A small wrinkled lady approached us as we ate our rice, smiling. She was an Akha lady, one of the largest ethnic hill tribe groups in northeast Laos, and you could tell by her clothes. She wore the traditional headdress, complete with sliver coins and buttons hanging from her head. ‘2,000 only 2,000’ she said pulling out dozens of handmade cloth bracelets. Politely declining she next produced an array of highly detailed embroidered bags and even when we said no to these this wizened old lady wasn’t giving up on a sale…. “Smoke Smoke” she whispered in our ears, candidly producing a bag of green herbs – The old lady was trying to sell us drugs! Judging by the look on our face I think she gathered that it wasn’t our thing, but just before she left..”Opium?”.. All we could do was laugh.
climbing aboard a local bus full of Lao people and an excitable black puppy dog, we wound our way through the mountains to the small town of Luang Namtha. The town is nestled firmly within the area known as the golden triangle. A region centred around the borders of Laos, Burma and Thailand that is allegedly the third largest area to export opium in the world and a hub for drug production in South East Asia (hence the old lady pushing drugs), but the town has much more to offer than that. Jumping on some stiff seated mountain bikes we set off to cycle around the beautiful countryside and explore local ethnic tribal villages nearby. We passed ladies weaving on their hand-looms, stupas where villagers were grazing their cows and more lush green rice paddies than you could shake a stick at.
Though it was low season the night market in the centre was a bustling place to eat and watch local Laos life pass by. The southeast Asian business model is in full force here, if one person sells something and appears to be making money, then ten others will set up right next door and sell exactly the same thing. This made choosing a stall to buy roast chicken, sticky rice and papaya salad from a difficult task, so in the interest of quality control we tried several different stalls over different nights… we shouldn’t of worried, they were all delicious.
Moving on from Luang Namtha we headed further north to the frontier town of Muang Sing (a town only 12km from the Chinese Border). Taking possibly the most over crowded bus so far (Ella had to sit on a cushion on the floor and Ryan in the boot) we headed through a beautiful national park before reaching the small town… well we say it was beautiful, our seating arrangements didn’t offer the best of views. Being in Muang Sing really felt like being on the edge of the county. A Wild West town that had been transported to northern Laos. The lonely feeling probably wasn’t helped by the fact that this was once a tourist hotspot, where alternative types came to enjoy local opium dens but with recent crack downs, it was left feeling a little empty…but still beautiful.
The town itself has a handful of things to see, the most fun being the bustling morning market. Ladies from the surrounding hill tribe villages, often dressed in traditional clothing, come down to sell fruit and vegetables they have grown or foraged, laid out on a bamboo mat. After eating some delicious donuts and some slightly less delicious dosa type things we explored the temples and dirt roads around town. I don’t know if anyone else has made this observation but Laos is Chicken Land. In any small community in the country there are chicks, broody hens and mad roosters clucking in the early morning hours everywhere. Muang Sing was no exception, in fact a group of chickens stopped the traffic on the main road…. only in Laos.
This is the most ethnically diverse area of Laos and has a huge number of individual ethnic groups living in their own villages, often with unique traditional dress and customs, and wanting to find out a little more about these hill tribes we booked onto a homestay program with a walk through other villages the next day. We were staying with a family from the Yao Hill tribe, an ethnic group who migrated to Laos from China hundreds of years ago. The women traditionally wear black turbans and striking bright red fluffy scarves – which seemed highly impractical in the Laos heat. We stayed in a small village (yes there were a lot of chickens!) where our host for the evening cooked us some delicious bamboo shoots, aubergine jeow (spicy dip) and river weed. Some girls did some traditional dancing and then the weird part of the evening started…a massage. Luckily Ryan and I both got ladies for our massage, but a seven-year-old girl massaged the woman with us! Is that okay? We’re still not sure!
The next morning, recovered from our slightly awkward massages, we walked through the surrounding area visiting a few more hill tribe villages along the way, learning about the cultures and day-to-day life as we went. We passed trough Akha villages and admired their spirit gates – assembled by the shamans to protect the village from evil spirits and the shaman herself, decked out in embroidered gaiters, headdress and special black hat. We even pitched in with the farming – helping the locals pick peanuts…though I don’t think they appreciated our efforts…
But it was time to find a hammock by the Nam Oo river…off to Nong Khiaw.