Traveling from Nong Khiaw to Muang Ngoi by wooden long boat on the chocolate brown Nam Ou River, which cuts through steep jungle-covered karst mountains is as idyllic and beautiful as it sounds. That populated areas of shoreline are lined with colourful blue and green long boatsalong adds to the feeling – this is that stereotypical steep jungle terrain that mental images of southeast asia are built on.
We arrived in Muang Ngoi from Luang Prabang in the late afternoon and settled into our well worn (read: holey and mosquito-ridden) bamboo bungalow and then set out to walked the 500m long main street. To call this a main street is a bit of an oversell – this is more a muddy walkway devoid of vehicular traffic and which is the only unvegetated footpath in town.
We had come to Muang Ngoi hoping to get out to the surrounding villages which have supposedly largely retained their traditional cultures. We were, however, undecided on whether to trek unaccompanied or with a guide, so to clarify things we stopped in at Lao Youth Travel to discuss options for treks and homestays in the area. Here we met Xiong, one of the heads of this outfit and a travel guide himself, and he showed us several different options. These were all interesting, but Brett and Josh both became much more interested when Xiong explained that he had just ‘surveyed’ two new paths and was trying to develop them for the upcoming ‘busy’ tourist season (November/December). We asked more.
There are two options he briefs us on – a long one-day hike to a village which he says has not yet seen foreigners (outside of some of the men that make trips occasionally to Nong Khiaw). We are drawn in. This includes lunch in the village. But then he describes another similar trail to another village that requires a full day to get to, thus requiring an overnight stay in the village, and a path which crosses through two other villages that have not seen whiteys before in their own midst. To top it, he shows us some photos of his recent late May trip to clear the path for the less-suited western feet.
We discuss. The price quite high by Lao standards (roughly $90 for the 2-day trip per person, all inclusive), but Josh and Brett can hardly bring themselves to pass and Angie somewhat reluctantly agrees. The reluctance is gone from her being not five minutes into the next mornings boat ride to the trailhead.
We tell Xiong of our choice and he is quite excited himself – and he reiterates that this is the first time he will be taking people to these villages and, because or this, he cannot assign another guide and must go with us himself. We’re set for 9am departure on a 2-day trek that involves ‘up, up, up’ through slippery and muddy (this is monsoon season) mountain fields to a Hmong then and continues on to a ridge-top Khmu village for the night. The second day will, in Xiong’s words, include ‘down, down, down’ to another Khmu village and ending at the riverside Hatsa, a Lao Loum village.
We set off around 9am the following morning with our guide Xiong, our ‘local guide’ (he spoke no English and Xiong never told us his proper name), and a boat driver. Josh is feeling none too well, but with a slight arm twist from Brett he decides to carry on and not miss this. For those of you ever to hoping to rely on Brett for medical advice, this starting of stomach pain eventually resulted in Josh having an emergency appendectomy in Chiang Mai five days later.
We rode for about three hours up the Nam Ou river in a small wooden long boat, the views along the way even more stunning than on yesterdays boat ride. We passed several small villages and made our way to a nondescript trailhead to begin our trek. The trek went straight up the hillside on a thin, rough path made incredibly slick by last night’s torrential rain. Thankfully our local guide cut us each a bamboo walking stick from the jungle for support. Even though the three of us were wearing shoes with appropriate tread, we were certain to fall (Xiong and the local guide walked in flip flops, as did all the Lao villagers we met).
After an hour of trekking, we arrived at our lunch spot. We sat in a bamboo hut built and used by rice farmers and looked out over the land. It was a fantastic view and a nice lunch punctuated by fresh pineapples – better than any we’ve ever had before or since.
Another hour or so past our lunch stop we near our first village – a Hmong village – and come upon a family weeding their rice fields just prior to town. At Xiong’s behest, we attempted to help them but our weeding skills prove deficient and we are soon well behind their progress – much to the amusement of a few of the villagers. They are somewhat shy, though the oldest man grins and encourages us and a couple the primary school and young teenage kids constantly steal glances of us as they work. This is the only village we will visit where traditional dress is still observed, mostly by the women. The teenage girl near the center of the photo above is an example of this dress – a woven skirt coupled with a vest.
