Mar 8, 2007

Into the Nam Ha Protected Area

Above is the village swing at Ban Nammat Mai, or Nammat New town.

The following is about my trek into the Nam Ha Protected Area with Green Discovery in Luang Namtha.

The village swing is in an abandoned village. All the villages on the trek had been vacated by the Akha. The people had moved to the road, they came back only to hunt and gather forest products. Despite the hill tribes having moved out, I still learned a lot on this trek about the Akha, and the animals and plants that live and grow in the forests of the Namha Protected Area. I probably learned more overall on this short trek than I had on any other. I have many different reasons for wanting to go on treks.

I learned such simple things as that when the name of a village is followed by Gow it means old town, followed by Mai it means new town. Easy to know, but until someone tells you, you are missing out. All hill tribe towns seem to be either Mai, Gow, or if without the designation they have been in their present location for so long people have forgotten about the old town. Hill tribes move. If you know the name of the town it gives you some indication of how long it has been since a move.

I had a very patient and wise guide who would calmly teach me as much as I could absorb. At every break I would jot down things in my notebook. At night and in the morning I would write more. I lost my notebook but remembered many things. This blog entry is partly an attempt to write them down before I forget them. Any and all wrong facts I’m going to blame on the lost notebook, I get sick of prefacing every sentence with the qualifier, “as I remember”.

Ket, I learned from the other guides when I returned, is a hill tribe person himself. Half Lanten and half Thai Dam. His demeanour wasn’t the ever smiling face of the Lao lowlander. That was ok with me. I never felt the need to make small talk, if I had a question I was free to ask, if he saw or noticed something that he thought would interest me he would speak. His knowledge was thorough and he would give of it freely always qualifying how sure he was of something. When he knew something he would make no comment, when he only believed something to be so, he would mention it. When his knowledge of something wasn’t comprehensive he would mention that also.

The trek cost me a little under a hundred and fifty dollars for three days. I’m not sure of the cost but I am sure it was an insignificant amount. I thought the cost amazingly small for what I was getting, but then I value a walk in the woods with such a naturalist to be invaluable. I signed up for an open trek, meaning if other people signed up they were free to join and the price would also drop. To get an exclusive trek with no joiners would have cost me maybe double. I like having other westerners to talk with, and discuss what we see, and for company, but I always learn more with just a guide. There are many things that a guide doesn’t have to explain to me and I get to focus on things I don’t know.

Colouring the atmosphere of the pre trek arrangements and indeed the whole trek was the abduction eighteen days before of Pawn the manager of the Luang Namtha Green Discovery Branch office and the owner of the Boat Landing Eco Lodge. Someone initially tried to burn his house down while he was in it, and then four men abducted him on his way to an appointment with the police. No one seems to know anything and it is worse than useless for me, an outsider to make baseless speculation. He hasn’t returned to this day. He leaves a wife and as I remember two children. I’m sure all of the guides as well as the American co-founder of the boat landing were missing him very much. They seemed a close knit crew.


My trek was the first one since the closing of the office. While making the arrangements for the trek the people in the office were very friendly and informative. Trekking guides are by nature an optimistic and adaptable bunch. I admired their ability to keep a good attitude despite the mixed feelings they must all have been experiencing.

We left in a small pick up to be dropped off at the village of Donexay on the road to Muang Sing. Our local guides were Khamu though the village was mixed Akha and Khamu. The village had moved out of the mountains six years ago. Part of the arrangements with the local villages is that there will always be local guides as well as the senior guide on all treks. It provides some income to the village and hopefully provides an opportunity for locals to learn a trade. Being a trekking guide is a relatively lucrative job, and there is no training or education better than doing it. Another advantage to having two guides on every trek is for safety.

Besides the normal food provisions we also needed to re supply the special trekking huts that had been built for Green Discovery. When all the treks had stopped the villagers had removed everything from the huts. To re-supply two local guides were hired and they carried bedding, cooking utensils and food up to the hut. Ket has three boys about the same age as our two local guides and he seemed very familiar with ordering them around during the trek. I can only imagine how American teenagers would take to being told how to cook, fetch water, clean, gather firewood and so on.

