A Journey

Basil & Tracy's Travels Abroad

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Lost World

In the north of Laos it is possible to catch a glimpse of the lifestyle of various hill tribes. Villages, accessible only on foot by forest tracks, remain much the same as they have been for hundreds of years. We joined four Canadians a Dutchman and a Brit on a guided Nam Ha River trek that took us to visit a Khmu and a Lanten village.

Carrying our stripped-down packs (sleeping bag, toothbrush, water), we travel by pick-up truck to the trailhead, a Lanten village where we watch the local women (these tribes are matriarchal), wearing blue, homespun costumes, selling a pig to a lowlander from the town – a very serious business, and lucrative!

Lanten Pig Bargaining

Our guide, Phet, hires a villager who carries the lunch on his back in a bamboo basket with a wide strap around his forehead, and we set off.

Lanten Porter

Winding up and up through bamboo forests we see signs of foraging and hear voices deep in the thickets as women and the older girls dig for one of the staple foods of the people here – thick, starchy bamboo shoots, which they carry back to the village in the same baskets.

Bamboo Shoots

It is important to place a leaf as an offering on any termite hills near the trail to ensure good luck.

Termite Offering

Next begins a long, steep climb through open, upland forest with distant views over the surrounding country, pausing only for long draughts of water – with the added bonus of lightening your pack!


We arrive at the top, puffing and pink in the face, to collapse while a feast is laid out before us on a banana leaf table and the villager has a quick cigarette before heading back home. Climbing down is far more punishing than climbing up, and after the steep decent we arrive at our destination with aching, shaking knees – not a moment too soon!

Ban Nalan Huts

Ban Nalan Village

We are to spend the night in the visitor's house in the Khmu village of Ban Nalan on the banks of the Nam Ha and we are amused to find a western-style loo in its own special outhouse!!!

Farang Loo

When we arrive, Ban Nalam is almost deserted … only the elders remain, overseeing the small children and animals whilst the rest of the villagers are out foraging or tending the fields. Unlike other tribes, there is no tradition of weaving in the Khamu and so they wear bartered cotton sarongs.

Child Minding

Pig Feeding

Two of the local villages are being slowly dismantled and moved to a new site next to each other, where a school for both communities is planned (make the most of it, kids, you are in for a shock!). Piece by piece the houses (except for the rattan roofs) are carried to the new plot, so the village is smaller than it was.

Happy Pork

Accompanied by the children we drop everything and bask in the cool river – bliss! The kids soon produce homemade harpoon-guns and a net and the rest of the afternoon is spent catching dinner! Two snakes are spotted ­– one, long and thin and silver, climbs out of the river (!) and, when the children chase it, it shoots up a tree with shocking speed! Great sport is had trying to shake it down. Another is spotted swimming across the river, head held high, but is lost on the bank.

Little Boy

Boy with Harpoon

At dusk, villagers begin to arrive home laden with the fruits of the day’s labours and preparation of the evening meal begins. Lao food is amazing – lots of ginger, coriander, garlic, lemon-grass and chilli. Meat is often eaten raw and our carnivores are taken aback to find raw buffalo tripe on the menu – there are advantages to being veggie! A soup is prepared with the fish heads and guts, nothing wasted here. We also enjoy vegetables in broth, chilli dip, tomato and coriander curry, all served with generous handfuls of sticky-rice (tikky lie!) – the main staple food in Laos. Dinner is accompanied by the passing round of a small bamboo shot glass of home brewed rice liquor, smooth and strong, with toasts in many languages – shok di (good luck) in Lao.


How privileged we feel as we crawl into bed to the sound of a frog chorus and the call of a barking deer in the forest.

The day begins before dawn, when the ladies cook the day’s sticky-rice, steamed in a bamboo basket (what would we do without bamboo?!) and taken with them in a bamboo box. Daybreak finds them heading out of the village for another day’s work. We tuck into a breakfast of sticky-rice, spicy omelette and fresh chicken curry with the sound of thunder rolling around the valley.

Fresh Chicken

The day’s trek starts following the river along the valley and soon it begins to rain. After the heat of yesterday’s climb we are grateful for the cool freshness it brings. The first stop is the new, combined village, looking pristine with its freshly made roofs.

New Village

Our eyes nearly pop out of our heads when we see a woman roasting a squirrel over a fire!

Roasted Squirrel

Just as the sky opens, we arrive at Ban Nam Goi, the Lanten village. We take cover in a communal hut and people bring their wares for us to buy. Charming, brightly embroidered bags prepared from scraps of homespun fabric; little carvings and clay figures; and wristbands made from seeds are all produced and everyone is happy when we finally step out into the cloudy, steamy daylight.


Happy Kids

Lunch is eaten (they know how to keep you happy!) from a bamboo trough with bamboo spoons on the riverbank but unfortunately someone has nicked the bamboo raft normally used to cross the river, so it is time to roll up our trousers! Someone notices a bloodstain on their sock and it’s leech-alert! Small brown leeches have been awoken by the rain and can be seen blindly inching like caterpillars over the leaf litter towards you. Tuck your trousers into your socks and keep moving is the advice, which we all take pdq!



Most of today’s walk is to be three short(ish!) sharp ascents and descents through thick, virgin monsoon forest. We are overwhelmed by the mysterious, dark, dripping, place. Weird birdcalls echo around us, breaking the muffled, timeless silence – strange and wonderful and a bit unsettling, we feel as almost much out of our element here as we do under the sea.

Lost World

Heart of Darkness

We emerge, blinking into bananas and rice paddy and the spell is broken. Civilisation, a hot shower and a Beerlao beckon as we wearily clamber into a pick-up for the long, bumpy ride back to Luang Namtha.


Special thanks to Phet and Sieng our guides and Green Discovery.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Thai Favourites