Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Trek, Muang Sing - Laos

Having (almost) fully recovered from the New Year celebrations, we decided to see if there had been any interest in the sign we had on display requesting company on our trek.  The more people you have the less the cost plus it is a great opportunity to meet people, arguably the company is more important than the trek so we were lucky to discover that a French couple had been up for it and were ready to set out on the second of Jan.

It didn't start well...   Although the trekking office had only been a two minute walk from our hotel, they had insisted a tuk tuk collect us to take us there on the morning of our departure.  We were up and ready to go when the tuk tuk arrived so we clambered into the back after asking the driver 'Trekking' to which he agreed and informed us (in not so many words) that we were waiting for another passenger, an older Frenchman who was taking his time with his breakfast.  Whilst we thought this was a bit of cheek we could understand how the driver wanted the extra fair.  The gentleman eventually joined us in the back and we set off... driving past the office... Ok, perhaps he was just going to drop off the Frenchman first albeit rather illogical, there isn't much logic in Laos after all.  

When we made it to the bus station the Frenchman got out, handed over a couple of notes and the driver then turned to us for departure and payment.   Not being a morning person, I tried in my plainest English trying not to come across as aggressive (it is hard when everyone else here is so placid) to explain that the driver informed us that he said he was from the trekking office two minutes away from the hotel.  Well, as it turned out we had been the extra fair and he was nothing to do with the trekking company, so after plenty of frustrating idiot stares from him and us demanding to be taken back to where the cheeky beggar picked us up from we deemed it better to set off on foot... back to where we started, without paying may I add.  I'm not sure if the company tuk tuk ever arrived, if so it had been late and to add insult to injury, on the way back to the office one of our bags ripped which made it difficult to carry but better it happen now than in the jungle.  We finally reached the office and explained the situation, greeted our new companions for the next three days, Christophe and Maywene, then took our ripped bag back to the hotel to be repacked in one of our rucksacks and start again.

Christophe and Maywene
Our English speaking guide Sumchai and the local guide Tae introduced themselves and took us to our first stop which was a village on the outskirts of Muang Sing to show us they made the noodles from rice starch.  We got to watch the process and try the noodles before walking through the village.  We then went to a basic central trekking office where the various spiritual beliefs of the different tribes were explained to us along with some do's and don'ts for when we were in the villages such as talking to the guides before giving anything to the people in the tribes.  The trekking began soon after and was a lot more difficult than I had assumed it would be.  My boots were rubbing from pretty much the start of the trip; I think they had lost their shape in the bottom of my bag as they had once fit very well!

Sumchai showing us the noodle making

Some of the flatter jungle terrain!
Christophe and Maywene were a lot more experienced (you know you're in over your head when others are carrying walking poles) and seemed to cope a lot better with the terrain than Kate and myself.  The surroundings were beautiful but the jungle trekking amongst a lot of wet mud and forever climbing uphill in the baking sun whilst negotiating obstacles took its toll.  It was then I think that we both realised that we had been more interesting with the homestay aspect rather than the trekking!  The fact that we had heavy bags due to the 30 books in addition to our clothes for the next three days didn't help!  We had only been going 2 hours but it seemed a lot longer when we stopped by a river for lunch.  This had been our first meal of the day and was a moral boost to say the least!  Eating delicious food from banana leaves prepared by our guides amongst the surroundings was exquisite.  There was a lot of wildlife around us, we saw butterflies and dragonflies of all different strikingly beautiful colours and a bluebird stopped to say hello at one point.

A well-received lunch break with Sumchai, Tae, Christophe and Maywene
After lunch there was much more uphill climbing to be had by all, the highlight was when we took time to explore a cave tucked away in the hills and knowing that very few other travellers would have been in it.  It was quite large and we were able to climb up through the caverns to an opening (torch in mouth or in Kate's case a head torch, clever clogs!) where now outside we could climb back down to where we entered.  Unfortunately Kate banged her head quite hard on one of the rocks which was easily done and I could tell that she was being very brave about it, though there wasn't much choice to be otherwise out here.

Negotiating the caves
We carried on into the jungle occasionally stopping to try fruits and berries that our guides gave to us and showed us coffee plants and other interesting vegetation.  We EVENTUALLY made it to the village as the sun had set feeling extremely warn and sore from the journey.  It was difficult to look around as there was no electricity and it had become dark quickly.  We rested for a while in the Chief's hut and after he greeted us our guides cooked dinner inside one of the huts over hot coals and the chief retired to his room next door where we could hear him and his friends smoking opium long into the night.   A van selling clothes had a generator which was providing the only electric light, so Kate and I went over to see if we could integrate a little with the pretence of buying some socks.  We had a few interesting looks from some of those gathered around and a gentlemen practically insisted that Kate take his picture and show it to him.  

