Dec 25, 2010

Ban Nam Hee

I don't know exactly what's up with the gates, one thing I do know is that it's a big deal and one should pay attention and not mess up. Outside the gate is the outside world, inside is the village of the Akha. The double track is from the feet coming and  going, there are no roads for many kilometers.

I asked my guide Tui if I could take a photo, then I asked the local guide too and waited for his reaction. I ask every time, who knows, maybe it's ok at one time but not another. I do know not to touch. There are a couple gates per village and they have a lot to do with keeping bad stuff from entering and good stuff staying. There is a whole rigmarole about when and how to build them. Seems like they build gates just outside of the old gates every once in a while, like two feet further out. I've seen village gates too that you aren't supposed to walk through. I kid you not, the trail abruptly turns and if you look beside it uphill there is that gate without a worn trail through it, why I don't know, but I'm careful to do as others do and walk the correct trail.

Into nature these Akha folks are, there are rules about sticks inside the village, can't throw them or can't break them or something. To be safe I don't break or throw. They leave the trees all around the village too. They only live in close proximity to big trees. The forests are diverse with hundreds of different plant and animal species, every child learns the names and uses and habits of every one of them. The use of and relations with all things is codified in the set of rules known as The Akha Way. If all this sounds like a big pain it's really not.

Many of the symbols on the gate have to do with animals, probably hoping to ensure a good hunt for the food of the forest that feeds them. On one gate Tui pointed out some sticks that actually if you looked close were a symbol of two humans doing the wild thing. It was the trunk of two small saplings with enough branches and roots in the right places to resemble human limbs, someone had carved them to add realism. Probably some sort of fertility symbol. To a people who can recite their lineage by rote memory back through the generations, having progeny is important. 

Often you see little AK-47s carved out of wood attached to the gate. Maybe to scare away evil or to show the power of the village. There is no more powerful symbol than the AK.

I've never made a study of the various rules and traditions of the Akha, I only learn what I pick up here and there over the years. I do try to be watchful of those around me to make sure I'm not missing any disaproving glances. I'd hate to be the one to enter a closed village or unknowingly break some other tradition, not only because there would have to be some sort of effort made to offset the badness but also because I know that bad luck is something that no amount of ritual can wash away. Even though many of their laws and rules might seem superstitious to westerners it's not up to me to pick and choose which rules to believe or follow, by entering an Akha village I'm accepting all of their ways. 

I'm posting a long comment up here so no one will miss it

the gates are all about keeping spirits out. 
there are 2 sets, one each at the front & back of the village.
inside the gates = human world. beyond the gates = spirit world.
Akha believe that spirits do not have reproductive organs, hence the wooden carvings of a pair of male & female humans to drive home the point that the village is not a place for spirits.

'asterisk-like' daa leow on the gate & sometimes on nearby trees too = 'do not touch' sign.
bird carvings = birds are able to warn of danger approaching.
apart fom AK47 some villages have airplane & helicopter carvings too.
new gate is built every Akha New Year (or when someone has touched it, causing it to lose its 'power' to keep spirits out) directly behind the previous year's gate.

during the H1N1 scare my friends' village in Thailand put up an additional, much taller 'gate' at the road access to their village with a dog carcass on top - this they believed would help to keep the disease out.

& just learnt a few bits more last last weekend:

the bamboo ladder leading up to the rice storage shed (& also houses) - apparently the side of the bamboo used for the rungs side is for humans to walk on, the other is used by spirits, so if you construct it with the 'wrong' (concave) side up you're inviting spirits to climb up.

same for banana leaves when spreading them on the floor/ground as 'table mats' - underside of the leaves facing up for human use...reverse way for spirits' use. all along i thought it was just because the upper side of the leaves gets all the bird poop & dust :P

& that Akha believe that cats are the children of princes/princesses - & so they are allowed into houses & are not to be eaten :)

- straycat"

and now a plug for Ms. Straycat's two blogs, which are my two favorite blogs about Lao/Thai, travel culture etc. they are over on the right called Lao Miao and The Wandering Straycat. Take a look and you'll see what I mean.

