Trip Reports » SE Asia 2009 » Laos - Trekking

Laos - Trekking

Trekking  in Laos

Much has happened in the last six days and Oscar Wilde’s statement to the effect of “Dear friend I would have written a short letter, but I don’t have time, so this is a long one” feels apt. We have been on two treks in two different areas, experienced two very different guides and interacted with local village people in very different ways. We have witnessed the rapid destruction of the forest and even more surprising, the physical destruction of a complete village.

Our first trek was from Luang Prabang into the Khmu village of Ban Nalan. Our 24 year old guide introduced himself with something like “Hi, I’m Nam and I’ve got a hangover to end all hangovers after a night on the Lao Lao”. Lao Lao is the local moonshine whisky – more on that later.

Our trekking party of 6 clients, two guides and a porter boarded a Tuk Tuk and headed out to the start of the trek, but detoured to the market and while the guides were buying lunch we wandered around gaping at the variety of goods on sale. Amongst the live goods were a baby bamboo rat, tanks of fish and frogs skewered by their legs. The butchery section had buffalo cuts (no refrigeration) and buckets of bright red liver – cut into cubes. Whole dead animals included a rare crimson forest bird and a dozen birds smaller than sparrows. Cooked food sections included a huge array of strange looking vegetables that were sold in plastic bags and an even bigger range of pork, beef and chicken dishes. At least those were the things we recognized.

Lunch was another big surprise. We stopped at a small thatched shelter where banana leaves were spread to make a table cloth. The contents of six or eight bags from the market were poured in tidy mounds onto the leaves and we opened our individual lunch parcels of sticky rice (these were wrapped in small banana leaves). We were then shown how to eat sticky rice without implements by making a small ball of sticky rice and using it to scoop up some of whichever dish we fancied. The food was very tasty and once we got used to eating with our fingers it was a good lunch. The dishes in the middle included a spicy eggplant concoction, chicken and cabbage, beef and bean sprouts and a strange variety of small pumpkin.

The walk itself was mostly through cut-over forest but there were a few areas of original forest that were most spectacular. The country was quite steep and while the trail wound over a couple of good hills it was an easy days walking and we arrived at the village of Ban Nalan mid-afternoon.

After a swim in the river we explored the village but found the adults withdrawn and uncommunicative. As our later experiences we much more positive we put this down to an incident earlier in the day when Sergio, an Italian traveling in our group had caused considerable offence. After we had stopped for lunch three women from the village arrived. They were dressed in traditional costume and one was smoking a pipe so they were quite a sight. Sergio immediately grabbed his camera and photographed them without asking permission (a specific no-no) and then doubly compounded the error by putting his arms around the women and insisting his wife take another photo.

At Ben Nalan, as at all the villages we stayed in, we slept in a separate guest house, rather than home-staying in a house with the villagers. Cooking in the villages is done over an open fire inside the house. As the houses are wooden and raised about two metres off the ground the fire is contained in a small sand pit in the middle of the room. There is no chimney, the smoke simply wafts out through the thatched roof and the bamboo mat walls. Our hosts prepared a delicious meal,which we ate sitting on the floor, although this time we had spoons and chopsticks.

After dinner we met with the village chief who welcomed us and answered our questions through our guide who acted as interpreter. It was a fascinating session which needs more time to tell than I have, but in essence we were made to feel very welcome and gained some understanding of village life and likely changes.

One of the more unusual aspects is that the village chief is an elected position with each villager having an equal vote. The catch is that the elected candidate must demonstrate an ability to write in Lao at the first district meeting. This skill is required “To ensure the chief accurately reports to the village all the actions from the district meetings”. A side effect is that the chiefs tend to be quite young – it is not uncommon to find a chief who is only 20. As for remembering the party news, its hard to forget as “the news from the capital” is broadcast on loud speakers throughout every town and large village at the beginning and end of every day. It forms the background noise as I write this.

Walking out from Ban Nalan we passed through several other villagers that were friendly and quite welcoming, although Sergio again threw a spanner in the works by attempting to buy the earrings out of the ears of one of the women in the village where we stopped for lunch. After this he was pretty well persona non grata with everyone. He also missed out on lunch (more sticky rice) in the ensuing arguments.

