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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Luang Prabang & Hilltribe village trek to opium fields

LAOS | Monday, 18 February 2008 | Views [3832] | Comments [2]

Today is the start of a three day trek into the hills north east of Luang Prabang. Just myself, Victoria (from Australia), and our guide Lue Yang, who is from the 'Hmong' tribe of people. A brief recap of the events of yesterday......

I wanted to go on a hilltribe trek that was more isolated than the villages frequented by other tourists, and if possible to go where no foreigners had gone before. Also, not too far to get to so that travelling by road was minimised, allowing me to maximise the trekking time. I had found a company called 'All one Laos' that offered a tour to the old opium fields and would be staying in old villages to meet the people. As it happened, a lady had been passing by and had taken a last minute decision to change her plans and go into the office to change a bus ticket, which she did. She overheard what I was talking to the tour guide about and looked over the map we had spread out. Fortunate for me, she decided to not get on the bus (having just changed her ticket), but come with me on my trek. Boy was that a lucky decision as you will gather as the story unfolds! .... She got a big hug for making a spontaneous change of decision!

Met up with Victoria and a friend at the lovely Blue Lagoon restaurant in the evening. Superb place with a nice garden dining area at the back and well worth paying a bit more for the standard of food and service. The chef came out to see us and have a chat, which was a nice touch.

Monday 11th Feb - Got picked up from my guest house and taken to the office to drop off baggage to be stored whilst away and meet our guide for the trek, then into a small minivan and hit the road north. After time spent gathering provisions and also buying some books and pens/crayons to give to the children and schools as we go along, we set off in a minivan for about 90 minutes northwards along the banks of the Mekong and deep into the hills.

Our trek had a great unique starting point. A rickety old bamboo bridge suspended with cane vines that snaked up and down and leaned over to almost vertical. We had to cling on and edge across trying to stop from falling off into the river. They have to rebuild this bridge once a year. Brilliant start!

The day was hot, about mid 30's and fairly undulating terrain with long stretches of steep climb. Occasional stops to talk to local people going about their very slow paced chores. Our guide, Lue, was fantastic. Fluent in Hmong, Khmu, excellent english and a wonderful character.

An early stop was to talk with a lovely old serene  Hmong lady and her husband about their family. They allow multiple wives in their culture and they seem happy with that. Beautiful people and children. They are mucky, down to earth, very humble and heart warming to be around. One of the children, about 1 year or so old was toddling around with a sharp curved knife. They didn't seem to be too worried about it. The hysterics from them when they see their faces on screen after taking their photograph is beautiful. We learnt so much about their way of life and traditions, I could write a book about it. Went for a look around their school and sat in the classroom with the children for a while, whilst they did some mathermatics. One of the classes was empty as their teacher had to go somewhere, so the kids got the day off. Most schools have one teacher covering two classes. Also, a chance to practice some of the hmong words we had been learning as we walked. Not easy, but they loved us trying.

Further on we ended up at our first night's stop at the chief's house in a Hmong village. A wonderful old wooden house with a communal area for all of the family including ourselves to socialise and sleep in, straight on the bare earth. The kitchen was separate to keep smoke out from the main house...chickens, dogs, pigs and cows on the loose running about. At the time we arrived, the vet was busy administering injections to the small herd of cows. A bit of a fight was on as the cows must be able to pass on messages of bad vibes to the other cows' who were going bezerk. One cow broke loose and demolished a building on stilts, that came crashing down as we all scarpered to get away from the mad cow! So much fun with the locals as we are 'aliens' in their world and they were fascinated by us, so we attracted quite a crowd of onlookers. Decided to take a shower as it had been a long sticky day. This was fun.... A choice of two washing places. The first was a few drums and containers of water with a pipe to fill a bucket to throw over yourself. The second and more preferred one was a ground pump of cold water in the middle of an open mud patch. This is basic and teaches you the real meaning of life's necessities for these lovely people. Extremely hospitable and keen to learn as much about us we were of them.

We slept on a thin mattress on the bare earth with a mosquito net slung overhead....dark with a tiny light running from a battery that had been charged from a small solar panel the aid agency had provided. No elecricity in these remote areas and only subsistence living as it is too far to bring produce on a regular basis. Food throughout the evening was traditional Laos diet of steamed and sticky rice with some chicken and vegetables. Sat on low blocks of wood around a round platter, we spent the evening talking to the chief (Choy Xing Huh) and his new wife (his previous had died) about his life and responsibilites. Quite young at 38 years old with his wife only 20! As chief, his main responsibility was to oversee population and animal issues in the village. People move between villages periodically as land conditions deteriorate to the point when they need somewhere more fertile. As with most of them, they have large families and so movig to a new village has to be controlled. The chief is unlikely to refuse, but has to make sure of the best interests of his resources. Initially, the children were fairly quiet and didn't know what to make of us, but opened up to us a bit and were great to play games with.