Ban Nam Hee (backwards it's Hee River Village) is a village that seemed to be doing very well for itself. Quite a few metal roofs to be seen, a sure sign of prosperity. Situated at the confluence of the Nam Hee and the Nam Fa (Hee and Blue or Sky River) the word for blue and the word for sky sound the same to me, you don't need to know what "hee" translates as. (I've been informed the "fa" in nam fa means sky and the hee in Nam Hee means not what I was thinking, my accent was off) The valley bottom widens out large enough for rice paddies and regular rice cultivation. They have water buffalo. I guess it has to be the most well to do upland village I've yet seen. 

Ban Nam Hee on Google Earth. Note the bright reflection of the newer metal roofs. Also notice the different texture and colors indicating different growth. The rough texture surrounding the village is caused by large old growth trees rising above the canopy. The Akha never cut the trees around the village, many of those trees were there before Vietnam was a colony. 

Further behind and uphill the telltale yellow of a recently harvested upland rice field. More subtly north of the village the uniform velvet of regrown swidden agriculture. Fields are rotated on a very long schedule. After growing rice or corn for a couple of years a field might well lay fallow for twelve to twenty years, each year providing habitat for different species of animals and plants until once again it is slashed and burnt. The rotation of crop lands and the circle of life continues much as it has for centuries uncounted.

Good luck with any plans  the Lao Government might have to relocate these folks, they're doing just fine right where they are. I'm sure they'd never trade their lands for some spot beside the road perched on the side of a hill.

Above the terraced wet rice fields. It's as if there were a tiny enclave of lowland agriculture plunked down amidst this land of mountain rice and slash and burn. I think these fields are the key to the prosperity of the village. Wet rice has very high yields per acre or rai which is the local measurement. One rai can support one family with high calorie sticky rice for one year.

On the way out the next morning we walked past the graineries above the rice fields. There was so much rice that the extra was stored outside in old rice sacks where the animals could get at it. There was just no more room to store the rice they had. Above you can see a new storage shed being built past the one with the sacks. Rice is stored away from the village, if there is fire there is still rice to eat.

Ban Nam Hee even had water buffaloes. You see less photos of water buffs in Asia now that the iron buffalo is everywhere, but in an upland village? Five of them! There seemed to be no one there to mind the animals, maybe a youngster heard us coming and hid. There was no second season rice to guard against them eating. Still, there are tigers and leopards in the forest, perhaps no carnivores around, or the buffalo are too big and with horns.

The village was the first one I'd seen with an electric generator. Other places had LED bulbs hooked to batteries, Ban Nam Hee had a satellite TV. In the evenings they'd turn on the generator for a couple of hours and women would have light to cook with. A dim electric bulb is a handy thing to have.

Though it took us two full days to walk to Ban Nam Hee, during the wet season the navigable portion of the Nam Fa is only three hours walk away. (six hours our walking speed). So the village floated a diesel engine and generator down the river and then using many people with slings and poles carried the heavy engine, over many days, over the mountains to their village. 

Compact Fluorescent light bulb and the view from the Naiban's porch.

In the photo above you can see that though the roof is metal, very little other things in the village are manufactured products. You never see empty plastic bags or water bottles on the ground. The fence is of sticks, the baskets of bamboo, water is carried in long tubes made from bamboo, snacks are carried in folded pieces of banana leaf, things are tied with a long splinter from bamboo. Children's and often men's clothes are store bought, but the older men wear at least a coat of the comfortable and beautiful cotton dyed black and woven on looms under the houses. Almost all clothes of the women are home made.

mixing gunpowder

Tui pointed out a guy working with a saht and coke in the photo above. I'm not sure which ingredients he's mixing together to make gunpowder but I'd be willing to bet he isn't mixing all three of them at the same time. Saltpeter is probably readily available from manure, and charcoal is of course easy, I'm not sure where they get the sulfur. 

