Feb 25, 2007

Second Trek into the Nam Fa Watershed

Mongla (probably old landing site LS358) as seen from below Jakune

After my Green Discovery trek I still had energy and the ambition for more. I called Tdooee but his cell phone wasn’t yet within range of a tower, as I suspected he was still trekking. When I got through the next day he said come on over.

As usual with Tdooee things were still up in the air when I arrived. He knew and I knew that he was by far the best guide in Muang Long. Not only is Tdooee the only person who speaks Akha with any degree of fluency but he is also clued in to the traditions and habits of the people which is one of the things I’m very interested in while trekking. The sticking point was his brothers upcoming wedding on Saturday. Tdooee likes to party. He sings in the band, drinks whiskey daily and is still at that magical age of mid twenties when having a good time is pretty important. It was obvious he couldn’t miss his own brothers wedding.
Tdooee pretending to work

The next day at eight in the morning when we were to leave there was a delay for a day. Somjit my guide had other duties to take care of, who knows. Tdooee offered alternatively to take me with the Europeans for a guided gawk at a Lanten village just down the road.

From the moment we got out of the minivan you could tell this type of thing wasn’t unusual for the village. The kids gathered around but there was no begging, perhaps because they were Lanten, maybe they had been taught that this wasn’t the thing to do. While we were there another minivan stopped with three foreigners to also gawk. At first appearances such a visit might seem like the typical stop and take pictures as in a zoo type thing. Having a guide knowledgeable about the village changes your perspective.

Euro Jester

We walked up the street and stopped to look at a loom where someone was weaving. One of the Europeans who works as a jester at renaissance re-enactments gave a juggling and mime show. A lot of people gathered around to watch and laugh. It’s a common enough occurrence where you are a stranger and kids are curious and amused. I’ve seen foreigners doing some pretty stupid things for kids, god knows what the kids think, I know they aren‘t laughing with. I was less put off than usual as at least this time the entertainer was doing something that he also does in the west. My goal when visiting a hill tribe village isn’t to be the focus of attention however flattering it might seem, but rather to be a quiet observer.

After a few minuets we continued our stroll up the street and I learned some things well worth the drive. I’d heard the name Lanten before but knew nothing about the people. The following is as I remember.

The Lanten have a written language similar to Chinese or Japanese. Most hill tribes I’d encountered had none. They made paper using bamboo shoots and lime. They weave their tongs (the hill tribe over the shoulder bag) in a distinctive striped pattern. They had a nice forge made using the charcoal that many use to make fires in Vientiane and also a bellows made from a large piece of bamboo and a plunger type piece of wood. The Lanten seemed a more settled community than say the Hmong or Akha.
Lanten Forge

Tdooee of course knew the headman and we stopped at his house for a chat. I liked the attitude of the Europeans while at the headman’s house, respectful without fawning, and curious as to what the relationships were between all the members of the family. While there the supervisor for the crew putting in electric poles came by marking the places to put the poles. I don’t need to say that electricity coming to Muang Long and all of the small villages in the area is a big deal.

There is no full time trekking program in Muang Long, just a very few guys with basic English skills and the willingness to go for a walk. Altogether there have only been five treks Into the large road less area East of Muang Long. Technically not within the Namha Protected Area it is still encircled by the same roads. To the west and north the road running from Muang Sing to the Mekong, and to the south and east the road running from Luang Namtha to Huay Xia. The area drains with the Nam Fa, not the Nam Ma and it’s fairly remote for being so close. I’m always amazed at how far removed one can get from a lot of things by just walking a few hours away from the road.

Tdooee took the first walk back there with at least two trekkers in 04 or 05. Somjit who was my guide for this trek took a lone 18 year old Dutch guy back there for a very quick hike in November of last year. Then I took my trek with Sii Phan when we got lost in December, and Tdooee took his second walk with three young Europeans just before I arrived. My trek was to be the fifth. Tdooee, Somjit, and myself have all been there twice now.

