Trekking amongst the Akha people
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
Lao airlines has been criticised for not meeting international air-safety standards, and has been slowly trying to improve over recent years, gradually replacing its fleet of ancient rusting aircraft. Despite this we are keen to take a flight as it will take at least 2 days to travel up to the North of the country by bus. From what we've heard from other travellers, the road journey is a nightmare in tatty overcrowded buses and since we only have a 15-day visa we agree that flying will be the best option
The flight proves to be a smooth and enjoyable one as we gaze out on the countryside spread below us. We see huge brown rivers snaking across a wild and green mountainous landscape. There are few roads to be seen and we rarely make out signs of human habitation. We fly over precipitous limestone mountain scenery with rich jungle covering the lower slopes and sparse vegetation on the steep sided summits. Occasionally we fly over a valley which has terraced rice fields and other signs of agriculture.
Laos only has a population of 5 million, and most of them are rice farmers dwelling in the countryside. A significant proportion are not Lao people, but come from other minorities such as the Akha, and we hope to find out more about this tribe by trekking through their villages.
On the plane I see that everyone falls into one of three camps: tourists, NGO staff, or Lao people. The tourists are easy to spot because they are grubbily dressed and have backpacks. The staff working for NGO's wear smarter clothing and have 'proper' luggage. On our flight there are no Lao people except for the pilot.
We land in Louang Namtha and take a tuk tuk for the 10 minute journey to the centre of town where there are plenty of guesthouses. We check in to the 'bus station hotel' for the princely sum of 30,000 Kip (GBP 1.50).
Since its only midday we decide to walk around a bit to find out about the local trekking possibilities and determine whether it might be better to head up to Muang Sing, 55km north. We bump into a cowboy-hat wearing gentleman, called Matthew MacDonald, who gives us a quick orientation and lets us know where the main sites in the village are.
All trekking in the Muang Namtha district has to be organised with an approved guide, because the government is supposedly concerned about camera totting tourists wandering through ethnic villages taking loads of photos and not giving anything back to the village inhabitants. We pop into the local trekking office to see what possibilities there are. The information available is poor, and the man on duty can't clearly tell us the difference between the two day and three trek. There are no decent maps of where we can trek. We see a pie chart indicating how the money we pay for the trek will be divided, and as far as we can see most of it seems to go to the government agency running the trek, with only 6% given to the Akha villagers providing meals, and somewhat less for accomodation
Puzzling over the pie chart, we stop at a roadside cafe and the owner tells us that he only has one dish on the menu: Foe noodles. Despite this, the food is delicious: a bowl of hot rice noodles in spicy soup base, a spoonful of ground meat over the top, and a big plate of fresh greens including mint, watercress, lettuce, and basil, with a slice of lime. We chop up the greens and add them to the bowl of noodle soup and squeeze the lime juice over the top - delicious. All this for just 6,000 Kip (GBP 0.30) each.
After completing our little tour of the town we bump into Matthew again at the Panda restaurant where he is enjoying a drink and writing copious notes. It turns out that he runs his own charity to protect the Akha, called the Akha Heritage Foundation, and he's writing up the latest edition of their regular communique.
Click here to jump to Matthew's sensationalist web page
We ask him about the pie chart we've seen in the trekking office which sets him off on a long and somewhat shocking explanation of how the Akha are being exploited in various ways
Despite the dark conversation, we decide to head up to Muang Sing next day to take a look around, and see whether a trek is worthwhile.
Next morning we are just in time to catch the 8am Songthaew (a truck with two rows of seats facing each other) for the 55km journey. We throw our gear on the roof and squeeze onto the bench seats. After about 10minutes on the road there's a loud pop as one of the tyres bursts. Everyone spills out on to the roadside for ten minutes while the driver quickly and efficiently replaces the wheel. I remark that he looks as though he's done it many times before. After another hour or so, we grind to a halt again with another puncture, this time in the painful knowledge that there is no spare. After hanging around for patiently about an hour, trying in vain to chat to the locals, the 9am truck passes us and lends us a spare
Muang Sing guesthouse is nothing exciting but provides a reasonable bed for 40,000 Kip (GBP 2.00) per night. Across the road in the cafe we try some local food specialties, including the eggplant jeow, a tasty ground up paste of aubergines, chile, lime, and corriander which is eaten as a dip with sticky rice.
In the corner of the cafe we spot a flyer for a new 'Akha Experience' trek that is just starting sponsored by GTZ (a German NGO) and Excitissimo (a eco-tourism company). It sounds to good to be true: 3-day trek; starting tomorrow; photographer involved to take publicity photos; all proceeds to the Akha; price reduced to USD$30 from USD$70 on account of photographer being present. We both look at each other and wonder if there's a catch and if not, any chance there will be spaces left.