It amazed me how noisy the area was during the night...roosters calling all night, dogs barking, cows, birds twittering away. No clean water to drink, so it had to be boiled and looks a bit murky but tasted ok. Made some up for general drinking and popped in a water treatment tablet for good measure. Makes the water taste like a swimming pool with antiseptic added. If there was some food in their mouths they didn't want, they just spat it out on the floor and the dog came and ate it! During the night one of the little boys wanted the toilet, so he got out of bed and weed on the floor. Careful of that patch of dirt in the morning! Great opportunity for me to get to know Victoria too as she and I have so much in common that it was a stroke of luck to have found such a wonderful travelling companion.

Tue 12th Feb - Early awakening with the sound of the roosters and country life. One of the chickens at about 5:30am let out a rather strangled squawk...it happened to be its last.... That was today's lunch! Within a short time It had been plucked and was in the pot. Breakfast was a strange affair and included a concoction of cold raw chicken blood, chilli and some wild vegetables and flowering grasses and morning glory in a broth...delicious start to the day, but I must admit that some of the blood bits were a bit gooey and stringy and an interesting sensation sliding down my throat! My companion politely refused...no surprise as to why!

Off to the bush toilet as they don't have anything else here...not even a 'long-drop' as they do in other counries. Here you just go walkabout and find a bush. The problem is that wherever you go there seems to be a chicken or two pecking around.

Back on the road armed with our freshly cooked chicken and some sticky rice for lunch. First stop, another Hmong village and some time in a school listening to them being assessed for their singing as each child in turn had to stand in front of the class and sing a song of their choice. The school was a short row of bamboo huts next to each other. The noise was drowning with one class trying to do their singing tests, he class next door with some rowdy kids answering teacher's questions and the third class being drowned out by it all. Many children were self conscious about us being there as they had never seen a foreigner before...we were lucky to be the first to have visited some of these areas. That in itself was a great experience, but one where you have to tread carefully. As eco-travellers, we have to do our best to observe without influencing or causing any undue alarm with our ways. Photography is always a problem and some children are scared when a camera appears and run away. Others are curious and the reaction when they see themselves on the camera screen is amazing. We had mass groups of children swarming around us with some great interest. Loved every second.

Our home for the second night was in a Khmu village. Many families in their wooden houses raised on stilts with a fantastic atmosphere of fun, simplicity and unity amongst them. Many families here are large, with 10 or 12 children not being unusual as there is no contraception in these communities, which I was initially surprised about. It works though as they all have their role. Brothers and sisters take their responsibilities to look after their younger ones seriously. Great to see a boy no more than maybe 10 years old with a baby wrapped up on his chest and so attentive to its every need. All of them laughing, playing simple games and doing what all children should be doing. They were wonderful when we tried to join in and showed us how to play their games. One simple game used 10 short bamboo sticks and a small ball. With one hand holding the ball and sticks, you toss the ball in the air and drop the sticks on the ground. Then, you hrow the ball In the air and with the same hand have to pick up one stick until you have all ten. Then you repeat the game but next time have to pick up two sticks each time repeating until the fifth round when you have to pick five sticks. Smiles so big against their grubby faces ....beautiful!

Stayed in the village cheif's house again, which in this case was on stilts as this area gets lots of rain and ges muddy. The old gradmother was a characerful person, with her traditional head-wrap and talked to us extensively about their khmu culture. Lue was the perfect guide with so much interest in what we wanted to learn and our inquisitive wish to be involved. The khmu language is different to hmong, but we tried our best.

The evening...wow! One thing I have developed as I travel is my passion for music and its ability to unite people from any walk of life. Victoria has a wonderful sense of fun and involvement too. In this short space of time we had begun to grow closer to each other, with our common ideals and sense of fun. Sat in the chief's house having dinner on the wooden floors, huddled around small light exchanging culture was beautiful. We decided to get the family involved in some music. Without anything sophisticated, I had some of the boys and girls slapping out rhythms on the floor, their knees, and anything else available. Earlier we had got some beer from a local village to pass around during the evening. The shop, if you can call it that, was a little bamboo hut selling such functional things that tribal villagers, so a couple of lao beer bottles made for an interesting addition to the range of instruments. The sound started to attract much interest from around the village as more children and teenagers wondered in to expand the group. The evening progressed with great fun and singing and playing. Awesome is the only word for it.

Wed 13th Feb - Not much sleep last night as dogs barking and roosters crowing away. It was great at about 6am when one rooster just outside our shack squawked, and a ripple of responses from distant roosters seemed to follow. A nice treat from Lue with coffee in bed as they prepared breakfast of vegetable soup and rice. Back on the track again and thanks to our hosts (the chief Wong Sa, and his wife Xieng Cam) at the Ban Kalan Kong village...'khob djai lai lai' or thank you in khmu/lao. A tough walk today with much steep hills to climb and decend. Part was along, in amidst a bamboo forest we came across a trail of really old post cards and photographs, left we deduced by a korean guy telling a love story of his lao partner. About 20 or so cards, some with words on the back in lao, some blank, but an obvious part of his story. It was so sweet and the photographs were incredible.

Near the end of the trail we hit a river and had to wait until we could raise some attention for a villager to cross the river to get us in a very leaky shallow boat.

The end of the trail at another hmong village and collected by minivan. Short stop for lunch at a roadside market café before returning to Luang Prabang.

