Dec 19, 2006

Going for a walk

(or how some children walked the legs off me)

Moonrise over Nambo

The proposed trek that the tourism officials suggested was no more than some names on a scrap of notebook paper and some squiggly lines between them. Their idea of a map. The parts that caught my attention were the number of hours walking, the fact that most of the walk was through old growth and that we would end up twenty kilometres down the road. OK the fact that it was way cheap didn’t hurt either.
The next morning I learned that neither Dooee the English teacher nor Sak the manager of the office would be acting as guide but rather a third party Si Phan who had just finished “English” school. "It will be great", volunteered Dooee, “he learns English and you learn Lao” Sak also wrote the names of the villages we were headed for on a piece of paper which Si Phan carefully folded and stored in his pocket.

Jim Henthorn's topo maps of SEAsia Click on the link to see the map.

Muang Long can be seen in the upper left quadrant, Vien Phou Kha as it’s spelled right centre. Many of the rest of the towns have come and gone since then. These maps are often decades out of date.

I asked and was reassured by Sak, yes we would be hiring local guides at each villiage. Sak also told Si Phan to buy a couple bottles of water, some candles, lunch, and get a knife. I offered the use of my Swiss army knife but Dooee was insistent that Si Phan get a big knife. Dooee even made Si Phan exchange the kitchen knife he got for a large machete. Great for lions, tigers, and stumbling over the odd meth lab I thought.

Although the area was until recently a major opium growing region and a lot of amphetamine travels through on it’s way from labs in Burma just across the river, all in all I felt this part of Laos to be extremely safe. It’s very rural.

Out of town we cut steeply up a hill to the East for half an hour then joined a seldom used dirt road. I asked Si Phan his age, “twenty” he said, “ever been to these villages before?” “no”. Getting more interesting all the time I’m thinking.

All our conversation is in Lao. When two people are native speakers of different languages they quickly sort out which one who speaks better and use that one to converse. Somehow the connections in the brain used to speak need to be hardwired before speech will emerge, it’s different than memorizing vocabulary or grammar. My son learns whole expressions at a time.

The first of many leeches

When we stopped I picked a nice fat leach off my foot and shook five more out of my shoe. Over the next few days I continued to pick them off me at first with haste, later with a lazy flick of the finger, and still later only if I had the energy.

The trail continued to rise steadily following the remnants of an old road cut, side hill to a large mountain, all the while a big tributary of the Nam Ma could be heard downhill and to our left. We seemed to be gaining elevation and heading south and east, kind of away from our eventual destination of Xiengkok. The trail was very good for walking, no sudden steep sections, traveled enough to keep it from being overgrown but not near enough to make it rocky. For a little while there were the double tracks of a four wheel drive, then only the tracks of a lone motorcycle with off road tires, and once in a while footprints other than our own, lots of cows. The cows are small skinny and scamper around more like goats.


At first I made an attempt to ask the names of the trees and memorize them. After a while I shut up and just tried to walk. Our pace was pretty brisk, probably well over two miles an hour, and with only a gentle grade and light packs we were eating up the miles. The trees, ferns and bamboo were larger than anything I’d seen before. The fronds from the ferns were up to eight feet long and the bamboo bushes could be thirty feet high and with their drooping stalks could encompass an area sixty feet across. I kept expecting to see a dinosaur. Once in while a large tree would rise above the canopy to heights of well over a hundred feet, fully two feet in diameter at forty five feet those trees had enough wood for a lot of fancy end tables in Japan or the USA.

After three hours we broke for ten minuets. I kept waiting for the tracks from the dirt bike to stop but they didn’t, at a couple of the stream crossings I’m sure they had to get off and manhandle the thing. The trail became much smaller once we got further than a leisurely couple hours walk away from Muang Long. I assumed we were too far for most people to bother with the walk to go shoot a squirrel.

After six hours we came to Nambo a village comprised of both Lahu and Hmong peoples. I figure by our pace and by the map it was at least 10 or 12 miles NE of Muang Long up out of the Nam Ma drainage and on the ridge looking down towards the Nam Pha river which flows south of Viongphuka and enters the Mekong somewhere below Xiengkok.