We follow the directions down to the plush GTZ offices to meet our contact Meike, who is in charge of eco-tourism. Meike tells us there are still spaces and explains more about the trek and how it has taken over a year to set up. We are not surprised about it taking a year when we learn that there are 8 villages involved, and the two villages where we will overnight have built new eco-lodges on the outskirts to accomodate the tourists. Its amusing to read the honest Germanic literature: 'everything in the lodges is a genuine Akha experience except the solar heated hot water, showers, flushing toilet, thick matresses, mosquito nets, pillows, blankets, filtered water, photovoltaic cells for electricity, electric lights'; etc, etc. These meagre luxuries do not put us off in the slightest, and after Rachel has quizzed Meike a bit more on the subject of distibution of the proceeds, we head back into town high on serendipity. Our only puzzling moment was when we asked if we could give two mosquito nets we have to one of the villages and Meike said that she wasn't sure. Why wouldn't she encourage us to donate them when malaria is still a major problem within the Akha villages?
Next day we get collected at 8.30am outside our guesthouse, and meet fellow trekkers Juan (a Mexican photographer for, amongst other things, National Geographic), Rich and Rena (a retired American couple from California), and Kees the official photographer (Dutch of course - but now living in NZ). Our guide is Jan, who used to be a Buddhist monk for 9 years, before working in a restaurant, and then moving into trek guiding. We also have two short and stocky Akha guides: 18 years Sebu and Smiler. Trekking with us is also Bonhomme a 19 year old Akha girl who has travelled to see Akha tribes in China and is charged with sharing dance and singing culture with the local Akha tribes who have lost much over the last years
We drive a few miles out of town and turn of the main road on to a steep dirt track that winds up the mountain side. In a few moments we stop in a grassy area and get out beside a Buddhist temple. Jan explains that it is over 500 years old and contains a very important Buddhist relic: Lord Buddha's adam's apple. Soon we hike off into the lush green jungle following a trail that is sometimes imperceptible, and I am glad that we have so many guides with us. Smiler walks at the back, never smiling and completely unable to converse in English, whilst Sebu walks at the front keeping us on track and asking occasionally the only question he knows in English: 'are you tired?'. Fortunately Jan has excellent English, and Kees also provides lots of information as he has photographed the Akha over many years.
We arrive at waterfall where 3 colourfully dressed Akha, from the village we are trekking to that night, have laid out a delicious meal on a bamboo table by the river bank. The food is set on banana leaves instead of plates, and one of the boys cuts some chopsticks from a piece of bamboo. We eat sticky rice in banana leaf, various jeow's made from forest products, barbequed chicken, and other indescribable concoctions. The unusual setting, beside the waterfall, and the mouthwatering array of food, make for a memorable meal
Trekking in the afternoon is tougher as the meal weighs heavy and there are heavy rain showers. The track is very muddy and we slip a lot going down hill into the village where we will spend the night.
The lodge lives up to the expectations set in the literature, and we soon make ourselves at home. Women from the village, with brightly coloured headresses, come in and prepare the evening meal on open fires set on an earthen hearth of the lodge floor. We wander through the village at sunset and see people returning from the fields after a days work. Children are everywhere, dressed in grubby clothes, and very shy of the camera. A man sitting on a buffalo arrives in the village and offers me a ride. I am nervous when I look down on its stocky back and heavy horns; it feels as though it could throw me off and trample me in an instant.
We go into the chiefs house and take a look around. The Akha houses are wooden constructions built on stilts which makes sweeping out easy and makes it harder for pests to get in. Cooking hearths are the centre of the room and the smoke dissipates through the thatched roof rather than a specific chimney
Women are nursing their babies, holding them in a sling that goes over one shoulder. Many of the married women are topless, partly for convenience in breastfeeding, and a few of the children play with no clothes on at all, some with just a T-shirt on. We notice that lots of the kids are wearing the same sweatshirt with motorbike image on front and Jan tells us that a huge consignment of these was given out by a local aid agency.
After dinner in the lodge, a troupe of young girls in full Akha dress arrive, and we are informed that we are to receive a traditional after-dinner massage. We lie on our luxury matresses as we are pounded and squeezed by the enthusuiastic teenagers. I see Kees has persuaded his masseuse to walk up and down his back, and I decide to stick with the conventional approach. I'm just starting to get used to it when it finishes abruptly and the girls file out again.
We are told that there may be some singing and dancing to be seen on the edge of the village, so we walk blindly in the dark towards the sound of singing beyond the lodge on the edge of the jungle. The unmarried girls and boys are singing songs to each other. Traditionally, after a time they would then pair off with each other, each boy having a tiny 'love shack' where he could take the girl of his choice. We saw these little thatched batchelor houses one the edge of town when we were walking around earlier in the day
Bonhomme tries to teach the locals a new song and dance about the lifecycle of cotton, from planting to weaving. Theres a lot of laughing and joking around and it looks like it will take many more visits before they get it. The sky is clear and we see shooting stars flash across the milky way and disappear behind the tree-lined hills. We decide to make an exit leaving the youngsters to themselves. Back in the lodge we hear the sound of distant laughter and we wonder if anyone will end up in the love shacks tonight.
