Dec 20, 2011

Mum (Fermented Elk Liver Sausage)

Above one very fresh elk heart and liver taking up most of the sink

One of the good parts about cutting up one’s own meat is that you get to make use of what many call “the fifth quarter”.

One hurdle to using the “other” parts to their full potential is getting them in the first place. When confronted with the enormity of hundreds of pounds of steaming warm meat lying on the ground I have a hard time thinking beyond the logistics of getting that huge heavy mass back home and into butcher paper packages in the freezer.

By the time I’ve pulled the whole heart/lung/liver/gut sack/intestine mess out of the body cavity and rolled it onto the snow, I’ve about had enough of getting up close and personal with the big pile of other bits. The heart, lungs, liver portion sits above anything that could be called guts and is a good place to start.

Today I’m writing about liver. Elk livers are packed chock full of vitamins, there are nutrients the elk can’t find all winter while the grass is dead and the snow is deep, the supply of those nutrients is stored in the liver.

above after careful trimming I ground smaller pieces into hamburg

Mum is a traditional way preserving liver without refrigeration.

The recipe is actually pretty straightforward and uses basic ingredients every Lao household already has.

You start with grinding up fresh meat and follow it with a lot less fresh liver. We used 1000 grams of ground meat to 300 grams of liver. In a large bowl we mixed it with a cup of precooked sticky rice which we’d whetted so that it was slippery instead of sticky half a cup of chopped garlic, half a cup of lemon grass, and fifteen kafir lime leaves. The lemon grass was the round part not the flat sharp leaves, sliced thin across the grain then chopped in the food processor, the kafir leaves were simply sliced very thin. Also a couple table spoons of salt.

above lemon grass grown in the pot

above kafir lime
Sticky rice cooking in the pot

The entire concoction was kneaded for ten minutes of so in the bowl then run through the meat grinder one more time with the sausage adapter at the end inserted into casing from a pig. Our first use of the sausage adapter for the grinder, I think the regular sausage maker is better, tighter sausages even if it takes a little more work to push.

The liver besides storing vitamins, filters things out from the blood, I don’t eat liver from raised animals, I’m too worried about antibiotics and growth hormones or gosh knows what all.

My fellow blogger over at Lao Cook calls sticky rice “Lao Rice” in that Laos is the only country in the world where all the inhabitants eat it as their every day rice. There are other rices called sticky from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, or wherever but they are an entirely different rice. In Laotian and Thai language the rice is called kao niao, sometimes called glutinous rice it contains no gluten. If you’ve never had kao niao then you’ve been leading a deprived existence and you need to buy a steamer, a basket, the book Food from Northern Laos, and start living the good life.

Lemon grass is sold at many Asian markets these days. You need to buy some that has the bottom of the stalk or root bulb attached, plant it in a large pot, and you’ll never need to buy again.

Kafir lime is more problematic. Most people cultivate a tree. Unless you live in Socal or Florida that means a house plant, hopefully an overgrown houseplant. Leaves are useless dried, sometimes they’re sold fresh or frozen at Lao Markets here in the US.

Finished sausages off the grinder

Back to sausage. After being put out in the sun inside the protection of the screened jerky maker to remove most of the water they are allowed to further ferment and dry inside the house for a couple of weeks. The starch in the rice is some kind of kick starter in the fermentation so that the meat ferments as apposed to rotting. We cook them all then freeze them, so that they can be thawed and eaten on at moment’s notice as hors d'oeuvres, The sausage is sliced into bite sized pieces and served with raw green onions and hot sticky rice on the side.

drying mum

done mum

Nov 26, 2011

Return to Jakune Mai

Some days start out bad and get better, rather that than the other way around.

I get up early. Nature calls. Everyone else has to get up to take a leak too but I prefer to get out while it’s still mostly dark. Others are doing the same, young pregnant moms hitching up their skirts, and old guys like me ducking behind a pig sty or old fence. The village is surprisingly without smells for a place without toilets. Dogs and pigs and cats all have their place and serve multiple functions in what I guess you’d call a traditional village. Maybe I’d just gotten a little too used to things.

