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December 16, 2004

Hill Tribe Trek from Luang Namtha

From Luang Namtha I signed up for a 2 day trek that would take me to hill tribe villages. Seven Europeans, myself, and 3 guides set off by Tuk Tuk to the trailhead. We would be using trails cut by tribespeople for their own trading purposes, so the route was from village to village.

After a traditional Lao lunch, which might have been the best mid-hike picnic I've ever had, we descended the ridge towards our destination. To enter the village we had to pass through the Spirit Gate, which is said to protect the village from evil. It would be of no protection to us unfortunately, and not much of the other hill-tribe magic would be of much help either.

We dropped our bags inside the hut built for visitors and wandered about the village, which receives some income for welcoming tourists. Walking around felt surreal. I could have been in the early pages of a history book. Pigs, dogs, roosters run freely about the village. Everybody contributes to the survival of the village: women pound rice grains, kids carry water from the river, elderly women sew crafts to sell at the market.

In the evening we were invited to have dinner with the chief of the village. Through the interpretation of our guide we were able to ask many questions. The chief was serving up Lao Lao, an alcohol made from fermented sticky rice, so the questions flowed freely.

This wonderful experience was ruined when upon returning to our accomodation we discovered that some of our belongings had been stolen. One girl lost some cash, another her passport, and as for myself I got my sunglasses ripped off.

The chief announced to the vilage that there had been a theft, and that all dwellings would be searched if our belongings were not returned to his doorstep by the morning.

After a cold and sleepless night I walked through the village. Even before dawn the sound of rice being pounded out of its shell could be heard. Small fires were lit everywhere to keep women, children, pigs, dogs and roosters warm.

The thief had not returned our belongings, but the chief decided to try something else. To give the thief one more chance at anonimity, everyone in the village was to make a package out of banana leaves and present it to the chief. I was invited to witness the opening of the packages. Evidently the foreigners had missed something in the explanation of the procedure. All villagers offered rice grains, or green lettuce, but the eight packages that contained rocks and dirt drew laughs from the onlookers and shame from us. Still, no package contained sunglasses, passport or money.

The village shaman had been called upon to help clear the mystery. The previous night he had said it was impossible to help due to the dark, but in the morning he declared the thief was married and had two kids, and was still in the village. Next, he cut a piece of bamboo very evenly then split it in 160 pieces (!) of equal length. Everybody got one of these pieces. Apparently a magic word was embedded into the wood, and the guilty one would cause the wood to grow. As an engineer I had a bit of a hard time with this one, and all westerners agreed it would be a bad idea to drop our wood in the water. All pieces were returned to the chief and measured: none had grown.

But the shaman had a few more tricks up the sleeve of his coat. Villagers prepared a bowl containing rice, an egg, some greens, and a bamboo string and told us to present it to the shaman while pleading for his help. We managed to keep a straight face while our begging was being translated to the shaman. He took our bowl and polished the egg, then whispered to it for a minute. After placing the egg vertically in the bowl, he threw rice at it. At some point two grains stuck to the top of the egg and animated discussions ensued. People looked worried, and we followed suit until our guide explained: this meant that our belongings had left the village.

Another bowl was summoned, empty this time, and without us begging the shaman broke the shell of the egg and poured the contents. The string from the first bowl was passed below the yolk. Somehow, the orientation of the egg indicated the direction we would have to take to find our belongings. I figured the tilt of the table determined where the egg rested in the bowl, but I am no shaman.

Before our departure the Chief apologized again and wished us well. It seemed to me that most villagers were genuinely saddened that something like this could happen. We continued our trek as planned and filled out a police report when we returned to Luang Namtha, or rather, I wrote it and it was then signed by all concerned. We asked the police not to search the dwellings of the villagers. It seemed to us that the thief would conceal the goods in the forest anyways, and we didn't want to subject our hosts to unnecessary discomfort.


After the trek I took a bus to Oudomxai. Where I rested for a day before heading North to Phongsali.

Posted by piegu on December 16, 2004 03:10 AM
Category: Laos
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