trekking in Phongsali
On the first morning of my trek I met my guide, Sook, at my hotel for breakfast. He was a good guy, very earnest, and just passable in English. More importantly, he was trilingual in Lao, Punoi, and Laosang, which would cover most of the areas in which we would be trekking. He also had a most irritating habit of laughing if he didn’t understand me and laughing again whenever I rephrased the question in simpler terms. We got along well though, and I avoided strangling him because he was such a nice guy.
After breakfast we walked to the market where I picked up the two necessities of trekking - a flashlight for finding a convenient place for night time ablutions (toilets don’t exist in mountain villages, or any Lao villages for that matter) and toilet roll because such a thing doesn’t exist in the villages.
Fifty meters from the market we began our trek. One moment we were in the provincial capital with cars, shops, hotels, paved roads, and brick buildings, the next moment we were headed down a narrow track which was the main route for villagers brining their produce to market. It was wide enough for a small 4x4 but constant wash away ensured that the government’s efforts to introduce infrastructure stopped short of actually allowing development in the area, not a bad thing from my point of view.
We had a beautiful view over the valley and the endless banks of clouds for about ten minutes before we descended into clouds and I had my last glimpse of blue sky for three days.
Once into the clouds we met women from the market waiting for women from the villages bringing their produce to market. Clearly the middleman (or woman) makes plenty of money from the villagers’ hard work. The women’s hard work from appearances.
Two hours down the hill took us to Jandan, a Punoi village, where Sook’s aunt owned a store. We stopped for tea and supplies (cigarettes to give away in the villages) and admired the scenery. Not that there was much to admire apart from clouds, a few houses made from local materials, and more spider webs than I have seen in my life. Trees seemed to have more webs than leaves and fences seemed to be bound by webs rather than the usual palm fronds.
The main highway gradually deteriorated from a four wheel drive track to a one lane track and finally to a comfortable one horse lane, all the while heading downhill until we eventually passed beneath the cloud layer and traversed a lightly forested valley with rice paddies filling the bowl.
We stopped for lunch at Kunnamluang, a Punoi village, where Sook cooked up a basic meal in the school teacher’s hut from meat and vegetables procured from the market in Phongsaly. The kids here, further from the big smoke, were curious but extremely camera shy, probably the shyest I have seen in Laos.
After lunch we turned off the main track (where we would meet villagers once every two hours or so) and onto a small path that ensured that we didn’t meet anyone else for the rest of the day. The light forest, clumps of bamboo, and occasional streams would have made for pretty pleasant trekking if I were a mite fitter. The only locals that I was able to keep up with were two men with most uncooperative pigs which probably knew they were being led to market.
I have no idea how other backpackers travel through here with no guide and no map because the distance between villages can be considerable. Sook had no problem because he had been the regional vet for the Department of Pigs, Chickens and Buffalo. He also knew half the people and most of the animals in each village.
We arrived at Bandang, a Laosang village, in the late afternoon to a welcome of about twenty kids who were well acquainted with digital cameras and were determined to get their portraits in mine. The kids amused me for a couple of hours, along with a purple jacketed village idiot, before I sat down for dinner with our host family - a grandmother and several kids. I wasn’t able to determine the whereabouts or existence of mum and dad.
Morning in the village was more peaceful than I expected. Either they didn’t like eggs or chicken had been on the menu with more frequency that eggs could hatch. I was delighted with being able to sleep from 2am to 6am and was up in time to see the village slowly coming to life. There is no running water and no electricity here, so days begin and end with the sun and with a trip to the local water source. Most of the mountain villages have a spring near the top of the village that runs through the middle to provide water for the animals.
After the kids fetch the water and the mothers cook breakfast, it’s off to the rice paddies for mum and dad, or the whole family during harvest time, while the elders stay in the village, smoke opium, and look after the kids. Every village has a school, but I only once saw one in operation. I get the feeling that in most villages education is still a relatively new concept and isn’t rated as highly as in the cities and especially neighboring countries. There was certainly no indication of English language education here, which is understandable considering it would be a fourth of fifth language.
We set off early for what would be a nine hour hike up hill and down dale (more up than down by the feel of it) through light forest and bamboo thickets. The only flat areas of the trek were ridgelines and some fords (for the most part, even the fords weren’t flat. According to the CIA factbook, arable land only comprises 4% of the country, with the rest of it being steep mountains and limestone karsts. I didn’t see much of the 4% on this day’s hike. Of course, much of the 4% arable land is riddled with mines and unexploded bombs, the actual amount of farm land is considerably lower.
