Departing from Chiang Mai I took a bus north to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong where I crossed the Mekong River and entered Laos at the city of Huay Xai. Laos would be the highpoint of my trip. Comprised mostly of rugged, jungle-covered mountains, and possessing only about 530km of paved roads, it is a place dominated by the rural and remote. The people are shy but friendly, the cities had a small-town, country vibe to them. Opportunities for remote, rugged adventures – just my type – abound, from trekking through the mountains to off-road motorcycling and mountain biking, to simply wandering through remote villages, the outdoor explorer will find him or herself in a state of bliss.
I stayed just one night in Huay Xai, which is a stopover for tourists heading further into the interior of Northern Laos. Attractions were few, but when I walked a couple miles from the hostels I was happily surprised to find a country tavern perched on a steep slope that ran down to the Mekong River. It will be prime real estate one day, but for now it’s a true gem enjoyed only by the locals and the occasional wandering tourist. Inside I found a true country tavern experience where young kids gathered around huge wooden tables to gossip and drink Beer Lao. Country living has a flare of giddy inhibition, unsullied by the attenuating burden of metropolitan political norms. This was good living, honest and free; this was the northern Wisconsin of the 1970s, of my parents’ generation. Surrounded by jungle-laden mountains, in a communist country, I felt right at home.
In the morning I took a bus northeast to the city of Luang Namtha, a popular destination for eco-tourism. The main street is populated almost exclusively by small restaurants and eco-tourism offices. There you can sign up for trekking (hiking), kayaking, mountain biking, village homestays, jungle camping, or a dozen different combinations of all those activities. It’s hard to plan ahead for these trips because the offices won’t send a guide out until enough people have signed up, so they put big whiteboards in front of their office stating how many people have signed up for a particular excursion. I found a whiteboard with five other people and signed up – a three day trek through the mountains of a nearby national forest of sorts, the Namtha NPA.
The trek was easily the highlight of the entire trip to SE Asia. When I arrived in the morning the group had split into two; four Israelis decided they only wanted to trek for two days, so it was a French girl named Aude and our guide Xiong (which actually sounded like Saul when he said it). You can find Aude's blog here. Amazingly, she worked in advertising and one of her accounts was Lumia France - Lumia is what launched my photography venture. The three of us set out on a path that ran through bone-dry rice paddies (it was the dry season), eventually coming along a small stream that plunged suddenly into dense, lush jungle.
Initially the hiking was easygoing, we followed the stream along the jungle valley and the air was cool and moist. But suddenly we turned sharply upward, using our hands to grab roots and branches to steady ourselves as we climbed. We climbed about 1,000 feet and came to the top of the mountain where the air was hot and dry, and dead leaves crunched beneath our feet. Xiong immediately set about getting some lunch together, which he had packed in his day pack. He went into the jungle with his machete and cut down a few large banana leaves, which he spread out on the ground. On the leaves he placed sticky rice, which was packaged in leaved bundles, and a few main dishes like chicken with coriander and mint, cooked eggplant, and pork skin.
This was our pattern for all three days of the trek; work up a healthy sweat climbing up a mountain, have a bite to eat, plunge back down into the cool jungle basin, and head back up again. Because I was carrying my photography equipment and my hiking equipment, I had a 50lb pack on my back, which Xiong was initially skeptical of, but I’ve been hauling heavy packs through North American mountains for most of my life, and I relished the blazing heat and physical challenge.
Xiong was the most interesting person I met on my entire journey. He was also probably the most unique guide one could hope for. Growing up in the Luang Namtha area in a Hmong village, he left home to get a college degree. Living in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, he worked for several years as a human resources assistant in an office. As his twenties waned, he began to lose interest in the single life, and his parents convinced him that he could save more money by moving back home than he could by keeping his own apartment in the city. He returned home, started a family, and began guiding, essentially the inverse of what he was doing in Vientiane. I loved this versatility, and the placid manner with which he related this major life transition.
Not only did Xiong know the ways of the forest well, but he had a thoughtful, reflective way about him, and would share his insightful opinions on topics ranging from government policy to gender norms, all while slicing through the jungle flora with his machete. He was a small man, probably 5’2” and weighing no more than 110 lbs., but he could really move through the jungle, and seemingly never grew tired. When we would stop to rest he would never sit, he would instead squat down and “hang in the knees”, something that most Americans are far too huge to do.
At the beginning of every meal he would take a few pieces of food and walk to the edge of the clearing where we were eating. He would then speak to the spirits of the forest, he was an animist, he explained, and gave thanks before every meal, throwing bits of food out into the jungle. After meals he would, like everyone on earth, play with his smartphone. We are all tied together by our fascination with little touch screens; it is the bond that holds humanity together, makes us one.