Usually when arriving at a village I don't do much. It's already late afternoon,  and when the sun goes down it's very night. My guide points me to my place usually furthest from the center of the sleeping platform, and I swallow my daily blood pressure and cholesterol pills, chased with a couple ibuprofen and lots of warm water from the kettle.  The fatigue of walking is cumulative and I know that I'll need all the rest I can get. I mostly eat only the rice offered to me, leaving the meat. I can digest the rice easiest it provides me with the energy to burn the excess fuel I have in the form of fat. I'm positive any meat will be eaten by someone.

my photo

Left of me in the photo is one of the old style muskets with a pistol grip, they hold them far away from their face so as not to get singed from the flash of the powder. 

The naiban was as Tui had promised charming. His wife gave me a gift of an embroidered pocket which I carry to this day. I have to say I've never met a naiban that didn't seem like a very decent man. The translation of naiban as "village chief" doesn't really do the title justice. The naiban isn't appointed, he's elected by everyone in the village. The naiban is the responsible person of final resort, for every single human being in the village, every one of which he has known his entire life. I'm not sure what other duties a naiban performs. Sometimes the Naiban is the same man for years, other times it changes, lately maybe the government has some influence.

family photo

Above the naiban of Ban Nam Hee. On the left his oldest son and daughter in law, on the right his wife and youngest child, peeking from behind his back either his or his son's child. The naiban carried that kid constantly the whole time I was there. Notice the coat the naiban wears. The  oldest wife has one breast bare as is the custom, it's also convenient for suckling the youngest son. Married women have bared breasts, a tradition which dies away after much contact with staring, photo taking, outsiders. 

Notice the boards forming the walls behind the family, they are cut with a "pah-ee-toe", the long knife that is used for everything, yet they are very flat and fit together tightly. The structural parts of the house are post and beam, the floor split bamboo. There is an open fire on a hearth of dirt and ashes, the smoke filters up and out the high roof. 

Being naiban isn't all heavy responsibilities. From every wild deer or pig killed one front leg goes to the naiban and one leg goes to the house of the oldest man in the village. Also it seems of late the government gives one center fire rifle (SKS)to each head of the village. Maybe it's because the head of the village is also part of the government. 

As I drifted in the minutes before sleep that evening listening to the low murmer of the talk in the household, in my mind I reviewed where we'd come from and where we were headed. The village is on no map, the river that bears the same name isn't either. I figured we were not too far from the hard surface banked road used by trucks headed from Thailand to China, maybe twenty kilometers or less as the crow flies. The next day somehow we'd turn towards the south and somewhere cross the Nam Fa on our way to Ban Jakune Mai.
Early morning fog in the valley burning off with the sun below Ban Nam Hee. The village is still in shadow.

Dec 18, 2010

Where Dead Tigers Come From

 I don’t know what I was doing when Puan found me. Maybe I was looking at the village swing or kicking the dirt or studying the social habits of chickens. Puan had something to show me but wasn’t giving me any hints as to what had him so excited

It was a poorly preserved cat skin on a bench at the the school house. What type of critter was anyone’s guess. Markings like a leopard cat, but too large, and not at all like a true leopard. The translation from Akha to Lue to Lao to English was losing quite a bit of info if there was ever any there to begin with. Small leopard was about as close as I heard with variations of mao (cat) and sua (tiger) thrown in to the confuse the issue.
I don’t think the cat was killed for the wildlife trade, more likely as proof of some hunter’s prowess. The village of Lao Sueng is not only a long way from any roads but also in an area where the Lao Government prosecutes the trade in wildlife. The villagers were unconcerned that I was taking photos of a cat skin and Puan has known me for years.

At the time I didn’t realize it but over the next couple of weeks I’d be skirting the edges of what is now the center of the international trade in tigers, leopards and other endangered species.

Tiger head and skin for sale at Mong La the border town up in Sipsongbana (twelve villages in the Dai language) I had no idea that taxidermy was this advanced in the Shan State. Someone must have sent away for a mold for a leopard as well as teeth tongue and nose.
In the early 90s I  befriended an ethnic Chinese from New York city who used to go to Mong La regularly to purchase gem stones to take home to his uncles jewelery business in NY. I think he used to bring in the gems informally. (hidden very discreetly) He would wait on the Chinese side for the traders to come over to sell, he made a trip to Mong La every two months. I think I was the only fellow American he bumped into on his trips, it was when I lived in Dali. Even back then Mong La had a reputation of allowing things that were often frowned upon in the more Puritanical Peoples Republic.