When viewed over the perspective of time, most of our existence as Europeans has been as a crop growing metal working people living not so differently than the Akha do. Only in the last hundred years of so have we developed telegraphs and computer chips. Pigs and chickens under the house are kept in at night, dogs are free to roam but mostly outside of the house, they guard for danger, chase rats, and assist in the hunt. Cats live in the framework of the house assuring a lack of large insects, snakes, lizards, mice or rats. I was comfortable to be in the house of a friend in a village I’ve been to before with sounds and smells and a rhythm familiar and predictable.

I used my bit of private time to clean and apply new tape to a blister that had been bothering me for a few days. I’d been ignoring it. Out on the porch of Lao Pao’s house there was some light and I intended to wash and air my feet. First I peal off my old layers of bandages in the light of my headlamp and some of the syrup from my blister spills on the split bamboo floor. White blood cells I guess it is, I don’t know, I’m not a doctor.
Things were worse than I’d thought. What had been a bothersome distraction for days, was, on closer inspection a big hole in the skin on the inside of my left foot. The mother of all blisters. I used some of my water to wash.

Tui my guide wasn’t overjoyed to see my foot no doubt he was wondering how this big old falang was going to get over the hill and back to the road. When shown to Lawboa my foot garnered no more than a moment’s look-see. People live and die in Jakune without recourse to doctors or hospitals, on a scale of one to ten a nasty blister barely twitches the seriousness meter. As my wife tells my kids when they get a scratch, it’s a long way from my heart.

What was obvious was that walking was going to be a problem. My desire to revist Mongla further down the Nam Fa was out of the question. Sompanyao on that long high ridge above Xienkok would wait for another day. We were still a long way from the Mekong or a road. There’s a way over the side of Phou Mon Lem from the old townsite of Jakune Gao, then a long downhill to a town of Lanten people with a road, it’s the shortest way out.

I gathered my washing stuff and headed up to the village spring. Before I left Loubi’s house I asked Tui if I could  buy a young shoat for dinner. This was a rest day and we hadn’t had much meat. Good way to lay some cash on the owner of the piglet and for all in the house to have a mini feast.

The water was piped down to the upper end of the village via a system of hollowed bamboo trunks. Still when it arced out over the tiny bridge it was freezing cold. I’ve no idea how people take showers in it every evening. I wore a wrap around type sarong everyone wears for modesty, still a young girl who came to fetch water ran away in fright. Shortly thereafter the new village headman came walking up to the spring to say hi, I should have already been to visit him, but what with arriving late and staying in the former headman’s house I’d been ignoring the niceties.

I’d barely started back to the house when Tui met me part way very excited about a deer that had been shot, he wanted me to make sure I had my camera. After a quick glance at the butchering job in progress I ducked inside fetched my camera and took this photo.

Law Pi’s two eldest sons had gone hunting with the two guys from the next house. The heart is beside the pan and the liver and lungs are in the pot. Notice that they are discarding the contents of the upper intestine, they’ll save the casing to make sausage.

One front leg goes to the new headman, and another leg goes to the house of the oldest man in the village, that’s the way it is. That still leaves a heck of a lot of meat without refrigeration. No parts are wasted.

I’ve read reports by nutritionists saying the upland people get half their sustenance from the forest, not only in the form of various fauna but also the wild plants, especially the ones that predictably grow up on old rice fields gone to weeds.

Every single male hunts.

The government has outlawed the hunting of endangered species as well as market hunting. That leaves quite a few species, and almost all of the ones that have been traditionally hunted for food. Muntjak which is a small primitive deer with a forked set of horns, and wild pig are the two big game species. Smaller animals include squirrel, all the birds, snakes, bamboo rat, porcupine, civet, and so on.

Above are the jawbones and other parts of some animals stored with plants and leaves tied about them. Normally there would be the horns of muntjak and the larger ones of the sambar which is a larger deer. Sambar horns fetch $100 at the market, no doubt muntjak quite a bit less. The term trophy hunter used as a pejorative in modern western society. But I’ve yet to see a people who don’t value and save the horns of a deer. Notice the round wheels of suet from deer or pig.

I’ve no doubt that the leaves tied to the jawbones of prey are somehow related to a ritual either for luck in future hunts or to the life given up to eat. I’ve heard the Akha believe spirits to be in all things, no doubt they exist in deer too.

Photo of the cutting up.

Inside the house many willing hands were cutting and chopping the dear to be made into a huge dinner.