Next day the local ladies cook up a great breakfast and afterwards we wander through the village looking at life. We continue our trek and find a family busy cutting rice on a hillside. It seems a tough job in the heat and humidity, and reminds me of summers spent cutting weeds in pasture fields in Scotland. The Akha slash and burn the forest to create rice growing areas, this is not an ecological problem since the scale is small and its not the magnitude of full-on logging activities. Nonetheless the Lao government are planning to ban this traditional method of agriculture in the near future.
We trek to a very poor village where we eat lunch in the chief's house. Its very cramped and dusty and several of the elders who accompany us appear, from their glazed expressions, as though they could be opium addicts. A contributor to Akha poverty is that one of their traditional cash crops, opium, is now illegal to sell and grow. Nonetheless the villagers still use it medicinally, and of course some continue to smoke it
In the afternoon we wander through several other villages, enjoying the amazing photo-opportunities presented by a life so radically different from our own. In most villages, the children dash screaming when a camera is pointed at them. In one village, where tourists regularly come in by minibus, the locals ask for money to have their photo taken. Although there's no harm in asking for money, we can see that as soon as tourists start descending on the villages, the character changes, and innocence is lost. We wonder if its even right to have eco-tourism at all in these villages and whether we should be here.
Later that day we see cotton being picked by Akha girls in a field near a village. Its the first time I've seen what cotton actually looks like growing on the wild. Fairly shameful I think to myself as I've been wearing cotton clothes all my life.
In the evening we arrive at the second lodge and enjoy the sense of deja-vu as the evening's activities unfold. Last thing at night though, many of the locals gather in the lodge and we enjoy a song and dance with them
As we walk out of the village the next day, we see a construction beside the road covered in wooden AK47 gun replicas. Jan explains that this is the 'spirit gate' where the spirits of the dead and unborn pass into and out of the village, and we should not touch it. The Akha people are animists, not Buddhists like most Lao, and perform many rituals to please the spirits. Amongst these are slaughtering a pig that gives birth beneath a house, infanticide of twin babies by smothering them with ashes (now illegal), and sacrifice of a pig before the rice harvest (the meat is not eaten).
We come across some people separating the rice grains from the straw in one field. The scene is probably similar to what one would have seen in England 1000 years ago. One of the men lets me take a shot at threshing the grain and I enjoy seeing it fly off the straw and into the huge pile growing on the mat beneath.
We pass through several more villages, and before we know it we are at the end of the trek
We jump into a pick-up heading back to Muang Sing, and say good-bye to various fellow trekkers and guides as they go their seperate ways. Jan advises us to take a Songthaew to Muang Namtha that evening, otherwise we may not be able to get to our next destination, Louang Phabang the day after, because travelling by road in Laos is so slow. We head down to the bus station only to find the last Songthaew already departed, so we plod over to the guest house by the bus station and collapse in the comfy room (25,000 Kip or GBP 1.30 per night).
In the morning we walk over to the bus station and jump on a Songthaew going back the 55km to Muang Namtha (17,000 Kip or GBP 0.90 each). 31 passengers are squeezed onboard the 20 seat capacity vehicle. I get a seat but Rachel has to sit on a bag of rice on the floor. There are 5 Chinese business men on board who smoke cheap cigarettes and spit incessantly much to the disgust of all the other passengers. Fortunately there are no break downs and we arrive back in Muang Namtha in time for a late breakfast, with an hour to spare before the midday bus to Oudomxia. Oudomxia is as far down the road as we think we will make it en route to Louang Phabang.
We head back to the Panda restaurant for brunch and find Matthew MacDonald busily writing his Akha journal where we left him four days previously
On the bus to Oudomxia, I remark that politics between aid agencies, NGOs, and Missionaries is probably just as fraught as in any company I've seen. Then again its probably true wherever there are Money, People and Egos involved
The bus is full but at least we have a seat. The one other westerner, Gordon the Fireman from Ayrshire, sits next to us in the back seat, and chats away to us, helping to while away the hours. We only have one major delay where roadworks cause a one hour rest by roadside. We roll into roadside strip of Oudomxia after 6 hours on the road and just 138km covered. We take an expensive room at the Chinese run guesthouse nearest the bus station for 60,000 Kip (GBP 3.50), and we are delighted to find our room has a TV. After dinner in one of the many roadside cafe's we watch Die Hard 2, falling asleep to the sound of Bruce Willis running around shirtless and shoeless, firing a machine gun in a burning towerblock.
Next day we jump on the 8.30am bus to Louang Phabang, looking forward to being in civilisation. It is, so we've heard, the nicest, most laid back town in Laos. The bus journey is slow, but we arrive there only an hour late around 2pm in the afternoon. Little do we know, there's some real Bruce Willis action just waiting for us.