Take my picture
All in all there wasn't much opportunity to integrate and we were ready to eat and sleep.  Eating off the smallest stools in the world we gobbled down our food, had a quick wash in the outdoor shower and got into bed ready for our massages which we had gratefully accepted when offered.

White Devil in the shower
The four of us were all lay in the Chief's hut on thin mattresses waiting for the tribeswomen to come in and give us our massages.  We didn't expect the tribeswomen to be little girls but they were happy to get stuck in and it was quite a strange sight to behold, the four of us getting a vigorous massage at the same time by a bunch of twelve year olds.  It wasn't too relaxing but was well received after a tough day and the Akha certainly had strong fingers.  I should have been out like a light, but with pigs squealing below the chilly hut and the never ending bubbling of the chief's pipe, it felt like my eyes were closed for five minutes before the early morning cockerels began to crow announcing a new day of hard trekking!

Our bed where the four of us received our massages and slept
The alarm clock
Although we didn't feel like we had struck much of a bond with the tribe, we felt like it was a good place to offload our books as there were around 300 people in the village who would benefit from them.  Unfortunately the school was closed, so we provided the gifts to the chief who showed no overt gratitude.  It wasn't really the warm reaction we had hoped for having carried the books such a long way but the saving grace came from a handful of children in the Chief's hut who looked to be very excited by the pictures and colouring books.  After all, the reaction didn't really matter as long as the books end up helping the tribe.  We found out that many of them do not even speak Laos including the chief, speaking only their native Akha tongue and in an ever shrinking country it seemed hard to believe that this could last.  I like to think that the books will one day help these people to defend themselves and their land against future Laos governments who may be willing to concede the tribe's resources to China's relentless logging campaigns in the north.   We retained lots of the stationary for the next village we were to visit.

The Akha Chief receiving our gifts
Buffalo taking a morning stroll
Some burned out land
Extremely tired and concerned about my feet which were now heavly blistered and cut up, we set off for our journey the next day.  It didn't take long for me to realise that this would be an impossible task in the boots I was wearing and  I finally aired my serious resignations about being able to continue to our guides.  Kate suggested that I wear her flipflops which she had packed which I did, but unfortunately this made managing the terrain all the more difficult.  In spite of the dodgy feet and footwear, Christophe and Maywene were leagues above us in the trekking area and we suggested that instead of attempting the rainforest in flipflops, if possible, could we could split off and stick instead to a rocky but flatter dirt road?  This was possible and shortly after another pleasant lunch and balancing on steep muddy slopes in order to visit an amazing waterfall we parted ways, foot bandaged and walking stick cut by Tae in hand.

Waterfall... duh
Our spirits were certainly lifted now we were able to go at our own pace and not in nearly as much discomfort.  Sumchai, who came with Kate and I, told us about his own Hmong tribe and how he would like to teach English one day.  He was also an orphan and having done volunteer work for a few years, couldn't afford to get married yet having only worked with the trekking company for two years (he is 26 and most Lao men are married by 25, girls tend to marry from 15 to 24 years).

We arrived at our second Akha village about fifty minutes after our counterparts to a very different reception.  Christophe and Maywene had already been subjected to some dancing and Laos Lao whiskey (a cheap local 'whiskey' made from fermented rice) and were being heavily embraced by a chief who frankly was, and there is no other word to describe it, 'shitfaced' on the stuff.  As it turned out, this tribe was on their third day of New Year celebrations and we arrived to dancing and singing and a warm reception which made us completely forget about the trekking of the past two days.  It was however apparent that Sumchai was embarrassed on behalf of the drunken Chief, who had now started trying to pick up bags of rice and have his photo taken with them.  We found out the next day that what the chief had been trying to explain was that although he did not have lots of money, his village's rice harvest was plentiful.  It was also mentioned that the Chief was approaching the end of his four year tenure and was not likely to be reelected which might have gone further to explain his behaviour.

Chief and his rice
Loving father and baby escaping the party

The second Akha village.  Where is everybody?
After walking around the village, the tribe seemed extremely friendly and we couldn't wait to join the party.  We were sat down in the middle of the dancing and were frequently having Lao Laos and Beer Lao poured into our glasses.  Every now and then we would be asked to dance, a strange dance where everybody must be in couples, same sex is okay and you would dance in pairs in a circle to music being sung into a microphone pumped over an extremely loud PA system!  People were very interested in us and we tried to respect them whilst having fun.  Kate taught some of the people we were sitting with how to use the camera and they took some pretty good shots in the end.  Some of the younger kids decided to rebel and instead of dancing in the circle began 'moshing' into each other which was funny to watch.