Me and Tree

A quick conversation with a couple of guys headed to the village that was our destination for the first night revealed an eight hours for hill tribe people type walk. For reference Green Discovery seems to double a local persons time, in Pongsali we were probably adding one hour for every two and a half, but then we were hiking pretty quickly. My guide Somjit spoke almost no Akha and all conversations were in Lao, so I could eavesdrop somewhat. No one can match hill tribe times. I like to trek to watch and learn not as a hiking marathon. Plenty of big hills where I come from in Colorado.

Seeing as we had quite some elevation to gain I figured we would be lucky to arrive half way through the night. I had a bag and ground cloth adequate for a night out but the guide didn’t. In looking at the map now I can see we had over 4 thousand feet to gain and the same amount of descent. I’d looked at the mountain from a distance across the valley the day before to get an idea of what was involved and I knew it was a good sized hill. I didn’t like starting off a trek knowing that we’d bitten off more than I could chew, especially since I’d gone on two established treks recently, one with a government tour office and one with the biggest private operator in the country. I know things don’t have to be that hard.

Phou Mon Lem, we crossed the ridge just right of the summit.

A bad attitude doesn’t do anyone any good. I decided to just see what would happen. Worst case I was still going to get a decent nights sleep even if it was a little cold. It was either that or turn around right then.

I recently bought a hooded fleece jacket that has no zipper in front and is very roomy. They custom made it up the road from where I’m staying in Vientiane for three dollars. For another four dollars they sewed a small bag out of the same piece of fleece that comes about to my armpits. The two together along with my reflective ground cloth give me the ability to get at least some sleep even on a pretty cold night out.

I also carried 3 litres of water, a change of cloths, a pair of flip flops in case my running shoes gave out, a headlamp, four pair of good socks, a kitchen knife, my reading glasses, ten single portion packages of instant coffee, (my drug) and four packages of instant noodles. A small Gore-Tex rain coat was my back up stay warm and dry when all else fails piece of gear. Also my camera.

I’d caught Tdooee making a little sketch map for Somjit the afternoon before, so I was aware that despite Tdooee’s assurances that Somjit had covered this ground before, there were unknown factors. Turns out Somjit hadn’t been up this particular trail before until it joined the regular one at Jakune Gow. What we were doing was taking a short cut directly to the point in my last trek where we had started to go wrong, visiting a new village that Tdooee had recently stayed at and finally exiting via Som Pah Yow and walking in to Xiengkok as planned a couple of months ago. The direct trail to our mid trek point of before was quite a hike.

Mongla house with expensive roof, our first night’s destination.

Somjit easily out hiked me and we traded packs. I don’t like someone else carrying my pack when we aren’t even in trouble yet but he only had one litre of water and a machete. I swallowed my pride and concentrated on walking up the hill. The old trail stayed to the top of the ridge. Overcast skies, cool temperatures and a stiff breeze made the uphill slog a lot easier. I’ve gotten stronger over the past four months and we made good time.
The forests we were walking in were all old growth for the entire trek except where there had been slash and burn. Typical of treks in Muang Long it had more resemblance to a forced march due to the distance between villages. Until there are huts built mid way to sleep in, that’s how it’s going to be. Undoubtedly some days are twenty kilometres or more. Not much time for examining plants or identifying trees. Hill tribe villages are a place where you don’t have to walk for a few hours. The upside is a window into a place and time that in another half a breath will be gone, with no more like it.
The hill tribes aren’t primitives. They have a language and a culture that is unique to each one. They work metal, they have frame houses. They are aware that there is a great big world out there, many have contacts across national boundaries within the clan group. They like electricity and tin roofs on their houses, who wouldn’t. Besides the little compact fluorescent light bulbs some also have DVD players which they power up the generators and use precious gasoline to run. Thai music videos are an essential part of life even if they don’t understand the words.

We were walking directly up the highest point around called Phou Mon Lem in Lao which means hay mountain in English. The top of the hill is unforested and always grows hay. In no way do the mountains of Laos even come close to tree line, I’d hesitate to even call them mountains, no glaciers or snowfall of any kind. They remind me of the Adirondacks or the Green Mountains in the north eastern US. They are steep. Without being cliffs they are some of the steepest things covered by dirt that I’ve ever seen. Not much chance for erosion to have it’s way, they are typically covered with some sort of plant. Often when you kick a rock off the side of the trail it keeps on rolling.