Ban Nambo

My guide Si Phan was at first hesitant to approach the headman’s house as good manners oblige us to first ask his permission to stay in the village. Of course after a brief initial confusion at seeing a falang we were very welcome and invited in.

There were also a couple other visitors perhaps from another village, and our presence only served to liven the party which had already begun. Eight or ten guys were sitting in a circle doing competitive shots of lao lao. They were already drunk. I’m kind of slow on the drinking and drugs in my late middle age, not for lack of desire, just lazy. After a few refusals and “sun saaps” I excused myself and went out to take a look around.

Si Phan soon joined me outside and we took a walk over to the Hmong side of the village. When we returned the party had moved on and gotten louder. I noticed too that the smell was still there.

At first I thought maybe the smell was of too many sweating drunks in too close a proximity, now I had other ideas. Our host Allii was touching a piece of pork fat on the inside of a dry hot wok. He was then removing the hair. Supper was the outside inch of a pig, the part with all the fat and gristle, and skin. Allii would rub the hairy side against the very hot wok then pull tufts of hair out. I thought the smell was of singed pig hair.

Later I changed my mind again and thought it might be some kind of unusual spice. You might well imagine if I first thought the smell was from drunks, and then burnt pig hair, that I was having a hard time warming to this spice.


There were a whole lot of pigs running around the village. The people looked pretty well fed, no skinny children here. I saw other families carrying their own pieces of pig skin away from the house across the way. I think someone kills a pig and the village shares it until it’s gone, then they kill another. I had a bowl of rice served up by Nangpen, Allii’s wife, and I put a lot of salt on it to help me retain water. I also drank as much boiled water as I could hold and went to sleep covered in the blanket supplied by Nangpen.

Later I was woken by terrible shouting and cursing from the house next door, followed by the sound of falling and bumping. Big drunken brawl with all the lao lao drinkers.

Nangpen's kitchen

I woke up again around five in the morning to the sound of Nangpen resuscitating the fire from the coals and putting the kettle on. I too got up as is my habit to rise early. I borrowed some hot water and made instant coffee that I had brought with me.

As soon as it was light I went out to take a look around, as usual it was the children who were least shy and most curious. After a while adults also started to ask me questions using very limited Lao. There was a school in the village but very few people seemed able to speak Lao. I think Thai Lu was the lingua franca of the neighbourhood and although similar to Lao it is often impossible for a lowland Lao person to understand. And remember, Thai Lu took a distant third place in importance with these folks to Lahu or Hmong.
I don’t know if there was a cultural taboo about telling someone your name. I spoke most with Allii and Nangpen’s eldest son but he seemed reluctant to tell me his own name. Perhaps he realized I would splash it across the web. I showed him how to take pictures and he took this portrait of yours truly.

Ugly unshaven falang tourist.

I in turn took this picture of him and his eldest son.

Eldest son and eldest son.

I’m not sure of the status of women in Lahu society. After dishing into my bowl of rice at dinner, and after all the other men had eaten the pork and rice and soup, then Nangpen, and the other women, and the children ate. I at once felt very sheepish not to have noticed that they hadn’t eaten yet. I felt very glad that there was plenty of meat and rice in the village. In our society it is usually women and children first.
I do know that women marry very early. Probably soon after reaching puberty as in most of the world. I didn’t see any women who looked over the age of 15 that didn’t have children.

Young Proud Mom

Immediately the trail became very different. Whereas yesterday we had been on a gently uphill sloping path that saw enough travel to keep the brush cleared well back, today’s trail after we passed the pig and cow barriers was quite over grown. Being the slowest I went in front, I call it the snake catcher position. I couldn’t see anything underfoot as the grass and weeds had so over grown the trail. Often I couldn’t see the trail either and followed it as much by guesswork as anything else.

