Tribal Trekking

Our time in Luang Nam Tha began with a blast from the past. We shared a bus ride with a couple named Nick and Amelia from London and immediately recognised the body language of England’s capital. We chatted away about shared experiences and admired Nick’s dreadlocks, which had been seventeen years in the making. Although sporting diametrically opposed hairstyles, we held a common employment history. We both stand as refugees of the television industry, Nick having worked at a post production house named the Farm, not far from my previous workplace in Soho. He had also spent time as a DJ on pirate radio station Origin FM, most likely in direct competition for listeners with my show on Rude FM. We were joined by a German woman who had a portable ’exercise hula hoop’, a fat busting workout which, upon demonstration, gained rapturous applause from the locals at the bus stop. Her ample breasts were no doubt the cause for many late departures that day. I would like to offer a fair portrayal of her Glaswegian friend, but I couldn’t understand a word she said.

 

Unfortunately none of these characters were to join us on the wonderful trek we undertook in the area. We were however joined by a conscientious Chilean, Martin, an eccentric Aussie named Jorge and two wonderfully dead pan Canadians named Mari-eve and Amalie, both from Quebec. We all met in the office of ’Jungle Eco Tours’ and spontaneously decided to do the three day ‘Jungle Trek’ together, a decision which would keep the cost down to 750,000 Laos Kip each. One becomes a millionaire at every ATM withdrawal in Laos with every transaction becoming a laughable game of count the zeros, but after some tough maths this price came to roughly £65 each.

 

We were assigned our guide the next morning, a charming young local named Hak. Our first stop was the local market for supplies, though Hazell wasn’t keen to linger after being greeted by locals huddled around a fire barbequing a rat. A quick purchase of mossie repellent and back to the car. We began walking from a small village where we met our other assistants, two female porters and another well built Lao man who had been watching too much Rambo. We were followed to the river by two giggling girls who fell into complete hysterics as we attempted to cross the river on a highly unstable wooden vessel. We all managed to stay afloat and our trek began in earnest on the opposite bank.

 

We walked for a couple of hours through the dense greenery, all enjoying the soft heat and fresh air. We were particularly satisfied with the fact there was only a faint trail and we most certainly required a guide to lead us through the dense jungle. Lunch time soon arrived and our guides first laid a picturesque banana leaf table, soon to be adorned with the ubiquitous lumps of Laos ’sticky rice’, vegetables and omelette. After taking my fill, I was attracted to the hillsides behind us which were billowing smoke. Huge plumes of dark grey and black stretched far into the distance; a pyromaniacs fantasy unfolded, precipitated by a single old lady brandishing a flame. I felt a sudden connection to Linus the self proclaimed pyromaniac from Finland we had met in Darjeeling. Slash and burn agriculture is the norm in these parts, though we were informed by Hak later that within the protected ‘Nam Tha National Park’ area, it is not strictly legal. Nonetheless the locals continue to farm the land as they have always done, preparing the area for rice growing season.

 

We crossed a number of rivers and streams during the afternoon and, feeling brave and indolent, I neglected to cover my bare feet with flip flops. Our female porters doubled over in laughter as I slipped and teetered my way across stream, while they carried cooking equipment casually on their heads. Despite my shortcomings, we arrived at ’jungle camp number one’ before sundown. It was a fantastic spot nestled next to a river and before the sun went down we all jumped in, intentionally this time, to relieve ourselves of the days sweat. Our lodgings had been constructed by locals for our benefit and they would receive a portion of our payment for the trek. It was a basic wooden affair that certainly wouldn’t keep the bears out, but it was home for the night.

 

We all chatted around the camp fire as dinner was prepared, and once again I was glad to be a vegetarian as the others chewed their way through some tough buffalo meat. Furthermore, our very own Rambo had stripped down to his pants in the dark, donned a head torch and spear combination, and waded into the river to catch breakfast. He returned half an hour later, Y-fronts bulging with minute fresh water fish, all delicately arranged on an icy bed of shrivelled testicles; certainly not a retail tactic favoured by mongers elsewhere in the world. With this image etched in our minds, we fell asleep in our sleeping bags to a cacophony of noise from the jungle’s permanent residents.

