Monday, September 22, 2008

Chris goes for a walk

I officially finished work a week and a half ago, so last week I took the opportunity to fly to Luang Namtha, a town in the north of Laos near the Chinese border. Luang Namtha is the main starting point for treks through the Nam Ha National Protected Area, which is the most famous natural feature of Laos. It is a remote location, but the new airport opened a few months ago, so it is now possible to fly there.

I arrived on Monday afternoon and explored the town on foot. I had read about a hill on the side of town that had really good views of the whole valley, so I walked up there. Apart from the views (which were great) I found that this hill was also the site of a new giant golden stupa (pointy looking temple) that was visible from basically the whole town. It is still under construction, but looks like a fair imitation of That Luang, which is the most sacred stupa in Vientiane.

The next day I left on a three day trek with one of the local tour companies. We were trekking (in Australia we call it bushwalking) for three days through the middle of Nam Ha NPA with a Laos guide named Sai and some assistance from some villagers who live on the edge of the NPA.

I had put my name down and the company tried to find someone else who wanted to go, and they found someone late the evening before. She was a 43 year old Serbian woman called Tanja who clearly was not an experienced hiker.

We were due to set off at 8:30am, so I arrived and got myself ready at about 8:15. She wandered in at 9, introduced herself and immediately asked me to go and buy some children’s books for her. She gave me 4000 kip (50 cents) and asked me to buy three books, assuring me that they were only 500-1500 kip each. I walked down the road, leaving her to pack her bag (no, she hadn’t even started to do that), and found that the books were 5000-15000 kip each. Not having brought my own wallet, I returned empty handed. She therefore spent the next half hour buying the books herself, along with a Coke that was her only breakfast.

Upon arriving at the village that were starting the trek from, Sai showed us around. Tanja loved the school, and spent over half an hour playing with the children, and talking to them in English despite the fact that they clearly understood none of it. When we finally managed to drag her away, she remembered the books she had bought to give to children in the villages, so I got one out of my pack (they “didn’t fit” in hers) and she promptly returned to the school to read the book to the children in English. The theory was that it might “help them to learn English”, which most of them will never study. (The book also had Lao writing in it for the children to read themselves, which was the idea. The English text is so that tourists like Tanja and I know what the book is about when we buy it.)

By now it was 11am, so I was impatient to get going. We only had 4 hours of walking on the first day, but we had missed the cool of the morning and would be walking in the hottest part of the day. Tanja then asked if she should wear socks. She wasn’t wearing any and was starting to get blisters. (She had one pair of ankle length socks which she wore for the whole three days.)

Once we set off, I found myself being stopped every 50 metres to take photos of Tanja, and after 500 metres I found myself carrying half of Tanja’s water, which was frustrating, but the scenery was nice enough. We crossed several small streams, most with log bridges, and the dense jungle was really pretty. There were lots of different butterflies and later I noticed at least 6 different species of fly, some of which were bright green and bright yellow. We stopped for lunch halfway where two Khmu villagers (from the village we started in) had prepared a delicious Lao lunch.

The afternoon was a much tougher walk since it was an almost constant steep climb, but we reached the forest camp at about 3:30. It consisted of three buildings: A kitchen, and large hall for sleeping and a toilet. There was also a really nice stream about 5 minutes away where we could wash ourselves off, and I sat on a log and soaked my feet for a good 15 minutes. It was a great end to the day and the area around the camp was probably the prettiest on the trek.

The next morning, we were aiming to set out at 8:30, and at 8:10 Tanja was still in bed. She refused breakfast and went to have a wash since she hadn’t bothered the previous afternoon. When she came back she pulled out a litre of shampoo and gave it to the Khmu guides, since there were “no showers” and she didn’t want to carry it.

I was still carrying a litre of water for her.

The second day’s trek was extremely tough. It was 6 hours of walking, but we took 8 including stops. It was hot, and it was very muddy. It reminded me of pictures I have seen of the Kokoda Trail, with everyone up to their ankles in mud as they climb up steep hills, surrounded by jungle. It was slow going, trying to pick the path that you wouldn’t sink too deeply in to, and trying to avoid the bamboo that had been broken and was across the track about a metre off the ground. Sai explained that water buffalo had used the track recently, churning up the mud and breaking the bamboo. It was at times very difficult to force my way through the bamboo, and I got remarkably muddy, and by lunchtime I was already exhausted.

