Luang Namtha, a remote corner of Laos
A chance encounter and a casual comment found me flying recently to one of the more remote areas of Laos, Luang Namtha province. While visiting Vientiane, the Laotian capital last year, I went with a friend to see a woman who specializes in weaving. There we discovered her working with Akha and Lanten hilltribe women who had come down from Luang Namtha on a government grant, teaching them how to use their embroidery skills to make items such as eyeglass cases, that would appeal to foreigners. I was amazed that these women had come so far; surely it was a long and difficult journey.
"Oh no", my friend assured me, "the Luang Namtha area is accessible by air and has recently been encouraging tourism". Would he arrange a trip for me? "Yes, but go soon, as the area is now changing rapidly in response to the increase in foreign visitors". Thus, this March, a Singapore friend and I found ourselves on a tiny Chinese built airplane landing on what looked to be an abandoned roadway. There, we were met by my Lao friend who had arranged for a minivan, driven, appropriately enough, by Mr. Sing. Our hour's flight from Vientiane was far easier than my Lao friend's 13 hours by car from Luang Prabang. Land travel in Laos is rudimentary to say the least. Located in northwest Laos, Luang Namtha province, which borders on Myanmar in the northwest, China in the north, Oudomsay province in the southeast and Bokeo province in the southwest counts 39 ethnic groups in its tiny population of 125,000. We immediately set off for the village of Muang Sing where we were to stay two nights.
Muang Sing originally formed part of a group of principalities loosely linked to the Sipsongpana region of southern Yunan, China. Muang Sing is only 10 kms from the China border and the people on both side of the line are primarily of the Tai-Lue ethnic group. This area only came under Lao control in 1895, when the French signed a series of treaties to settle the Lao borders with its neighbors. But the Tai-Lue living there were not happy with the French and in 1914 the prince of Muang Sing attempted to secede and return to Sipsongpanna. While he wasn't successful, it was years before the French were able to claim control of this area. In the center of the tiny town there is a charming French colonial building, preserved as a "museum" which, unfortunately is never open.
Our two - hour drive from the town of Luang Namtha to Muang Sing saw us going past villages of many different ethnic groups. We especially enjoyed our stop at the Lanten village where the women were busy preparing bamboo shoots to roast as well as making the indigo dyed clothes they wear. Fortunately, I had brought with me the photos of the Lanten women I met visiting Vientiane. Turned out one of the women was the wife of the most important chief of their group, and everyone was excited to see her picture. The Lanten are a sub-group of the Yao.
The next morning saw us up before dawn to walk to the morning market. It was the weekend and various hilltribe groups hike in to trade their produce for the imported Chinese goods which come over the nearby border. Until recently Muang Sing was a major opium trading town and foreigners were not welcome. Now the Lao government, supported by non-governmental agents from many countries, is offering crop substitutions and other incentives to encourage opium producers to turn to other forms of livelihood. While it may be working, we did see a few opium fields and heard tales of backpackers who had died suffering overdoses of drugs. The weekend market now is a lively place where we saw four or five different Akha groups, including some young women and men all dressed up in a variation of the traditional costume which proclaimed that they were looking for a spouse. Their brightly colored headdresses, some adorned with plastic flowers, were easy to spot.
We too were easy to spot. Soon it became a game, we took photos and the various ethnic groups in the market sold us the handicrafts they had made. We quickly discovered that even in this tiny, remote town, there had been a boom in handicraft production aimed at the tourist market. Embroidered bags were offered by the Yao, cotton and silk hand woven scarves by the Tai Dam and Lue and baskets by the Hmong. Needless to say, we were good for the economy.