 

We were woken at sunrise by cockerels and tucked into breakfast. I couldn’t stop grinning as the non-vegetarians tucked into an extra fishy opener for the day. At least they were provided with a sachet of Nescafe 3in1 to wash it all down with. The second day was the toughest of the three, a rewarding uphill climb through dense bamboo jungle, which according to Hak had caused a previous trekking group of French hikers to cry. Our guides expertly plucked young, white bamboo shoots from the ground, which are soft and succulent and were to be cooked for dinner. This amazingly versatile plant has many uses in the jungle, a point proven as our guides lopped down sections of the more mature variety and constructed a table for our lunch on the spot. Our sweaty garments lured a swarm of wasps into our vicinity and poor Martin was stung while chewing on his buffalo.

 

We stopped to admire the views across the valley during the afternoon and I also learnt a little more about Hak’s background. My favourite aspect of hiring a guide is learning about their culture, though Hazell claims I interrogate rather than converse. Either way Hak was happy to oblige and informed me he is from a tribe named the Tai Dam, or ’Black Tai’, an ethnic group originating from Vietnam. Confusingly, ‘Tai’ in this instance doesn’t relate to Thailand, but a distinct demographic of South East Asians who have been displaced many times by warfare. ‘Black’ refers to the traditional headdress and skirts worn by female members of the tribe. Hak explained Tai Dam members are ’animist spirit’ in religious terms, and it is believed that the spirits of the deceased live on. Shrines are erected for parents who have passed away and food is offered to them every ten years. We particularly admired the attitude of our trekking company towards local tribes; their aim is to preserve traditional cultures while distributing profits from tourism fairly between participating communities.

 

On this basis we arrived at ’jungle camp number two’ on the second night, built by another group of locals. The wasps had also joined us so the distinct lack of walls was a pressing concern. Before dark Hazell and I ventured down to the fresh water spring to shower. We were both a little self conscious and cold as we stripped down to our birthday suits, but in the end thoroughly enjoyed a naked shower in the jungle. Another sticky rice based dinner slipped down nicely before we all huddled around the camp fire and watched a storm move in. I woke in the night to a crash of thunder and a wet sleeping bag. The rain was torrential and a flash of lightning illuminated the leaking rafters above our heads, between which Rambo was swinging, banana leaves in hand, attempting to patch up the holes. What a man.

 

The third day of trekking saw us emerge from the tightly packed trees and encounter a cultural highlight. We arrived at a hillside that had been completely stripped of greenery, leaving only dry clay earth. The mounds were dotted with a few houses and tribal villagers looked on inquisitively as we came into view. The impact was instantaneous and we were transported hundreds of years into the past. We made our way self consciously through the incredible landscape, stopping in the centre of the dwelling to observe two small huts on stilts. These tiny abodes are built to house one 14 year old girl, Hak explained. Upon reaching this age, girls in the village sleep in one of these huts until a male selects her for marriage.

 

The inhabitants of the village had only seen foreign faces for the first time four months previously, so we were a little uneasy as we attempted to interact. Hak assisted and soon we were taking photos and laughing together. The older residents were enchanted to see their faces in the digital camera screens. Hak instructed us not to give cash, though none of the villagers asked, as it encourages begging in the future. A much healthier model is promoted by his company, whereby a proportion of our payment is given to the inhabitants we met.

 

From the village we descended further and I spent the afternoon falling over and enjoying the transition into a landscape of rice fields. As the warm sun dipped we arrived at our destination village, greeted with a ‘sabaidee!’ from the locals. As we waited for a lift back to our guest houses, a small girl played hide and seek with us, clearly enjoying the attention. She knew how to strike a pose. The whole group agreed the trek had been fantastic and worth every penny. Most importantly it had endeared us fully to the Lao people and their fascinating country.

 

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