The homes of the village were quiet due to the people being in the fields. However, it was our introduction to a Laos mountain village. There were a few older people in the village and a few of them were not shy about walking near to us and staring. We also noticed that the conversations (in Lao) between our local guide and the villagers was not exactly cold, but was less effusive than elsewhere. This may be partially due to history – the Hmong have a difficult history in Lao society.
The Hmong have long been an ethnic minority in Laos and for that reason have often been on the losing side of struggles and have not been treated as equals. During the Secret War, the CIA recruited and trained many Hmong men to fight against the Pathet Lao communists on the promise of securing them a more prominent, and perhaps dominant, role in Laos following the defeat of the communists. This defeat obviously never came, and the Hmong are still persecuted in Laos in what the other ethnic groups see as a traitorous decision to aid a foreign interest. Following the Secret Wars, many Hmong from both Laos and Vietnam fled to refugee camps in Thailand to escape persecution, and many who remained in Laos were forced into re-education camps. Beginning in 1976, the US government helped resettle many Hmong in the US, especially in Minneapolis and St. Paul and Milwaukee. However, the Thai refugee camps remain and 1990’s efforts at repatriation sanctioned by the UN and the Clinton administration resulted in the disappearance of many forcibly repatriated Hmong (they did not wish to voluntarily return).
We continued trekking for another several hours through rice fields, up and down hillsides with Xiong eagerly greeting local people as we passed. The beautiful rolling mountain scenery was covered with all shades of green. The smiles and mostly interested looks on the faces of people was very interesting to watch – some feigning a lack of interest despite sneaking looks at us and some stopping dead in their tracks and just watching us pass with no efforts to hide their surprise. It is certain we were showing similar smiles and interest.
In the late afternoon/early evening, we came upon our second village and a local shower (bamboo poles channeling water from a spring). Xiong convinced Josh to shower up, hoping to help him feel better as the walk had worn on him and his swelling appendix. After a somewhat comical Josh shower in front of many prying eyes from the surrounding rice fields, we walked into the village, the first foreigners most outside of some of the men had seen and certainly the first to step foot in their own town. We were led in and introduced to the main chief, a youngish thoughtful looking man dressed in shorts and green polo who kindly welcomed us into his home.
Sitting in his home was an amazing feeling. We were treated first to water, boiled with a root that gives it a reddish colour over a fire which gives it an oddly delicious and refreshing smoky flavour. We were introduced to some members of the Chief’s family and his young children looked on with some wonder, but the women were largely behind the scenes cooking.
The most entertaining (and probably most valuable and memorable) part of this experience was watching the many faces in the house’s open doorway. The village children peered in at us. The primary school aged girls sat unafraid in the doorway flashing smiles at us that quickly disappeared into shy hands the moment we acknowledged them, their male peers preferring the look in with blank stares of wonder from a slightly further distance. The older young teen-aged kids were no less interested but much more reserved in their interest, and many (especially the boys) resorted to multiple casual walk-bys of the open door, each walk-by coupled with a few quick looks in. Adults also adopted this method in a much more casual and less self-conscious way – they would slowly pass by, looking in with unashamed wonder and inquisitiveness. Some young mothers brought their younger children to the doorway and urged them to wave at us. It was soon apparent that we were as much the attraction to them as they were to us, if not more so.
While the already-showered Josh sat in the comfort of the Chief’s home, Brett and Angie showered in another local shower spot with Xiong and over a dozen village teens. The cool, stream water from the bamboo system was wonderfully refreshing after a long day of walking, it was the process of showering which was interesting, especially for Angie. Again, we were the ones on display, as cleaning oneself is a bit different than we were used to. For women, they all wear a sarong and somehow manage to clean all parts of themselves without ever exposing any parts of their body between their chest to thighs. Angie tried to watch how the girls were able to complete such a task, but it was difficult to watch without being the creepy foreigner starring at someone showering. Angie borrowed a sarong from the chief’s wife, but getting it to stay on was not working well for her. For men, they all shower in their underwear, so that wasn’t too difficult for Brett. At this showering spot (above), there were two spouts, so having about 20 people trying to bathe under two spouts was a bit like a dance; one person quickly steps in and out, and then another steps in and out. There was no standing underneath the water spout. Finally, drying off and getting dressed without exposing any of your bits was a challenge. It was like junior high PE class. In the end, we felt refreshed, cleaner, and slightly like a circus side show.