Guy Ban (local guide) from Donexay

For the first part of the day I concentrated on learning some of the trees and putting one foot in front of the other. I kept hearing the same base name for different species of what I assumed to be the same genus. It took me a while but eventually I recognised oak. Ket called it Mai Goh. Oak is a common genus all around the world. I had a hard time identifying it because the leaves looked somewhat like the live oaks in the southern United States, and unlike the red, white, and scrub oaks that I am used to in the East and Intermountain West. Ket showed me which acorns were edible, and which ones need to be soaked for a few days and the acids leached out. Some acorns were the size of peas and others the size of plums.

Another tree that I was happy to learn about was the strangler fig. I’ve seen them all over and knew they must be something, but I never knew what. The fig grows up the tree as a vine eventually growing more and more trunks and engulfing the host tree, at which time it is strong and thick enough to be self supporting. You often see these seemingly hollow trees with many trunks interwoven to form a single tree.

Strangler Fig

Along the top of a ridge in the afternoon I came across some cat scat, in plain English cat poop. I’m not sure what kind of cat it was, larger than a house cat but not by much. Not much further on we saw another scat that looked like cat but wasn’t as digested. Ket said an animal like a cat, but not a cat. I assume civet. Seeing my interest Ket moved another scat over with a stick causing it to break apart. Finding so much in one place isn’t as unusual as it might seem. Animals use scat to mark territory. The latest poop was filled with hair, and much less processed, looked like coyote, I asked dog? And Ket smiled, “wild dog”.

Then Ket got interested and moved some old half falling apart hairs around with his foot, “tiger” he said. I was of course sceptical and said so. “Look” he said, “dog eat deer, tiger eat pig, look how long the hair.” He was right of course, bearing in mind that for Kep tiger also means leopard. I had noticed the deer hair in the dog scat, looking just like the deer hair that coyotes digest. Two species of deer in Laos are small and a small dog could easily pull one down. The wild pigs are another thing altogether. They are very tough and smart. Any dog that tried to eat one of them might well be dinner himself. The pig bristle was obvious after it was pointed out to me. Of course everything is easy if someone tells you.

Cat Scat

After that Kep started show me lots of things. When some hunters had gone down into the brush to get the civet they had shot from the tree with flashlights, Kep showed me the discarded batteries, and broken bushes where they had gone down the hill. Three guys at least.

I’ve followed people and animals in the woods before. More than a few times. It’s not so hard after a little bit. People have been tracking for ever, and it’s not as difficult as in the movies. It’s all there, just a matter of knowing what you are looking at. Scuffed leaves and ground don’t just happen. Someone or something makes them. I’d never before walked with someone like Ket.

He often would just point and say a word assuming I would get the rest. Wild pig rooting for bugs or roots or something. Feathers from when someone had gotten a bird. I had no idea on the bamboo rats. Never seen that before. The hill tribe people would find the hole and simply dig it out with those short tools that look kind of like a hoe. You could see the trench where they had followed the tunnel back to the rat. Ket said the rats are vicious when you get them unearthed like that. After that Kep would point out every rat hole, even the place the rat had dug down to, and eaten, the roots of the bamboo causing it to yellow out. The stalks came out of the ground looking like they had been cut.

On the second day we came across a fire where someone had cooked up a porcupine and bird. I asked the kid from the village if he’d ever eaten porcupine. When he answered yes I asked him if it was true they had a lot of fat. Big smiles and a yes. I have heard they are tasty all by themselves. When my grandfather was a kid people used to still eat that kind of food. Kep scraped the discarded needles off the trail with a stick. Didn’t want anyone getting one in the foot. Flip flops aren’t much protection against porcupine needles. The quills themselves were shorter, flatter and softer than in the US.

