Luang Nam Tha was good for a night, but despite the occasional glimpse of pretty colonial-style architecture, I found it to be a dusty, ugly and expensive junction town and I quickly made my escape north to Muang Sing
. Full of flowers and colonial houses this small town reminded me of Gorontalo in Indonesia. The first night there was a storm in the early evening, and I went up onto the roof of the guesthouse with Steven and Natalie to check out the double rainbow which had formed. After filling up on some authentic and very tasty Laos food, we headed out on a two-day trek to Sop E Khow, an Akha village, which provided a very interesting comparison with the Aini village we stayed in in China. This time we took a guide, Mr Mai, who was able to explain the meaning and importance of the things we were looking at. The Akha people are animists, meaning that their belief system involves spirit worship with special attention paid to their ancestors. Outside the villages there is usually a "spirit gate" which is meant to ward off the evil spirits which reside in the forest and through which all visitors to the village must pass in order to cleanse themselves of these malevolent spirits. The one we saw had a skinned dog on top - presumably their idea of a spirit guard dog (surely a live one would be more effective!?). Each Akha village also has a giant swing inside, which is used for the annual swing festival during which courting couples literally go swinging. Mr Mai also pointed out that when the daughter of the family reaches sexual maturity, the family builds her a small shack outside the family home where she can sleep with various suitors before deciding which one to marry. Giving birth to twins is considered a bad omen in Akha tradition, and the mother must either kill both children or leave the village.
When we were ready for bed after a hard day's trekking, a group of village women paid us a visit. At first, I was a little worried that they might have come to take us to their respective "love shacks", but it turned out that they had come to give us a traditional massage before bed
. The next morning we were woken by the sound of rice being pounded, and we headed down for a wash in the communal village shower. Bashfulness isn't really an issue in these villages, and as Steven comically observed, there were "norks out everywhere". My personal highlight was a baby being taking for a morning stroll in a hollowed out oil can.
Opium is a big problem in these parts and Akha men have the highest rate of addiction among the hill tribes of SE Asia. On our trek Mr Mai pointed out the route used to smuggle the drug into China and Burma. The Thai and Laos governments have tried hard to eradicate opium production and encourage the growing of other cash crops such as coffee, but the economic rewards for the tribes are tempting. A poster in a Muang Sing guesthouse encourages tourists to buy local handicrafts whilst at the same time dissuades us from buying opium - the irony is that the very same handicraft sellers will try to sell you the drugs when it becomes apparent that you don't want their more innocent wares.
From Muang Sing I headed 2 hours north to Muang Long, a village in a valley between two forested mountain ranges. All other tourists on the pickup were heading there to make an immediate connection to Xieng Kok, so that when they left I was the only tourist in the village
. I spent a very pleasant afternoon walking along the river, soaking up the lazy pace of village life. After school, groups of boys gathered to spear fish, and then build a fire on which to cook their catch. At dinner I met a British guy living in Laos who was auditing a charity called L'Action Contre le Faim and seemed offended when I presumed he was a tourist. During my time in the more remote parts of the north I saw evidence of much international aid, particularly from France, Germany and Japan. No doubt intervention from the developed world is justified in the case of providing basic education, sanitation, and medical care; but, beyond that, how much we should intervene in their simple lives and impose our western values upon them, perhaps leading to dissatisfaction and resentment, is a question to which I have given much thought of late.
Crossing the border from a country with a population of more than 1.3 billion into one with just over 6 million, and most of those living in and around the capital city, there was inevitably going to be a change of pace. Entering Laos is like returning home after a period of absence - your body, mind and soul all breathe a collective sigh of relief. Admittedly the roads are crap. Gone are the comfortable train journeys of China and India. Instead they cram you into the back of a converted pickup - sharing space with bags of grain, chickens and an inordinate number of people - and then bounce you around on dusty, unsealed roads. It really is more fun than it sounds though. And you have to keep reminding yourself that however bad it gets, there will always be a cold Beer Lao waiting for you at the other end. Ah Beer Lao, the nation's eponymously titled and most famous product, how good you taste after two months of the watery p*ss they serve in China.