The mountain tribes without access to river flats (most of them) employ swidden (slash and burn) farming which is only about five percent as efficient as paddy farming and destroys huge swathes of forest from the mountainside. I walked across several denuded mountainsides which looked like huge wounds on the landscape. The government discourages swidden farming and has created several National Protected Areas (quasi national parks) but it’s impossible to tell the tribal villagers to stop growing crops.
Because I was on a government sponsored trek we stuck to the sanitised areas where the opium poppy fields had been replaced with rice and the mafia chased out. Further to the west, near the border of Burma (the golden triangle region) opium poppies are still a common sight and are sold on the Thai, Chinese, European and American markets.
We passed through Nampun (a Ho village) but didn’t stop because Sook doesn’t speak the language and the people at this particular village apparently don’t speak Lao.
After lunch by a stream we climbed up hill for four hours to get to Papun, an Akha village. The Akha people, who wear distinctive headdress and heavy back or dark blue clothes, generally live on mountains above 1,000 metres elevation throughout northern Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
It was with some relief that we finally arrived at the bottom of the village and rather heartbreaking that we still had to climb another 300m up to get to the top of the village to the headman’s hut where we would be lodging for the night.
I spent the last hours of daylight wandering around the top end of the village (no way I was going to climb down again) and exchanging smiles with the locals. The girls here were a little camera shy but not particularly shy in other respects.
While up at the village spring, which is a pretty well built shower, a couple of young ladies came up for their afternoon cleanse. Modesty prevented them from removing their headdress while taking a shower but everything.
This enterprising six year old didn't have a spinning top to play with, so he decided to make one himself. Wish I were that practical at six!
else off, much to my delight. I tried to concentrate on the scenery around me and eventually (after about a minute) decided to wander off elsewhere to distance myself from the temptation of perving.
Elsewhere in the village it was just another day for the locals and another day of gawking and learning for me.
It was here where I finally learnt whey there are no toilets in Lao villages. A young mother was toilet training her son by teaching him to squat in the middle of the village and then called over the dogs for an afternoon snack. Anything the dogs don’t eat is quickly devoured by the pigs.
My own modesty prevented my from squatting in the middle of the village, but the local dogs followed me to the bushes next to the forest in expectation of a bit of foreign cuisine. Yeach.
We had a party outside the local teacher’s hut, who was from the same Punoi village as Sook and consumed a modest amount of the local moonshine. After the party she realized her watch had been stolen and informed the village headman who got onto his battery operated loudspeaker system and asked for it to be returned. I was surprised that there would be theft in such a small village but, as the outsider, the teacher was an obvious target. This was the third watch she’d had stolen here, she told me later.
I was up at dawn and was greeted by the most magnificent sight I had seen in Laos: I was looking over a sea of cloud covering the low lands we had hiked through with mountains rising up as mystical islands dotting the cloudscape as far as the eye could see.
We departed early from a near-deserted village and met many of them in the first hour returning laden from the rice fields. It seemed that anyone between six and sixty was involved in brining the harvest to the village, each carrying about half his weight in rice.
The first hour was slow going, partly because it was up hill, but mainly because the camera toting tourist (me) was stopping every hundred metres to enjoy the view from different vantage points.
We sped up once we turned off the main trail and didn’t meet any other traffic for several hours except two pigs going
Modesty requires that Akha women cover their head while mammaries swing in the breeze is no problem at all.
to market when we stopped for the lunch that the headman’s wife had prepared for us. Sook was annoyed that all we got of the chicken I had paid 50,000 kip (USD5) for was a drumstick and two wings. No wonder the headman seemed comparatively affluent.
It was all down hill after lunch - steep down hill - and I was glad of my sturdy hiking boots on the slippery path. Locals, though, are a breed apart. We were overtaken by five guys from a different village who were as sure footed as mountain goats and literally ran past us in their aged flip flops.
We passed through some dense jungle after descending below the cloud bank and eventually come out to a broad area of rice paddies near the Ou River. From there it was a short walk to town (ninety minutes) where we caught a bus back to Phongsaly after a brief wait (another ninety minutes).
I hadn’t missed the amenities of my hotel while trekking but was very happy to get a vegetarian meal from my hotel. Offal and rat get a bit boring three times a day.
I had a beer with Sook and my other friends from town in my hotel nightclub and booked a bus ticket back to Luang Phrabang for the following day. Oops. No buses tomorrow. Nor the next day.
I was Phongsalied out by this stage, so I got a bit of reading done before embarking on a two day bus journey that would turn out to be remarkably similar to the trip up.
Source: Peter Keusgen’s blog – Travel Blog
Peter Keusgen’s page details his travel through Nepal, India, Thailand, Korea, the Philippines, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.
Published on 1/20/09