I’ve never eaten at such an elaborate Akha feast. At least four different kinds of meat dishes, two different jeaos (spicy sauces) and a huge soup. The rice is from the mountains, with a little imagination you can taste the smokey flavor of slash and burn.

photo of laid out dinner

I was surprised the guang (muntjak) tasted exactly like the deer back home. Below a photo of a muntjak caught in a Wildlife Conservation Society camera trap down south. This one is a red muntjak, there are many varieties.

photo WSC

The muntjak is the oldest deer species. Like many tropical deer it’s horns are mostly for defending the territory of a foraging specialist.

As often happens when I have the smell of lots of fresh meat and blood in my nose for too long I wasn’t so interested in eating meat. I tried one of the minced meats, then settled into the soup on top of my rice. Laobi’s wife seeing that I wasn’t eating much meat reached down into the soup pot with her chop sticks and deposited a largish hunk of meat in my bowl. It was extremely tender and mild with a small bone in it’s center. Deer embryo leg. Soup was probably fluid from the embryonic sack.

I’m mostly ok eating different things, if they taste ok, I’ll eat them. Tui my friend mentioned afterwards that he’d always avoided that dish before.

I dozed through the afternoon in a “belly full of meat” kind of daze. I was tired from days of hikes that lasted into the night. I was trying to rest up for the next day when I’d try to walk out to the road. I’d been on much of tomorrow’s route before. In making a beeline to the town the trail cuts up over the highest piece of real estate around, for the first couple miles it goes up and then up a lot more.

I carefully made a two inch diameter cut in the side of my boot where my foot had been rubbing. Better to give up some protection from dirt and water in exchange for an end to the rubbing on my foot.

In the late afternoon I went out to take some photos in the late afternoon light. First  Lawbao’s wife then quite a few of his family and the guys next door asked me to take their photos. I’d taken some pics of my host and the headman of a close village on a previous visit, and brought them back and given them to people as gifts. Maybe word had gotten around.

Many of the poses were stiff and rigid, as if they were redying themselves for something painful, others were clowning. None of the women wore make up. They live too far from the road to have seen many magazines or how women use make up in “civilization”. It has been almost 3 years, I’m waiting for the day I can return and give them their photos.
Lawpao on R, his wife and youngest children.

This post is part of a series of posts about a long walk I did mostly in Muang Long district of Luang Namtha Province Laos in the winter of 08/09. Below are the links to the other posts.

Nov 17, 2011

Som Guang

Som Guang

With fresh deer in the freezer all kinds of foods are starting to appear. To the right are most of the ingredients of som guang or in English “sour deer”.

Today the chef mentioned she was making hamburger with a couple packages of deer. “Why not use the meat grinder?” was my question. I guess the flavor is better if chopped with the cleaver like laap. The hamburgers for the kids never materialized, instead they had Cosco Pizza, and all the chopped meat was used in the preparation of som guang, probably the original plan.

When I got back with the pizza the meat was chopped and I finished peeling the garlic. Maybe a kilo of meat and 3 heads of garlic. Yes heads not cloves. Note the garlic press over on the right? Garlic is important to the “cure” of the meat. The dry ingredients were the usual, salt, bang nuah, a tiny bit of sugar even though you aren’t supposed to, a couple cups of cooked sticky rice that had been whetted with water to make it break apart and mix easily. The rice is also very important, I think it feeds the right kind of bacteria to make the meat sour instead of rotting.

Meat squeezed and mixed with all ingredients, looking carefully you can see the sticky rice.

There was also an additive that helps keep the water in meat sausages. I think it might have been some sort of phosphate. As soon as the ingredients are mixed the garlic robs the meat of it’s red color. It becomes more brown.

The concoction is all wrapped into long fat rolls of about an inch or more in diameter with plastic food wrap and set on the counter to age. It will sit there for three to five days until sour. It’s tested for done by frying a tiny piece. When at the proper ripeness all of the uneaten meat is frozen in the plastic until needed.


In Laos the sausage would be wrapped in banana leaves and tossed in the coals of the cooking pot. The meat will be cooked long before the banana leaves burn.

In a few days these rolls of meat will be som guang. Takes longer in winter, colder room.

Also.... Links for reference.
For all food Lao
Also Lao Cook had a great video on how to make som moo, which is similar but using pork instead of deer. I can't get it to play now but here it is.

