When coming to Laos I knew I wanted to do something a bit different than only going to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiene, so I planned a longer route to Luang Prabang. Part of this route meant I’d end up way up north in Phongsaly. This is the current capital city of this province and whilst the town itself has its small charms, it’s the trekking that brings a small flock of people here.
I had just planned to stay a few days and chill out but I’d met a lovely Swiss girl, Viviane, who happened to be travelling in the same direction. I’d met her in Huay Xia on the bus to Luang Namtha where she went off to do a jungle trek. We then met on the same bus going to Oudomxay which is the town to change buses to Phongsaly. She told me about her trek and she wanted to do another one.
I had thought about trekking to an ethnic village but I had mixed feelings and wasn’t sure if it was right. I had read a good article by a lady who volunteered at an Akha village and she explained that not all villages accept tourists as they don’t want tourism or visitors. A village has to agree to accept tourists so in effect it is an invitation into their home and their day to day life. I’d read that a percentage of money from the tours in Phongsaly does go to the village. So after a 7 1/2 hour bus journey I was convinced to go on a 2 day trek.
In Phongsaly a trek can be booked either with Amazing Laos or through the Tourist Office. We went to Amazing Laos first but the price seemed a little too high so we went to the Tourist Office which was at least 1/3 cheaper.
Initally there was only the two of us so the price was higher at around £70.00 for a 2 day, 1 night trek. The price was then reduced to about £58.00 as two other girls (Meg from Poland and Impuu from Finland) ended up joining us.
The price included lunch on both days, evening meal, breakfast and an overnight stay in a homestay. It also included drinking water on the second day, but this ended up being tea. I’d brought enough water for two days so that wasn’t a problem. In addition, the price also included public transport to the village of Boun Nua. But to get back to Phongsaly we had to pay an additional 25000 kip (most people travel onwards from Boun Nua and don’t usually go back to Phongsaly).
GETTING TO BOUN NUA:
A tuk tuk picked us up around 7.45am to take us to the bus station for the 8.00am bus to Boun Nua which is about 1 hour away. This is where we met our guide, Khamla, and from there we waited for another bus to take us another 3kms where we would start the trek. Water and snacks can be bought at the Boun Nua bus station.
The bus dropped us all off 3kms from Boun Nua bus station and we began our trek through some farmland and after about 15 minutes we entered the jungle. It was quite hot that day so we were definitely sweating alot and lots of water was needed. The jungle was beautiful and the trek was moderately easy going and the ascent wasn’t too bad although some branches tried to trip me up from time to time! We stopped regularly for water breaks and Khamla would point out different plants and trees to us.
Khamla also told us that about 85% of the Lao population are farmers. He had wanted to study and he was able to go to university in Vientiene to study English for 4 years. He explained that if people didn’t study then they would become farmers. It isn’t uncommon for people to marry young. His brother, who didn’t study, was married at 14 and had 3 kids by the time he was 20. Khamla told us that his parents initially didn’t understand why he wanted to study English, but as he is making money from being a tour guide they now realise the benefits.
Around 12pm we stopped for lunch and Khamla made a table by placing two large banana leaves on a rock. The lunch was sticky rice, white fish, chicken, green vegetables and hard boiled eggs. It was suprisingly good especially as I hadn’t had a proper breakfast.
After lunch it was another 20 minutes of climbing and then the trek would be downhill. We came out onto a dirt road which is the only path to and from the village. Khamla explained that the only way to and from the village was by motorbike or walking. The Akha women would take this route when going to the nearest town to sell their goods. They will start early in the morning and walk for 4 hours before reaching the nearest town, then in the afternoon they will walk back.
It was another 45 minutes walk along the dirt path before we reached the village. Apparently we had made the trek in record time as it was only 2.20pm and normally the guide expects groups to arrive around 3.30/4.00pm.
We were staying in the Chief’s house although he wasn’t there as he was at the rice fields and would be staying there overnight. We met the Chief’s mother who is 88 years old and there were some other people and children as well. The Akha people don’t speak English so any communication was through our guide.
The village is very rustic with chickens, cows, pigs and dogs roaming freely. Water buffalo were chilling out in their mud bath and little kids were running around half naked without a care in the world. Life in the Akha village definitely operates at a slow pace almost as if time doesn’t exist.
We took a walk around the village and saw that there was two water supplies and learned that this is where the Akha people shower. There is no shower or toilet in the houses. A makeshift toilet had been made for the benefit of the tourists which was a hole in the ground with a plastic pipe leading somewhere. There was a rickerty fence around the toilet barely protecting one’s dignity. The villagers will go to the edge of the village to do their business so it was best not to venture too far out of the village perimetre.
