Trekking part II: Laos

Trip Start Feb 07, 2009
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7
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Trip End Ongoing


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, February 28, 2009

The guidebooks say that once you cross from Thailand into Laos it's like a breath of fresh air. I couldn't agree more. You cross the Mekong and despite surface similarities, it's obvious Laos is still very much a third world, developing nation fairly new to tourism. I decide the buck the traditional backpacker path that goes from Chiang Kong in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos and take the hard road up North. After an excellent trekking excursion in Thailand I was after a more traditional, less touristy experience that I felt would only be possible here. Our 2 day trek on the Akha trail did not disappoint. After running into a fellow solo female traveler from Australia in the ecotourism office, I opted to join her on the trek she'd chosen, though initially my plans were to go further north. It seems she was also after an authentic experience and this particular trek and area was definitely the least developed of the region. Sign me up! We ended up meeting 2 more serious trekkers with similar intentions on the minibus to our departure city, a Spanish girl and her German boyfriend, and they decided to join the same journey. Group formed, guest house found, we were ready for action.
 
Our first night in the tiny village of Vieng Phouka convinced us that we had indeed found the real deal. We were the only foreigners around, which was quite refreshing.The "city" itself had no electricity except via a few generators in certain homes, so we found the one restaurant in town and dined by candlelight. Afterwards we headed towards the only city lights, which illuminated a petanque court where the village men gathered nightly. Petanque, similar to Botchi, is quite the popular sport here in Laos. As we approached the courts for observation, they invited us over to join in the fun and immediately offered us a cup of BeerLao. Incidentally, there is a dark version of this ale that I quite like, best beer in Asia by far! We had a good time and felt right at home with these friendly townspeople and eeked out conversation slowly and deliberately. As my teammates got a bit drunker, they were rallying behind me and calling out , "Yeah, Blondie, that's good!", though I'm still not sure if they were trying to say my name or referring to my hair color.
 
As we embarked on the trail, we immediately noticed the only travelers on this Akha trail were actually Akha people, and not once in the journey did another tourist or sign of tourism cross our path. After roughly 6 hours of jungle trekking, we set up camp in the Akha village, which is one of the largest tribes in Laos recognized by their traditional dress.As we walked through the village, we began interacting with the children, who were fascinated by having their photo taken and then seeing themselves on the screen, but shied away when we tried to make physical contact. We began to wander if these innocents had ever seen a mirror in their lives. What most impressed us was the fact that most of the young girls had baby siblings on their backs, as the children sort of look after themselves during the day while the parents are out working the rice fields. Here we are, complaining about heavy packs, when these girls, barely 6 years old, have an infant to look after as their load. The village was full of children and we sang with them, played chase and exchanged greetings and smiles. My heart was warm.
 
Akha people believe in polygamy and typically have 6-10 children. We entered one house and our guide explained that the women and men sleep in separate rooms, but there's a hole in the wall near the floor mat where they sleep, so that the man can simply stick his hand through and wave the woman over when he wants to "make a baby." Incredible. We also learned about the spirit gates at the entrance and exit rimming the village to keep out the jungle spirits. We were not allowed to take photos of these, only the one that was out of use. Same for the sacred spirit tree on which they do sacrifice. Like many hill tribes, they are animists, meaning their belief system's derived from jungle spirits. Folk legend has it that previously there were no women in the village, so one had a dream and went to the jungle to get himself a wife, in effect taking a female spirit from the jungle. They erect the gates to keep out these spirits, which constantly try to come back and do harm to the village. Even if they urinate on the wrong tree, this can infuriate the spirits and make them sick, which is often the reason for an animal sacrifice.  Single women at the age of 13 are ousted from the family home and sent the rice storage just outside the spirit gate (incidentally this is also where we slept) until they marry and can re-enter the village.
 
The following morning after a fitful sleep in the hut with cows, pigs and chickens joining in a cacophonous symphony all night, I awoke to wander the village alone. I observed the women pounding the rice, the men slaughtering a pig, and the children making merry and washing clothes. I was so touched by their simplicity and warmth that I actually had to hold back tears. While we dined some local people picked up my National Geographic magazine and seemed fascinated by it, especially the pictures, which I explained to our guide and he translated for the people. I wanted to give this as a gift to the people, and suddenly I was very glad that I'd brought along this magazine in lieu of the Self magazine also in my backpack (irony abounds in this statement). Our guide, took the magazine along with toothbrushes and soap brought by the others and delivered it to the shaman. This part really amazed me. Instead of a wizened elder with elaborate headdress as we'd expected, the shaman was in fact a 35 year old fashionably dressed boy. It seems that democracy exists even in this village and he had been elected, go figure!
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