I’m an agnostic on the hunting of cats in the land of other peoples. Not my land, not my people. I will say the upland peoples have been hunting the same cats using the same firearms (black powder muzzle loaders) for hundreds of years. It's not them who have changed.

I remember a long time ago, in my own country once I got kind of a bad feeling when I saw the skins of a few bobcats stretched out on racks for drying in the back of someone’s pickup in Utah, it just struck me the wrong way for whatever reason. Cats are an interesting family of animals. They never seem to seriously overpopulate and they spread themselves out through being territorial. In general they don’t eat carrion. I like seeing the tracks of a mountain lion despite the fact that they probably eat a deer a week. Cats hunt by stealth, so do us humans sometimes.

I thought of writing when I saw this article on the website of Radio Free Asia.

Burma up in that part of the world isn’t under the control of, well, Burma. People call it Shan State, and has been fighting Burma since forever. The Mekong separates Burma from Laos and the river is very narrow and turbulent. A metaphor perhaps. I know that other foreigners travel in the area but I’ve never seen any. The only boats I’ve seen are Chinese freighters, local shallow bottomed Lao freight boats, the fast boats I’ve ridden and once an overpowered sleek Chinese passenger cruiser.

Looking north from the landing at Xiengkok. I don’t think the barely visible bamboo pier sticking out into the eddy created by the calving of that sandbar is a pier for offloading to Keng Larb. My map from Reise puts the town 15km upriver.

The Radio Free Asia (RFA) article is taken from a report from TRAFFIC an org that monitors trade in species. There are some gems such as this one.

The extreme decentralization of northern Burma "makes the situation more difficult to monitor and control,"  Translation: There is no government and no way any of us are going there.

Another one, “Mong La and Tachilek are areas in the Shan State of northern Burma, where rebels are waging a battle for greater autonomy against the junta.” Greater autonomy translates into not having their village razed to the ground and every living thing in it killed. There are no reporters or observers to bring word of the conflict to the outside world, it just happens.

The article goes on to claim Keng Larb in Burma is the new exit point for the trade. The mention of that town is what perked up my ears. So I looked at the map. Sure enough right where that birds beak type thing sticks into Laos. The bird beak is a big old turn of the Mekong, at the tip of the beak is the tiny port of Xiengkok, Laos. That’s where the Long river enters the Mekong. The river and the ledge jutting from the hill, form a slack water big enough for boats to pull out of the current and moor. Any place the river slows down enough to actually allow a boat to stop is a real big deal on the upper Mekong. There’s a customs house. 

Lao freight boat firing up it’s engines as it enters the fast water at Xiengkok. We all watched the boat silently swing out into the current without power waiting to see what the heck was going on. The captain hadn’t started the engine so to save a couple precious drops of fuel. The engine coughed a couple of times then caught and blew out this tiny cloud of smoke. Without power a boat would be dashed on the rocks within seconds of entering the rapids. The Chinese blasted a channel a few years ago but there is still a tremendous amount of water trying to squeeze through a very narrow passage.

Xiengkok is the place the backpacker Ryan Chicovsky disappeared under unusual circumstances four and a half years ago. If anyone reading this travels to that  area, and hears anything about Ryan please contact his family as they are still seeking word of him.

I can see how the trade in tiger parts would find the Mekong along the Burma Lao border a good place to exit Burma. There is no law in Burma, the only outpost of the Lao government is the lone, very boring, customs house in Xiengkok a town known for being perhaps less regulated than the rest of Laos. The dirt road from Xienkok up to Sing and the local border crossing with China has no checkpoints before the border itself. At the border both times I’ve been there everyone has been playing dakaw that kind of cross between volley ball and soccer played with a hard wicker ball. It’s not a border for international travelers.