The trees and the forest were, as promised, old growth. I’ve mostly been walking in old uncut forests for a few months now and it seems like the normal way of things. Even where there are villages the amount of cut jungle for rice and farming seems so small. You walk all day through big trees and perhaps a half hour is through rice fields. That section of the Namha does have unusually large trees.

One of my biggest objectives in going trekking with Green Discovery was to see how they handled the tourist, hill tribe, interaction. An owner of a large tour company had given them a glowing recommendation. The trek I went on was more orientated towards forest, all hill tribes were gone. There was another trek I could have taken, that had a couple of trekkers signed up, and I could have saved some money by going. The other trek was only for two days and when pressed the guides in the office said that yes, my trek covered a lot more high ground, and especially old growth forest. Oh well, another day.

I did notice some practices that are built into every trek that I think are an effort to make the experience a good one for both parties. As I said before both villages received some income from our “guy ban” or local guide. Five dollars per guide, per day, actually. Very good money. Twice the wages for a labourer in Vientiane. Green Discovery has a local guide on every trek. I’d only seen them elsewhere when the guide didn’t know where he was going, Green Discovery had them all the time as a standard way of operating. The extra guide has another advantage of safety in case of accident, injury or any other unforeseen circumstances. The local guide is a skilled knowledgeable woodsman in his own right.


Besides the extra guide there is a handicraft from each tribe included with the trek. Bracelets or a sewn bag, or spoon made of bamboo, that kind of thing. The idea is that there is an exchange, we aren’t just giving money to the mountain people but receiving and being given a physical thing of value in return. I don’t wear bracelets or use wooden spoons, I kept the bag made of cloth scraps and use it to wrap some silver I have. Thanks Khamu kids. With the cost of the licence for entering the Nam Ha Protected Area are costs to maintain it’s upkeep. The cost of the trek includes money to maintain and build more houses like the ones I stayed in.

The hut I stayed in the first night wasn’t in a village. The hut on the second night used to be in a village but the town is now abandoned. First about staying in villages. Where you stay makes a difference. I’ve stayed at the headman’s house and I’ve stayed at another tribe members house and in Thailand and now Laos, I’ve stayed at special houses constructed just for the trekkers. Kep says these kinds of things follow a natural progression.

I thought about that and I got it. The first trekkers stay at the most honoured house. The village has seldom had visitors before from the outside world. By the third of fourth trek maybe some of the magic starts to fade. Foreigners in groups can only understand each other. They are loud and talk and laugh a lot. They get drunk. The chief has other important things to do.

The four or five dollars per tourist the family earns in food and lodging isn’t worth it to the chief. He passes the job off to someone else. They make the money for a while then they too tire. Or maybe they up the price and get sour. I look at it from my own perspective. If I brought a couple or eight foreigners in to sleep in our living room how would my wife like it. Even if there was a lot of money involved. I wouldn’t do it twice.

Foreigners eat first. It’s just the way it is. They eat meat and good food in large quantities. It’s true they give money, but at the end of the day there is one less chicken, or two less kilos of pork to feed the people of the village. The children are hungry. It creates tension in the house if the hungry children are waiting for the foreigners to finish eating. Better to have a separate house to stay in and prepare food without anyone having to wait.

All of the guides of Green Discovery went over to Thailand and took a trek with the tourism authority there, as a way to educate themselves. Thailand has had twenty five years to figure things out. The issues are the same, the hill tribes are the same, and the guides in Chang Mai often even speak Thai Neua. If hill tribes can realize a significant enough income from tourism, and if tourism can be done in such a way that tourists are looked upon with favour, then hill tribe trekking can continue indefinitely. Tourism could even help the inevitable transformation of hill tribe peoples by being a source of income.

