Laos: Sleeping with the Hill Tribes

Akha women with traditional headgear heading out of the village. Photos by Holly Cave.
Akha women with traditional headgear heading out of the village. Photos by Holly Cave.

Sleeping with Akha Hill Tribes in Northern Laos

By Holly Cave

I was getting more tenacious after three months on the road. The experiential equivalent of a heroin addict running out of skin, I had reached the point at which I needed to seek out bolder experiences, to take bigger risks and get closer to the unknown to achieve the same high that travel gave me at the start of my trip.

It was this internal one-upmanship struggle that found me counting out coins in three currencies to a man in an unmarked hut in the Northern Laos border town of Muang Khua. I added hair clips to make up the change I was missing, to please Kheo’s little girl. I had seen a poster; I knew his name; I knew he had promised to take me into the remote hill tribes of Laos. I knew nothing else. It was perfect.

The part of me that hates drop toilets and walking alone in a strange city after dark was pleased when the song thaew that picked me up from my guest house had two other tourists on board. Crouched upon World Health Organisation rice sacks, we travelled 36 kilometres out of town before our ride stopped at the side of the road. Kheo pointed to an opening in the trees and we started to climb.

Steep Slopes

The first few hours were knee-creakingly hard; I thrust myself up very steep slopes until we passed through the eerie wrappers of the mist and were standing in crisp golden sunshine. We had passed the most numerous and most varied assortment of spiders’ webs I had ever seen, hanging like miniature silken tree-houses in the grasses along our path. We had walked through the murder scene-like remains of a deserted village where knitted dolls lay trodden into the mud and a silver earring glinted at me from behind a stone.

A meal at a small restaurant en route.
A meal at a small restaurant en route to the village.

Stopping for lunch at the side of the road, I renewed myself with dried riverweed sprinkled with sesame seeds, beef laap, boiled eggs, sticky rice and peppery noodles wrapped in banana leaves. I wanted to sleep until the first child cautiously waved to us from the top of a hillside.

Walking through a rubber plantation, we passed a group of boys on their way to school for the week and, nearing the Akha village late that afternoon, four teenage girls appeared. They spotted us before we saw them, their eyes trained for the whispers of the forest.

When my gaze finally picked them out, they were statues, frozen against the trees at the bend in the path. The shared expression on their faces made me stop, too. I couldn’t decipher it at first. Kheo beckoned me on.

“It’s okay,” he whispered. “But they are scared.”

I turned and looked behind me, half-expecting to see the rippling shadow of a tiger. But only the thin bamboo rails of the spirit gate, decorated with chicken feathers, lay behind. The four Akha girls, their hair bound up with orange wool, firewood baskets in hand and faces pale in apprehension were staring at me. Kheo swallowed a giggle. “They think maybe you are a ghost.”

The path to the village in Northern Laos.
The path to the village in Northern Laos.

They scrambled past us like we were wild animals. Only further up the path from us did they dare stop and survey us properly. It was a strange sensation; we were ghosts to them.

Surrounded

Within seconds of entering the village, as if our presence was expected, we were completely surrounded by (it seemed) most of the village and its animals: Half-dressed children; women holding babies to their bare breasts; men holding sticks and knives.

They did nothing but stare at us, almost as if they had no idea whether to regard us as people or not. As it turned out, this gathering wasn’t for our benefit – the rice truck had just been, dropping off the month’s supplies. Kheo told us, then, matter-of-factly, that only fourteen other tourists had been to this village in the past year or two. Suddenly it all felt uncomfortably, incredibly remote – an honored window into a completely different way of life.

It was hard but I managed to bond a bit as the afternoon and evening wore on, striking gold by playing with the boys on their 3-wheeled carts. I was presented with earrings and bracelets made by the women, and one of my companions became a local hero at their keepy-uppy football game, resulting in much delight and laughter from the crowd. Despite their virtual detachment from the outside world, watching someone fall over, it seems, is part of the universal language of comedy.

Curious local kids check out the visitor, a rare site.
Curious local kids check out the visitor, a rare site.

Candlelight and a Bottle of Hornets

We ate dinner in the homestay that night by candlelight, along with a couple of shots of Lao Lao from a bottle full of huge hornets. It must always be consumed in even numbers, apparently, so we stopped at two rather than suffer four. Kheo told us that twins are considered unlucky by the Akha and that they would once have been killed at birth but now are given away to another village.

A post-dinner call came through from nature and I ventured out into the moonlight to find a place to go to the toilet. Nowhere in the village is there a designated area, which I thought strange but tried to get on with the job in hand, trousers around my ankles. I don’t know how I woke the pigs up, but soon I was running as I pulled up my pants, immediately reaching an acute understanding of how the villagers dispose of their faeces.

The next morning, after a breakfast of noodle soup, bananas and coffee, we washed at the well to the amusement of the village children, bolder now, brave enough to giggle and point.

Setting off again, walking along the path the villagers took to reach their mountain rice paddies, I was awestruck by the view. Its remoteness, the sense of true wilderness took me by surprise as I hungrily gazed over the tops of mountains poking like islands out of a sea of mist.

The village.
The main street of the village.

Barefoot Akha Women

On the steep downhill stretch, a group of middle-aged Akha women heading out on a fishing trip caught up with us, laughing as we slipped and slid down the hillside in our fancy trekking shoes.

Nipping down gracefully in their bare feet, they offered to help by carrying our bags. I was humbled, embarrassed, glad I had gambled, regretful for treating this trek as a tick in some self-appointed box.

Holly Cave

Holly Cave is a science and travel writer currently living in a proper English country pub and always preparing for her next adventure. Read her travel blog TravelEachDay.

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