After an hour or two we passed the distance that most hunters were willing to walk and our local guide went in front and hacked at the bamboo or creepers so that we could easily pass and so he too could come back this way. Side hill seemed especially treacherous as the path was just steps kicked in the dirt and they often gave way or were sloughed off already. The hills were often the steepest thing on which I’ve ever seen dirt and plants growing, and any rocks we kicked loose kept on rolling until fetched up by a bush or tree.

Local Guide

I liked the local guide for the fact that he was a hunter. He was good at communicating with a look or a nod while walking and we walked fairly quietly through the old growth jungle. Both guides walked without talking and I appreciated it. I don’t know why but many of us first worlders can’t stand to not talk for a few minutes or hours. At this point I was still wearing a sandal type thing popular in the US right now and Si Phan’s new very expensive running shoes were getting plenty dirty. I noticed our local guide was wearing a very nice pair of European casual dress shoes with a rubberized sole and lightweight leather upper. Great for walking.

I was impressed with the quality of a lot of the clothes worn by people and after seeing the piles of second hand jackets, pants, shirts and shoes sold by the Chinese traders I knew where things came from. Donated second hand clothing.

The guide was also carrying a long barrelled rifle, or to be more precise a gun as I doubt the barrel had rifling in it. It had some sort of homemade spring and hammer. I thought he stuck a small flint in the mechanism to strike the spark. After the powder he slid a piece of metal into the barrel and let it slide down hard a couple of times to tamp the powder down, then he slid an oblong bullet tapered at both ends and about the size of a 22 down the barrel and that was that. The bullet rattled as it slid down the barrel, not such a tight fit.

Gun (note the cool bag made out of a plastic rice sack to carry stuff in)

I would assume they don’t shoot at anything much over sixty feet away, it seemed that in the thick jungle the only animals we would flush were very close. The one time the hunter thought he had a shot at a bird he held the gun at full arm extension and sighted down the barrel. I think he was shy of catching the flash from the powder in the face. The but of the rifle is fairly short.

We seemed to be vaguely following a ridge line. Sometimes up sometimes down, often across as the trail tried to maintain elevation. Towards the early afternoon we came upon a real trail and then abruptly we descended into a the clearing of a village. It was silent and empty except for a couple of guys with a campfire in the shade of a partially fallen down house. I noticed our guide stashed his gun under some bushes so as not to walk up on the strangers armed. The trail in the other direction led to Muang Long five hours away.

Abandoned Jakun

Most of the town, I call it Old Jakun, had been left to rot back into the forest. Usually when a village moves they take the houses with them. They leave the roofing and bamboo but take all the beams. Hill tribe houses are post and beam construction without the benefits of up and down saws let alone a sawmill to cut boards. Everything is flattened using broadaxes. Very nice work too, it must take many hours of careful labour. I don’t think they know about the adze, or maybe they do such careful work with what they have they feel they don’t need it. Many of the posts and beams look like they have been used for different functions in the houses other incarnations. I just assumed that much of the wood had made it through a few generations of moving as it is very dark from smoke.

I was told that much of the village had moved to Muang Long, and the other part had moved to what I call for lack of a better name Jakun. The abandoned town had been our original destination and called Jakun, I’m not sure if that was the name of the town we ended up in.

After a short break our guide left to return to Nambo and we started downhill, the trail led quickly down and then some more and some more still. At first we tried to jog trot as we had been periodically with the guide when conditions allowed it. The downhill never let up though and eventually we would have to slow to regain our muscles. The trail continued in very good condition, no doubt the most common destination of the villagers was to head to Muang Long. Probably relatives and old friends from the abandoned village keeping in touch or people headed in to sell or buy.

Young Akha hunter with bird traps and long gun

We ended up going downhill for almost 3 hours without let up. We were headed down into the drainage of the Nam Pha. Even though the temperatures were always cool under the thick trees the ground seemed to attract the water in the air and plants and even the ground was constantly wet. Once I started to walk the sweat kept me constantly soaked. 100% humidity.

Jakun was an Akha village. Known for being one of the most marginalized of the hill tribes I found the small “ban” as it’s called in Laos to be fairly prosperous and organised. The women all still wore traditional head dresses but they always do. Being so far from town probably not many villagers have been in to any of the valley towns that are connected to the road system and the rest of the world. It must be seven hours even for them. The town had no noticeable trash or plastic. Most things were made of wood.

