Luang Namtha, Laos
By Laura Sullivan
Getting on a decrepit ten seat Russian plane to be whisked off to rural, northern Laos should make a person question their sanity. Fortunately, I don’t have enough time to think about it. The Vientiane airport is a dimly lit concrete box, the clock’s tick echoing in the corridors. The weapons check point is a rusty school teacher’s desk housing a frightening paramilitary. Six local business types wait in plastic stadium seating and soon enough the group is escorted out to some rickety steps, thrust a minty wetwipe by a pleasant girl in vibrant Lao silk, then pushed into a sweaty prop plane.
The plane dips under the cloud line after 40 dozing minutes to uncover a cucumber-bumpy landscape then a steep mountain pass topped with marshmallow fog. We edge towards the mountains then down to a dirt landing strip where one single tuk-tuk welcomes us. The passengers gaze around as amnesia victims. Courage aids me in approaching the only tuk-tuk driver first to say, “Guest house.” He slowly nods, concentrating on the leaf he’s chewing, but waits for ten more minutes to make a move. We head into the town, passing a man dragging his feet as he leads a cow home. Thatched roof houses on stilt are tucked into a lush jungle on either side. The cicadas and birds cry out from the underbrush and children run barefoot alongside the tuk-tuk shrieking with outstretched arms. An old, cracked woman sits on her porch weaving magenta and yellow silk; she unabashedly dons a toothless smile.
We approach a guest house which suits me fine, $2 per night with a “hot shower”. I rent a bike, sign up for the next day’s trek and content myself with wandering through the many local ethnic villages. In one Hmong village I find a bony, naked old man wandering among the chickens and a dirty little girl playing a litter of puppies. The town’s twenty or so woven structures are abandoned except for them. Everything is either a lush green or washed out brown but hanging laundry splashes bright color on the scene.
In the afternoon, it is too hot to move. I try to approach the internet shop for a better map of the area, but end up next door drinking a beer and eavesdropping. I had spotted two stylish American girls earlier that day. They were flying by on a two seat bicycle, one with a thin boyish frame and camouflaged skirt howling on the back. They had gained a third member and I suspected that they were accompanying me on the trek. I took the fact that they had also retired from bike riding for an afternoon beer as a good sign.
Five hours of conversation and a very authentic vegetarian Indian dinner later, we were feeling like old friends.
Some magical times, the earth extends to us a moment in which we feel small. We gain some alacrity, the ability to step outside of our concentric circle of mind and feel a part of the important, nonintellectual, natural world. We start our journey with a long tuk-tuk ride along the new Chinese road. Nothing could have served us better for contrast. Men in mismatched work ware, sweat beading, toil over giant craters. Half-naked children crouch on giant mounds of unearthed red clay to watch the spectacle out of boredom. They tear apart something wonderfully wild, disordered and organic and replaced it with structured and linear concrete. They work as ants for a distant queen. It is a symbol of the modernization taking place in the area now. Laos is the crossroads of Southeast Asia’s economic powerhouses Thailand and China. As Laos has only opened up in the last twenty years for development, the Chinese pound away at a land that hovers above time and will soon swallow it culturally and economically. Somewhere in a smoky office, Chinese business men are making a red mark through a map while drinking the morning’s third cup of coffee. Lao men seem out of place amidst Chinese and Japanese hand-me-down road equipment.
We are dumped off the tuk-tuk abruptly on the side of the road. We wander through a village of roaming children and chickens and on to a dirt path that has been smoothed down from bare feet. We start in with a determined spirit, the rhythm of walking meditative for us all; a chance to reduce our complicated lives.
I had previously reserved the kind of respect that I was feeling for the forest that day for the underwater world. I stood in awe of its intricateness. In every snapshot of the eye is a perfect variety of leaves and flowers, all tucked away in the steamy air. If you stop for a few seconds, you realize another layer of the panorama exists; the call of animals and birds amidst the rattling leaves. We chat occasionally.
A Cast of Characters
Serge is a Russian park ranger reminiscent of the Crocodile hunter. He has twinkly eyes and likes turning over rocks and shaking snakes out of trees.
Dani is a Californian, world-traveling feminist with a sharp tongue.
Lindsey is a 27-year-old naughty nurse from Kentucky. The accent comes out after she has a few cups of Lao Lao (the local rice liquor) with the village chief.