Further down the Mekong where Burma meats the Thai border is the town of Huay Xai with it’s hard surface road where in four hours you can drive to the big casino at Boten. The Chinese casino that is built on 25km of Laos with a 30 year lease and an option for  60 more. It would be very hard to tell where Laos ends and China begins. I saw an article recently with photos of tiger kits for sale there but I can’t seem to find it anymore.
Finally there is the possibility of going straight up the Mekong is China, with no Lao checkpoints at all. Those 3 possible routes out of Keng Lap, all very loosely regulated, offer inexpensive, quick passage to China for the wildlife trade, far away from developed towns.

An example of howe "out there" this stretch of river is, a few years ago a fast boat got shot up and a Chinese army guy killed. Something to do with the Chinese casino in Tachilek not paying it’s protection money. What a Chinese army guy was doing all that way down the river so far from the border of China just goes to show the confluence of corrupt officials, lack of any kind of government, and competing illegal enterprises.

Huay Xai is also the first place one ends up that has internet, electricity, hot water, and all the trappings of modernity. While walking down the main street I saw a store selling curios from the forest. Boar tusks, porcupine quills, exotic looking crystals, and such. Lying on the floor was this very beautiful skin from a marbled leopard.

I asked the young lady minding the store if the owner was there. He still wasn’t there an hour later and I politely asked permission to take the photo.

Nov 26, 2010

New 100,000 Kip note

I'd be happy if they just got rid of four zeros.

I'd swear I see Kaysone's ghost emerging.

For analysis sometimes deeper than I could understand hop on over to New Mandala.

Nov 25, 2010

Opium and Laos, a hard habit to kick

I was back on my old computer but this time using Chrome as a browser which worked and I found this older article from The Economist which I'll link to here. No photos are mine.

Golden Days The Hills Are Alive With Opium Once More

It's a good article and worth the read. The setting is in not just Laos but Luang Namtha Province, not so much because Luang Namtha is in the Golden Triangle tri border region of Thailand, Burma, and Laos but because of all the opium producing areas Luang Namtha is probably the easiest for a reporter to get to, there's even an airport.

The dateline of the article closely matches the time I was in the area going walkabout in the area of upland villages. Of course I smoked no opium nor did I see anyone smoking opium nor did I see any opium fields. I can be very decidedly oblivious if need be.

What the article is saying in a nutshell is that many farmers after being poor for a couple of growing seasons are switching back to growing opium. It helps that the market price has shot up to $1400 a kilo, Seems like it was only a couple years ago when $600 was considered pretty good.

Besides newfound prosperity are the other clues.

The fields on the distant hillsides away from all the others and not looking like rice or corn. The tiny paper wrappers from the double packs of aspirin used to mash into the old ashes and mix with a nice new heated ball so to be smoked and allay the headache. The place on the ground next to the wrapper at the trail junction where you can see someone stopped to lay on their side to smoke, and the leaves are matted down just like when a deer lays up.

Update 12|16|10 Radio Free Asia has a new piece on the 2010 harvest which they must have solid numbers on by now. Laos has the sharpest increase in cultivation as a percent of thier 09 figures. They now produce about a twelfth the amount of Burma, quite a bit for little old Laos.

One time a few years ago when I mentioned my reservations about the US suppression efforts to a friend at the embassy he said, "well you know it's not as if the Lao Seung are rich people or anything". And it's true, they aren't rich, but most aren't poor either, mostly they are doing ok, and some are even doing better than that. If the Lao Seung (uplanders) are forced to live without their cash crop it does make a difference. It's not as if their lives were abject misery and could get no worse. With opium yes they are poor, but they can buy hard goods and maybe rice when the grainery is empty.

Pretty flowers all the way up to the Mekong and China.

Update UNDOC yearly report.

Lonely Planet Laos 7th Edition to go on sale soon

I usually greet the publishing of yet another addition of the Lao guidebook with a yawn. It's always fun to see what guest house got mentioned or not and what the new spin on certain towns is, but as far as reading and new views.... well... not so much.

Links on LP site just below the photo of book

I have an idea this edition might be different.

First of all a hat tip to Ms. Straycat who writes the insightful blog lao*miao* , for sending me the heads up and link to the new edition.

I already was aware that Austin Bush a food blogger from Bangkok was working on a new book. There was more to Austin and the guide than I realized.