Banana Flower

Dogs barked and were driven off by owners. We asked for and got directions to the headman, Lapao’s house. By the time we got there we had attracted the attention of most people in the village and perhaps twenty or more crowded around as we presented ourselves at his steps. We were invited up on to the porch and given cool water. A woman came up and I recognised the words sep dah. Her eyes stung, the same words my son uses when soap is in his eyes. The middle aged woman thought that because I was a westerner that I would have medicine to cure her. I told her I had none, nor any knowledge, and suggested she walk to the hospital in Muang Long.

I wonder if she will go blind from some untreated disease. If I had to generalize I’d have to say this town was more prosperous than Nambo even. Everyone well fed that I could see. The houses were bigger and more solid. There were many separate small houses for animals and all the houses had fences to keep animals out or in. There was no school. No one could read or write. A few people could speak some Lao.

Some one had started cooking as soon as we arrived and we were invited in to eat. I think this was mostly for hospitalities sake as we were the only ones eating. The food was very tender pieces of pig fat cooked in peppers, and an excellent Som Pak without the sesame seeds but plenty of ginger. Very quickly Si Phan my guide from town asked if I were full and we thanked the headman for the food and began talking about the route for the next day.

Smoke from the cooking fire making it’s way out of the thatched roof. The houses have no chimneys and cooking is done using wood for fuel. The split bamboo floors, walls, and thatched ceilings allow plenty of ventilation and the houses don’t seem unduly smoky.

It seems there were many river crossings of the Nam Pha that Si Phan didn’t want to do. The descriptions of the waters depth rose from waist deep to shoulder height to over the head. That night Si Phan asked me if I knew how to swim. I’m not sure what the aversion to the trail by the Nam Pha was. I suspect the local guide, whom I nicknamed Rock Star because he dressed like a crooner from the Lao music videos, didn’t want to go there. The headman Lapao and the other older men seemed unconcerned about the route.

Perhaps the route was dangerous. It’s hard to tell when you are trying to eavesdrop in a language that you barely can ask directions in.

It was interesting to watch the interaction of the people within the house. There were perhaps 15 or 18 people living in that one large house. The sons all seemed to look alike and ranged in ages from 25 down to 8 or 9. There were two married women and a couple three unmarried girls. The teenage girls were very timid of looking at me and would peek from outside the door, hiding if I looked in that direction. Seems my reputation had preceded me. People seemed very kind and courteous in their interactions, with everyone pitching in to help with the children and the cooking. I was happy to see all ate at the same time.

I made little effort to look around the village concentrating instead on drinking as much hot water as I could. I was worried about leg cramps that I often get from too much exercise and not enough water. Sure enough after I had been off my feet for an hour or so one came. They are very painful. Si Phan tried to rub it out and then went to take a shower. I tried to lie still and wait for it to go. After a while people returned and Si Phan asked me if I’d like a massage from the women.

I wish I could tell you I got a massage from the young teenage girls but actually it was the headman’s wife and the oldest son’s wife. Many years of chopping wood and carrying water were obvious when they attempted to separate my muscles from each other and my bones. The massage was often painful but I realized that what they were doing might well avert another cramp and also give me the best chance of regaining strength for the next days walk.

I had a difficult time asking Si Phan at first how many other westerners had visited these villages. He kept on repeating the word “tou-ah” which sounded strange instead of the word for people or Caucasians. Eventually I figured out he meant there had been three other tours. There you have it! I thought with a smile, I go on a tour, I am now an official tourist as apposed to all those travelers in the tourist versus traveler argument.

Jakun in the early morning mist.

