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Thursday, 27 November 2008

Luang Nam Tha

25th – 27th November

After an afternoon of research we agreed on a two day/one night trek to the Akha village of Ban Phouvan. Tourism in Laos, though still in it’s infancy is extremely highly regulated, with strict, ecologically sound guidelines set up and enforced. In addition to protecting the national parks, the Laos government quite rightly is keen to avoid the exploitation of the Hill tribe people, or the “human zoo” effect, as is the unfortunate case in some parts of Thailand. The frequency of visits to hill tribes are restricted, as are group sizes. Other rules include not handing out gifts directly to the children, so as not to promote a begging culture, but instead passing on to the village ch
ief or teacher who ensures fair distribution.

We were under the impression that the total trekking distance over the two days would be 35km, possibly the longest we’d both ever walked under our own steam. The itinerary was to spend the first day walking through dense jungle, climbing steadily to the village, and the second through open countryside and agricultural fields.

Perhaps Laos methodology of measuring distance is as warped as that used for time keeping, but after just two hours of b
risk walking through the forest we stopped for lunch, Laos style. Nobody was really hungry, having eaten our fill of slow burning carbs at breakfast. Still, the food was delicious; sticky rice, barbequed meat and lots of very spicy Jeow (a bit like tomato salsa but with 10 times as much chilli), served on banana leaves.

A couple more hours of (not so!) hard trekking and we arrived at the village where we’d spend the night. The adults were all working in the fields but the children were happy to say hello and keep us entertained with their antics. A large packed heap of soil, dried out in the sun had been furnished into a mini slide, the plastic containers used for the kids to sit on polishing the surface to a high sheen and providing an even more slippery run! It didn’t take long for Ady and Guy to get involved,
though only able to fit one arse cheek onto the small piece of plastic, they didn’t look quite as graceful, nor land quite as softly!

Towards sunset, our guide took us for a full tour of the village. Some of the adults had returned, but not that many. Either that or they were hiding out in their houses. Of the few that we said hello to, it was difficult to gage whether or not we were welcome, even though we’d been told by our guide that visits by tourists were seen as a good thing – whether this was solely for monetary gains (a percentage of what we’d paid for the tour goes directly to the village) we’d prefer not to know. The gifts our group had brought along were given out – marbles and animal masks seemed to go down particularly well.

After dinner, a game of cards and the obligatory shots of Lao Lao whisky, the young women from the village arrived to give us a massage. It was a nice touch, but after the expertise we’d experienced from our massage teacher Joy, we probably didn’t appreciate the poking and prodding as much as we should and were quite relieved when it was over!

As our hut was next to the village school, we spent another hour or so with the children the following morning. There were two sessions each day, so that each child attends either morning or afternoon classes. Sadly only the boys are educated; the girls are sent to work in the fields with their mothers as soon as they can work. At least this is the explanation we were given; we only saw three girls in the whole time we were there, in contrast to the hundred or so boys. When you look at the photos you’ll see how letting the kids take control of the camera meant that we got some great shots of the locals, very close up.

Top Traveller Tip #5 – Get a different perspective in you photos by being brave and handing over your camera to the local children.* Some have never seen or used a digital camera and they love to take close up pictures of their friends. It also avoids you feeling bad for exploiting the locals! *Disclaimer – we will not be held responsible for stolen cameras as a result of this idea!

Our return hike passed down through a valley and then up a long, very steep climb, the months without regular exercise finally taking toll. We passed over the summit and followed the path of a river, crossing it many times via fallen trees, makeshift rudimentary bridges or slippery stepping stones. Amazingly no one fell in, but our trainers were pretty soaked by the end of it.

All in all it was an enjoyable and rewarding trek and gave an insight into another culture and way of life, in a very untouched part of the world. Long may it stay that way.

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