Cycle to Muang Sing

We returned from the trek to Ban Nalan having enjoyed the experience but wanting to see more of the original forest and wildlife. So the next day we hired mountain bikes and reducing our gear to the absolute minimum headed off on a 60km ride through the Namha range to Muang Sing. It was a very pleasant ride with very little traffic on the sealed road. What traffic there was traveled quite slowly due to the uneven surface and narrow winding nature of the road. The first 40kms wound slowly uphill, initially past numerous villages where the surrounding forest had been cleared and rubber trees planted. After the pass there was a spell of original forest and we walked up to a delightful waterfall about a km off the road. We had lunch along the way at a small local eatery that served YumYum noodles (Chinese dried noodles) and salad for $NZ1.

As we cycled further down the valley the agriculture became increasingly intensive, so that by the time we reached the broad plain of Muang Sing we were surrounded by rice paddy. At this time of year the paddies are dry with buffalo and cows grazing the stubble. It will be very different in November with the rice starting to yellow just before harvest.

Arriving in the town of Muang Sing we were immediately greeted by Dan and Jen, two of our fellow trekkers to Ban Nalan. They were checking out the trekking options and invited us to join them. There are now half a dozen trekking agencies in town and we raced around looking for the best jungle trip, hopefully with home-stay. In the limited time available our research was a bit limited and with hindsight we realise that there were some better jungle trips, but we had a great experience anyway with a number of pleasant surprises.

Trek 2 - Sop Ee Kop Village

Trekking in on the first day we began at the end of the rice paddy area and transitioned through sugar cane and dry rice regions on the rolling foothills before entering the rubber belt. China, which is just 20 kms away is a keen buyer of rubber and sugar cane and it is transforming the landscape with huge swathes of forest converted in the last two years. We had lunch on a ridge high above the valley floor and were serenaded with a cacophony of wood chopping and trees crashing on both sides of the ridge. Our guide Mr Mai, was clearly very angry at the clearing. He kept saying “cutting, cutting very bad people, people no listen”. He would castigate the cutters we passed and his assistant who was from the local village was lectured mercilessly. We felt we were witnessing a profound and sad change. In New Zealand we cut our forest for farmland many years ago, here the change is no less fundamental in potentially providing an economic base for a very poor region.

We spent the first night in Sop Ee Kop, an Akhu village that grew all its own food and still made some of its own cloth. Our first activity in the village was to wash at the village tap. Men stripped down to their underpants, women a sarong while the whole village watched. This was a clever part of the plan to give tourists a sense of being the observed and it also served to break the ice. While we again stayed in the guest house we had a fascinating visit after dark to one of the homes. There is almost a chapter to write just on the time we spent with the family but it will have to wait.

The locals certainly have some fascinating customs.Returning to our guest house we found a party going on inside. We were immediately ordered to lie down on the beds and the five of us were given thorough massages by the women while the

kids giggled and the men drank Lao Lao, the local whisky. It was a great end to a fascinating day.

Trekking a very long ridge system the next day we were disappointed at the amount of slash and burn that was happening as we passed areas where the ash was still warm. While slash and burn has been part of traditional agricultural methods, it was a bit pointless at 1600m and was either vandalism or done to scare what little game remains. Mr Mai was apoplectic and we promised to write to his boss and the Minister of Tourism (which we intend to do). Despite this there were areas of pleasant bush and it was great to get a solid day’s tramping in steep hill country.

Arriving at Pawai Ki, our village for the second night we were greeted with a scene that could have been straight out of a Vietnam war movie. There were demolished and half demolished houses everywhere, numerous fires in the streets and lots of excited screaming and yelling from the kids. It turned out that half the village was moving to a new location closer to town and off the hills. The demolition was because they were dismantling their houses. It was a very emotional time for the villagers as well, some looking forward to the change with anticipation, others with regret.Probably many were experiencing both as the village had been there for 140 years.

That night many of the older men gathered in the guest house and drank Lao-Lao while the old women stood around chewing betel nut (which had rotted their teeth and turned their lips bright red) and looking quite sad and lost. The kids played with some excitement while the women with families to care for worked frantically, cooking, demolishing houses and collecting water from the spring 10 minutes walk away. The men assisted with loading the truck when it was there to load and otherwise stood around, occasionally being shouted at by irate spouses.