The other groups, two of two people, and one of three people had all come when the abandoned villages were still there, and therefore the walking would have been shorter. By the look of the trails and the state of decay in the villages it must have been at least a year ago that anyone had trekked in the area, more likely a couple years or more.
The rock star local guide came by and invited Si Phan to “pai lin” or go play. There was drinking of lao lao going on in one of the houses close by. The drinking this evening also seemed to be of the competitive shot downing variety but by a much younger age group, teens and young twenties of both sexes. I could hear the girls “whooo whooo” ing as one or the other would take a shot.
Most of the people of the household stayed home and talked about things with the mom seeming to lead the discussion. The headman sat furthest from the fire and seldom took part as his thoughts seemed elsewhere. A lot of responsibility making decisions that affect the very lives of the over 200 people that you have known all your life. Even if mortality rates are only normal that’s four deaths per year at 2%. I saw posters from the government on safe methods for drinking water, and waste disposal, as well as mosquito nets in every house. The headman told me that currently there was no malaria in the village.
What of his decision not to move to town yet I thought. I’d heard that the villages were accepting the governments offers too quickly and there wasn’t enough infrastructure to accommodate them. On the other hand the hill tribes were being compensated for half the price of the new village, and they actually were building them using free labour and locally available materials from the forest. The extra cash could be used to buy electric fixtures and lighting and other manufactured goods. The new towns were on the electric grid. The children could go to school and there would be some sort of medical care available.

The flip side of the equation was that often the move was very disruptive. Annual mortality rates were said to rise as high as four or five percent outpacing live births. Would there be enough land left for them to grow the intensively cultivated sticky rice that requires a controlled water supply and flat land. What of the loss of their cash crop, the opium? I’d hear the government official talk of crop substitution but the crop he was talking about was ginger sold to Chinese wholesalers at twenty cents a kilo. The current price for opium seems to vary from $200 to $500 dollars and is accepted as cash everywhere.

I have no idea what route to the modern world is best for the hill tribes. I do predict that whatever they do it is going to be disruptive to their society. The contrast between this village and the Akha villages I had biked and walked to around Muang Sing couldn’t have been more striking. Here people were friendly and welcoming, seemingly at ease with their place in the world. In Muang Sing the children had their hands out for money and the adults gave silent often suspicious looks.

The province of Luang Namtha has been the target of opium eradication efforts and there are many NGOs and other organisations with their own agendas at work in Luang Namtha, Muang Sing, and to a lesser degree the Muang Long valley. I hope they are giving their actions as much considered thought as the headman Lapao of Jakun.

The next morning I again awoke to the sound of conversation around the fire, and also of course the sound of the large foot powered coke and saht used to break the covering from the outside of the rice. I went out on the large porch and took some photos of Jakun in the thick fog that seems to hang on the mountains every morning.

Soon we were up and away at my urging. I had no idea how long or where we were going but I knew that I wasn’t the only one figuratively in the dark. I guess the decision had been made not to go down to the Nam Pha and The Rock Star carried my pack and we made as quick a time as we could back up hill the three hours we had come down the afternoon before. Because of my lack of a pack and the nights sleep I was well rested, we made almost as good a time going up as we had coming down. We got back to the abandoned town at a little after noon.

At the trail junction where one route heads back to Muang Long the Rock Star left us. Immediately we were back on an unused trail. The route in front of us led to the west along the side of the hill below a peak and eventually up and over the ridge. We no longer had the shade of old growth as this area had been cultivated by the abandoned village and the vegetation had only regrown to a height of a few feet. The trail was overgrown yet not as bad as the day before.
I seemed to tire quickly and had to take rests often, the hard walking of the past couple days as well as the steep hike of the morning had taken their toll. After a few more hours we topped out on the ridge and I took a last look back into the drainage of the Nam Pha.

Looking back at the Nam Pha

Here we found another abandoned town but they had moved close enough to take most of the houses with them. Cows had been grazing at the site of the old village and the trail seemed to lose itself amongst the meandering cow tracks. This is when we got lost.

