Laos: Hilltribe Trek


Michael and I traveled to Laos as part of our 2007 career break. The following is an excerpt from our travel blog.

While in Laos we did tear ourselves away from Luang Prabang for a two-day trek through some local hill tribe communities. We were told that for a true authentic hill tribe experience, Laos was the place to do it. It was what Thailand was like 40 years prior before the lure of the tourist dollar turned the experience into a Disney-like operation.

And there is no lack of operators in Luang Prabang offering guided experiences. After some research we decided to go with White Elephant Adventures as the owner, Derek, sold us on a trek that had only been done once before.

[singlepic=743,200,,,left]This trek started along the banks of the Mekong River and would take us up and through three types of ethnic villages – the Lao Loum, who reside along the rivers and most closely resemble the Laos in language, religion and culture; the Khamu, who live on mid-altitude mountain slopes and have been used in the past as indentured servants; and the Hmong, who live at high-altitude and breed cattle, pigs, water buffalo and chickens. Previously the main source of income for the Hmong was opium but the government has aggressively eradicated those crops.

(Click here for more information about the Hmong involvement in the CIA operations during the Vietnam War.)

The lowland part of the hike didn’t last long as we quickly began our ascent up the mountain. Our small group of three was being led by Gai, otherwise known as Mr. Chicken, and the only person who has done this hike before. He is also an ethnic Hmong. He was accompanied by Tomchan, an ethnic Khamu and university student who just began leading treks, as well as Mr. Year, also an ethnic Hmong, who would be assisting in carrying our food and extra water.

[singlepic=751,200,,,right]Our hike took us through beautiful forest terrain and after a couple of hours on the trail we stopped in a Khamu village for lunch. There were several children, puppies and chickens running around but otherwise this village of stilted houses seemed like a ghost town. They don’t encounter too many falang (foreigners) here and are extremely shy. But we could see some people spying out of doorways and windows and eventually a group of giggling kids gathered around to watch us eat. As they have their own language the little Laos we learned meant nothing so it was frustrating not to be able to communicate. But smiles and waves seem to be universally known.

Ahead for us that afternoon was several hours of a steep ascent. And when Gai pointed to the top of a mountain proceeded by a jagged 45 degree angle path, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Even with necessary rest breaks every ten minutes, we had to keep reminding ourselves that this was what we wanted to do – get off the beaten path. There were many “just one more up” from Gai and when we thought we could no longer pull ourselves up, we were on top of the mountain.

[singlepic=758,200,,,left]Glowing bright red from the crimson surface and setting sun we were welcomed into this Hmong village by the sounds of giggling children, crowing roosters, oinking pigs and yipping puppies. It was as if we walked onto a movie set. Every breathless step up the mountain was worth it for this moment.

After putting our bags down in our thatched hut we strolled around the village. Much like the Khamu, the Hmong are very shy, but there seemed to be a lot more activity happening about, and it wasn’t just the people. Everywhere we turned were an assortment of animals roaming about – we wondered how anyone could keep track of which ones belonged to them. And soon one of them, a waddling duck, was to become our dinner.

[singlepic=765,200,,,right]As the sun quickly set we ate dinner by candlelight before retiring to our platform bed for the night. With individual mosquito nets protecting us from intruders, we soundly slept as our tired bodies desperately needed a good rest. We were greeted in the morning by the sounds of roosters and a beautiful clear sky. As we were actually on top of the mountain, the clouds that usually appear every morning in Luang Prabang were actually below us. And as we began our steep descent into a sea of clouds, we felt like we were literally on top of the world.

For an hour and a half we trekked straight down through the forest before coming upon the rice paddies of the lowlands. And during our afternoon hike back to the Mekong, it was hard to believe how far and fast we had descended. It was a hard two-days hike but well worth every step.

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