table and have lunch (fried rice brought all the way from Luang Prabang). As we were eating, the local children of the village began to surround us and stare. Most of them appeared to be under 14 years of age, and a few of the older girls were carrying tiny babies in a sling. We kept smiling and saying “Sabaidee” but only received cold glares back. We weren’t quite sure if we were welcome here or not.

After eating, Sakone told us to go explore the village. We were not warmly received by the people at all – although the children were curious about us, the adults regarded us with near disdain. It proved quite awkward, and after admiring the chickens, pigs and turkeys running around, we weren’t quite sure what to do with ourselves. Our group of 7 all found various picnic tables and benches and just laid down for a bit of a snooze. It was a very strange place, and we weren’t sure what to make of it.

After several hours of this, Sakone finally re-appeared. He apparently lives in the village now, as he has taken one of the local ladies as his girlfriend. I asked him how many tourists the village sees. He replied that groups like ours come about every other day. Well, no wonder they aren’t too fond of us. We are intruding on their life far too often. I wasn’t impressed that the company we had booked through appeared not to be involved in a sustainable tourism project.

Scott playing Takraw with the local kids

Scott playing Takraw with the local kids

Sakone took us on a tour of the village, which started up the hill to the school house. Everything was very reminiscent of Canada in the 1800s – the school house consisted of a wooden shack with a few wooden benches and a black board. Outside, there was a court for playing Takraw – a game very similar to volleyball, but played with the legs like soccer. The boys joined the locals for a game which proved quite entertaining…although again, the locals didn’t seem too enthused to share their court with us “falang.” After the game, Scott tried to shake hands with his team mates, but they didn’t seem too interested. We trekked to the other side of the hill, where the Hmong people live – the Hmong are a bit more rustic than the Khmu, and abide by more of the traditional dress and housing of their kind.

I will describe what we saw since we didn’t take pictures – we didn’t want to appear rude and already we weren’t warmly welcomed. Our first image was of a little boy, maybe about four, wearing only a small top and no pants (with his willy hanging out) holding a chicken. It was unbelievable. Then, an old woman of 90 years came sauntering by, completely topless. She shyly covered up and ran into her house to grab a top – that made us feel even worse and voyeuristic. Her husband is 80 years old and they are the oldest people in the village – it appeared that most people only lived to be about 50 or 60, so their old age was quite something. We then got to tour the old woman’s house – a giant bamboo shack with a dirt floor. It was quite unreal to see how these people live: there was a giant pot of rice for their food (swarming with flies), eaten corn on the cobs lying everywhere, things strewn about, and a giant mat where the whole family (about 15 of them) sleeps.

The path to the stream, where seemingly every member of the village visited at some point during the day, carrying a heavy load of water back.

The path to the stream, where seemingly every member of the village visited at some point during the day, carrying a heavy load of water back.

Next, we were taken to the local “stream” where we were told to wash up. This is where things got even more interesting, because the people were actually naked and bathing when we arrived. They pretty much ignored us, and Sakone told us we could just get right in there and bathe ourselves. Coming from quite a private western culture, this shocked us a bit. We wanted to give them some privacy. So, we patiently waited our turn, which never arrived. Queueing is not at all adhered to in Asia, and it seemed the norm was no different up here in the hills. So, we all took off our tops (leaving our bras and pants on) and got right in there…with the naked women and men surrounding us. The stream was quite interesting, as it apparently came from underground and consisted of a PVC pipe leaking a constant trickle. To clean oneself, you had to wait for a bucket to fill up and then dump it over you. It felt amazing to wash away some of the grime and sweat from the day. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures of this as I wanted to give the hill tribe people as much privacy as possible.

Some adorable Hmong children

Some adorable Khmu children

After our authentic cleanse, I went to brush my hair. I decided to do it outside instead of shedding my long hair strands everywhere, and soon, I ended up with a large crowd of children oogling me. They were very curious about what I was doing. So, I showed them how to brush my hair and braid it. I then offered to brush their hair. No one wanted to. One brave girl of about 14, I think the daughter of our homestay hosts, finally motioned that she would try. She brushed her hair and all the little kids started giggling. She then tried braiding her hair, but then motioned for me to do it. So, I braided her hair, and another little girl fetched an elastic for her. She seemed very pleased. Hopefully Evelina, our new Dutch friend, will send some photos of this event as she managed to snap quite a few. Most of the kids then dispersed, but a few really little guys stayed on and we played a little game of hide-and-seek with the picnic table which seemed to go on for hours. Kids everywhere seem to be entertained by the same games. :)

Kenna sucking on our "small" jar of Lao Lao rice whiskey

Kenna sucking on our "small" jar of Lao Lao rice whiskey

We then ate a very authentic dinner which was cooked over a fire (the village does not have electricity), essentially in the dark. We lent Sakone a headlamp so he could better see what he was doing, but normally he doesn’t operate with such luxuries. We ate bamboo shoots, a pork soup, and some sort of cabbage dish. And of course, sticky rice – one of my new favourites…and something we’ve only encountered in Laos. Sakone then convinced us to buy a jar of lao lao – a fermented rice wine drink. For 30,000 kip (about $4) we could purchase a small jar for our group of 7. We thought that would be sufficient for each of us to try. We imagined it would be something like a small jam jar. Well, Sakone came back with a HUGE vase type thing filled with rice. He then proceeded to add stream water (which we were very nervous about) and then started sticking in bamboo straws. He added a few siphon straws and told us we had to finish the lao lao before the end of the night…it wouldn’t be good the next day. So, we started sucking…and sucking…and the jar seemed endless. We invited some of the locals to join us, and one fellow just stuck the straw in his mouth and didn’t remove it the whole time. Those Lao people sure know how to consume the lao lao. We petered out and went to bed and left a few local men to finish off our jar.

