Luang Namtha is famous for its diverse hill tribes and the scenic mountain paths that lead to their far-flung villages. Backpackers are starting to flock to this area for trekking but with dozens of the multi-day hikes in the area, traces of the west dissipate once you step off the main street. For our excursion, we picked Jungle Eco Guides two-day trek to a Lahu tribal village deep into Nam Ha National Park. Let’s just say the experience was fascinating but far from what we expected…
When we saw photos of the tiny traditional Nam Kouy village, perched on the top of the mountain with its thatch homes, we wanted to set out immediately but needed to rally a few more hikers to get Jungle Eco Guides to green-light the trip. It took us two days to find enough people but meanwhile it was nice to have some downtime in a quiet town. One insider tip we got from hanging around Luang Namtha was that on the full moon, young locals all meet at these temple ruins for drinks and good times. We went with a few new friends and joined in on the fun with a little Beer Lao.
The next morning our group of eight hikers and four guides drove 38km to the trail-head, but first…a stop for supplies at the local market. The guides bought tons of fresh veggies, chilies and rice for our meals over the next two days.
The hike began through rice paddies and small villages and then we started to ascend the jungle-covered mountains. As the miles went on, we got to know our fellow trekkers: two French-speaking Belgians, a British DJ on a spiritual quest, and a Swiss-Russian anthropologist couple ambitiously taking their four-year old daughter on her first multi-day trek.
Hiking straight up in the humid heat, we quickly became ravenous. We stopped for lunch and were impressed that the guides had prepared some delicious sticky rice and spicy salads wrapped in banana leaves–which acted not only as Tupperware but as plates and a table cloth for this jungle-style picnic.
We hadn’t seen any sign of civilization for hours but suddenly atop this mountain a cluster of charming thatch houses appeared with herds of cattle, pigs, puppies, chicken, and children running around. We walked into the center of the village and everyone went still. Did they know we were coming? There isn’t exactly cell phone service up here so maybe our arrival caught them off guard, or maybe we weren’t welcome? Our Kamu guides and the Lahu elders met for a talk (neither speaking the other’s language fluently) and we took a walk around while they tried to smooth over this awkwardness.
We walked through the village and everyone stared at us intensely. We smiled and waved. Stoic expressions were returned. In all the tribal villages we’d ever been to, we have always been received with open arms (and that was usually without a guide!) but it was immediately obviously this place was going to be a tough nut to crack. We were feeling a little dismayed until we strolled down a path and ran into this tough-lookin lady and got a hint of a smile out of her.
We were staring down 18 hours in this unfriendly village so we had to figure out ways to make peace and friends fast. Funny enough, our four-year old hiker was the ticket. Kids don’t pick up on these tensions so little Swiss Miss just ran up to the village children and started playing–which in turn softened the moms, then the dads and before you knew it…the village was opening up. My little ice-breaker was to attempt the local hair-do. The ladies here make a bun right over their forehead and stick a comb in it. When I gave it a pathetic but smiley attempt, they giggled and helped me out.
That night we piled into our guest hut for dinner and just as the group was about to call it an early night and sleep shoulder to shoulder on the bamboo floor, we were invited over to the shaman’s house. His home was overflowing with people so we assumed there was some sort of spiritual ceremony happening…turns out the crowds were there to watch the only TV in town. Haha! This 10×10 boob tube was run off a solar panel but had the power to captivate a whole village. Between laughs, the men smoked tobacco from their water pipes and offered us a toke. It wasn’t exactly spiritual but it’s always nice to share in a local ritual–whatever that may be.
The next morning one of the elders came to our hut to chat with our guide and nearly the whole village followed. People were practically climbing over each other and cracking open the walls to eavesdrop on the conversation. We obviously couldn’t understand what the heck was being said but our best guess is they were discussing the shaky terms of future visits.
We hiked five hours down the mountain, taking in the scenery (like these wild swirly trees!) and just thinking about the future of this village and the role visitors like us play in it. It was clear the trekking company and the village were in some sort of disagreement—maybe they weren’t being compensated enough or perhaps they just didn’t want Westerners coming around anymore. Hosting trekking groups brings resources into a village and often a valuable cultural exchange but it also alters the simple life they’ve led for centuries. This left us all with very mixed emotions about our trek to a Lahu village….What are your thoughts on this experience?