The first night we camped in the jungle in a little open-air hut. The light slowly began to fail, leaving pools of darkness in the jungle around us, interrupted by shafts of golden light from the setting sun. The atmosphere was sublime. As the darkness gathered strength, a column of hill tribe women passed near our camp. As the trail came near, they hurried their pace and turned sharply up a ridge behind us. Once a safe distance away they stopped and waved, singing “Saibadee! Saibadee!”
We made a fire, cooked dinner, and went to bed early. Before bed I saw a few rats scampering around the stream bed. In the morning I found Xiong cooking up about 20 packets of sticky rice to sustain us through the next two days of hiking. Next to the pot of sticky rice packets were two rats… ready to be cooked. Apparently Xiong had also seen the rats and decided it would be a nice complement to our lunch. He set traps overnight with bits of pork skin in them. Soon they were both skewered on sticks and were roasting over the fire. He charred the hide, rubbed it off, then charred the meat. He then took everything but the head and feet and pulverized with a piece of bamboo, which left something that looked like shredded chicken and little rat femurs and spines. To that he added fresh coriander, mint, and a large amount of salt.
“Wow, Xiong, I’ve never seen a rat look so good.” I said.
“No, no, my friend, it’s Arrrra. Arrrra. Don’t call it a rat, it will taste better.”
Try as I might, it tasted like rat. Salty. Rat.
In the afternoon we arrived in the Akha village where we were making our homestay. Laos is home to hundreds of small tribal ethnic groups – a full 26% of the population is comprised of over 100 different tribal groups. The Akha tribe is one of those many small tribes. The Akha people originated in south China and immigrated into Southeast Asia around the turn of the 20th century. They build villages in dense forested mountains at high elevations. There are an estimated 400,000 Akha people that are dispersed across south China and the northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam.
The village was small, comprised of about 400 people, maybe less, and was built in a long strip on top of the spine of a mountain. In either direction epic view of the jungle-covered mountains dazzled the eye. As we moved through the village we passed huge water buffalo that stared at us dispassionately, women washing after a long day’s work, huddled in groups around the few water spigots in the village. We saw troops of children, almost all young boys, sprinting freely about the village. Young men hardened their jawlines and straightened their backs as they straddled their motorcycles, probably to impress Aude. Village elders paid us no mind, by now bored by jungle trekkers passing among their homes.
We settled into our little bamboo thatch-roofed lean-to and immediately went out to have a look around. The trekking company in Luang Namtha had asked us to bring gifts for the children, so I had a bag of chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, and a huge bag of balloons, which I thought the kids might get a kick out of. Aude opted to think about the children’s best interest and brought notepads and pens. I regretted not doing the same.
I had my camera and equipment pack on, and we made it about 20 yards from the front door of the homestay before we were swarmed with children. It was an experience, both hilarious and sometimes saddening. The kids pressed in on us with hands outstretched, screaming “SAIBADEE! SAIBADEE!” which was perhaps the only Lao word they knew, and used as a catch-all for ME! NOW! MORE! HELLO! Many of the kids were very aggressive, hitting and shoving one another to get closer to the free stuff. I wasn’t putting up with that, and every time someone gave a shove I’d stop doling out goodies and make them form a little line, which would hold up for ten of fifteen seconds before descending back into chaos.
Once the chocolate and balloons were exhausted, I took out my camera and showed them how to use it. I put it in aperture mode and just let them go to town, all the while keeping my hand on the strap so it wouldn’t get tossed and tumble down the mountain. A few of the shots below were taken by then children, and they captured the frenzy-like atmosphere.
As quickly as the frenzy had started, it was over. We walked along the main path of the village to a flat rise in the middle of the village that offered a panorama of either end of the village and the mountain ridges beyond. On the rise, a young man lounged on his motorcycle. He had his hair slicked over and a crisp collared shirt on – he had a debonair look about him. This was the Brad Pitt of the village. As soon as I saw him I sitting on that rise I saw the amazing composition clearly. I set up my light stand, flash, and remotes as fast as I could. Soon a crowd of village men gathered in an arc behind me – about 25 of them. When I had set up my equipment I pointed to my camera and then at Brad Pitt, and gave him a look that tried to say “Hey man you’re lookin pretty cool on that bike, how about a photo?”
Appealing to someone’s vanity is an easy task, and in this case didn’t even require a word. I took a few shots and seeing the flash go off seemed to really excite the crowd; I think it’s fair to say that not many trekkers bring professional lighting equipment in a 50 pound pack through the mountains. At this point a purely spontaneous village photoshoot developed. Kids jumped in and posed, a man with his baby stood proudly – the baby was terrified, and a friend of Brad Pitt’s jumped in as well. Most of the rest of the crowd was too shy, but everyone was laughing and having a good time. It was an amazing experience.
I could write another 1,000 words about the other things I saw and learned while in this village, but perhaps that’s best saved for another post. A few more coming in the next week or so.