Click here for the map to the area

Find Muang Long by moving the map to the upper left. Phou Mon Lem is marked 1751. Our walk took us just west of the top of the hill, from there we walked side hill and down (southeast) to our village for the night, Mongla, which is probably at about the same place marked by the red dot LS358. An extremely old helicopter landing site from the war.
From Mongla we walked the south bank of the river half way to the bend, then re crossed to the north side, and crossed the tributary before heading up the old trail to what is marked Ban Kou. Our route actually walked along the back side of this hill a short ways to Ban Som Pan Yao. Ban Tdaw Sum was further along this ridge at the top of the second to last spur headed down to Xiengkok. The spur we followed to Xiengkok points right towards the letter “a” in Nam None. This is the site of Xiengkok old town.
Click here to see the adjacent map for reference
On any map of Laos you can see the sharp bend in the Mekong where it says “Shan State” you can even see Xieng Kok (Xiankok) written in. That big sharp bend is most of the way up the left side of Laos along the Burma border below China. The hill labeled 1156 is on both maps due to the overlap. 1156 is where we walked down towards Xiangkok from. 1156 is also the approximate location of Ban Tdaw Sum.

The trails themselves are old, often I suspect very old. I’ve noticed them cutting deeply into the dirt on the tops of hills. Villages seem to move, I’ve never seen one that was in it’s present location more than thirty years ago, but I’d wager the trails have been used ever since these hills had people.
Before the top of Phou Mon Lem we were joined by a middle aged friendly guy and a ten or twelve year old boy. The man was carrying four litres of petrol for the generator, and the boy was carrying one litre in an old bottle and a new sleeping matt. They had left Muang Long forty five minuets later than us and caught up by noon. They remained with us for the rest of the day. We had the same destination.
As soon as we began heading downhill I took back my pack and kept it except for a short stretch the next day. We paused for lunch at the first drinkable water on the downhill side of the hill. Both the hill tribe folks and Somjit drank from the small stream. I carry all my water to avoid drinking surface water if possible. I’m scared of all the parasites, from animals and humans. Last time here I drank from the streams of necessity. When I got home I took a three day course of worm pills, better safe than sorry. Three litres is just enough to allow me ten hours of strenuous exercise. We all shared lunch but I ate very sparingly. No energy to waste digesting food.
After lunch I continued to go as fast as I could. Until we hit the trail junction at Jakune Old town we were on trails that neither Somjit nor I had been on before. We were worried about how long it might take. After an hour or so we stumbled down to the trail junction. I looked at the very faint path we had followed to get lost last trek and marvelled that we had even taken such an unused trail.
Jakune Gao was the first abandoned town from my last trek to the area. We didn’t even break for a rest.
At Jakune Mai, (Jakune New Town) I walked directly to the Naibans house where I had stayed last time. Tdooee had said that he found the people of Jakune Mai not friendly. That hadn’t been my experience and I owed them a thank you for putting me up. When I’d been there before things hadn’t dried out yet, and I was still in pretty poor shape. My spoken Lao had been a lot worse. The Naiban’s wife’s had given me a massage and they’d even brought a basin of water for me to wash my legs and feet which were extremely muddy, before I slept on their clean blankets.

Naiban Jakune, yes I know I have to photo shop out the poster next to him left and right.

