I’ve delayed writing about my last “trek” because I’m still up in the air about what it’s all about. Seeing others go through many of the same experiences I have been through helped me to reflect on my own motivations and reactions especially in regards to interactions with what we commonly call hill tribes people. On this trek I took no portraits.
From what I’ve been told the desire make a human connection with hill tribes people is experienced by many. Due to the lack of a common language we are reduced to smiles and gestures. Children find this amusing and the tourist turns from something to be curious about into something to be amused by, an object to be laughed at.
Akha man marvelling at my masculine shirt and slim physique
Photo by Emily Smith
In all of the villages we visited we were expected visitors. The guides had planned out and walked this route with other groups previously. I was told by Suk our guide, that on average probably 10 or 12 other trekking groups visit annually. Every village already had arrangements made for which house we were to stay in and the people there were familiar with the peculiarities of us falang, the downside is that you are affected by the behaviour of every other tourist who has come before you.
There was no begging that I can remember. Our guide did buy us candy to hand out to children at the beginning of the trek which we didn’t do. Emily had thoughtfully brought silver coins from Australia to hand out. The hill tribe women use them to make their head dresses. Unfortunately when she gave them to the woman next door at the first house we stayed in she was mobbed by a crush of onlookers each one wanting coins. What began as a thoughtful gift became an upsetting experience for her. The way Emily worked around the mob scene was to give her coins to the woman of the household at the house we stayed at each night. I know. An imperfect solution but better than any alternative I knew of.
The beginnings of a crush for coins
I also brought some store bought food and spices to give to the woman of the house on the way out the door. I should have realized what would be my most popular item, the MSG, I only had packages for the first two houses and of course at the third house they asked for it. It’s a great spice and costs more than salt or sugar, mountain people don’t use fish sauce. I also left small bags of whole black pepper and canned fish.
More knowledgeable people than me have said that one should only give to figures who already have respect from the villagers. The headman and the school teacher were the two examples. Typical good gifts are school supplies, tooth brushes, vegetable seeds, and textbooks. All of these items can be bought at the local market of the town one stays in before the trek. The gift not only helps the people of the village but also the small market traders of the town with whom you make your purchase.
I guess on the next trek I go on I will only give to the headman or school teacher, and only the gifts suggested. Like I said I’m still trying to figure this whole thing out. I think the idea is to avoid handing out gifts like Santa Clause.
Below is a link to a topo map of the area of our trek. Two thirds of the way down the left side is Pongsali and the Landing site “L-15” inked in. I’m not sure what kind of landing site this was or even if what I saw was the old site. Looked to me as if someone flattened a hilltop for a very short runway. I can’t think of any other explanation, you don’t need over a thousand feet to land helicopter.
Lima Site 15?
We started our trek by walking up out of town and around the hill. Within minutes we were over the shoulder of the hill and off the road. We hiked at first gently downhill. Suk cut some banana leaves for us to sit on and have lunch. Lunch was sticky rice with sausage and mandarin oranges. Suk tried unsuccessfully to nap, the day before had been a long one for him and he was tired. Worrying probably about the limited time left to the day and the big hill in front of us he was soon up and we were headed down the trail.
Early in the afternoon we crossed the first of the four rivers of the trek, the Nam Long, and headed up the hill on the opposite side. The hill we were headed up is labelled Cha Kham Sen on the map.
First days are always hard but the walking was eased by having other people to talk to. Also Emily and I hiked at about the same speed so I didn’t feel as if I were holding up the show as I had when it was only hill tribes people and myself. Suk was used to walking with foreigners and didn’t rush us but let us work out our own pace. It was pleasant to talk to other people who enjoyed walking in the hills and liked looking at trees and mountains.
Suk showed his true nature on the first day, joking around and hiding from us at trail junctions or giving wrong information about distances or directions. I know that by mid afternoon he was sure that we would make the village that night with lots of time to spare. Nonetheless he told us it would probably be seven at night and that we were about half way up the hill. We walked into the small village called Ban Jahkduh at around 4:30 in the afternoon, it was at the top of the hill.
