Tucked in the northwestern corner of Laos at the border of Myanmar and China, Muang Sing is one of the most diverse, strange, and fascinating places in Laos. This region has a Wild West feeling where the 95 villages and 12 ethnicities live side by side but seem to operate in their own world with different languages, dress and traditions. We spent our time here biking from Akha to Tai Lue to Hmong to Mien to Lolo villages, trying to pick up on the nuances and in the process, we were invited to a stay for a few days in Hmong village. Going from observer to a participant in this community—gathering water, feeding the pigs, teaching English, playing ball, sharing dinner and just hanging out–was so special. It reminded us that this what world travel is all about.
Getting to Muang Sing from Luang Prabang was a bit of battle. The first leg of our journey dropped us off at this desolate bus station at 4am and the next bus wasn’t arriving until 8am. This wasn’t a place we wanted to get our shuteye so we did a little blogging by jury-rigging our laptop power plug into their boob-tube entertainment center.
We managed to catch an earlier ride in the back of a pickup. We caught a nap on the floor and woke up here: The Muang Sing Market. It was an explosion of vegetables, meats, textiles, unidentifiable foods and beautifully weathered characters from the numerous local tribes behind each stall. We sat and ate some classic Lao noodle soup, loaded with spice and veggies, and took it all in. See the slideshow for more scenes from this market, including a gerbil being walked on a leash to his dinner demise.
The center of town is made of a few hotels, noodle stalls, a bike shop, and this town museum. Here we learned more about the town’s roller-coaster past. In the past 150 years, Thailand, France, Britain, America, and China (who are still leading the charge) have all tried to control this diverse area in some way shape or form from land to the opium trade.
The area is weaning themselves off opium production with China’s “rubber tree economic replacement program.” Money is flowing into the area but sadly huge swaths of forest are being clear cut for rubber trees and the locals are losing control of their land.
Our hotel was backed up to rice paddies that ran as far as the eye could see. As the sun headed west we sat on our balcony enjoying the scenery with a bottle of True Manhood, Laotian “Scotch” Whiskey. We naturally gravitated towards this Lone Ranger logo and its $1 price tag (yes, that is $1 for 750ml, not a typo) but when we read the tagline, “100% Special,” we knew it would be a winner (or make us blind).
The next day we rented bikes from a local guy named Tiger Man. He gave us a map and suggested we loop the area west of town to check out the Akah, Yao, and Tai villages. It was a wild and beautiful ride through huge stalks of sugar cane, banana tree farms, and rice paddies.
The villages and people were all so different. The Yao communities were particularly striking with stilted houses and women wearing red tube-like scarves and kids with caps topped with big pom-poms.
When we returned to Tiger Man’s bike shop and told him how much we loved the local villages, his response was, “Well, then you should come stay in my village and we will teach you the Hmong way of life!” We accepted the invitation without hesitation and stayed with his sister’s family that night. Despite our massive language barriers, they taught us a bit of Hmong, we taught some English, and shared time filled with smiles.
A cousin who spoke a bit of English was nice enough to show us around, introduce us around, and give us the inside scoop. We popped into a few houses for hellos, hung out with some local guys building a well, learned about the village farms, and caught this epic game of takraw (look at that foot block!). Though one of the coolest things was a ancestral worship ceremony. We heard chanting coming from one of the houses and asked our new buddy what was going on then he just walked us right in. This woman was blindfolded, standing on a bench, shaking a rice-filled gourd in front of a candlelit alter and singing. It was such a private, spiritual moment and one we could’ve never had without our local in.
Tiger Man, when not renting bicycles, was also the town English teacher in this little school house (which he built with money from his bicycle shop). He was thrilled to have native speakers in town so he asked us to guest teach that day. Before our Ta Phin Village teaching experience we would have never felt remotely qualified, but this time we taught with new confidence.