Modern Akha Goh in Phongsali

Staying in a house built specifically for trekkers creates a comfortable space for trekkers and leaves a space for the hill tribes people also. If they want to meet and interact they can do so in the more neutral area of the village outside the house. If a tourist makes friends with a villager the villager is always free to invite them into their house. There is plenty of community and family life to observe in the public spaces of a village, without actually staying in a house. A separate house also gives guides a place to cook food. Cooking for a bunch of hungry people using only an open fire and a flashlight can be work. Also guides need to boil water enough for drinking the next day.

Both of the green discovery houses I stayed in had flush toilets of the squat and scoop water variety, a luxury I’ve never seen before but a lot more hygienic than pooping on the ground for the pigs to eat. They are also suitable for taking a scoop shower. They also serve as an example of hygiene for the village. Infant mortality is still high in the villages.

Besides all that, the distance to the first village was too great for a typical trek. Foreigners simply can’t walk that far in a day. We are used to driving around and typing on keyboards. Even people who exercise regularly don’t do it by walking in the mountains all day every day. Exercise is one of the reasons I go on treks, but a I don’t want the walk to preclude all the other activities I’m interested in.

Lunch was from the Boat Landing guest house. It was sticky rice, jeao macpet (hot chilie pepper jeao) and jeune kai, that Lao style egg omelette. The jeao was great, made from those large green chillies, I could eat huge gobs of it without burning, had a great flavour. The jeune kai I would have liked better with at least a little MSG.

We arrived at our hut for the night with plenty of daylight to spare. We had walked without long breaks but taking lots of time to talk about plants and animals. The hut was actually two huts with a picnic table between and two bathrooms out back.. I took a bath in the creek. Very cold, we were up high. Dinner that night was barbequed pork, sticky rice, green beans and of course gaeng jute, the thin soup with vegetables. I noticed the soup had plenty of my favourite flavour enhancer, actually quite a bit. I made sure to try to get our youngest guide to eat as much as he could. He was only ten or so years old. He was shy but after a little prodding he would dig in. We had much more food than the four of us could possibly finish.

Barbequed Pork, (Ping Moo)

Things were quiet around the fire, I went to sleep early. Lying in bed listening to the animal sounds I thought of how different it was from sleeping in the village. So many sounds it was almost loud. We all slept cold that night, not enough blankets. Towards morning I remembered my reflective ground cloth, I pulled it over me and slept through until sunrise.

The next morning Ket asked me if I had heard the barking deer, so that’s what that was. Ket also showed me all the scratch marks on the tree we were sitting under. The tree is called mai wan because of it’s sweet leaves. Some large squirrel or something had been regularly climbing it to eat the leaves. When I asked Ket about the bird traps in bushes baited with live grasshoppers, he asked me if I had ever seen that other trap, and through hand motions he made me understand he was talking about the deadfall trap. Also he showed me the red flowers of some tree that is a harbinger of the hot season. To spend ten minuets with Ket is to have ten things pointed out to you. Where I see a bunch of green trees he sees, scores of animals and plants.

Mai Wan

Before long, on the second day, we came to a slight trail leading to the top of the ridge. Old Town Nammat, or Nammat Gow. Both Ket and I walked up the hill to call our wives. Another thing these hill tribe people know, exactly where there is cell phone coverage.

Trail to Nammat Gow

I’m not sure if it was this day or the next but part of our trek followed what the locals call the French road. It’s the old road to Muang Sing. On my map it’s still marked as a minor road. I think probably it was never more than a trail. It goes to Muang Sing and the old market. For a period under French colonial rule, that market, was the major outlet for Laos to export opium to China.

Only parts of the old road are still in use as a trail.The Chinese built the current road in the 1970s. I found an old Chinese shrine along the current road and wondered if it came from that time.