Gin Kow Gap Pha
Suk cooked the first of many delicious dinners. He was well aware of the foreigners tastes and the meals were adjusted so that we could eat them. All the hot ingredients were on the side so we could eat them only if we wanted and we all had our own bowls and silverware as we are used to. They brought out one of those bamboo low tables for us to sit at. Basically we were cared for as if we were children, which we are comparatively.
I know how to cook all the food that was served but at home over the stove with good lights. Suk cooked in almost darkness over an open fire. Almost everyone in Laos cooks this way, even in the capital city. It never fails to impress me.
Suk even took the care to notice our moods and if we were comfortable. He showed Emily where to lay out the Thermarest she had brought so she could lay down for a while and always found a way to stick something under my fat butt so my knees didn’t hurt from the low stools we sat on. In a word a perfect gentleman.
Breakfast the next day and all days afterwards was Tom Yum flavoured instant noodles, Wai Wai brand, and instant sugary coffee with milk and mocha out of the package. It helps that Tom Yum flavoured Wai Wai is my favourite at home, I buy it by the case. After breakfast Suk returned from a walk in the woods with some fresh cut walking sticks. Although I’d never used one before I went ahead and gave it a try. It was great. I have two knees that I trashed as a young guy and now they pain me. Emily also used one and Suk carried one in keeping with his role of “Suk the Phou Noi Ninja”, Matt being a manly man didn’t need one.
Immediately after we started walking we headed down and down and down and down some more. Close to three thousand feet of downhill I estimate. At the bottom of the hill we came to a very small town of Phou Noi People, the lowlanders of the region. The village is called Sok Ngam after the junction of the Nam Ngai and the Nam Ngam, Sok meaning junction. I think it was the river junction just above the word Kham where it’s written Cha Kham Sen.
Some guys hanging around at the village asked us why we were carrying the sticks. When we explained they said walking sticks are for old women. It was so funny I had trouble hiding the laugh. The delivery was great too. Said without the tiniest smirk.
Ban Sok Ngam
From the junction of the rivers the trail went for it’s biggest uphill slog of the trek. Having walked uphill before and because of our moderate pace I didn’t mind it too badly. Besides I had Suk;s humour to make the going easier. He claims that before our trek he had never seen such a fat American that could walk up a hill. The trail followed the ridgeline towards the spot marked 1742 on the map. I’m often amazed in that the map which someone sketched a trail on from memory at least thirty five years ago is mostly accurate. Many of the towns have moved but the trails are often the same.
Somewhere very close to the top of that hill we stopped for our second night at a town called Boyee Sahng Mai. Water was close by and we all took advantage of it to wash off. Just before nightfall I walked above town to the top of the hill. The view was almost 360 degrees. I was able to make a cell phone call because of the uninterrupted signal I assume. It felt strange to talk to my wife and son who were getting dinner ready at the house we stay at in Vientiane. There were no roads or towns or lights visible to me in any direction, I knew that probably the distant hills to the east were in Vietnam and the hills to the west were China, yet here I am talking to my wife who is getting dinner ready. That was the last cell phone connection for a while.
Boyee from Above
The next morning arrived with a slight haze which soon evaporated into warm sun while the valleys stayed cold under their thick layer of fog. I think probably that is the usual weather for Pongsali which is at a fairly high elevation also. The nights are colder than the lowlands but the mornings are clear and sunny where as often the valleys don’t warm up until ten.
Fog Below Boyee
For what was one of the longer days of our walks the third day was relatively easy, an enjoyable walk along a long ridge with a stop at Boyee Sahg Gow in the late morning. I could hear the constant chopping of meat on the cutting board and I watched people stuffing intestines by hand to make sausage. I immediately thought of the meat grinder that we have at home and the new sausage press we bought last year.
I stood next to a guy listening to a short wave on top of a hill in the wind. He was listening to a voice broadcast and I didn’t recognise the language, Suk couldn’t figure it out either. The man told us he was listening to a broadcast in Akha from China.
Boyee Sahg Gow
The third night of our walk we stayed in the largest town so far called Nam Phou San Goa. The town sported a few metal roofs and I even saw rice terraces on the side of the steep side hill below it. I think this town is somewhere in the vicinity of the numbers 1223 in the upper right section of the map.