Sleeping that night proved very interesting. We had been giving seven mats with a few bug nets to sleep on right out side the “bedroom” (basically a few plank pieces of wood and and sheet) of our hosts. We weren’t sure how many of them were sleeping in there, but it was at least five. They were pretty noisy, and I think about ten other people were sleeping right below us on the main level. In total, I will guesstimate that there were approximately 21 people sleeping in a dwelling the size of Scott and I’s condo. You could hear EVERYTHING. I kept getting woken up and had to trek out to the toilet, located about 50 meters outside the house. A storm rolled in in the middle of the night and woke us all up – our dwelling started leaking in several places and a mist started blowing all over us. One of the local women even started squealing when some water landed on her.

The kids were fascinated by our teeth brushing

The kids were fascinated by our teeth brushing

The next morning, we had a simple breakfast of eggs and baguettes. While we were brushing our teeth, some of the really small kids became very enchanted with what we were doing, and we quickly found ourselves with a large audience. We said our goodbyes, and trekked out of the village at about 10 a.m. After an hour or so hike at a very fast pace down the mountain, we were picked up and taken to the Nam Ou river for some kayaking.

Kayaking the Nam Ou was quite lovely. The Lao countryside is stunning, and it was nice to paddle downstream and admire the karst cliffs. We stopped at the Pak Ou caves, located on the intersection of where the Nam Ou and the Mekong rivers meet, and which consists of a Buddhist temple built into one of the karsts, and had lunch. After, we continued paddling to the Elephant riding place.

Elephant trekking

Elephant trekking

The elephant riding was quite a disappointment. They only had two elephants for six people, so two people had to ride on the elephant’s head, while the others sat in the wooden seat. Poor Scott ended up riding on the head and had quite the time balancing. The elephants did not seemed bonded to their Mahouts and went a bit rogue on us to eat leaves. I don’t think they were fed properly either. The mahouts seemed to give up and just started dragging them by the rope attached to their ears. After an hour of riding, we were pretty ready to get off and get out of this place. On our way back, we stopped for some lao lao tasting at a whisky village which was fun. Overall, our two-day excursion was fun, but I don’t think I would recommend the company (Manifa Tours) that we booked through. They were one of the cheapest, and it is clear why: they don’t seem to be interested in sustainable tourism, and are putting too much pressure on the hill tribes and not treating their elephants well. I would recommend booking with a more expensive tour company to hopefully avoid this.

Last Days in Luang Prabang

Kenna dressed up in a sarong in preparation for the Alms-giving ceremony, which, as evidenced by the empty streets, we missed

Kenna dressed up in a sarong in preparation for the Alms-giving ceremony, which, as evidenced by the empty streets, we missed

We spent one last day in Luang Prabang – one of my favourite cities from this trip due to its beauty, serenity and peacefulness. We got up early at 6 a.m to try to watch the Alms Giving – where monks collect offerings of food from the locals. Luang Prabang has over 20 monasteries with nearly a thousand monks – I think one of the largest concentrations of monks in the world. Almost every man in Laos becomes a monk for a period of time, as it is the best way to get an education. Monks are only allowed to eat once per day in the morning, and they aren’t allowed to handle currency, so they rely on the people to feed them. I had mixed feelings about watching this very cultural and beautiful event, as it has apparently been ruined by tourism a bit. Apparently, quite a few vendors have cropped up selling food for “falang” to give to the monks. Unfortunately, it usually isn’t of good quality and ends up making the monks sick. Because of this, the monasteries wanted to stop having tourists allowed at the procession and threatened shutting it down; the government wouldn’t allow this and have forced the monks into continuing their ceremony and even threatened hiring non-monks to dress in saffron robes and pretend to do it. We decided we’d get up and try to watch from a distance. So, up we got, and into a sarong I went (women should wear very long skirts and cover their shoulders), and down the street we walked. But, it looked like we had missed the procession – everyone was clearing up and it seemed to be over. We were confused because all the websites said that it happened at 6 a.m every morning – we are not sure that maybe it is earlier when we are nearing the solstice because the sun rises early. Anyway, I wasn’t too sad we missed it because I wasn’t keen on participating in something that has lost its cultural meaning and has become a virtual tourist attraction.