Chinese Shrine on the road to Muang Sing

I asked Ket about the relocation of hill tribes and he said it’s often the younger people who want to move. More opportunity. Along the road there is always the possibility of starting a business. I had noticed at Ban Donexai that the village had seemed more prosperous than many I’d seen. I can’t argue with the obvious truth that there are many more opportunities close to the road. The kids go to school and the distance to a doctor or medicine is much smaller. If it were me I too would want to live on the road

It’s easy for me to look at the Akha and think they are better off staying far off in the hills removed from all the headaches of modern society as I know them. It’s undeniable that as a modern westerner, I find the villages far from the road where most people still dress in traditional cloths, fascinating. What is harder, is to try to look at it from the perspective of the people themselves. I like the way there is almost no plastic trash to be seen. Yet I too prefer to wrap things in plastic bags instead of banana leaves. I hope that I will like the modernization of the Akha peoples because it has improved their lot in this world.

Ket had worked in the early development of health care in Muang Long district. He said the reaction of people to very simple malaria drugs was a nice thing to see. Here before it was a killer disease, and in two or three days it was cured. He also said hill tribe peoples seem to be cured by the drugs better than lowlanders. He had required many days on a quinine drip to get over his case. Perhaps drug resistant malaria.

I realize that it’s hard to understand a controversial program as an outsider. So many other factors are involved, opium eradication, drawing the hill tribes into the larger Lao society, I just have to assume that with so many people seemingly intent on doing good that all is for the best. It’s not like the hill tribe people move away and then some army general starts logging or anything.

The Lao government also has a very long history of good relations with the hill tribes. During the years when the government occupied just a small portion of Laos, the hill tribes were their majority population, they were the soldiers and farmers of the communist movement in Laos. The concept of Laos and Laotians being all the people of the nation was enshrined in the ideals of the earliest communists. To call someone a Lao person simply indicates what country they come from, not ethnicity. Lowland ethnic Lao are only half the population. Laos is a country with a mix of languages and peoples.

When we took a break in the early afternoon I threw down my ground cloth and closed my eyes. The next thing I knew Ket was prodding me awake. I was tired from a cold night. Ket didn’t care, time enough to sleep when we get to where we were going.

Ban Nammat Mai or Nammat New Town, was abandoned. They had moved ten months before. The town looked like it had been left years ago. A lot of the roofs and floors had been used as convenient firewood when moving. No need to collect wood in this town. Abandoned or not Ket still used Nammat Mai as a teaching tool, showing me the different symbols on the gates and what they were for and why the gate in the first place.

I’ve heard people remark before on the small, toy like, AK replicas attached to Akha gates. Makes sense when you realize many of the symbols on the gate are to keep bad spirits out and to scare them away. Using guns from the time they are children the Akha certainly recognise what an extremely deadly weapon the AK is.

Bird on Gate Mongla

There is also a crude fertility symbol by the gates. Simple tree branches with forks in the right places so that one could be considered female, and the other with the extra branch sticking out, male. They are placed in such a way as to be copulating. Many children makes a village prosperous. On the other side of town Kep remarked on a tree with lots of chopped marks from machetes, Kep said returning hunters would leave an ear from the carcass in the tree and fire off a shot to let the village know they were returning with meat. I suspect they only do this for large animals. Not many ears on a bird.

That night the hunters were shooting down at the spring a hundred and fifty meters away. In the morning some shots also just after sunrise in the direction that we had come from. Just so no one misunderstands the hunters not only hunt for meat, they hunt for cash. The price of wild meat in town is much greater than pig or beef. A hunter can take a civet in to town and return with cash or a larger amount of pork.

When I returned to Luang Namtha I saw a friend stepping out his back door with an animal to clean in a pan. The animal had already had it’s hair removed. It had large teeth and a long tail. I’d never seen one before, and although my friends English is excellent, he didn’t know the English name. I carefully wrote down the name, tam yien, and went up the street to the Green Discovery office. As I suspected it was a civet. I’d seen this same animal around in markets dried before. Drying out an animal is a good way to keep it until sale. No refrigeration most places.

I don’t eat wild animals in Laos as a general rule. I’m afraid that with such good hunters there is the possibility of having an adverse affect on animal populations. Also where do you draw the line, what about the tiger and owls, or hawks and falcons. Insects and fish I eat. This animal was already bought, and I accepted the invitation.