I figure all these villages that are a long ways off the road are still growing opium. Tdooee represents the government, his dad is a Naiban and war veteran. Probably the villagers don’t like people nosing around what is now an illegal crop. I could care less what they are growing. Opium has been the traditional cash crop for as long as anyone remembers. The soil is poor. For a people who know nothing of modern medicine it is also a lot less painful way to die of sickness. The average life span has lengthened with the decrease in malaria but I think for most life lasts maybe forty or fifty years.
The two pictures I’d sent via Tdooee had been given pride of place being tacked to the outside wall of the Naiban’s house next to the door for all to see. They are the only photos of anyone in the village. When I arrived the Naiban was shirtless and wearing the traditional hand woven baggy trousers that hill tribe men wear. His head was completely shaved except for a wisp of a topknot sticking out of the top of his head. He kind of looked like something out of a Chinese Gangster movie. Knowing more about things now I immediately asked to take his picture and promised I would somehow see that it got into his hands. Unfortunately the Naiban donned his hat and jacket for the photo. You have to remember the photo is for him not for us.
I spoke directly to the Naiban, not through an interpreter, remaining off his porch so to place myself below him. What I said was mostly about how indebted I felt over his hospitality for the last visit and that I had brought some small gifts that were very meagre but I wanted to show my appreciation somehow for putting me up last time. I’d brought him some aspirin type stuff, disinfectant for cuts, throat lozenges for soar throats, sterile cotton swabs, and some spices that I thought his wives would like. Chicken soup base, whole black peppers, shampoo, and of course a couple bags of bang nua. The medical supplies were at the suggestion of the government doctor for the area. I took a pass on the other medicines I didn’t understand, I was afraid they were antibiotics which everyone takes for the wrong reasons and in the wrong doses.

Good Sized Hill below Viongphuka as seen from Jakune

The Naiban again invited me to stay at his house but I declined saying the tourism office had made plans for me to stay at Mongla. We hurried out of town, we still had a river crossing and unknown hours of walking in front of us. I saw our local guide from the last trip also at the headman’s house, I think he is a sort of advisor. Also on the way out we saw the Shaman.
Our walking companion hadn’t accompanied us to the headman’s house and we quickly made our way downhill to the river. Waiting at the river were some young teenage boys. Soon after we took of our shoes to cross our companions from earlier in the day joined us. They had missed our exit from the village.

Young teens by the river

The Nam Fa was never deeper than mid thigh where we crossed, but the water was quick and there was a fair amount of volume. It’s easy to see how this might have been impassable in December when things were wetter. On the other side the middle aged man took off all his clothes and rinsed off. The boy retained his underwear and went for a swim. I too took off all my clothes and dove in, on the way out I wiggled for the teenagers watching on the other side. The bath felt good.

Crossing the Nam Fa

The remaining miles to Ban Mongla seemed to go quickly through the very old forest close to the river. The trees were larger than I’d seen before on this side of the Namha Protected Area. As we walked through the beginning of the village my guide asked the middle aged man we had been traveling with for the day how to get to the Naiban’s house. The man replied “follow me, I am the Naiban”.
The Naiban had recently married his second wife. I thought she was a friend of his wife’s. I caught on as he started explaining how there were too few husbands in the village and some of the men had needed to take second wives. Right. I’ll try that on my wife. Actually the two wives seemed to get along very well. I wouldn’t be surprised if the older wife had a lot to do with choosing the second one.

Second Wife of Naiban Mongla

As I started to jot down my notes in my notebook his youngest son came over to watch and I showed him my sons picture. They are about the same age. The son called the Naiban over to take a look and he also looked at my other two pictures, one of the kids and my wife posing in the water at the beach and another of my wife kissing our daughter and smelling her neck. Babies smell nice. The Naiban looked at the kissing picture a long time even though you can’t see anyone’s face. I think everyone in the world loves kids, especially babies.
The next morning while out on the porch the Naiban and his second wife eagerly posed for photos. Being the most important personages in the village it makes a lot of sense. A lot more than photos of kids or chickens.

Naiban Mongla

Dinner consisted of one very thin chicken, I mixed the soup with the left over sticky rice and ate a lot. Other people waiting devoured the remainder of the chicken stew quickly. Not much food in the village. Dinner had taken a long time to get together also. My guide Somjit was only twenty three or four and reticent in the presence of important peoples. My instant noodles were the only breakfast which is fine by me. For lunch Somjit took left over mountain rice from the night before and left over barbequed duck from the day before.
We left at eight, not as early as I’d like but better than most treks. After an hour along the river we crossed it, on the other side we chatted to two men carrying two gallons of homemade whiskey and headed in to Muang Long. They quoted a regular time to our destination of four hours.
When we started walking again it was with a feeling of the pressure being off. The day before we had done eight hours in nine and a half. We hadn’t taken breaks except fifteen minuets for lunch and we’d moved as quickly as possible. A four hour walk shouldn’t take us longer than six I reasoned. Somjit wasn’t so sure, he remembered having a hard time when he had walked this trail before. It did go up. The grade was more like I am used to in Colorado, uphill without fooling around. The two men from the village were in great shape and when I stepped around them to get in the back they quickly left us.