From the bio and the photo in the portions of  the guide available on line Austin is unlined, young, probably young 30s at the oldest. I've listened to enough of  the "back in the good old days before steam power Laos communication was by elephant courier" and all that stuff. The good old days are now.

Austin speaks Thai, he studied it at Chang Mai University, and being "not old" he might well be fairly fluent. I'd bet some money he also can wing it in Thai Nua and now some Lao, and Lue too. It can't be overstated how helpful speaking the language can be. When I read a guidebook I want an insiders view  telling me things most people wouldn't be able to find out. From his blog, Austin actually has opinions, and from snippets of the guide he's subtle enough to let them leak through on to the pages for anyone willing to read carefully.

The contents I can see look very different. The index begins with abseiling and ends with ziplines. Udomxai gets three pages not three paragraphs. Ou Tai, Ou Neua, and 9 pages on Phongsali Province. I wouldn't be happy to see my favorite places over run but it's nice to see something besides Vang Vien and Luang Prabang. Fifteen National Protected Areas (NPAs) are covered!

Austin had two other people assisting, one of whom lives in PP and so is a local of sorts. Safety in numbers, best to have more than one person to blame mistakes on.

Another part that stuck out for me is that there is a trekking eco tourism portion written by someone fluent in the languages and who has worked for and with many of the international orgs developing hopefully sustainable tourism in Laos. (Must be tough to be known as the inventor of Vang Vien.)

On the down side.... "join pious locals in making a ceremonial offering to the saffron-robed monks during their tak bat dawn procession" Translation "join a million other camera snapping rude tourists by getting right in the face of some monks". When they make me king of the earth I'll make using the phrase, "saffron-robed monks" a capital offence. In fairness it's probably in the fine print of any LP contract with a writer for SEAsia.  "Every guidebook writer shall upon pain of not recieving pay use the cliche "saffron robed monk" at least 15 times  further writers about Luang Prabang must suggest becoming Budhist for a quarter hour at tak bat."

Another downer, the guidebook was researched and written before the Northern Lao/Boat Landing cookbook, (wonder if a shorter way to say all that has evolved.) I'd think it pretty difficult to get a handle on a culture's cooking in a country with hardly any restaurants and those that exist sell mostly restaurant food. I can't imagine learning the food outside of a kitchen of a resident, and until now there was hardly any literature explaining what it is you're looking at.

Should be shipping sometime after Christmas.

Oct 31, 2010

Further Into the Forest

The morning began as most mornings. The eldest wife pushing the coals together and blowing on them to start the morning fire and cook the rice. Everyone else still fast asleep in the dark. I got up but kept my distance, waiting for some water to boil to make instant coffee in my steel cup. I wasn't sure of the etiquette in Hmong houses, I couldn't see a clear demarcation of women's side from men's side as with the Akha. I do know that no woman wants a foreigner underfoot early in the morning, so after getting a nod of approval to get some water from the boiling kettle I returned to the edge of the sleeping platform and re bandaged a blister on my foot.

Morning fire Ban Nambo 20 54 25.70N 100 53 50.10

This post is a continuation of similar posts about a walk in NE Laos in the winter of 07 and 08.

With way over a thousand kilometers of roadless and mostly mapless area the Nam Fa drainage has plenty of places to go for a walk. None the less Tui had one particular town he wanted to revisit, Ban Nam Hee. I think as much as anything the village headman had been welcoming and Tui wanted to go back and say hi. Also last time he'd been there the villagers had told him that it was only one day's walk futher to Jakune Mai where we both have friends.

Tui'd taken an Italian there during the preceding year. That walk with the Italian had been the only foreigner at all in these woods during the two years since i'd been here in early 2007. One of the soldiers with an AK had accompanied them. Tui made jokes about the gun. I've seen hunters stash thier rifle in the bushes before entering an unfamiliar village. Good to enter a place with an empty hand. I don't think the escort was appreciated.

