We have to leave Laos on Christmas Day, and are considering this a “gift” of the worst kind. Laos has been raw and real; there is no pretense here, the people are as genuine as they come and this country has consistently surprised us with delight after delight. The latest delight was a trek that we did from Muang Sing, in Luang Nam Tha province; while it was a world away from our Cambodia jungle experience, this was an experience in its own right with several surprises!
We came to Luang Nam Tha from Nong Khiaw, a beautiful and quiet little mountain town that enticed us to stay awhile (electricity or not!), thanks in no small part to the best Indian restaurant in Asia (he was responsible for 85% of our meals). The trip involved several legs – bus to minibus to bus to tuktuk – but we eventually arrived, intent on departing the next morning for nearby Muang Sing, a destination for eco-trekking (meaning that you pay more and the villages actually benefit from our visits).
Muang Sing is a tiny, dusty little dot on the map where the “ethnic minorities” actually make up 97% of the population. It also has one of the best markets in existence, encouraging roaming “sampler” meals that make your stomach bulge and your wallet smile (food blog to come)! We spent the first day stuffing ourselves, checking out all two of the trekking companies, then renting bicycles and riding to China, which was only 10km away (sounds cool, eh?)
We’d thought we’d have to sign up for trek alone, as tourists were few and far between, but luckily (for our wallets) we ended up with a group of six; a great British guy named Adam and his French fiancee (not so great), who were on a year-long round the world trip, and a cool French couple who were also on a year-long Asian adventure. We departed at nine a.m. on Saturday, shivering in the misty morning and hoping for some sunshine.
The sun showed its face around 10 a.m., as we walked along a dirt road where some guys were cutting sugarcane. These guys were friends of Ko (our guide) and apparently there was a huge New Year celebration at the Akha village we were spending the night in – these guys handed us all some sticks of sugar cane (who needs candy bars??) and gestured that they’d see us at the party. What luck!
The trek was relatively easy (there was an actual trail!), but lunch was a welcome rest. We were treated to an absolute feast; while it didn’t have the impressive preparation show that we received in Cambodia (it all came from the market that morning), it was one of the most memorable lunches of the trip! Ko picked some huge banana leaves from the forest, spread them on the ground and topped them with each menu item; laab, fried buffalo with onion, hardboiled eggs, steamed greens, smoked pork, scrambled eggs with tomato/onion and chili. We were each handed a banana leaf wrapped around a massive ball of sticky rice; we unwrapped it to make a “plate,” served ourselves small portions of each food item and ate ourselves silly! It was all followed by oranges, and there wasn’t a speck of garbage involved.
The trekking went on a bit longer, through some beautiful forest and lots of absolutely destroyed forest. The Chinese loggers have a stronghold here, and are easily able to pay off the villagers to take control of the land. After they chop down everything in sight and haul it to China, the Laotian farmers burn the land then plant rubber trees (a replacement crop for opium) which are only good for three harvests. It’s an environmental nightmare, but a tough situation. These people aren’t worried about five years from now, they’re worried about what to give their kids for dinner. It was a harsh dose of reality to witness, and you have to wonder how long there will be land to farm.
We arrived in the village around 3:00, and the New Year party was in full swing! Huge speakers had been brought in along with a “DJ” and a keyboard, the first time in two years that this village has enjoyed music. Many people had come for the party and it had the same atmosphere that you’d find at any festival in the world; music, smiles, dancing, carnival games, food, drinking…
The dancing was the main attraction, and performed in a big circle around a banana tree. Four girls would start it off, their male counterparts soon joining, followed by every couple thereafter. Everyone would make the circle in time with the music, and not long after we were handed big bottles of Chinese beer, we were told that we would lead the next dance! There was an older Swiss couple there on a three-day trek, and they had been practicing all afternoon – we all jumped in and had fun with it.