I had at first thought the guys were carrying gasoline for a generator, same type bottle as yesterday. When Somjit explained they were off to sell whiskey in town I asked more questions. How much do they sell a litre of whiskey for? One dollar US. Why would someone go to Xiengkok to take the tuk tuk to Muang Long to sell whiskey for less than the cost of the ride? No answer. Xiengkok is kind of a wild east town. Remote border crossing to the refineries in Burma, access to the Mekong and therefore the rest of the world via shipping containers from China. The mind is just chock a block full of possibilities.
We hit the approximate top of the hill a little after noon. We had been taking breaks, not long ones but breaks. Somjit pointed towards the horizon and said he could just see Som Pan Yao. When I asked him to describe where, he had a difficult time. When I tried to nail him down it turns out he was referring to the reflection off a roof a long ways away. His memory of places was very sketchy. I think he was following the trail but paying little attention to which side of the hill or drainage he was on. In short even though he came from a farm in Muang Long he was more of an in town guy than a mountain kid. He had spent a long time going to college in Luang Nam Tha. He also walked with feet slightly splayed, not such a great indicator of someone who had walked a lot.

We needed to walk behind the left of the three bumps to get to our place for the night.

The prospects had shifted again. I knew that it was a long way to the reflection of the roof no matter how many hours the hill tribe guys said it took. Also Somjit was low on water. The tributary we had crossed at mid morning was a little large to drink out of safely. Again we walked in a hurry. Four long hours later we came to a spring that was fine for drinking. An hour later we entered Som Pan Yao which had a road to it.
Having a road always changes the character or a village, or maybe it’s just my perception. Thankfully Som Pan Yao was on the nearer side of the mountain from where Somjit thought. The trail also had traversed the back side instead of following the top. The Naiban wasn’t home but was up watching the cutting of the posts for the new schoolhouse. To cut the posts he had contracted out to someone with a chain saw from Muang Long, Thai Lu people. We could hear them doing the rip cuts as we came into town.
While we waited for the Naiban to return we ate the rice we’d taken for lunch dry. We also had the old piece of barbequed duck but I was afraid it was too old what with all the hot weather and all. It was at least 30 hours without refrigeration. When the Naiban finally returned at around dark with all the men that had come to cut the wood it was a little late for cooking. Somjit reported there was no food to buy in the village.
The woodcutters had food from somewhere and ate with an appetite. After they were done they started to amuse themselves with the foreigner. They started by giving me a “sabai dee OK” with the thumbs up signal. This is supposed to be some sort of foreigners talk. It’s what everyone says to the foreigners in these parts especialy after they're in their cups. I replied that yes indeed I was sabai and they could go ahead and speak Lao as I’d been following their conversation throughout dinner. Silence. Some nervous laughs then some questions. Where did I come from, how long had I been in Laos, and all the usual ones. Then I got one I’ve been waiting a while to hear. ”Why do you come to these small villages, what interests you here?“ My answer was only partially true. I said that until very recently my family and all families in the world had lived much the way the people of Mongla did, and that now almost no one lived that way, I want to see these things before they are gone forever. Unstated was also my interest in the great variety of species existent in the old growth forests. I also like walking.