Oct 15, 2011

Murder Piracy Drugs and Warlords on Sleepy Upper Mekong

Is that a blatant attention grabbing blog post title, or what?

No doubt they see a lot of strange things come down the river at Chiang Saeng, but the two Chinese cargo boats rudderless, crewless, and turning with the currents of the Mekong no doubt caught the attention of anyone watching the river earlier this month. Chiang Saeng is just downstream from the border of Burma, it is what passes for the beginning civilization in that part of the Wild East known as the Golden Triangle. Competing casinos in Burma and Laos vie for the baht of eager Thai gamblers. Though no longer the center of world opium production the poppy is still widely grown and the lawless Shan State in Burma is a large supplier of methamphetamine (ya ma) for South East Asia.
Above the two unlucky boats tied up at Chaeng Saen

I have a lot of photos of this part of the river because I like to take the fast boat down from Xiengkok to where there are roads at Muang Mom. Despite what it sounds like this portion of Laos is generally pretty quiet. Mostly the river sees few foreigners, there are no roads, no ATMs, no airports, or internet. The wide photo up on the header of this blog is actually looking up the river in the direction of China from Xiengkok.

For a couple hundred or more kilometers above Chaing Saeng the Mekong runs between Laos and Burma on it's way from China to the sea.  Xiengkok half way up has a Lao border patrol man watching the river with a very tired eye. The "port" is simply a place where the rocks jut out into the river giving boats a place to anchor in slack water.
Leaving the slack water in Xienkok early 09

The Chinese blasted a channel in the rapids deep enough to run cargo boats most of the year, and it's a regular roller coster ride between the mountains. Chinese cargo boats for now are more profitable than trucking cargo the long way around from Jihong to Chang Rai vial Mengla, then somehow across the river at Huay Xai. Maybe once the bridge outside of Huay Xai is complete boats will stop running.
Chinese cargo boat exiting the rapids above Muang Mom headed upstream. "rocks as big as houses".

For the unfortunate crewmen on the two cargo boats that ride was their last, a dozen Chinese crew were tied up, executed, and thrown in the river.

Above the same Lao freight boat we saw leaving Xiengkok about to enter the rapids below Xieng Dao (I think)

Newspaper accounts attribute the violence to a warlord not receiving protection money from the Chinese. They sure were quick to add a name to the crime too, but a name with freinds at the highest levels within the Burmese military. Who knows, I sure don't.

From the Irrawaddy:

Over the past two decades, three ethnic armed groups from Burma have attempted to control the Mekong River route through the Golden Triangle. The first group was drug lord Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army, followed by the UWSA and the Shan State Army (South) led by Yawd Serk.
“All were pushed back by the Burmese army,” Khunsai Jaiyen said. “Unless they had the support of the local Burmese authorities, Naw Kham and his men could not survive in this area.”
I have a hard time keeping all the names and armies straight, all I know is that I've never had an inclination to step foot on that part of Burma. The closest I've come is fueling up on a fast boat.

It used to be that you could catch a ride on the freighters if you wanted a slow, cheap, way to go to Jihnong China that didn't involve airplanes or the long go around to Boten.

Now there is a fast ferry that looks like below.
167km from the border of China 1/09 early morning fog

In that same article a journalist tells of being extorted for money by the same folks.

“At the time, Naw Kham’s men were on three speedboats. They cut off our boat and boarded it,” he said. “They were well armed, and some of them wore masks. They made us kneel with our hands on our heads. Then they took all our money.”
The speed boats are very fast, basically an auto engine with a propeller at the end of a long shaft pushing a very light weight flat bottomed boat.
 The wind in the face is strong.

And lastly a very short video to get an idea of the speed of the things.

The striped bag is some of my new designer luggage.

Oct 9, 2011

Ahan October

That unidentifiable food next to the kao jao is dinner a couple nights ago.

Worried over a possible frost we picked most of the stuff that's not cold tolerant including the Thai peppers. The leaves themselves are also edible and also pretty flavorful. Besides the chili pepper leaves ingredients were some kind of pork short ribs, lemon grass, green onions, squash (winter squash I think), and the usual suspects, pinch of salt, half teaspoon sugar, bang nua, and most importantly a half a tablespoon of nam pik gaeng daeng that Thai stuff in a tub.

I like the way the thicker squashes go with Lao food. Thickens it without coconut milk. Thicker gaeng for colder weather.

