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 . http://www.cites.org/ 

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


Kees said...

Great read LBK!
Especially liked your bit about the gene pool. I have been e couple of times in a similar situation, where I was uneasy about my driver's interest in a 15 yr old village girl. He just laughed about it, but I still felt uneasy!

Where did you finally reach the road? East or west of Vieng Poukha?

Would your trek be something that could be taken up by the VP trekking service?
Kind of almost virgin territory for farang trekkers.

Somchai said...

Hi Kees,

My google filter pulled up a travel blog post by a couple that had hired a guide in Vieng Poukha and walked to Muang Long. Distance from the Nam Fa river motor boat to Ban Nam Hee is supposed to be 3 hours local time wet season. (six hours falang walking time) The blog post didn't say much except they were unhappy, food, walking, etc. Start and end names of towns only. I can't blame them, you can see "hilltribe" people in LNT why walk?

Library notified me your book is on their shelves now. ;-)