My friends wife was nursing as was my friends sister in law, so they didn’t join us. Local tradition has it that the meat from the civet is inappropriate for nursing women, and women in general I think. There were only guys at dinner. Preparation was done by chopping the yien into small pieces, bones and all. Then quick frying it in the bottom of a soup pot, then adding the other ingredients, and simmering for a long time. The only thing I tasted was Bai Kee Hoot I think we call it kafir leaf. I didn’t notice afterwards that I felt much more macho.

Getting back to the trekking part of this story….

The third day was warmer, it was the first day I began to feel the advent of the hot season. We crossed and re crossed the same small river many times. One time as we were walking along the top of a bank waiting for the next crossing I joked and suggested we use a large log that was spanning the stream. Others had used it infrequently, branches along the top were broken or bent and there were slight scuff marks on the bark. Ket said that at one time he had considered using it but the danger of a fall was just too great for him to take trekkers across.

The forest through the trees

It was during the rainy season when most of the old part of Luang Namtha had been flooded out. The drainage above this particular river is close by. There had been one of those cloud bursts where a lot of rain comes down in a very short time, and all of the regular wet season crossings were washed out or covered over. This particular log lies a good twenty feet above the river. Much too far to fall. Easy enough for hill tribes people if they are careful, potentially catastrophic for eight tired wet trekkers.

Eventually Ket made a new crossing further downstream using a new piece of bamboo, then lashing a second to the first for stability, then a third above it for a handrail. A foreigner almost fell off anyway. Later there is another crossing that has to be made and can’t be avoided. By then it was dark. Kep got around it by making a new trail, he had to cut the thick underbrush with his machete and left the trekkers with his assistant. After cutting for a ways he would return to the group and help them to walk further, then repeat the whole process. Can you imagine in the almost pitch darkness of the jungle, rain clouds obscuring what light there is from moon or stars. Ket doesn’t tell stories using adjectives, it was very easy to imagine anyway.

When Ket called the office for assistance on his cell phone the tuk tuk, couldn’t get through because of the road being washed out. I’ve forgotten what time Ket said they got back to the office from that trek.

At one place while walking close to the river Ket pointed to a stick. I didn’t get it. Ket grabbed the wire attached to the stick. Still didn’t get it, “look” he said, “hair”, “trap”, the light went on upstairs. I’d made the same kinds of traps as a kid until my grandfather told me they were against the law. You bend over a sapling and tie a string to it with a looped slip knot at the end. You set the trap by barely securing the string to the ground with a peg or any other way. The animal wanders through, bumps the string and then is jerked in the air and dies. In this case the civet bit through the bit of electric cord that had been used as a string. He’d left some neck hair where the tight cord had been strangling him. Ket said that’s one civet that will never get caught in that kind of trap again. Good grief, I’d imagine.

Sapling that was almost all she wrote for some civet

That’s how the trek went, over and over again. Lots of birds. At one point when Ket pointed out a big bird and asked if it was an eagle. I don’t know. What’s an eagle? If I get close enough I can tell a golden, or an immature bald eagle, but in Asia? Big enough, and the feathers were splayed towards the back of the wing the way they do. Well I know it wasn’t a vulture. Looked to be the size of an osprey. You would need a video camera and a tape recorder just to get down half the stuff Ket comes up with. Then you would have to write it all down to make sure you had it figured out.

Bill the guy who helped found the Boat Landing, and handles advertising for Green Discovery, spent years with Ket doing health care and then the trekking development. Kind of makes you wonder how much Bill knows about all these things. People say not only does he speak Lao like a Khaysone monument come to life, but knows the regional dialects too. Talks to himself in Thai Lu when he spends too much time alone, and can speak a whole lot of Akha, must be a reincarnated witch doctor.

Soon on the last day we entered the area cut by the villagers of the new Nammat Mai. I don’t know the name of the new town they built, I suppose I could call it Nammat Mai Mai. New new Nammat.