The whole experience had been wonderful. Not only had we been in the presence of some beautiful people and had a fantastic time, but I had made a wonderful friend in Victoria. We gelled so much that we decided that we needed to spend some more time together, so will travel together for a while.

Straight to a nice guest house and a freshen up in hot water...what a luxury afer a few days without it.

The evening was spent at a super wine bar on the main sisvanvong road, across from our guest house. Not only a great atmosphere and good wine, but the music was superb and was able to indulge in my other passion of dancing. Victoria can dance too and we had a great evening.

Thu 14th Feb - Catching up today with laundry and stuff. Legs were a bit shot after the past few days walking, so decided to give ourselves a treat and booked into an hour's sauna followed by a Lao mystic massage at the lovely Garden Spa up near the top of the peninsula. A mystic massage is like a version of a thai massage but more concentrated on pressure points, all done to lovely serene music.

Suitably rejuvenated we set off for something to eat...I saw some lao boys on a wall chatting and playing guitar, so went to join them. Ended up spending a couple of hours singing and having great fun. They even cooked a rabbit that had run the door for us and supplied some Lao Lao whisky and beer. Some other passers-by came in to join the fun and we had a great social time.

Nice dinner with some pasta and wine for a change and then off to the wine bar again. Great night's dancing, meeting some great people. Have been invited to teach dancing in Bali! Now that will be a tough one! Great music again and able to get loads of It to put on my iPod for free. Being a bit of a romantic these days, and being Valentine's day, bought a red rose for Vicoria. She is one hell of a lady and think that we will be close friends for a very long time. Fortunately, our feelings are mutual. Yippee!

Fri 15th Feb - Breakfast in a nice café and a few hours spent ripping music from CDs from wine bar for my iPod. It threw it down with heavy rain this morning and it is very cold, so not a day to spend outdoors for long. Ideal time to catch up with other stuff.

Set out for a walk later in the afternoon and got as far as the market for some lunch and spotted a guitar leaning up against a wall, so stopped to play for a while. I have been lucky to have some great opportunities to play guitar recently and it reinforces how much I miss having my own guitar with me. Will have to look into having it sent from the UK or buy another one out here. Feeling good, we set off around the rural part of Luang Prabang. In one area there were lots of shacks nestled together wih plumes of smoke coming from little pots as they cooked ouside. Some lovely wats I this part of town too. Less frequented by tourists who stay in the main town.

Nice meal and wine then off to the wine bar again for some more dancing and soaking up the great atmosphere. Sad to say goodbye to the owner and barman, as this has been a great time for us. Luang Prabang has so much to offer that you could easily spend more than a week here.

Sat 16th Feb - Decided to go to see the 'Plain of Jars' east of here, so had to be up early to catch the bus to Ponsavan. Only one bus each day leaving around 8:30am from the southern bus station. Tuk-tuk from town takes less 10 minutes. The nine hour journey cost 85,000 kip in a standard local bus.

It's much warmer today and the bus soon filled up to over-capacity, with people sitting on plastic chairs in the aisle. Throughout the journey, the yukky treat of poor travellers (mainly locals) throwing up into plastic bags as we snaked around one tight bend after another. For a local bus, this one was fairly good with a movie and music.

The scenery as we headed eastwards is stunning going through the mountains. Rustic wooden houses clinging onto the steep hills in the most improbable places. The sun filtering through the clouds and creating that misty atmospheric layering of the distant mountains. A rather odd sight to see a soldier with a bazooka at one of the stops. No sure what that was about but we also had a guy with a rifle on the bus a one stage.

Got to Ponsavan in about 6 hours at the new bus station which is about 3km out of town. As usual, there is a hoard of tuk-tuks waiting to pounce and touts offering free transport to guest houses in town. Decided to go with one of them and stayed at the Dokehoune Guest House. Loads along the main road but this was ok. Interesting collection of missile shells in the reception, as well as a christmas tree with big bullets for decorations! This is a common feature here as 2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos!

Off to explore the old market. There are two, the newer one we passed on the road in to town can visit another day. The old market was fascinating. More vegetables I hadn't seen before and a rather interesting collection of bowls of moving creatures! A few sellers had small bowls of small fish mixed with a wide range of creepy crawlies that they had to stop from escaping. Apparently, the whole mixture gets stir fried and added to vegetables. As an alternative they can be fried and pounded to a paste with a mortar and pestle...tasty grub!

Tags: Sightseeing




I am having a wonderful time reading about your asia experience! I'm heading off for my own Hilltribe adventure in May so stumbled across your journal through searching for info on google! I'm keen to hear what happens next between yourself and Victoria - give her a hug for me. You are a wonderful writer and this reads like a novel! Have added to my favourites and can't wait for some more downtime at work to read more! Erin from Melbourne, Australia

  Erin Mar 13, 2008 4:43 PM


Hi again Jeff. Keeping on reading your trips. I like this one particularly. Not tricks, advises but taking the plunge with locals. Nice. You get to transmit your personal feelings. Thanks for sharing... but wait... sorry...next chapter comes...see you. Max.

  Max Aug 26, 2011 1:05 AM

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