Northern Laos is not a place for the faint-hearted. The mountains roll on forever and the views are spectacular. But along with the beauty comes the harshness of living in such an environment.
Yesterday I returned from spending three days with minority Khmu tribes in small villages as the solo paying member of a Green Discovery tour. The first village, Ban Namkoymai, or Nahome, was only accessible by foot. My guide Ae, local guide Chom and I hiked for the morning up the side of a mountain, stopping about 11am to chat with some French women who were headed to a different village. Being the only member of my group, the trip was based around my walking time, but it was somewhat quiet because although Ae's grasp of the English language was quite good, it wasn't at a level where I could just have a chat along the way for no purpose than to break the silence.
After lunch, Ae and I headed down the hill on our own, crossing a little creek and arriving at Nahome by about 3pm. I don't particularly like the strenuous uphill trekking, but prefer it to slippery, muddy downhill trekking where it's easy to slip on a loose stone. Luckily, the pemetherine I'd washed my clothes in and Bushman deet spray I applied did the job, and I survived the entire trip without a leech. Ae took great interest in my spray and on the second day he loved watching the leeches recoil at great rate when they came in contact with his sprayed thongs. That's right - thongs. They seem to be part of the normal attire here, and the Gibbon Experience guides and Ae all wore them when taking us out trekking (I stuck with my hiking boots). Apart from being easy to grip the ground, the thongs were quick to slip off anytime they entered a building, meanwhile I had to stuff around with laces and make a scene out of something that should have been quite simple.
It's been a big year for the 100 or so people of Nahome. Not having access to a road means everything has to be made onsite or carried in, so it really is remote living. Earlier this year the German government helped the village install a series of water pumps. People still use the Nam Ha river at the foot of the village to wash themselves and some vegetables, but it's now possible to access water further up the hill. There's still no piped water to individual houses, but the squat toilet I used was plumbed and the school had what looked to be the only solar powered electric light in the village (with power saving environmental globe).
Food consists of a lot of sticky rice, which most of the villagers grow in nearby paddy fields, as well as fresh vegetables and meat such as beef, chicken or fish. Soup is consumed communally from a large bowl, and you use your hands to roll the sticky rice into balls that you then use to pick up pieces of the other communal dishes. I have a feeling I was treated to the best of the best on the trip - and was very grateful for it. However, I had mixed feelings when I saw the young cook at the second village of Ban Hatgnong head up the kitchen stairs with a live chicken in hand, and half an hour later we were eating chicken soup with pumpkin flowers that Ae had liberated from a crop that we walked past earlier in the day. I guess fresh is best. As a guy from Newcastle pointed out to me last night, at least there's no chance of salmonella!
The Nahome woman whom Ae helped cook dinner was very welcoming, and I spent a while letting her children play with my camera. The youngest would have been 2-3 years old, and he was quite intrigued about how a picture of him could end up in the camera, often looking underneath and to the back of the screen. In both villages I found that pictures were a good way of communicating, especially as I had a few of Australia on the hard drive of my camera, and it was exciting for people to see pictures of far off places and a koala.
I also learned that if you put a hard mattress on top of a hard mattress, on top of a third hard mattress, you still get a hard mattress. Still, after taking a couple of antihistamine tablets for some little insect bites on my wrist that doubled as sleeping tablets, I had a long and restful sleep in Nahome, which I repeated in Ban Hatgnong.
The saddest thing I have so far seen on this trip was the bunch of kids who came to say hello to me in Nahome. One of the smaller kids - just a toddler - was entertaining himself by putting anything he could in his mouth. I don't think he was hungry, it was just what he did. The problem was that this included a disposable contact lens packet and a plastic wrapper that previous tourists had discarded near a campfire designed for tourist groups. I took my rubbish out with me and a few extra bits that I found nearby, and later asked Ae about rubbish disposal. He said the villages had a big hole that they filled when they couldn't burn the rubbish. Still, I couldn't help thinking that the tourism wasn't always playing a positive part in the lives of these villagers. Nearly every child I saw in Nahome had a runny nose, and many ran around with bare feet. This isn't an inditement on the level of parenting, but simply an indication that more work needs to be done to help the health of these people. The water pumps and sewerage were a great step, and the almost constant arrival of tourists in the peak season (November - February) brings much-needed cash, but more needs to be done.
