Thursday, December 6, 2012

Trekking to the Hill Tribes in Laos

Aboard a Bangkok-bound sleeper train, I am smiling -- not only because I'm thrilled to be back in Thailand, but also because of the wonderful memories Laos has left me with.

A highlight of my two weeks too short in Laos was a trek run by the company "White Elephant" based in Luang Prabang. Many tour companies offer a similar wide variety of kayaking, trekking, elephant riding, rock climbing and more outdoor activities accompanied with a visit to a hill tribe village. It was White Elephant that convinced me to join last minute a trip that promised to be an authentic experience to remember.
Most of the competing tour companies include a visit or home-stay with a village tribe. The locations and tribes that the tour companies have worked out a monetary agreement with have become so overrun with tourists that they often resemble more of a zoo that other human beings' home.

While you could argue that in a sense that's what my trip did too, joining local Hmong and Laos tour guides to visit their own Hmong people felt slightly more genuine. The route we trekked and the hill tribes we visited are only occasionally visited by White Elephant because of their Hmong guide, Sowlee who was raised in a neighboring Hmong village.

We left early in the morning and drove two hours along the bumpy dirty roads of northern Laos to reach a remote area. We began our journey by crossing the Nam Xeng river via a local woman's dinky wooden boat for a minimal fee.

Both days we spent 5-6 hours of hiking such a diverse range of landscape (jungle, mountains and rice paddies) that I didn't even know existed in such a close proximity. There was plenty of time to get to know the three other trekkers, learn so very much from the two Hmong and Laos guides and get lost in my thoughts amongst the most peaceful natural backdrop.

After a tasty green curry lunch and a couple more hours of walking, we arrived at a remote Khmu village. With our guides translating, we conversed, shared laughs and took photos with the Khmu people in, what seemed to us, their very primitive village.
Me with a group of Khmu children
Just one more hour of walking - this time in the pouring rain - and we arrived at our home-stay destination, a Hmong village. 

To the outsider, the villages and lifestyles of Khmu and Hmong people are very similar. They both practice slightly varying forms of an animist religion, but they originate from distant regions and have completely different languages. Being that their tribes are only a couple hours away from one another in the mountains of Laos, they are friendly with one another and their children often go to school together.

After scraping the mud caked on my body in the one running water of the village, we sat around the fire for warmth and helped our guides prepare a meal I will forever remember.

It's not as if the meal was so complex: stir fried vegetables, steamed rice and a bowl of chicken soup. Though it was cooked with little in the way of seasoning, never have I had such a naturally flavorful meal, rice so perfectly plump, vegetables naturally juicy and chicken freshly slaughtered.

After dinner, we learned more about the way these people live. Both of our guides our native Hmong, familiar with the culture and belief system. Sowlee grew up in the mountains in a neighbouring village, but his entire village of over a hundred people migrated to the city about ten years ago. Hmong people are said to originate from China while Khmu come from near Cambodia, and now both inhabit remote elevated locations in Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Laos. We learned of their animist beliefs, where the village Shaman heals illness rather than Western medicine. 
Khmu village (Khmu houses are built up while Hmong are built on ground level)

Their homes are very basic with dirt floors and bamboo or straw structures, though each tribe has their own style of construction. Each village usually has one or two sources they've rigged up for running water, though occasionally if it gets blocked up they must hike hours to fix it. The hill tribes are self-sufficient; they hunt for their food, grow their vegetables, raise farm animals within their village and harvest rice paddies. They don't typically deal in money, though they must pay taxes to the Laos government. They rarely make the 5-hour trek and 2-hour drive into the city, except maybe the head of each family may travel to get supplies in town a couple times per year.

The families are very fruitful when they multiply; families of 6-12 children are the norm. Though there are village schools (if not in their own village then children might hike 1-2 hours to attend the nearest Khmu or Hmong school), they do cost a minimal fee. Often families cannot afford to send all of their children so they must choose which of their children will stay behind to help work in the fields.

Without electricity, the villagers go to bed very shortly after dinner, as they rise around 4 am to begin working. We too crawled into our sleeping bags following the schedule of the sun. 

The next morning, we had the opportunity to visit a school on our trek out of the village. The school consisted of a very basic bamboo hut, wooden benches and a chalkboard. When we arrived it was break time, and fellow trekker, Julian from Argentina, saved the day with his diobolo skills.

Julian the diobolo master and his Hmong fan club 
When the students were eventually ushered back into the classroom, we were offered the opportunity to make a guest appearance teaching. Being a "retired" English teacher, I figured I'd step up to the plate and have some fun with the kids. These students study in Laos (since some schools are mixed Hmong and Khmu people) and English is not part of their curriculum. Although I was only in front for about fifteen minutes, teaching a classroom full of students with their eyes popping out of their head with interest reminded me just how enjoyable it can be to teach people who want to learn, what often felt like a rarity in Thailand.
We made just one more stop to a third Hmong village after a couple more hours of trekking. Here, Julian's diobolo show once again attracted a flock of the village people.

After Julian's show, the entire village stayed to watch us devour each grain of rice along with our pumpkin curry lunch. In any other situation, having 20-30 people watching you eat seems a bit uncomfortable. But, it was at this moment that I realized just how foreign and interesting we were to these people (clearly, they have no television - we were the sitcom!) Any inhibitions I previously had about making the kind village people feel uncomfortable or "zoo-like" went away when I realized they were just as fascinated, if not more, in our alien selves as we were with them.

A few more hours of trudging through thick mud and we finally made it out near a different remote river. Since our ride wasn't able to make it due to the muddy roads, we used a form of hitch-hiking and walking to finally reunite with our driver and eventually civilization.
Although it was only a brief taste of village tribe life, it was an enlightening and memorable experience. My only regret, since having had my camera stolen in Cambodia, was not having a proper camera in one of the most opportune photography opportunities I've ever had. Having got a new iPod thanks to travel insurance, I was able to snap some shots that I hope tell the story better than I could.
Both village adults and children enjoy taking and seeing their photos; 
they don't have mirrors and never see themselves otherwise
Boys with their homemade tops game
Massive spider in the jungle 
Farm animals live amongst the villagers

This lovely grandmother is a shocking 82 years old. Despite the hard life they live
and lack of Western medicine, the natural food and lifestyle keeps them healthy.
Ladies working hard harvesting rice

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