Black Powder Rifle from hunters we met at stream crossing
My guide Tui was the son of the military comander of Lao communist forces in the region throughout the war, afterwards his was head of the district capital past the turn of the century. Like many Lao Tui's dad got his military training in Hanoi, where they taught him all kinds of things best forgotten. Tui taught English in the high school, he usually knows former students in every village, and most people have heard of his father. The connections are helpfull when entering a new village.
That said, upland peoples are an independent self assured bunch. Tui's liniage though known, affords him no special status other than his normal station as guide and teacher and my being a falang is nothing more special than any other stranger. Often the people we are talking to are elders and current and former headmen of their often large old villages. I mostly listen quietly trying to understand what's going on, I go easy with the camera.
After an early breakfast of wai wai we left with our local guide. Hiring a local guide accomplishes a few things, most of them good. The local guide is a hunter and knows all of the trails and his way around the hills. It puts the equivalent of skilled labor wages into the pocket of a subsistence farmer. Three people, one of them a local woodsman, is much safer than two strangers. The guide usually has a much greater depth of knowledge of local flora and fauna, more than likely he knows any strangers we are apt to meet, if not personally, then through kinship ties.
Looking back at Ali's house, the Lahu headman whom I'd stayed with back in 06. Notice the Lahu houses are up on stilts. Stopped to take photo of Nambo 20 53 56.41N 100.54 03.22E

The trail was good and after the first long big hill the terrain eased up. We seemed to be headed in a generaly south easterly direction similar to the way we'd walked the day before.
Despite a lack of accurate maps I have a rough idea of where we are all the time. Far to the south east is the new hard surface road from Huay Xai on the Thai border that goes up to Boten on the border of China. West is the Mekong, behind me the dirt road from Sing to Xiengkok. 

They pushed me hard for the first part of the morning. We had a good sized hill to go up. Afterwards the elevation changes were more moderate.

Break at the top of the first large hill. Hunters had been using a white tree for target practice. (six inch goups at 30 meters) Top of Hill on trail to Nambo Gao 20 52 59.50N 100 54 17E

At around noon we passed the site of the old village of Nambo. A guy I talked to the night before said he'd spent his entire life in old Nambo and he figured he was around eighty years old. On the old topo maps from the war there's a red dot in about  the same place as Old Nambo and a label LS125, "Lima Site 125" which is military jargon for landing site. Someone probably landed a helicopter there and made contact with the villagers.

 Besides Lima Site 125 at Old Nambo you can also see Muang Long in the upper left and the present day Mongla labeled Lima Site 358. Click for larger scale.

Old Nambo gone to weeds.  20 50 53.50N 100 54 29.20E

Heading down towards a creek we heard a shot, and at the crossing met a couple of hunters. We stopped there for lunch. While one of the hunters started a fire the other chased some small fish into the shallows and scooped them up on the bank. Combined with the bird they'd shot, the kilo of rice they'd brought, and some of my favorite flavor enhancer, they had a pretty good lunch for themselves. Certainly a lot better than plain rice. The bird was simply plucked then cleaned by splitting it open with a thumb and discarding some of the guts, stuffing others back in the bird. Similarly with the fish. All had bang nua and salt rubbed into them then were quickly barbecued.

Fish and fowl

Prepping Lunch

Kao Neao, Ping gai, Ping Pa, Bang Nuah, Gua, a perfect lunch.

They say the Akha might get half their protein from the wild. I can't think of many other societies today where every single male is a hunter. Their bullets are made in molds of lead and propeled with home made black powder. The newer longer rifled barrels made in Thailand are a big improvement over the older smooth bores. I'd guess the long barrels are to get as much speed out of the slow burning powder as possible.

Notice the powder horn in the forground? Except for the barrel, most of this rifle is homeade, looks really good. What next Monte Carlo combs?

The Akha often hunt with dogs. The dogs sniff out the pig or deer and bark to alert the hunters that they are chasing the animal. No carnivore is too big to fear the dogs of the Akha and there is a feeling of safety in walking the woods where carnivores still fear man.  The only animal people  have problems with surprisingly is the mild mannered black bear. Mostly meek sometimes the bear mauls someone unprovoked. I figure it's a reaction to the fact that  they live in a bad neighborhood. Tigers and leopards prey on black bears, sometimes even after the bear is full grown, the only defence the bear has is it's strength and ferocity.