After breakfast we walked to the nearby village of Ban Xieng Ngun and here we discovered the women working away making even more textiles while their husbands repaired their fishing nets and plaited baskets. There are two distinct seasons in Laos. The rainy season is from May until October followed by six months of dry weather. Farmers are busy preparing, planting and harvesting the important food crops during most of the year. However, around February and March, at the end of the dry season, people have more leisure time to do household repairs and add to the growing needs for textiles and baskets. One of the charms of Laos is that the people are so hospitable. We were invited to come in and chat and soon some of the women were going off to pick the leaves of the plant they use to make a green-blue dye while others were getting naturally dyed yarns out of their baskets to show us the various colors they can achieve. Of course, it wasn't long until other women started showing up, with more scarves to sell.
Our three days in the Muang Sing area saw us visiting many Akha,called Kho in Laos, Yao, called Mien in Laos and Tai villages. The area, like most of Laos, is mountainous and forests cover 98% of the land. With a low population, people have been able to move from other provinces to live in this area. We visited many villages where the people had moved from eastern Laos to escape the fighting that was taking place during the 1960s and 1970s. The Tai Dam, Tai Lue, Tai Daeng and other Tai - speaking groups share a similar culture as well as language and there were no problems in settling in amongst others.
While the roads are rudimentary, the traffic is light, so the only danger is getting stuck in mud or having the car break down. A surprise rainstorm rolled in one morning turning the roads to a muddy mess. Having to walk in the rain to villages only added to the adventure. Our guest house in Muang Sing, the Lusaxing, was basic but clean. With the power going off at 9:30 p.m., we thought we would have plenty of rest before getting up early to go back for one more visit to the morning market. Unfortunately we hadn't factored in the resourceful villagers using the time the power was on to charge batteries which then powered their electric guitars and other noisy entertainment throughout the night.
After three days of exploring the Muang Sing area, it was time to head back to the provincial capital, Luang Namtha. With a population of 8,000, Luang Namtha is more of a village than a town. But it does boast a very respectable museum with well displayed and signed exhibits showing the various ethnic groups in the area. Here we stayed in a guest house, the Darasavath, run by the father of our minivan driver. The family was of Chinese extraction and cooked the most delicious meals. The rooms, with walls of woven bamboo, overlooked a ricefield and fishponds and were spartan but clean. While it was charming to look out our window and see water buffalo grazing and hear the frogs at night, the rat that decided to visit us at night wasn't so welcome. But that is part of visiting the countryside as well. All the noise we made in searching for him convinced him not to return for a second look around so the rest of our stay was peaceful.
We spent two days visiting villages in the Luang Namtha area. Here too we found women busy spinning cotton and feeding mulberry leaves to silkworms as well as weaving not only for their own use but to sell. Shopkeepers in Vientiane have set up a network where they supply samples of what is popular and these women weave for them. Most villagers in rural Laos are self sufficient, raising rice and other food stuffs for their own use. Men are skillful weavers of baskets for home use and the women weave the cloth used for clothing and ceremonial use. Now, however, they have discovered that their skill in weaving can also earn cash income which is used to purchase the few things the family cannot produce for themselves.
Our schedule called for us to catch an early morning flight from Luang Namtha to Luang Prabang so we were off early to the tiny airport. Unfortunately, it was deserted. Seems the flight was cancelled as there were only three tickets sold for it. This is where my Lao friend came into his own. Off he dashed to the Lao Aviation office to secure us tickets on a later flight. Since we were scheduled to return to Singapore the following day, we were a bit anxious. But all went well and the delay resulted in us having an opportunity to visit the local wet market, where there were more Tai Dam women ready to sell us their textiles and a basket shop to visit for some last minute purchases.
We began and ended our 8 day tour in luxury. Going from Singapore to Vientiane, we took the evening Lao Aviation flight from Bangkok and stayed overnight in the Settha Palace, a charming boutique hotel before heading off for Luang Namtha. Ending our journey in Luang Prabang we stayed at the equally charming Villa Santi. After five nights of spartan beds and cold water showers in Luang Namtha province, Luang Prabang seemed like paradise. Of course it is, but that is another story.
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Published on 9/10/02