As Ko went to work on dinner preparations at our “lodge,” we remained at the party. Eventually Joy, the guide for the Swiss couple, gestured at Gabe and I. I thought we’d have to dance again, but instead he waved us over to a table behind the DJ where we joined the Swiss couple and a few Laotians for multiple swigs of the communal Beerlao. We were then handed clean-ish spoons and shown to a communal bowl of “buffalo soup.” It was strictly broth and I hestitated to ask what part of the buffalo it was; the large head resting on a nearby porch assured me that it came from the neck down!
The Swiss woman told me that they were supposed to stay in a different village, but that upon arrival the chief had declared it bad luck to pass through on a day of celebration, so it was insisted that they stay. She had brought some clothing donations, and as a thankyou the chief had slaughtered a chicken, which was due to be served that evening. Sure enough, we were soon beckoned (Gabe and I were seemingly adopted) to the chief’s hut and soon found ourselves sitting around a bamboo serving table in a dark room, lit only by the glow of the dinner fire in the corner, with the Swiss and several other Laotians, accepting drink after drink.
We were all given chopsticks and two bowls of fried buffalo with ginger (not the head!) were placed in front of everyone with urges to eat and enjoy. An equally delicious dish came next, some sort of chicken with tomato…we couldn’t actually see our food, so I can’t get any more detailed than that.
Soon the chief (a short, 50ish guy in black pants and a Nike sweatshirt) came in with a few elderly people, and they performed a ceremony of sorts where they tie colored yarns around everyone’s wrists for good luck and safe travels. As each person tied a string, they would grip our hands, chant an Akha blessing then leave us to the next person with a huge smile and nop, or bow. After that the sacrificial chicken was placed in the center and we all contributed a few thousand kip as a gesture of goodwill. We figured it was about time to go find our group, but really didn’t want to go! Everyone was smiling and drinking and eating and candles had even appeared, finally illuminating our food.
The inevitable happened and Gabe left the hut for a toilet break in the forest, where he ran into Adam and was told that our dinner was ready. He came back to get me, we explained the situation to Joy who gave us the okay to go (insisting that we return for more celebration), and we reluctantly headed back to our group, marveling at how incredibly lucky we seem to get!
Dinner was delicious as usual, but lacked the excitement of the meal in the Chief’s hut; we were soon back at the party and eventually enjoying massages in our lodge that are apparently traditional for village visitors (regardless, they felt incredible and gave the women some much-needed income). It was cold and I had no desire to go back out; by 8:30 we were huddled on the floor with the rest of our group, trying to stay warm despite the flimsy woven structure and pathetic blankets. There weren’t enough cushions for all of us and Gabe and I got stuck with the bamboo-floor; we wanted authentic, right? A long night ensued, most of it spent waiting on morning.
We were freezing and reluctant to get out of “bed” in the morning, only doing so after the breakfast fire was lit around 6:30. As we huddled around the fire with Adam and the French couple, we couldn’t help but gawk at the 17-year old mother who had been recruited to help with breakfast. She was tiny, could easily have passed for 12 years old, and wore nothing but a skirt and ragged short sleeved shirt that covered up pretty much nothing. We finally convinced her to take a rest and warm herself up; we all felt a bit guilty at our warm clothing.
When we’d all helped ourselves to big bowls of glass noodles with egg and vegetables and glasses of boiling coffee, we insisted that Ko tell her to finish off the remaining food. Her face lit up and she polished off a massive bowl in no time – even when you interact with these people every day, it’s hard to comprehend how poor they are (the per capita GDP in this province is $280).
The day was enjoyable but uneventful (aside from an unexpected river crossing that required everyone to strip to their underwear and plunge into the icy water) – we saw more nice forest (“for the tourists”), lots more barren, scorched hills (thanks, China) and a village full of the most enthusiastic, most camera-friendly and happiest kids that I’ve ever encountered. There isn’t a single child in the developed world that has a smile like these kids have, I guarantee it.
We were back in Muang Sing by 3:00, left to reflect on our experience over more Beerlao and realize that we had a meal with the chief that will stick in our memory longer than any Christmas dinner or New Year’s meal ever will. We are some lucky, lucky people.
*See photos and have a very Merry Christmas – miss you all!