Loading Map...

Muang Sing, Laos

Written on: Monday December 4th, 2006

A journal entry from: Southeast Asia

In the last few days we have trekked into the jungle, forged rivers, crossed rice paddies, climbed hills, eaten food rolled in banana leaves, pounded rice, spun cotton, and passed into a culture so different and unrecognizable from anything western. "Trekking" experiences are a big part of travel in SE Asia - ethnotourism. In places less removed from the tourist path, it has looked fairly questionable ethically. Some believe that tour companies pay hill tribe peoples to "perform" for the tourists and these companies leave very little money to the village to help improve education and health. The impact is more negative than postive. So, we have avoided such experiences. However, here we are in a very remote part of Laos - Muang Sing. Not sure if you'll find it on the map, but it's not far from Yunnan, China. This little town has a few guest houses and a few tourists. It felt like we were the only falangs in town last night. We were definately the only ones staying at the guest house. 

Our trekking adventure began after meeting  Tanya and her Irish boyfriend, Kevin. We joined up with the most unexpected character you would imagine off the tourist path - a Texan called Lyle. He became the source of our laughter for several days.    Two guides led the five of us on our journey, hired from a government agency, not a tour company, with the money going more directly to the guides and the villages visited. With no other tourists about, we justified that our impact on the hilltribe peoples would be more positive than detrimental.

We began the trip by being trucked part way into the hills to the first Akha village. The Akha are a culture that originated in Burma or China. They live in higher altitudes, cultivating rice by clearcutting and burning the jungle. When the land is depleted for growing rice they use it for other things: rubber, sugarcane and even tea. Anyways, from this village another guide joined us, a young Akha man, who knew the way through the jungle and over hills and valleys to a very remote village where we would be spending the night. It was an incredible hike taking us eight hours! We had to travel in the heat through deforested areas, across rivers, through rice paddies and long winding jungle paths, dark and eerie. We arrived at the village just after dark - an assortment of bamboo huts on stilts high up the mountain. We are greeted by the village headman and his family and led to a specially built hut for visitors. In it were clean mats and blankets and our beds were lined up side by side. In the centre was a mat for eating and on the other side of the hut was the fire, water boiling for tea and the fire built for dinner. In the dim light of the candles a wonderful Laos meal was prepared of garlicy beans, stir fried pork, eggplant whatever, and of course, Akha rice - freshly hulled that day. By this time a crowd had gathered to stare at us. How many people can a bamboo floor hold? Kids, mothers with babies, elders - such an assortment of people wrapped in traditional cloth and the women and adolescent girls wearing very elaborate head coverings - the more beading and jewellry the better. The older women have very black mouths and teeth as they are chewing gum from the betel tree. As dinner ends we are asked if we would like an Akha massage. We know it's a special offering and that it would be impolite to say no, so there we are, all seven of us receiving shoulder and back rubs from the Akha women. They are chattering away, more people arrive, and obviously we are such a spectacle to them. Eventually the "massage party" was over and we all went to sleep, awakening only once in the night to the sound of the pigs and cows wandering around underneath the hut. The rest of the time it was absolutely quiet. We awoke in the morning to the eerie sound of pounding, pounding, pounding, coming from different places in the village. Greg and I got up and discovered that the women were already busy at work in the village so we joined them. I pounded rice with one family, helped spin cotton with another and stopped to join some villagers around the many fires burning. But it was the children that were so delightful. They wanted their pictures taken and then shown them - great with digital cameras. So, check out the photos. The shots of the children are so wonderful. After a breakfast of more rice and vegetables we left for the hike back. We stopped in a village and visited a school. The kids loved to interact with us and I spent a bit of time teaching them some English and them teaching me some Laos.

It was a truely authentic experience, one that was so amazing in what we learned and how much we gained respect for the challenge of these remote communities. They are living totally self-sufficient as they have for hundreds of years. They can grow, spin and weave clothing, although it looks like some of them have been given western clothing. They build everything using what they find in nature around them. They use plants from the jungle for medicinal purposes. But, the debate exists. Should they too, have access to more hygiene living conditions (no toilets), better access to health and education? Or should they be left alone?They are untouched by the "do-gooders" missionaries. They have a strong belief system in spirits - evident in many ways in the village, a strong family structure, a healthy assortment of food, but - from our value system - it seems like squalor. Who are we to judge, but by being there, we have left a footprint. Yikes.