Erica is Lindsey’s partner in crime, a 28-year-old naughty nurse from Florida. With Lindsey, she has made her escape from the grind of American working life and headed off on a scant around the world, stopping in various countries to make money nursing.
Also accompanying us are two sturdy, local guides and a talkative Swiss couple, both 30ish civil engineers.
Back on the Trails
After lunch on banana leaf plates and an afternoon of brisk, uphill trekking, we arrive at around 5 p.m. at the Nalan village. We are tentative about exploring the place at first, as it seems to be a perfectly working system. The villagers are busy with dinner preparations, every person intent on their task of cooking up soup or skinning fish. I take a dip in the river then settle into the porch of our guesthouse to write, when some curious children finally approach. We try to talk, but mostly gauge each other by gestures and tone of voice. I take out a dictionary and we explain each others ages in Lao. This seems to be the sign that it is okay to wander around the village. We gawk at their lives and feel like anthropologists but the locals are disconcerted. They seem accustom to this nightly foreign invasion and have apparently grown bored of the picture snapping. Hosting guests for them is simply a way to let the children have a new school building or the village woman have a new sewing loom.
We have dinner in a twin guesthouse next to the one we are sleeping in. It is almost romantic, the candle light shining on our exchange. The village chief is introduced as the Big Banana. He is there as a matter of formality, but does satisfy some of our curiosity. After we stuff our faces with sticky rice dipped in spicy sauces of pumpkin and eggplant, he pours cups of Lao Lao. We go around the circle in turn, stating our name, country and profession then gulping back a cup of the fiery liquid (Serge first lights some on fire to make sure that it is pure. A trick he learned with Russian moonshine.) Next, we throw some questions at the Big Banana through our guide-interpreters.
We get the demographics of the place down. He is 49 now, but became chief at the age of 25. He goes to meetings with other villages where they talk about the various woes of jungle life. The children go to school for six years, then some go to the city for further schooling if their families can afford it. There is a local shaman who deals with all the forest spirits. When someone dies, they kill a dog because a dog’s spirit lingers longer than a humans and will help to accompany the deceased. The town grows tobacco, tomatoes, pumpkins and rice. When woman get married, they move to their husband’s family bungalow. To celebrate, they kill ten pigs and three bulls and throw a huge bash.
The next day’s trek is a bit brutal. Just when I think of stopping to catch my breath, a woman approaches from behind carrying a huge load of watermelons and passes right by me. It occurs to me that this escape to nature that we are all enjoying is a matter of necessity for some, and I can understand the villagers unease the night before an little better.
For lunch, we stop off in Namkoy village where people peddle their Lantan goods with desperate faces. We all feel uncomfortable. As we are leaving for the final leg of our journey, I have a wonderful exchange. The tribe has come from China and still uses the written script but has integrated a spoken tribal language. As I have studied kanji in Japan, I should theoretically be able to communicate with people on paper. We try to find an old person who still understands the language and finally locate one. I drop my pack outside of his stick gate and enter a dim sitting area where he is taking rest from the afternoon heat. He pulls out a book wrapped in soiled fabric with his leathery hands. As he turns the pages, I find a record of the towns history carefully toiled over. There are some symbols that I know and point at them with excitement. It is kind of Jerry Springer jungle diary about who married who and who owes who a chicken or a water buffalo mixed in with some poetic observations. We are both delighted at the strange encounter of understanding and his smile is such a genuine beaming that I carry it with me for days.
After our final lunch, the mountain trails turn to pedestrian highways. We are joined by locals from a colorful variety of tribes, carrying cumbersome loads of wood, vegetables and crafts to the market in Luang Namtha.
The trekking company in Luang Namtha, the Nam Ha Eco-Tourism Project, took many steps to ensure minimal impact on the environment, but lacked proof of having a positive impact on the local people’s life. All of our meals were prepared with local foods and we stayed in a house made of local bush materials. Our trail was a preexisting trail, preventing the environmental damage of forging a new one. We all carried our trash out with us at the prompting of our guides. On the other hand, the lack of cultural exchange and the general apathy of the villagers towards visitors was disheartening. We wanted to play with the children and dine with the families but felt uncomfortable. In the end, the trek could only be described as awe-inspiring, eye-opening and exhausting.