Happy Fall.

Sep 18, 2011

Leaking Laos

Wikileaks has released it's cache of Laos files. I haven't read any of it yet, when I do I'll add to the end of the post. So far no news of cabinet ministers having falang mia nois or other important happenings.

A big hat tip to Lao FAB.

The full set of cables from Vientiane is available here:
Most relevant to the scope of this forum are the following:
Timber, Roads, and Rubber in Sayaboury Province
Most of the above is already know, but finally I came across this
little surprise....

Aug 20, 2011


Sun setting over the bridge on that day a decade and a half ago
Laos began for me the way lots of things do, as a visa run.

It was the late in the dry season 1995 when I found myself sitting in a nearly empty restaurant in Thailand, the place was set out over the Mekong. I was waiting for time to pass. My visa was for the next day. I had no book. Internet wasn’t yet, and there were no other people to while away the time. I did as many others have done before and since. I stared at the river mesmerized by it’s endless twistings and turnings as it slid by the front of my view. I nursed a beer or two for several hours.

Before dusk is a quiet time. Motors and air conditioners cease, people take their evening bucket showers and quietly gather for dinner. The Mekong is wide at Nong Khai yet when a fisherman cut his motor a mile out I could hear every scrape of his movements as he put out a line and moved a paddle in the bottom of the boat, he might well of been ten feet away the sound carried so well.

Quickly dark came and the lights of the luxury hotel up by the bridge came on as well as every little restaurant and house up and down the shoreline and in the town behind me. The number of lights was doubled by their reflection in the water.

It was when I looked across the river for the first glimpse of the lights of the country I was to visit that I noticed the difference. Laos was dark, lights out. Not the glow of one bulb from one single restaurant or house. No lit up half built construction sites, no hotels, nothing. The contrast was stark, on the Thai side was the shimmering gaudy beginnings of another night of the dazzling, lit restaurants, hotels, and sing song bars.

Across the river dark and silent trees.

I had one of those non immigrant double entry visas to Thailand which were the semi official long stay visas for people the authorities for whatever reason were ok with. All I needed to do was leave Thailand and do a U turn at the border, get stamped out, get stamped back in, and I’m good for three more months.

The usual routine was the multi day train ride to Malasia and back, but of late there were rumors of not only tourist visas to Laos but also available in 24 hours at the border close to the capital. I was living between Lam Sak and Petchabune on the edge of Isaan, Laos was close.. My employer was understanding and I was making a small vacation of the whole thing.

Laos wasn’t so much a step back in time, but a different ending to the same story. The currency had too many zeros, the roads weren’t paved, a lot of people lived in bamboo houses, hardly any traffic. People walking, too poor to buy a bike or take a bus. No traffic lights. No advertising signs, lotta dust.

The language was different, more tone range. The people laughed easier and louder. Women wore the long traditional skirt called a sihn and wore their hair long. Commerce was at the market, people raised chickens and grew vegetables in the city center. The men had hair cuts and clothes of two generations ago. The light filtered through the ubiquitous red dust gave everything the sepia tone of old photos, I was smitten.

Laos was a country just emerging from a long self imposed exile from the family of nations and after a quarter century of slumber it was slow to shake off the sleep. A Rip Van Winkle of South East Asia with a Ho Chi Mihn countenance.
This is actually from the time of our first trip back in 01

Aug 15, 2011

Than Thoot Karen

The US ambassador to the Lao PDR has a blog

Than Thoot Karen

Best quote
Usually the Embassy throws parties to celebrate special occasions like holidays or anniversaries. But sometimes we throw a party just for the heck of it! 

May 7, 2011

Web Site of Tourism office in Muang Long

Of most import is the link below.

Tourism Office Muang Long

And a hat tip to Wandering Stray Cat or Lao Meao

Below Mr. Tui in all his glory riding the rapids on the Nam Fa.

Apr 20, 2011

Nam Fa means Sky River

I have no doubt as to where I am when I wake up to the sound of the saht hitting the koak-tam-kao. The foot powered pestle falling into the large mortar carved from a log is such a low solid sound it reverberates through the hard packed earth and up the posts the house is built on and into beams supporting the floor and the sleeping platform I lie on.