Second Abandoned Village up on the ridge

We continued in the same direction we had been headed on through the village and tried to pick up the trail on the other side. All the trails on the far side of the village seemed to be cow tracks that ended quickly after wandering a bit. I dropped my pack with Si Phan and started working my way back and forth across the hill hoping to pick up the old trail. No luck. We went back to the abandoned village.
The time was three thirty, the choices weren’t that great. Go back to the Jakun at least six hours perhaps seven, go back to the trail junction leading to Muang Long, and head downhill to Muang Long at least eight hours. Either way we were going to be spending the night outside. We had no blankets but the nights weren’t that cold.
Not being a party to the discussions of how to go where I had no idea where the next town of Pon Sampan was supposed to be, only that it was one days walk from Xiengkok and that we could have gotten to it by crossing the drainage of the Nam Pha a few times.
We could see a piece of the road to Xiengkok in the distance and Si Phan wanted to walk to the road. I agreed although I knew walking off trail in these thick jungles would be difficult going. Getting lost wasn’t much of a worry, we were already lost, and actually the whole hillside sloped towards the road. I was as happy sleeping out on this hill as any other.
We took off steeply downhill following a cow path. The path was very steep and muddy but didn’t stop and start or meander as cows do. It was a people path. After half an hour we came to a small shack with a
woman, a baby, and four dogs going nuts. We said hi and wandered on, it must be scary to be alone on a hill and have two strange men appear. After another half hour we could see some kids cutting wood down in a cleared section. We walked to them and stopping on the trail above them stopped to talk. We asked where does the trail lead, answer, no where. Where is the trail to Muang Long? A vague waive of the hand back up the hill. Si Phan was all for starting the eight hour plus hike back to Muang Long, I said lets go to their house and see if we can buy a chicken and a place on the floor. Much rather sleep on bamboo than on the ground, also these kids seemed to know what they were about. Besides it was long past time for me to stop walking, the three long hard days were catching up with me. My but was getting seriously kicked.
The kid grabbed up my pack and a long piece of log and walked away. His sister picked up a pack basket with 35 lbs of wood.
Their house had two women which Si Phan identified as Mwee, more kids but no men. We sat a ways from the house and I played peek a boo, with the smallest kids and showed them my pull of my finger trick and my take out my eyeball and put it in my mouth trick. Everyone can relate to someone who likes kids. I then took out my digital camera and showed them the snaps of my two kids that I have on the memory card.
Si Phan was trying to negotiate with the boy to take us to a town. He seemed stuck at three dollars and the boy seemed uninterested. I don’t think he was holding out for more but reluctant to wander down the mountain. I broke the deadlock by offering five dollars plus a room for the night at the hotel and dinner. The boy said he was reluctant to go alone, I suggested he bring someone with him. Without any more discussion we were off.

The boy took my pack and his little brother without shoes came along too. I set as fast a pace as I could. Stopping only when I had to for a couple seconds breathing hard the entire time. I was the slowest and it was 2 hours by the boys reconing to a town with a road. We passed through the steep hills the family had been growing rice on using the slash and burn method. The rice was just in and stacked in large bags inside small rat proof houses, and the stalks were also out of reach of cows.
After going steep uphill to leave their little valley the trail took off smooth and downhill. We jogged. Sunset became twilight and as we reached the foot of the hills we came upon a fifty person road crew finishing their work for the day. They were carving out a track wide enough for those small one cylinder tractors they have, using the shortened wide hoes to cut into the hill, and large poles to lever out rocks.
We splashed across what I believed to be a tributary of the Nam None, in the now deepening dark we crossed and re crossed this same stream six or seven times. The water never exceeded mid thigh. By the time we hit the rice fields it was now well and truly dark. The moon that had risen two days before at dark was nowhere to be seen. I guess it gets later every day, we were also in the shadow of the mountain we had walked down.
In a while we passed a darkened house that had a stereo playing rock very loud but still no lights. Then quickly a couple houses with bare bulbs burning. The sawngthaew was seven dollars which I thought excessive until we did the drive and I found out just how far from Muang Long we were. The kids were uninterested in Muang Long but were headed back up the hill that night. I paid the eldest the agreed five dollars and another five dollars to his brother telling him to buy some flip flops, and then added in the cost of the room they would have had in Muang Long, and dinner and breakfast then took this picture with the flash.

My local guides

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