The one good thing about the mud was that we could see tracks. Mostly water buffalo tracks, but a handful of tiger tracks as well, which was exciting to see.

By mid afternoon we left the mud behind, crossed a river, and an hour later I found I had lost a sandal that had been strapped to the back of my pack. Sai went back and found it near the river. A distance that had taken Tanja and I 45 minutes took him about 20 minutes – return. My only consolations were that he had done it without his pack, and that he did find my sandal so I could walk around that evening without my boots on.

We spent that night in an abandoned village of the Akha people. When the NPA was created, this village (and probably some others) were within the boundaries so they had to move to the edge of the forest. Most of the building were barely standing and had been stripped of the easily accessible timber walls. Only the hut that we stayed in was intact. An Akha man met us at this camp (as the Khmu villagers had returned home that morning), prepared our dinner and gave us “happy water”, which is really just Lao-lao, or rice whisky, made by the different ethnic group.

It was another beautiful campsite, and I really needed the rest that night. There was another nearby stream, and the ruined buildings, and it was very peaceful.

Tanja spent the evening explaining to Sai that he should start his own business doing some things for tourists. The problem was that the tour company we were with already did all these things, she just hadn’t bothered to go in and ask. She basically wanted someone to come up to her, tell her everything that she wanted to know (but only the things she was interested in, and without asking what she was interested in), and organise her trip for her, all with no input from her.

Nevertheless, we all slept well.

We chose to take the easy route on the third day. It was shorter and easier terrain, and Tanja and I were tired enough to choose that. Tanja again refused breakfast, and we were outside the NPA quite quickly and wandered past rice fields, rubber plantations and vegetable plots. The views from this track were better than the day before since they weren’t totally obscured by trees, so the third day turned out to be just a pretty as the first two. Tanja insisted on very long, regular breaks (the last 20 minutes of walking took about an hour including breaks), but we made it to the Akha village for lunch.

The Akha people have a unique culture, and three of the most interesting aspects were explained to us while we ate:
1. Once a woman is married with a couple of kids, she is no longer expected to hide her breasts. This was not merely explained, but observed.
2. When a woman give birth to twins, the Akha consider this to be an “animal” birth. Animals have multiple births, people have single births. Traditionally they kill both babies and send the parents into the forest for three years as punishment. More recently, the Lao government has stopped the infanticide and the babies simply disappear from the village as if they never existed (and are adopted and raised in Khmu or Thai Dam villages).
3. When an Akha man reached 15 or 16 (old enough to be a man) he builds himself a very small hut. He still spends the day and works with his family, but he spends the night in his own hut. He finds a village girl that he would like to marry and she stays with him in his “Loving Hut” for about three months. If she gets pregnant, they get married. If not, “he does not love her enough” so she moves out and they both look elsewhere for a future spouse. “But she usually gets pregnant.”

From there we walked to the main road, and since we were early and the mobile phone network was down that day, we walked a couple of km to a crossroads to wait for a tuk-tuk to take us back to town. At the crossroads was a 400 year old stupa which was knocked over by a bomb during the Vietnam war, so I climbed a very large hill to see it. There was also a new stupa next to it, but that wasn’t as impressive.

When I got down, a tuk-tuk had arrived, so we went back to town for a relaxed afternoon.

The next day, freed from my slow and slightly infuriating companion, I hired a bicycle and visited a waterfall to the north of town. It was beautiful, but difficult to get to since the path and a bridge had been completely washed away in recent flooding. I also rode to the southern town, about 6km south of the main town, to explore that before I flew home in the afternoon.

It was good to get home, but I promptly locked myself out of our bedroom by forgetting that Susan, who was away for work, had the room key. Luckily we have a spare room, so I slept there, and got Susan’s keys from work the next day. So my adventure was finally complete.

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