Usually I wake up when the eldest wife starts the fire. Today the sun is fully up and the wife of the eldest son is dehusking the rice under the house. There’s a slight creek as one end of the long pole attached to the saht is pushed down with the foot, then a hesitation as the saht at the other end tops it’s arc then that moment that hangs in time as saht falls through the air and hits the coak.

The chickens are eager to get any fallen grains, the husks will be collected to be mixed with the boiled hearts of banana trees to feed the pigs, and the family has rice for one more day of the year, one of many years, in many generations, of the people called Akha.
Koak tam kao, and in her hand the cotton she is twisting into thread, notice the rice bag that is actually an old fertilizer bag bought from town, it still has the markings 18-20-0 representing how much NPK.

I rub the sleep from my eyes, grab my camera and duck underneath the house to take a photo. I know at the time it’s just a cornball tourist photo. Gotta have a picture of the foot powered saht. I’m accompanied by a couple kids and a dog, the woman is spinning cotton fibers into thread at the same time as she pushes the saht with her foot.

I saw a video shot in Vientiane by some sort of cultural preservation arm of the government, they were taking kids to see a foot powered sat tam kao. Kids in the capital can now grow up never having seen rice de husked except by machine. Gone the way of the water buffalo I guess.

This post is part of a series of posts about a long walk I did mostly in Muang Long district of Luang Namtha Province Laos in the winter of 08/09. Below are the links to the other posts.
Long Time Traveler Muang Long
One Day Treks in the Vicinity of Muang Long
Lahu NIght Out
The Trail To Nambo
Hmong House
Further Into the Forest
Ban Nam Hee
Lost in Laos

On the left the Naiban of ban Huay Poong, on the right the local guide from Ban Nam Hee

Inside breakfast is busy with lots of people. We had rice and a jeao made of toasted peanuts, hot peppers, pig oil, and enough salt to cause stroke. The headman pulled an SKS out of the roof above where I’d been sleeping, opened the magazine dropping six cartridges onto the blankets, worked the action to extract the one left in the chamber, and handed it over to one of the guys that had come to breakfast.
Young hunter with SKS

Tui translated. The young men had chased a large boar the day before. The wounded pig was too tough and they hadn’t been able to kill the it. One of the dogs was hurt so badly it might well die. I could picture scene in my head, young guys running around in the bushes, dogs whirling about, pig snorting and screaming, dogs barking and biting, thick brush and trees, muffled explosion of black powder muskets with lots of smoke that lingers in the slow air of the deep forest.

The hunter was borrowing the center fire rifle to finish the job today. Cartridges are expensive, probably around a dollar a piece, the headman is fine loaning out the rifle but not the ammo. The rifle is called the same thing in Laos as in the US except using mangled french consonants that come out something like Sik Kuh Say. It’s a soviet block semi auto, uses the same rounds as the AK, might well be half a century old.

A new local guide is hired. Tui, and the guides discuss the route, our old guide will return to his village and a new one will take us to Jakune Mai. I was beginning to lose track of how long we’d been out, it had only been three days and nights. This house and other houses and other cook fires in other villages in other trips seem to meld into the fires of the juggies up on the Greys river and on into the Androscoggin of my young teens.

The headman told of his difficulty kicking his addiction to opium, and his re acceptance by the people of the village. I listen with ambivalence. Opium is as much a part of their culture as the saht to dehusk the rice, it’s up to them to refrain from liking it too much.  There’s more talk, of the division of the village, of the route to Jakune, of the other villages of the area.

Soon enough we were walking again. Walking was becoming the thing we do. First the local guide I called uncle, then me, and then Tui. The blister on the ball of my left foot had been hurting for a couple hours each morning, either the feeling would go away or I would stop noticing.

The walking goes easy, down hill but not steep.
Not a the biggest by any means but that root flare is greater than two meters. This just happened to be where we took a break. Purple back pack on left of photo

By late morning were in the very large trees of the Nam Fa Valley. (nam means water or in this case river, fa is sky, so “sky river”. I’m used to very large trees and uncut forests, but the soil at the bottom of the valley is so rich the trees grow very high and the trunks are very large, some of the largest trees I’ve ever seen anywhere. The roots flare out widely to support such weight. What light filters through seems green.

I read a while ago on one of those online forums for scientific NGO workers that a Malaysian lumber company would like to build a hydro dam on the Nam Fa. The fact that the company up to this time only deals in wood is enough to make you wonder. The valley is a long long way from anyone that needs large amounts of electricity.