Naiban’s Second Wife Again

I lay down after a while intending to eventually drift off to sleep. Somjit roused me with the announcement that he had cooked some food. Fine by me. I sat down to chicken stew again with the Naiban and Somjit. The Naiban lifted out the gizzard, liver, and intestines, and dropped them in my cup. I was appreciative, best parts. The woodcutters took off with the announcement that they were going to find some girls. I asked them to bring one back for me.
As I once again drifted off towards sleep the woodcutters returned with a few drunk girls that were of an age that even I thought was young. Thankfully none for me. We were all sleeping in the mens room. Akha houses are divided between men and women, this house had separate rooms for sleeping by gender. Our room was about five by six meters. The girls sounded like they were intent on getting drunk and getting laid, I wondered how all this was going to occur with such a lack of privacy. Thankfully I once again drifted off and so missed the details. I had to ask Somjit how it all went in the morning. I hope they looked upon my deep snores as mood music.
After three months of it I’m fairly used to sleeping shoulder to shoulder with a bunch of Akha people but this was a new one on me. When you think about it they do have children, and they sleep communally. Of course all the wood cutters were middle aged married men Thai Lu men. As for the Akha girls I think the Akha are allowed promiscuity before marriage.
A long time ago I had an Akha friend in Chang Mai. He was a trekking guide and I would hear him regaling the backpackers about the sexual practices of the Akha. Mostly I ignored it, he was always joking around especially to get people to sign up for treks. I wish I’d listened more closely, I think he was telling mostly the truth.
Ten years ago he was doing time in Chang Rai for heroin, I wonder if he’s even still alive. A big job hazard of being a trekking guide is becoming addicted to opiates. Many of the tourists want to try smoking opium and the trekking guide being the jolly fellows they are of course join in. A few years later the tourist has moved on to life in the corporate world back home and the guide is still taking people trekking and smoking opium. If you have a habit, heroin is a lot easier to do in the city where the smell of opium would be dangerous.
The Lao government is trying to avoid these pitfalls by tightly regulating it’s trekking industry. They have studied what happened in Thailand closely. I myself am ambivalent about opium and it’s use. Like any drug I guess it’s best avoided. I only wish there were such a stigma attached to alcohol and tobacco consumption the two biggest killers by far. The drinking of hard liquor in Laos in such quantities is new. With so many making so much money now the untaxed moonshine is within everyone’s budget. Labelled, factory made, lao lao sells for half a dollar for a half litre. Cigarettes are twenty cents a pack. Seems like ten years ago I never saw people smoking.

Lao Lao and banana flowers on sale Muang Sing

The next morning we took off walking down the road. I’m usually not big on walking down roads, better to ride. After a half hour we cadged a ride for a couple miles off a motorcyclist, the only thing that passed us. At the town of Muang Kan we turned off the road and onto a path, the old trail to Xiengkok.
I haven’t talked about the trees and terrain or animals that we were passing through. There was no time to talk as we were walking. Unlike Green Discovery this trek was about getting to the town of our destinations. I also don’t think Somjit had an extensive back ground with hill tribes or the forest. I had been telling him a lot of the traditions and culture that I had learned from the Green Discovery guide, and it seemed like it was new to him. Everyone knows that you don’t walk through the gate to a village. Not many know what the carvings and symbols are for on top of the gate, or why it is moved out but never in. Likewise it takes a long time to learn a few of the different trees and their uses, or to recognise all of the signs of animals.

The gates when leaving Mongla

The area we were in was the next drainage south from the Nam Ma, the river is spelled Nam Pha on the topo map but I call it Nam Fa, seems simpler, the ph sound is a Vietnamese spelling.
The trail down to Xiengkok was surprisingly pretty. It took four hours and much of it was through original forest cover. From the ridge we were following down off the mountain I could look across and see a fair sized Akha villages sitting on the last ridge off our mountain, called Ban Tdaw Sum. It’s getting so I feel as if Akha villages have a certain look about them even from a distance.
Somjit and I had always been more evenly matched on the downhill, I had gravity helping me out. Now he began to drag. He was wearing shoes for maybe the first time. Fake Converse All Stars. His toenails were digging into his toes. I gave him my flip flops to wear much to his relief.