The homestay was very basic with wooden steps leading up to an outside area with a table made out of a tree trunk and little wooden stools that are childlike. Sitting for too long on them was quite painful and good luck if you have long legs. Inside the house was a large room and on the right was our sleeping area which was separated from the room with bed sheets. The sleeping arrangement was suprisingly comfortable and the four of us plus our guide slept in the same area.
For dinner we went to another house around 8pm and dinner consisted of rice, bamboo shoots (they are delicious and tastes like asapargus), banana flower (it tastes like tuna), pumpkin, a sour sauce for the rice and a dry dip made from salt and chilli for the bamboo shoots. Khamla then produced some Lao Lao which is a rice whiskey produced in Laos (some seriously strong shit!) The food was quite tasty which is more than I can say for the Lao Lao so one shot was enough for me.
The house where we ate was lived in by a man whose wife had died many years before. We asked if he was allowed to marry again and Khamla explained that in theory he could but he would need the blessing of his children which apparently they are not willing to give (we didn’t ask any more questions after that).
Khamla said we would know which women were married because they will wear a hat which has metal chains and coins for decoration. The hats are made by the Chinese who come to the village to sell them.
After the meal we went back to the homestay and got an early night. I slept for a few hours which I was surprised about.
At some point I heard some talking in the house and thought maybe it was nearly the morning but after dozing off again and waking up I checked the clock and my heart sunk – it was only 5.30am! It seems that the people wake up very early, way too early!
As it was light I decided to make the little journey to the makeshift toilet. After climbing down the wooden steps I was met by some extremely loud pigs who were wagging their little tails, they then proceeded to follow me. I was abit uneasy and had images of Hannibal in my head so I moved a little bit quicker!
At 5.30am the village was quite alive with the villagers feeding the animals and little children running around and playing. There is a primary school in the village and the children start school at 8am, Khamla explained that they will learn Lao, some basic English and mathematics.
We had breakfast around 8am which was the same as dinner but with the addition of some green vegetables.
We set off back to Boun Nua around 9am and expected to reach the bus station just after 12pm. The walking was alot easier than the previous day as we didn’t backtrack through the jungle. Unfortunately, just before the walk I had stomach cramps which made the walk not very pleasant at times. I managed to make it out of the jungle and thought I was okay but then the pains came again so Khamla was able to get us a taxi to the bus station. Luckily, after a few trips to the bathroom I recovered by the afternoon which I was grateful for especially as the bus journey is very bumpy.
Note about the food: I cannot pinpoint which food made me ill but I can explain how the food seemed to have been prepared. The food for lunch had been stored in plastic sandwich bags and this had been in the guide’s bag whilst trekking. It was hot that day and I don’t know if the food was prepared that morning. It’s possible that bacteria had formed from the food heating up/cooling down in the bag. The food itself tasted fine. There are no fridges in the village so I’m not sure how the food is stored and when the food had been made. The Akha people are probably used to how their food is prepared whereas my stomach was not. This is just something to bear in mind if you want to take the trek and you’re worried about how the food is prepared and the level of hygeine. I think next time I would err on the side of caution and take my own snacks.
Apart from suffering with a bad stomach on the second day I’m really happy that I decided to trek and visit the Akha village. It was a great experience and a unique opportunity to see such a completely different world. The Akha people seemed very shy, but were friendly and the children were very curious. I thought after doing the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal that I had seen basic living, but coming to this village I just saw a very simple life. They live in such beautiful surroundings and seem very carefree, something that in the West we would pay alot of money for and still may not be happy. I started to think who is actually richer in terms of living a simple life. The Akha people don’t seem to be plagued by the need to have the latest smartphone, a 50 inch plasma TV or anything materialistic.
Visiting the Akha village was like being transported back in time, the people’s livelihood comes from farming and it seems that their way of life hasn’t changed much over the years. It would be interesting to visit in another 10 years and see if the way of life has altered much.
I was concerned that visiting the village may have been a tourist trap, however, I’m pleased to say that what I experienced was purely the Akha people’s authentic way of life. I was expecting to be “guilt-tripped” into buying things when in fact there were no stalls in the village and no one was trying to sell us anything. The trek was a worthwhile experience and one which will stay with me for a long time.
I’d love to hear about your own trekking experiences? Where did you do your trek and how was it? Please comment below…