We spent the rest of the day lounging and decided to soothe our sore bodies with a traditional Lao massage and a herbal steam bath. We went to one of the spas, and were told to strip down and wear a towel. This seemed odd to me, because usually we are fully clothed when we get massages. Anyway, we did what we were told. Scott went to lay down and his masseuse (a man) started working on him…but quickly he was told that he was “too hot” (i.e., sweaty and stinky) and that he needed to have a shower. A bit embarrassing! I decided I’d have a shower too and avoid the same fate.

Our masseuses started working on us (I had a girl) and it all seemed ok at the start. Very similar to a Thai massage (same-same), but better! They used a bit more of our Western massaging as well, so it wasn’t as painful. However, they started contorting our bodies into some of the same positions as Thai massage (what I like to call assisted yoga), and it quickly became apparent that we should have worn underpants. Both Scott and I began blushing and giggling because we are pretty sure our masseuses got a pretty good show. They didn’t say anything or seem to mind, so we weren’t sure what the norm was. Anyway, if any of you ever go for a Lao massage, I recommend wearing underwear. Aside from our embarrassment, it turned out to be one of the best massages we’ve ever had. Afterwards, we were put into a very hot steam sauna, which was scented with some wonderful smelling herbs and just steamed away. It was kind of strange to steam oneself in 42 degree heat, but it felt good nonetheless.

We crossed the river beside Luang Prabang on this rickety bamboo bridge

We crossed the river beside Luang Prabang on this rickety bamboo bridge

That night, we had dinner at a lovely restaurant across the Nam Ou river. You had to cross a really sketchy foot bridge to get there, but it was fun. Afterwards, we finally found some Durian – a super nasty smelling fruit that we’ve seen around since arriving in Indonesia. Many hotels here forbid it (they will put up “no durian” signs) because it is so smelly. We’ve never bought it because they are massive and we have nothing to cut it with – but we found a fruit stall that sold pre-cut pieces. It tasted pretty nasty (like rotten cooked onions), so we ended up giving it to a guy that was kind of sketched out and was trying to sell us opium. He ate it right up.

We capped off our time in Luang Prabang with a visit to the night market. Luang Prabang has the best market I have ever seen – it is filled with the most gorgeous fabrics and artwork and handicrafts. I wanted to be the first customer of the night (because the Lao are also like the Vietnamese in that their first customer will either be lucky or unlucky). I started purchasing things I had been eyeing for days…and I witnessed the most amazing superstitious ritual. I was given amazing prices as the first customer, and when I gave the ladies my money, they took it and blessed their entire array of merchandise with it by saying a little mantra and waving the money over it. It was amazing. I started buying more and more things because I wanted to make the little ladies lucky and witness their ritual. Scott finally had to tell me to stop and we left. My bag is now crazy full with tons of purchases!!

Cruising up the Mekong

The boat in which we traveled for 20 hours

The boat in which we traveled for 20 hours

The next morning, we boarded our 10-hour boat to Pakbeng with two of our friends, Thalie and Aysha from our hill tribe trek. We decided to take a boat up the Mekong instead of a bus – we are right sick of buses and 20 hours over two days on a boat seemed more desirable then a very bumpy 15-hour overnight bus ride. It was a bit more expensive, but worth it. We got to see some amazing scenery: in addition to seeing many riverside villages and kids swimming and playing in the river, we delivered some goods to a few of them. One of our loads consisted of a few food staples and lots of Beerlao – they seem to really enjoy their alcohol here!

The boat ride was quite pleasant in that we could stretch out on the floor or benches if the space allowed. Much more comfortable than a bus. Our stop-over in Pakbeng was quite uneventful. We had heard some terror stories of people’s bags being stolen and other such atrocities: Pakbeng exists solely to house people travelling to and from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang and so the people don’t benefit much from tourism, and therefore aren’t the nicest or most honest folks around. Almost everyone tries to sell drugs (and most of them are high themselves) and we got offered quite a bit. Our guest house manager offered Scott something and told us we could get happy pancakes and fruit shakes to make our boat ride the next day more interesting. We of course, declined: there is also a scam here that if you buy drugs, the seller will call their friend who will pretend to be a police offer (complete with a badge) and will demand $500 from you or will take you to jail, and presumably hand you over to the real cops. Not fun.

Our very uncomfortable boat for 10 hours, with the Monks traveling beside us.

Our very uncomfortable boat for 10 hours, with the Monks traveling beside us.

The highlight of the boat ride for me was riding with three old and wise monks. They were quite regal and seemed to be enjoying themselves fully, taking pictures (they had a cellphone and camera!) and really appreciating their surroundings. Women are not allowed to talk to them and are supposed to bow when they walk by them, so I found it a bit disconcerting when one of them sat in my seat while I had gone to the washroom and was examining my Pol Pot book – I didn’t quite know what to do about it. I just smiled and he smiled back at me and then returned to his seat. I felt a bit bad, but didn’t really know what to do.

We arrived in Huay Xai that evening, and quickly got ready for our trip into the jungle with the Gibbon’s Experience. We had managed to get in a day early due to some cancellations, so we prepared ourselves with small bags (we now knew what to expect from a trek here!) and went to sleep, anxious for what the next few days would bring.


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