The third night at Nam Phou Sahg Gao
The owner of the house we stayed in was one of the more prosperous people in town and he and his sons spoke some Lao. While Matt and Emily rested and Suk poked around the town that afternoon I asked them about their house and things in general. One of their biggest surprises was the cost of Matt’s boots. They were flabbergasted when I told them they were probably a couple hundred dollars, I then asked Matt and he informed me four hundred which pushed them over the edge. The guys also wanted to know how old I was and what I was doing walking around the hills.
The house had a brand new roof as well as many new rafters underneath to support it, it was a large house. The roof had cost over six hundred dollars but that included the cost of the illegal Vietnamese workers who had contracted to cut the new rafters. That had me interested. It was cheaper to hire illegal Vietnamese labourers to walk a day up to the village and hang around cutting 2x4 rafters by hand with long rip cut saws than to get local hill tribe people to do the job. The job must have taken a few days.
Cutting planks with rip saws to make a boat in the river town of Wa Tai. These guys have shoulders.
Our host also had a couple of generators and a few batteries for lighting as well as a DVD player, a horse and a couple of buffalo. He was doing ok. People tend to think of hill tribe people as being one dimensional and poor, barely eking out an existence. A closer look reveals a lot more diversity of wealth. That man was selling rice.
TV and radio have brought a lot of changes to peoples view of the world. People often have a sense of geography and a basic grasp of science.
Being Saturday night, or maybe it’s that way all week, a lot of moonshine got drunk that night. I just out and out refused after one shot. Mat had a harder time refusing and paid the price.
The videos were basic Lao sing song with dancers, I like the costumes, reminds me of the sixties, wide lapels and floppy bellbottoms. It’s an acquired taste. I think Matt and Emily liked the Thai videos about poor people seeking their fortune and finding true love in the big city better. You could follow the story without understanding the words. I for one was very happy when the electricity and lights were shut off at nine.
The wind and high clouds that had begun the day before brought cold weather the next morning. There was no morning sunshine to take off the chill. We left at a brisk pace headed down into the valley headed for the Nam Ou. Being one of the larger rivers in Laos the Nam Ou was where the walking portion of our trek was to end and we were eager to get there.
After walking steeply downhill for a few hours we came to the first of many crossings of a major tributary that Suk didn’t know the name of. While telling me to be safe and remove my shoes for the crossing Suk briefly got his feet wet, I promptly advised him to be careful and remove his shoes. Matt took the wet only briefly approach as his shoes had Gore-Tex liners which of course didn’t work with holes in them. The second crossing was much worse and I removed my shoes for what remained of the five or six crossings over the next half a kilometre. No sense in putting them back on just to remove them again.
For lunch besides the usual canned mackerel we also had sausage called yaw that comes wrapped in banana leaves. It somehow keeps for a long time. Lunch was at the last river crossing after which the trail took off steeply uphill for quite a while. I was disappointed, here I thought all the work was over and we were walking up another hill. My mood brightened soon with the sight in the distance of the Nam Ou finally.
The Valley of the Nam Ou
We went down to the river and swam before dinner while watching some guys sawing planks out of trees. Looks like hard work to me, some of the fellows were pretty young too, maybe twelve or thirteen. The planks are used to make the long boats that everyone uses to fish and get up and down the river. The tools are simple but used well. They use a string line coated with charcoal, a simple block plane, a kind of keyhole cross cut saw, a chisel and a hammer.
Walking into the Phou Noi village of Wa Tai seemed almost like civilization again. The houses were more solid, like the ones in town, and there was a lot of concrete. Coconut trees and little paths between houses leading down to the river. There were also electric lines everywhere, many people have small generators powered by a propeller shaft dangled in the water. Hokey but it works.
Making a Boat
Dinner was wild pig barbequed, Suk’s finest effort yet. The house where we stayed had given us the entire upper floor to sleep in, a room big enough to sleep twenty easily. There was also a flushable scoop toilet downstairs. Suk explained that this village saw a lot more tourist traffic than the others we had stayed in because it was a good destination for the two day easy trek, in other words ride the boat there and back and not have to walk anywhere. He estimated at least twenty groups a year.
Our last day was thankfully a short boat ride to the road at Hatsa and then a long wait for the small bus to make the drive to Pongsali.
Heading down the Nam Ou