We started walking through recently burnt trees from old growth. This was something I hadn’t seen much of before. Lots of work growing rice between the tree stumps. A lot of the trees were being cut for wood. The people cutting the trees were Khamu. Cutting beams and planks from trees using a hand powered rip saw is a lot of work and takes time to learn. The Akha were paying the Khamu to do it.

Rip cutting with an up and down saw

I was very curious as to costs, amount of time, and species of wood. At one point the Naiban of the new village came walking through the working men and complained about the pace of work. He needed this wood to build the new town. The wood cutting was contracted on a piece work basis.

Eventually we made our way into the new town to be surrounded by children and grannies begging with bracelets. Tourism had made it’s way here before us. I kept pointing at Ket when his back was turned but the kids were having none of it. They knew he wasn’t buying any. I looked around and this place was low on my pants scale of children. I size up poverty by seeing how many kids are wearing pants at what age. By the time kids are two and a half or three they too like to cover themselves. Here a lot of the boys of eight and nine only had underwear, and some kids not much younger had nothing. Putting the best face on things I said to Ket well at least there are no big bellies from malnutrition. At that Ket started to mention which kids had the tell tale bellies just the way he pointed out animal signs. The difference was he didn’t point or look directly so no one could tell that’s what he was doing. I wonder how many other times I just didn’t see malnutrition.
Kids high up on my pants scale of prosperity Mongla, Muang Long District

The temptation in these situations is to just give money. They are so poor and it is such a small amount. Well we know that doesn’t work. Just turns kids into beggars. I could have given money to the Naiban I suppose, but it would have been a drop in the bucket. I wonder what it costs to feed a village like that for a day, or a year? How much for health care? They were waiting for the depths of the dry season to decide on running the pipe from the spring that was a half a kilometre away. Wanted to see if the water still flowed when the year was at it’s driest. I asked Ket if he thought the people boiled the river water before drinking. Mostly he said. And the ones who don’t? They drink from the river.

I realize the first year after a village moves has to be the worst. Gardens not yet planted, rice fields to be cleared, houses only bamboo shacks built on the dirt. I know the old folks and kids die, it’s inevitable. Yet they move of their own free will, I guess like all they want a better life.

From the Akha village we walked down the road further, past the established villages of the lowlanders. Not ethnic Lowland Lao and not hill tribes of the high mountains, you have to look carefully to know that they are Thai Dam, Lanten or Thai Daeng, and further on and in town, Thai Lu. It was reassuring to see once again little children dressed and clean, the pride of their mother’s eyes. It was Sunday, lots of music and eating food.

When we came to the crossroads near the stupa Ket called for our ride. I suggested we stop in the small restaurant for a soda. Actually it was a board with some soft drinks on it so that you could tell here were drinks for sale. I had been here just before the trek when I came to look at the stupa. I even remembered the owners name, Bang. Ket was surprised that we already knew each other and Bang was surprised to see me come walking out of the mountains with a local guy.

They talked for a while and then Ket asked me if I’d been in the war. I laughed and told them that luckily I’d been too young. At fifty, for Lao people, I wasn’t too young. The Americans closed up shop quite a while before the war was over for the Lao. When I graduated from high school in 1974 the draft had ended, for the Lao who often joined the army at 15, and for whom the war lasted another two years after that, I was old enough.

When I’d met Bang before, I’d of course asked about the stupa and the old part of town. I just wanted to know if I should feel collective guilt or anything. Turns out the town was flattened by the Lao Air Force. I was off the hook. Through another tourist’s girlfriend, who was Thai Isaan, and therefore spoke Lao. I, and the couple, asked Bang lots of questions about the period. He said they had to move away because the bombing was so intense, and the Lao government had helped the whole town to rebuild after the war.

Toppled Tat The bombed stupa above Luang Namtha Old Town.

When Ket and I parted at the Green Discovery Office I hand shook him, and slipped him a big tip, I’ll bet he forgets me a lot sooner than I forget him.

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