There was another massage that night but it wasn’t very good and felt a little strange when the young masseuses suddenly and discretely said “Money” towards the end of the massage. We weren’t sure if they were asking for a tip or offering extra services as “Money” was the extent of their English.

The next day we walked back to Muang Sing and after lunch in a local restaurant caught the afternoon bus back to Luang Namtha. While the bush had not been as spectacular as we had hoped and anything non human that walked or flew had been shot or trapped, it had still been a fascinating insight into the lives of others and provided much food for thought on trade, aid and development.

February 10 2009

Luang Prabang

We are currently cruising up the Mekong river on our way to the Pak Ou caves. Our boat is a typical long skinny thing designed to take about 10 people. The river is about 400m wide and the muddy waters hide numerous limestone shoals. Frances and I have chartered the boat after a morning spent checking out tours and tour operators.

Yesterday was a marathon 10 hour bus ride to cover the 290km from Luang Namtha to here at Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos. Most of the journey was in the 150kms of mountains in the middle on a road that while nominally sealed had more pot holes than bitumen. Despite the girl next to me being sick the whole time and the usual overcrowding it was interesting trip. Just as well as there was little alternative as there are no flights between the two cities.

Luang Prabang was an unexpected delight. The night market was in full swing and the main street was lined with small stalls selling quality handicrafts while the side streets had great food stalls. It was clean, car free, well lit and delightful. It made us realise that the travel up north had been relatively hard.

The World Heritage city of Luang Prabang is very relaxing. The French colonial influence is still Strong after 32 years of communist control and there are restaurants selling great coffee and baguettes as well as many restaurants selling local Laos food. Accommodation is excellent with clean quiet rooms, good mattresses and crispy sheets. Definitely a step up from some nights in the north.

Tomorrow we are off on a two day mahout course. A mahout is an elephant driver/trainer and we are looking forward to taking the controls on the elephants neck. Tonight we are hoping to go to a local “ballet” of traditional dance. I like these occasional days off when we can sit back and relax after a couple of weeks of constant travel.

Lao Lao - the local moonshine, bottled with snakes and scorpions.  People drink this stuff - mostly drunk tourists.

Elephant - February 12

Riding on the head of an elephant is much more exciting than sitting in a howdah (chair/saddle)on its back. We are currently staying at Elephant Camp XL and have just returned from an early morning ride. We were up and dawn and followed our mahouts into the jungle to collect the elephants. They had been foraging on a steep hillside and it was impressive watching them walk down with considerable grace while their mahouts nonchalantly sit on their heads. Once the elephants were on less steep ground we were invited to climb aboard. At the command “Seung” the elephant would bend its front leg and the rider would climb aboard. “Pie” and we started forward. We quickly became accustomed to the elephant’s gait. With knees on the elephant’s head and feet tucked behind its ears it was quite comfortable.

Mahout training is what they call this two day experience. It is not quite as much time on the elephants as we expected, but it is a very pleasant time and a break from some of the harder traveling we have been doing. Meals were served al fresco on a terrace overlooking the river. With a full moon, comfortable shirt-sleeve temperatures and a beer lao it was difficult to find anything to complain about. The bedrooms were comfortable with mosquito nets draped elegantly, and endless hot water for showers.

The camp was set up to rescue elephants in danger of being retired from forestry with a bullet; in Laos there are still 540 elephants working in forestry where they are often subject to a fairly brutal existence. The ladies of the camp - all 8 elephants are female, range in age from 30 to 84 and some of them are showing the ravages of time. It’s not the wrinkles, there’s no such thing as a smooth skinned elephant, it’s the eyes. Several had lost an eye in logging accidents and at least one had a huge cataract. The elephants were not worked as hard as we have seen in other places and are given the afternoons off to graze in the cool of the forest for even now in the coolest time of the year it is over 30 degrees in the early afternoon shade. The mahouts also seem to treat the animals more gently, only one carried a traditional hooked hammer driving tool and even that was a light hook with a wooden handle rather than the more mallet like ones used elsewhere.