We all enjoyed a mountain village meal with the chiefs (it turns out there are three – the main chief we’d been introduced to and two secondary chiefs) and other respected village men. There was all local food including bamboo shoot soup, chicken, and mountain sticky rice. The mountain sticky rice became one of our favourite dishes, and is probably our second favorite of all rices we have tasted (hat tip still goes to red rice in Bhutan). Prior to this trip, we never knew rice could be so good!
Josh and Xiong slept in the main chief’s home, while Brett and Angie slept in the home of one of the secondary chiefs, which had more floor space. Even though we were at an elevation above which the mosquitos reach, Xiong proceeded to set up a net and provide us with a nice padded space for sleeping.
We were woke early in the morning by the rooster’s crowing and the chatter from the people outside. Before breakfast, the four of us walked around the village, checking out the view from high above and seeing the people beginning work for the day – and again ‘helping’ out, this time with the pounding of rice.
We were asked to not take pictures directly of people at the village, but photos of the village at large where acceptable and Angie caught some people in those photos. The above is a photo Angie took looking from the second chief’s home out into the village. The home on the right (with our clothes hanging out front) is the main chief’s home. However, Angie loves that in this bottom left corner of this photo she managed to catch a little girl with her baby sister wrapped on her back. The little girls were probably no more than 5 and 2 years old and they were both watching us with such curiousness.
Leaving the village after breakfast was an really unforgettable experience. There was a large gathering of villagers surrounding the area, just watching with interested and warm expressions on their faces. We said our thank yous and good-byes to the chief’s family and to those around. Then, their eyes just followed us along our path out of the village.
The trek continued down to another Khmu village where we sat on a log bench for a rest in the middle of the village. Fascinated villagers came and sat around us staring with interest while Xiong spoke with some of the villagers; however, we had no interaction other than sharing smiles and waves.
Continuing along up (yes, there was up here, not just ‘down, down, down’) and down hillsides, we ran across more of the muddy slippery paths. Falls were inevitable, but with the support of our walking sticks we mostly stayed upright – mostly. The walk became more challenging in the heat and through the jungle but it was easy to ignore this discomfort given that we were consistently met with amazing panoramic landscapes.
We eventually completed the long climb down and entered Hatsa, a Lao Loum village on the Nam Ou river. Our boat driver met us at a local home where the family allowed us to clean up, and they cooked a wonderful meal. It was a beautiful and enjoyable experience, as we all (the family, our 2 guides, boat driver, and us) sat down to a fresh, tasty meal. Laughs and smiles increased as the Lao rice whisky was served at a continuous pace, with Xiong a particular target of those dishing out the whisky based on his inability to handle his alcohol.
Returning to the Nam Ou river to head back towards Muang Ngoi was a welcoming affair after our two days of trekking. We were able to sit for a couple hours and enjoy the impressive karst mountains.
The trek through the Laos jungle and mountain villages will be one of the top experiences for us at the end of this travel and the trek made us really fall in love with this country of Laos and left us wanting to see more. The people, environment and simplicity of life are wonderful and attractive.
After determining that we needed to get Josh to a hospital as quick as possible, we began an overland journey from Muang Ngoi, Laos to Chiang Mai, Thailand. The stars seemed to align for us, as transportation just seemed to work when we needed it to. Here is the run down:
- Day 1: Muang Ngoi > wooden long boat > Nong Khiaw > tuk tuk and mini van > Udom Xai > mini bus, tuk tuk > Luang Namtha;
- Day 2: Luang Namtha > tuk tuk and bus > Bokeo/Huay Xai > wooden long boat across Mekong > Chang Khong > van > Chiang Mai > tuk tuk > Chiang Mai RAM hospital;
- Day 2 continued (Josh only): Chiang Mai RAM hospital waiting room > feet > doctors office > wheely hospital bed > 10th floor hospital room > wheely hospital bed > CT scan > wheely hospital bed > 10th floor hospital room > wheely hospital bed > surgery > wheely hospital bed > surgery recovery area > wheely hospital bed > 10th floor hospital room.
It was an eventful trip. For some of us more than others.