Asian Black Bear from camera trap by WCS. Notice how thin the fur is, you can see the skin through it especially along the belly. Still, built stronger than a brick shite house as they say.

We were reaching a point where it is closer to the new hard surface road to China than it is behind us to the road at Muang Long. Close to the road is a demand for market bush meat. The Chinese built a large hotel casino on the Lao side of the border at Boten and the entire town and market surrounding it runs on Chinese currency and speaks Mandarin. (I'm repeating what I've heard, haven't really been to Boten in about a few million years, certainly long before the casino)
The road also drives a demand for all the nutty animal based medicines. for export to China. I'm sure the customs house has been upgraded since I passed by, but the Boten entrance has to be one of the more obscure entries to China. I wouldn't think the customs has much familiarity with CITES . 

The Akha claim the Kahmu are poaching on thier land, pushed further inland than normal. Maybe by the demand of the market? The Kahmu are actually the original inhabitors of the land, as far back as legend survives. 

It's not just the Chinese at Boten that drive the market, Lao people still enjoy eating civet, porkupine, pig, deer, snake, bat, and bamboo rat if they can afford it. The many varieties of insects, frogs, tiny birds, and fish are still comonly eaten even among the small amount of the population that reside in towns.

I read in a report once that even citizens of the capital can name 300 local species. When I think of doing the same around here I'm afraid I'd run out somewhere around 100. Very recently almost every person in Laos was familiar with gathering fish, frogs, insects, and all of the wild growing plants. It's hard to tell someone that has been eating wild food all thier lives that it's now bad to buy civet in exchange for the money they earn by working.

The afternoon fades from my memory, more hills, more trees and finally the Nam Hee, a major tributary of the Nam Fa. We stopped and washed ourselves in the creek, the water bone chillingly cold. The first bath in a couple days, I felt downright clean and presentable until our local guide unrolled his jacket. 

Blurry photo of local guide all dressed up --Nam Hee Crsng way to ban Nam Hee 20 49 50.90N 100 55 20.70

Less well known, the upland men also wear distinctive clothes that identify them as belonging to one ethnicity or another. In this case our guide was a Hmong fellow. He reminded me of the young cowboys of Wyoming getting duded up in preparation to go to the barn dance. 

The hilltribes have devised ways of both enlarging their gene pool and guarding against inbreeding. In other instances I'd felt as if Lu woodcutters had been taking advantage of fairly young upland girls. In reading I now realize that more accurately they were taking advantage of the social norms that allowed them to get lucky at the same time as the villagers perhaps diversified their genes. It seems as if every time I jump to make moral judgments, I later find I didn't fully understand the situation.

It helps me to realize that the villagers are basically the same human as am I. True I come from a much more developed society technologicaly, but with human interactions, I'd think we're about the same. 

We wander through life mostly as strangers to each other, behind our steel firesafe doors, at the end of our anonymous suburban culdesac. The Akha can recite their lineage back for scores of generations. They not only know their relationship to every living soul in their own village but the connections via  marriage and lineage to every other village of their people from before the time they imigrated out of the north hundreds of years ago. Imagine living next door to your best friends and all your relatives for your entire life?

Shortly the trail became worn, we smelled wood smoke, and heard chickens.

After passing through the village gate, Ban Nam Hee itself became visible, initialy it was strangely silent, and empty. Nothing moved except chickens, no dogs, no people. Then a wild cheer, and singing or chanting to drums and some unusual musical instrument. Except for the music all was again quiet, then a most horrible anguished cry, silence again, then a shout of triumph, cheers.

I'm used to having packs of dogs nipping at my heels or old grannies giving me the evil eye. I understand that until we are accepted by someone we can be viewed with suspicion. There are also instances of villages being absolutely closed to all outsiders. I'd no idea what the heck was going on. Some kind of human sacrifice was the first thing that came to mind.

Halfway into the village we came upon the game of tops. The entire village was cheering the contestants. The tops are spun off a stick with a rope. I'm not sure of the rules, I believe someone can lose their lead by having their top knocked out of the way. The music was a CD of Akha music imported from China. The village had a generator and batteries to power a sound system.

Ban Nam Hee 20 49 04.00N 100 56 06.80E