Saturday, November 10, 2007

Trekking to the corners!

Trekking (or hiking) is a very popular traveler's past time in Southeast Asia. You can trek from so many different places in Asia, that it is hard to decide where to begin. Although I was tempted to trek from Chiang Mai in Thailand, I'm glad I waited until I got to Laos to undertake this once in a lifetime extraordinary experience for a few reasons:

From Luang Nam Tha, we caught a sangthaew to Muang Sing, which is in the western corner of Laos bordering China on one side and Burma on the other. The first night we arrived there, we met 4 Irish kids, 2 girls and 2 boys, and man, were they everything they're cracked up to be. After drinking Beerlao after Beerlao with them and dancing at the "disco", Mick and I decided maybe it would be better to let them do their own trek (they got a bit loud, but hilarious all the same!)

The next morning, we got up early and headed to the morning market to gather provisions for our trip including snacks, a $2 backpack, a novice monk beanie and a sarong for bathing. One of the main reasons we chose to trek from Muang Sing is because the only place you can book a trek is through the eco-tourism office. This is excellent because unlike so many other trekking companies, all of the money you pay goes directly to the village, and helps fund research for eco-tourism. Brilliant.

We met our 19 year old student trek guide(who would also be our cook, translator and friend), Phone (Pawn) and headed out for a 3 day trek through the forest of Northern Laos. When you trek here, instead of camping in a tent, you stay with a local hill tribe village in their guest house (more on that later). Our first stop was at an Akha (hilltribe) village to gather up the chief of the tribe to accompany us on our journey...crazy huh? Chief was about 5 ft tall and an ex Lao soldier...he wore the hat and everything. We had lunch at his village and started walking.

The first day was pretty hot. We had to go about 7 km (5 of them uphill) which wasn't too bad despite the heat of the afternoon sun, but the reward was more than worth it. At about 5pm, we arrived at a huge village of Akha Pouli (sp) people. I can't even begin to explain what this experience was like other than to say it was as though we had jumped in a time machine and traveled back 100 years. People living completely off the land in every way. The children almost never had pants on (and it was pretty cold at night) and the women would breast feed in the middle of the road. Children age 8 had an infant sibling tied onto their back with a sarong and 40 year old women had 90 lbs of rice on theirs! The men stay at home and feed the children and look after the home while the women work in the rice fields all day. A remarkable number of children frolicked around half naked, so did goats, water buffalo and countless cats and dogs all living together in and around bamboo huts made by hand. I can't even explain what it was like, but I'll certainly include some pictures as soon as they are done.

That night after playing with the children and trying to find a common ground between the language barrier (facial expressions and games worked well) we settled in for dinner. Every meal consisted of rice (surprise surprise) and some sort of vegetable, chilies, and usually pickled fish. Yep, breakfast too! After dinner, we enjoyed some lao lao (rice whiskey) and in came the teenage girls for a massage which is traditional in these villages. The girls were dressed in their nicest clothes and giggled back and forth to each other about how cute our guide was while they massaged us. It was certainly not your typical serene massage, but so fun all the same.

The next morning, we had to gear up for a big hike. 8 hours up and down the mountain side straddling China and Burma. We did about 15Kms that day, most of it uphill as well. The views were breathtaking and again, the reward of another Akha village made it so worth while. Upon arrival, a shower was in need... so I tied on my sarong, and headed to the water spicket, followed by every child in the village. They watched as I struggled to keep my sarong on while washing the important was pretty hilarious! After that, more food, and some excellent interaction with the children. I had them all playing air instruments in our own little pretend band! Sooo fun. They got the biggest kick out of it. I could hear them singing all the way up at the house 20 minutes later!

Another massage, similar to the previous one, but a bit stronger (which was nice) and then layed down and had a great conversation with Phone. He told us all about the Akha culture. Everything from their religions, to societal roles, to sex lives. Really amazing stuff.

By the next morning, we were about ready to get back to "civilization" if you can call it that! We trekked for about 4 more hours through a couple more villages and finished up at the tuk tuk to take us back to town my 3pm to catch the last bus back to Luang Nam Tha.

Yesterday morning we woke up and jumped on a 8 hour bus to Luang Prabang in central Lao where I sit right now!

Whew. I didn't even come close to saying everything that I'd like to, but the photos should tell the story, don't worry, they're on the way!

Off to Cambodia tomorrow or the next day to visit Angkor Wat...just google it, trust me!