We took a break at a trail junction. To our left was the path to Mongla an unknown number of kilometers downstream on the south bank of the river. At least here was a route to somewhere I’d been before. I remember Mongla as it was when I left it over two years before, the morning mists so thick and heavy everything was dripping, the soft spoken Naiban and his very pretty young second wife not yet with a child.

I put on my flip flops to protect me from stones bruising my feet and used a couple of poles to steady myself. The Nam Fa was as I remember, knee to mid thigh deep, very fast, and fifty meters wide. In this land of deep forest the river is open to the sky and reflects blue. There is the musty wet smell of a big river.
Nam Fa means Sky River

From the water marks on the bank it looks as if the common high water in the wet season is four feet deeper. With six feet of water coursing through, the river would be impossible to cross for many months of the year. In a place where all travel is by foot an impassable river would create a long barrier.

For a while we just look at the river. The Nam Fa is only navigable in portions, it provides no access as a transportation route. The place where it enters the Mekong is difficult to see, it joins in the middle of a set of rapids, the sandbar pushed up by the confluence is high. I have looked for the entrance a couple of times, it hides itself well. The Fa joins the Mekong just below Xiengkok, someone had to point to it for me to see.

Across the river we walk to a village high above the flood plain. I’m not real happy. We still aren’t close to Jakune, the village is another one neither Tui nor I have ever heard of. It’s called Ban Jungah Mai, the Naiban is only 22yrs old, and he also is named Tui. I don’t know which is more unusual that a small village had such a young headman or that an Akha guy had a Lao name.

I headed under the shade of the house and watched a woman weaving while Tui made arrangements for us to continue on towards Jakune. It’s always a problem with a guide, they want to return to their village, the further they walked the more they want to ditch you and head back.
Weaving Ban Jungah Mai

We headed back downhill towards the river but at right angles to the direction we’d come up. After an hour in the mid afternoon hot sun we reach a tributary just before if joins the main river and miraculously two boats.

It’s difficult to describe how startling it was to see boats. The valley we were in is remote in large part due to the impassable rapids up and downstream. The peoples are Akha, Hmong, Lahu, yet here were some Lu with boats.

The Lu are a type of “Tai” peoples, sharing a similar language to the Thai, Lao, Thai Nua, Dai, etc., and also sharing a similar Teravada Bhudism, similar writing systems, etc. These young guys were River Lu. The kind of Lu who live along rivers and are specialists with boats and fishing. Never before had any Lu lived along the middle portions of the Nam Fa.
Boat on the middle portion of the Nam Fa

Our new guide and a few of his friends and their wives and children had hiked in carrying their tools and built the boats on site where they used them in the few miles with navigable rapids. They also built a water wheel to power their sat tam kao to relieve the women of one daily chore.

Very quickly the boats are down the four kilometers to the landing for the trail to Jakune Mai. Tui and our new guide know each other. Tui used to teach high school and the guide was one of his students.

As we walk up the hill and Tui and the guide talk, I notice that the long muzzle loader our guide is casually carrying over his shoulder is pointed straight backwards and into my face. Interrupting I start to ask Tui if there isn’t some sort of safer walking arrangement and with a couple quick words they put me in the front of our little band. Tui explains the locals have never had any training.  I’d guess all that would be needed would be for the hammer to catch on a twig. Call my a nervous Nellie if you will.
Local Lu Guide

We head uphill. The grade is fairly steep and continuous. Afternoon turns to dusk and the guide leaves us to jog back to the river while there is light. The trail is well used and obvious. Dusk lingers in twilight then it’s dark. I turn on my headlamp and Tui switches on his flashlight which flickers for a while before dying. I figure now is as good a time as any to start talking about snakes.

I don’t like walking at nights, I much prefer sitting, or sleeping. We got to Jakune Mai before it was very late, I doubt it was much past seven or eight. Walked right on through the village without people noticing much, there are no lights, we’re just a couple more people wandering around in the dark. Dogs didn’t even bark. Maybe we smelled like everyone else.

Despite the dark, finding our way to Law Pao’s house was obvious, the village lies on a grade and the house is situated at a certain angle. For the first time in a few days I was in a place I’d been before.
Village Swing in the Morning Fog