Our table
Christophe and a man in traditional Akha dress
Lots of Laos Lao

The life and soul of the party
Taking a break from the dancing, I wanted to get a photo of the whole scene so I escaped with the camera and climbed a bank to try to get a good shot.  After messing around with the settings for 5 minutes, taking photos and reviewing them on the LCD screen I had the sudden urge to turn around and saw about 15 children peering over my shoulder!  I insisted on taking a photograph of them but as soon as they realised my plan they all ran in different directions! I somehow managed to convince some to stay and have their photo taken and show it back to them.  After doing this a couple of times more of the boys came back and were brave enough the have their photograph taken together (as you can see below it took a few shots and only the boys would play ball).   The girls were extremely shy to being photographed and would scarper as soon as the camera was raised.

The party. Meanwhile a crowd had gathered behind me...

They legged it!

I'll let you see if you let me take your photo...

That's more like it

There we go, apart from the girls that is...

We reluctantly decided to go back to the chiefs to see if we were required for some dinner, which we were.  The chief sat us down with a bottle of Laos Lao and we courteously accepted shot after shot by candlelight between the five of us until the bottle was empty.  Another delicious dinner and another shot or two of Laos Lao later we were again provided with massages before we slept.

Kate in our four man bed
The next day after showering with another audience paying close attention to the white stranger using their water (who was white even for a white man), we had biscuits and coffee served in a bowl for breakfast.  We then provided the sore-headed Chief with the remaining stationary (just keeping back some balloons for the final tribe which turned out to be a great decision), gave a boy some bubbles to blow and set off on our way again.  I feel I should note that by the time we were up and about, the village was back to what I assume is business as usual and they were weighing up their rice harvest to a Chinese truck that would take most of it away and the tribe would divide the remainder amongst the families.  Party time was officially over.

Weighing the rice

Bubbles (I don't think he is holding a gun next to him)
At the appropriate point we went our separate ways to the French contingent, this time we carried on along the trail with Tae who spoke very little English.  This was by comparison a very relaxed walk along a dirt road with beautiful scenery and we could fully enjoy it!  We had an amazing lunch of peanuts, banana flower coleslaw, omelette, chicken and sticky rice and proceeded downhill to a village which we didn't stop in but walked through until we came to a closed school built by the Japanese where we were to wait for Sumchai and the other group.

Kate having lunch with Tae
We had gathered some interest from some initially shy but now curious boys who were riding round on their bikes evidently looking for something to do.  We managed to gain their affections with the balloons we had kept back.  At first they collected them and were very mature about sharing them out and making sure the younger ones also got one before they became boisterous and burst all but one that Tae made.  Tae is the kind of person who says very little but never fails to impress you; he managed to pull the inflated balloon through itself so that it resembled a transparent apple with a core in the middle, easily outshining our own ordinary efforts.

Altogether we must have spent three hours waiting with the children and we loved every minute of it.  I enjoyed letting them listen to my iPod, showing them a range of music, they were particularly fond of Jazz and Motown, literally scared of Aphex Twin and electro but quite liked some of the more upbeat rap and dance music.  I showed one how to use it who explained to the others and they were independently navigating through my music library fighting over the headphones in no time.  They were gathered round the camera viewfinder as I showed them shots from our time with the nearby tribes.  We also let them play cards with the deck that we had brought along with us but we ended by playing a game called 'Duck Duck Goose' where we all sat in a circle and one person walks round tapping the people sat down saying duck, duck, duck... etc until he decides on who is going to chase him when you then yell 'Goose!' and try to get back to their sitting position before they catch up and tag you!  I think we could have played Duck Duck Goose (or 'Duh Duh Goo' which was easier to say) for hours but our ride arrived to take us back to Muang Sing with fond waves goodbye.

Yay balloons!

Perhaps some Marvin Gaye?

The shades looked better on him anyway

The Laos iPod sessions

Group photo taken by Tae
It was amazing to have a hot shower again on our return to Muang Sing.  We met up with Christophe and Maywene and had a delightful dinner in a nearby restaurant with great conversation on all things French and reminisced about the struggles and the fun we had on our trip.  To sum up, I don't regret anything at all but perhaps we found out that we are more walkers than we are trekkers.  I know we will be hard pressed to replicate the experiences we had over those difficult three days in the future, especially with the growing commercialisation of Laos and China slowly making its presence felt in the north.  We would definitely both put this amongst the most rewarding things that we have done, ever, and would strongly recommend it to anybody if given the chance.

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