Women have home births, with two people in the villages designated as medical carers, but I daren't think what happens if there's complications. Schooling is compulsory for primary levels, and English is now being introduced to children at a young age. For children in the small villages, they have to travel sometimes hours to go to school above Grade 3, often living in the village during the week. At secondary level, students often go to boarding school in the big towns such as Luang Nam Tha. When I visited Nahome, the one building school was closed for two days while the teacher went to a meeting in Luang Nam Tha, however, I was still able to make a small donation. When I did the same thing at the much larger Ban Hatgnong, the villagers turned up with an old wooden suitcase designated for school donations and I had to fill in a record book for them, they were so used to such an offering!
The hospitality shown to me at both villages was very welcoming, although I got the feeling that they rightly didn't want to be seen as a tourist attraction - this was their life and it was important I didn't intrude. I bought BeerLao for Ae and my cooks/hosts both nights, which was welcomed if somewhat implied as a suitable way of showing my appreciation. However, it was a genuine enough gesture that they repaid the offer by giving me shots of their local firewater - a whiskey made from rice that, like most firewater, burned my throat and kept me warm, while tasting a bit like rough gin. Both villages also gave me bags that the women had woven - I think the second one was as much to say "mine's better than their's" when the woman saw the bag I was using for my camera. When she gave me the bag, she quickly put my camera in hers instead!
Apart from staying at the two Khmu villages, I passed through a Lenten village. These people are descendants of the Chinese and despite no road being visible, they had electricity, satelite tv and much more luxurious living conditions in general than nearby Nahome. My cook from the first night had walked ahead, so it shouldn't have been any surprise to be welcomed by women in traditional garb - or at least traditional skirts - when others walking around were not in traditional attire. The women proffered their handmade bags, friendship bands and bamboo paper. I didn't have a lot of small change kip on me, and had budgeted a set amount for school donations and a tip for Ae which was already being dwindled down by the evening drinks of thanks, plus I didn't need or want to carry anything else, so I was in the rather awkward position of asking Ae to explain to the women that I didn't have much money and that I would only buy a friendship band. Then I had to choose from about 10 baskets, with all the women looking on - luckily I chose from the basket of the woman breastfeeding at the time; surely no one could begrudge a young mother! Still, it was the only place along the way where I was ambushed, and a sure difference between the minority cultures. As the two bags I had been given closely followed my donation to the schools and I agreed to send back some photos, I thought it impolite to offer to pay for the bags as they were genuinely offered as gifts. Still, the language barrier was difficult.
This was very much the case in Ban Hatgnong, when the gentleman whose wife had cooked me dinner and given me a bed for the night arrived home from work at the Department of Youth some 30 or so kilometres away (on a rugged, unmade road at 30km/hour, that's quite a trip to make). He spoke some English and was keen to practise, but I couldn't understand what he was saying some of the time and I was concerned I had offended him by giving his wife a beer. The situation was made all the more weird because when I met him, I was in my pyjamas in his loungeroom which doubled as the guest quarters and he was unaware I would be there. His mother-in-law was watching Thai soap operas (she was the woman who had made the second bad for me) and I had set up the mosquito net with the help of the father-in-law in an attempt to create some personal space for me as there weren't really any insects to ward off. In the end, I bought the guy and his mate a beer too, and he seemed okay with that, and respected my request to let me get some sleep. Still, I felt more comfortable in Nahome, and was very glad to have been able to experience it first, and then compare it to a village which had all the benefits that came with a road. Not only larger in size - about 250 people lived there - the attitude of people was different. There were a couple of shops, including one that was run by my hosts, and it was much more progressive. But as with most things, it had lost the innocence of Nahome and the people that lived on the land.