The Mekong from above

Soon before Xiengkok we spotted the Mekong headed for Thailand below us. I for one was happy to see it. Old Xiengkok is a kilometre down the road before the new town which all are familiar with on the river. I sat there at Somjit’s grandmothers house and waited for him to rustle us up a ride. Forty five minuets later he brought the borrowed motorcycle back announcing there were no rides and we might have to stay in Xiengkok. I didn’t believe and offered to go take a look myself. He came and gave me a ride on the motorcycle before I’d walked too far.
I’m not shy to talk to people. I know that all we needed was something that would move and someone who wanted to earn the ten dollars of whatever it took to get to Muang Long. Of course there is no telephone so I couldn’t call Muang Long and ask them to send a minivan. I felt sheapish approaching groups of middle aged men who were slowly drinking beers on a hot Saturday afternoon and calling the oldest one uncle enquiring about renting anything that moved to get to Muang Long, all this while a fluent Lao speaker is waiting on his bike. Of course soon I struck pay dirt, a guy started walking around with us looking and he found us a ride on a truck carrying bricks. Somjit warmed to the task also once he learned that you don’t only have to look for the usual transportation.

Fast Boat headed down towards Thailand out of Xiengkok

After arranging to get on the truck after they had filled it with river sand I took Somjit and the guy who had helped us to the restaurant across the street and I sprung for a lunch. The only soup on the menu was Tom Yum so I ordered us up three bowls. It was surprisingly good. Thai food. Looking around the restaurant I wondered to Somjit how such a place could stay in business. There were maybe three of four foreigners a night in Xiengkok, maybe being the important part. Probably none, certainly not enough to support the number of restaurants there. Then Somjit referred to a girl walking down the street in Lao Language as a night worker. I asked what he meant. I’m more familiar with the term “Sao kai beeya” (girl who sells beer) or less politely “galee” which I won’t even say in English.
Suddenly I got it. But where from the customers? Somjit said mostly Luang Namtha. Seems like quite a ways to go to buy girls I thought. Just another facet of Lao culture I’m fairly ignorant about. Xiengkok in general seems like a sleepy little town where it’s probably better not to wonder what people are up to. Whether someone is there for business or pleasure best not to guess what business, what pleasure.

Xiengkok Restaurant

Tdooee’s brother’s wedding party was in full swing when we got back to Muang Long at around five, the only restaurant in town was also closed. The market was out of rice and of course meat, I grabbed some cooked sausage and a big bag of sompac the pickled mustard greens made with rice water, one of the vendors went into her shack and grabbed me a cold chunk of sticky rice out of her pot. I hadn’t eaten much over the past few days and was hungry. In my room I took a cold shower, the only kind there is in Muang Long and washed every piece of clothing I had with me. At six thirty the generator kicked on and there were lights and a fan.
The truck to Luang Namtha left at 9:30 and was fairly uneventful except for the problems with the brakes. The road to Muang Sing is unpaved and one hardly needs brakes. The hard surface to Luang Namtha is another matter. The brakes were way past soft, the driver would pump till his leg fell off. He bled them and bled them without seeming to have much luck. We stopped up the road out of town again to try to bleed them. At the police checkpoint fifteen or so kilometres out of Muang Sing, the whole truck got the going over. Everybody out while they check us and the bags. They slit right into the rice sacks and felt around then closed them up with cellophane tape. A big truck full of rice in front of us was being re stacked so that they could stick a metal rod into every sack. I think they were more interested in meth coming out of Burma than heroin or opium. Who knows, guns? TVs? I wouldn’t think anyone smuggles opiates into Laos. It would be like bringing maple syrup to Vermont.

Bleeding the brakes at the Wat just out of Muang Sing

After messing with the brakes one more time we all got back on. Then they put some poor Chinese fellow in the back and handcuffed his hands to the frame of the truck. Illegal immigrant. A lot come over from Boten. We dropped him off at immigration in Luang Namtha where they had a key that fit his cuffs. Rather him than me. Looked like a well dressed studious kind of guy, I’ve heard they beat them pretty well on their return to China.
As I left Muang Long Tdooee asked how long it would be until I come back. Smart man, it had only been two and a half months since my last visit. Unfortunately I’m sure that it will be more than a year. In that time the number of treks into the Nam Fa will have doubled, perhaps even one of the villages will relocate down to the road. Things change quickly, must seem even quicker for the Akha of Muang Long district.

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