Homestay with the Akha Tribe

Phongsali is in the very North of Laos near the Chinese border. There is a healthy Chinese tourism market here and Phongsali people are more likely to speak Chinese than English. On our first day here we found a Chinese restaurant that seemed very familiar to us after our months in China, so we had dinner there. The proprietors didn't speak English so our conversation was limited to Marty's atrophied Chinese skills, which made for comical communication. They were very surprised to see a Westerner who could understand a little Chinese!

We organised a trek into the wilderness to visit some Akha tribe villages, including a night with a local family. The walking was quite difficult as we had become rather unfit and the terrain was very hilly. Also, the jungle was quite thick and the air was hot and humid. Our guide showed us several different plants which are eaten or used for medicine by the local people.

The villages are situated on the top of the ridge where the views were amazing, and in the mornings, they sit above the layer of thick cloud that settles over the whole region.

The villages are small and made from very simple building materials. The people are fascinated by foreigners and we were often stared at, especially by the children. Unfortunately, most of the people here are very wary of having their photos taken so we could only get one of some very curious kids.

The Akha people have very clearly defined gender roles. The men build the buildings, do the occasional tasks that require great physical strength, smoke, drink and tell the women what to do. The women do everything else. The women wear a traditional tribal dress which is very colourful and resplendent with coins. Their hat is made much taller after they become married, and after they have had a child they open their dress at the top to allow for easier breast-feeding access. This means most of the tribe's women are exposed in such a way as would be considered indecent in most Western countries.

We were treated to lots of different types of local food, which was all very good considering the simplicity of the ingredients and cooking methods. Sticky rice was the staple, and along with foods we were familiar with we tried curry pastes, cured meats and flowers. Our host was very keen to ensure that we each had a glass of lao lao and that we were regularly being topped up. It is considered very rude to refuse so before long we had each drunk enough of the stuff to be feeling rather unpleasant in the guts. The Phongsali local version of the ubiquitous drink is green because of herbal infusions, which completely fail to mask the fowl taste of the base spirit.

We spent time playing with the local kids, trading English and Akha words with locals and, of course, drinking lao lao. Marty tried the massive tabacco bongs which the local men suck down continuously, and Georgia duelled flutes with our host. That night we slept in the men's side of the house (the Akhas divide their houses so that each gender has its own space) in a bed with our guide and the host, who by this stage was stumbling around due to the impressive amount of lao lao he had ingested. Very snug!

On the way back, after finishing our walk and catching the boat back to Hat Sa, we were rather bemused to have three giant black squealing sows tied up and thrown into the aisle of our bus! This was funny at first but soon became unpleasant when they crapped themselves near Marty's feet. Soon they were kicking around and rolling in their filth, sliding up and down the aisle as the bus accelerated around the curvy mountain road. Also, there was a chicken in a sack in a bucket.

Our trek was a really interesting experience and a very 'authentic' insight into a people whose lives do not require electricity or vehicles or the trappings of modern Western society. Nearly every other minority culture we see in our travels has lost most of their culture and exists simply to shell merchandise to tourists.

After our river cruise and trekking, we were keen to get back into places with transport and communications infrastructure, so we decided to fast-track into northern Thailand. We took a very dusty 9 hour bus ride out of Phongsali when Marty was feeling very snotty from a cold, and followed it up with a 3 hour bus ride into the trekking town of Luang Nam Tha. We then took three buses in a day, totaling 12 hours, ending up at Chiang Mai in Thailand.

We were amazed by the differences between Laos and Thailand that were immediately apparent - Thailand seems much more similar to Australia than it is to Laos. Laos has very little infrastructure outside of a couple of major cities, which makes it difficult to travel in but so pleasurable at the same time. We found Laos to be one of our favourite places, and we will go back and visit its southern areas in another trip if we can.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Marty and Georgia,

It was much better hearing the story from both of you over a glass of wine. However, I must say the blog is written rather well.

Hopefully we will catch up soon and hear another amazing story.

Hayden and Ellen