Trekking in Laos

Trekking in Laos – Discovering the Akha culture

There was one thing I absolutely wanted to do in Laos more than in other countries I have been to, trekking in the jungle and among the villages of the local tribes.

The ideal place to do this activity is Luang Namtha about 7 hours by minibus from Luang Prabang, near the border with Chinese and with the Myanmar.

This region of Laos is rich in different ethnic groups and tribes who still maintain a strong cultural identity whose encounter can only fascinate and leave something in one’s memory and heart.
Il Laos it is evidently a country that has been discovering tourism for a few years, the roads are not asphalted, the buses are dilapidated and old, 200 kilometers are covered in 7 long hours and the further you go outside the normal tourist destinations the more complicated the journey becomes .
Yet perhaps thanks to these “inconveniences” Laos is perhaps the only country in South East Asia that offers trekking tours in the name of eco-tourism and above all with respect for ethnic groups.

I must say that I also did some trekking in northern Thailand and I noticed a big organizational difference between the two countries.
In Thailand, where the number of tourists is significantly greater than that of Laos, the tours are made on a tourist scale and not vice versa, it happens that the populations of the villages you pass through have little or no originality as in the case of the giraffe women they become objects of a real human zoo in which these people are literally prisoners.

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Laos, on the other hand, is recently discovering tourism and tourist agencies that sell trekking days try to have a minimal impact on the culture and traditions of tribes in which time seems to have never passed.
A Luang Namtha trekking is basically the only business thanks to the favorable position in an area where interesting and different cultures meet.
There are therefore numerous agencies that deal with eco-tourism and responsible tourism, it took me 4 hours to decide which one to trust.
All agencies organize tours for groups of up to 8 people and the options and choices are numerous and customizable. Obviously, if there is not a group already formed, the prices are more or less the same.
One of the most popular and economical tours is the jungle trekking which also includes canoeing and rafting but having already done these activities a few months before I was looking for something different and unique.
I wanted to see it Akha tribe and spend a few hours or a few days in villages in the middle of the jungle.
The cost of this tour was among the highest, in this case the option with us, me and Miguel my travel companion during those days, choice cost 800,000 kip per person which we then managed to get down to 650000kip.

time lapse photography of flying hot air balloon

However, the expense was worth it as what I saw and participated in had something unique and as usual I also had one of my usual strokes of luck.
We left at 8.30 in the morning. The day was cold and foggy.
After 30 minutes of tuk tuk we were dropped off on the side of the road in front of a huge green expanse. We were at the gates of the jungle.
Following the river and aided by a stick so as not to fall into the water and fall from the paths marked only by the lack of grass, at the beginning the walk seemed like child’s play.
But never stop at the first impression.
After about 1 hour of walking, things started to get complicated: climbing mountains overlooking the river and at 30 meters above sea level, no support except the stick that acted as a third leg, me clinging to the trunks of all the trees, a bad version of Tarzan, and a day that had changed from cold to very hot and absolved.
The uncontaminated and green nature was the backdrop for a walk that lasted 5 hours in total.
It goes without saying that for a “sportswoman” like me it was at times like believing I was living the last moments of life, my heart was beating like crazy and my legs were now moving forward by inertia, I couldn’t utter a word.
After the first 2 hours of walking and after having had lunch with sticky rice, pumpkin, boiled broccoli and a spicy tomato sauce resting on a tablecloth made of banana leaves with a full stomach, I ask Sing, our guide, how much was left to reach the village .
In a calm and placid voice he replied that there were still 3 hours to go.

green trees on mountain during daytime

In 3 hours we crossed woods, rivers, countryside, without meeting anyone. It’s hot.
Backpack on my shoulder and peering around terrified of meeting or tripping over an anaconda mistaking it for a log, or even worse holding on to it so as not to fall 30 meters down the mountain.
After crossing kilometers of jungle we finally arrive at the Akha village. It’s 3pm and very hot and there are no people around.

In the villages the working day begins at 6 in the morning and ends at 5pm, I would only discover this later, so at that time the only voices that were heard and the only people that were seen were children from 2 to 8 years old playing with bicycle tires or wheelbarrows made of wood.
The village seemed deserted, I go for walks, the locals look at me as if I were a monster, they don’t seem to trust, they run away if I get too close, most of them refuse my request to take a photo, only a few accept.

In the late afternoon, however, what was a ghost village begins to come alive. Serious women with huge baskets on their backs full of fruit, wood or leaves return home, some are already washing themselves at the source and with their small children.
Men begin to populate the main street, children continue to play and scream.
Even though I have been there for some time, their distrust towards me does not change.
I feel inappropriate, an alien, I put down the camera and sit on a log resting on the ground.
I decide that even if I can’t take photos, I can watch in silence what’s happening around me and demonstrate to the locals that I’m not only there to treat them like freaks but I’m only there to witness as an external spectator a life that doesn’t belong to me and which I would like to know more about.
The opportunity is handed to me on a silver platter.
As evening falls, music starts to play from our bamboo house, I ask Sing what was happening and he explains to me that a wedding would be held that same evening and that the tribal chief and the bride and groom had agreed to let us participate.
The only condition: do not take photos of the spouses or what was happening in their home.
The wedding was fun and special and I talk about it in the post Akha Wedding – The jungle, the rice, the opium.

aerial view of city at daytime

The village is located on the top of a mountain in the middle of the jungle, the people there are wary of tourists, or rather the women are very wary and don’t want to be photographed (and what a shame!), the men and children show more curiosity towards the foreigner but they always look with an inquiring eye and do not want to be approached.
It’s important to remember that you have to take photos always ask permissionnot everyone likes it and some believe that their soul is being stolen, it reminds me of some Mexican populations, but if they agree, always show the photo taken, it makes them happy and proud, especially the children.
Trekking in Laos is an experience that I recommend to all those who want to understand and discover cultures and traditions that will probably disappear not too much later over the years, cultures in which the man dominates over the woman even though she is the one who carries the trousers, who works hard in the fields and takes care of his numerous children.
Sit on the side of the road and let scenes of life pass by of other timesindeed of the other world in the true sense of the word.

The agency I relied on for these two days of trekking is Ethinc Travel Eco-Guide Service, the office is located on the main road. The owner is originally from Laos, but above all he is patient and if you waste some time he will also give good discounts on the activity you want to do.
Prices are negotiable especially this particular trek which is one of the most expensive and generally does not have many participants.
There were 2 of us and we paid 650,000 rip or $80, expensive it’s true but money absolutely well spent, especially with hindsight and thinking back to the beauty of the places and culture that I was lucky enough to discover, even if for a short time.
I recommend trekking in Laos because outside the mass tourist circuits it allows you to delve into cultures that would otherwise be difficult to discover.

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