Laos Amid the throngs of scooters and tuk-tuks, and bordered by the not-so-mighty Mekong (it is dry season after all) sits the capital of Laos, Vientiane. The historic section of town is crammed with French colonial architecture, interspersed with Buddhist wats and the occasional stupa. The weather is hot and the Beer Lao is flowing. It is January 2009 and almost three years since my last trip to Asia. The objective this time is to trek through the Akha hill tribes in the north of the country. Vientiane strikes me as Phnom Penh lite, its scale reduced in scope but similar colonial architecture and the faithful Mekong creating a familiar array of bustling waterfront cafes and stalls. Vientiane has its share of tourists and backpackers, but the westerners seem transient, using the capital as a travel hub for Siem Reap, beach resorts in Thailand, Hanoi, Luang Prabang or the Lao backpacker paradise of Vang Vieng. Lao modernization seems a bit behind Cambodia, certainly trailing Vietnam significantly. Completely land-locked (Thailand and Burma to the west, China to the north, Vietnam to the east and Cambodia to the south) and resource-poor, the country has been slow to recover from the collateral damage of the Vietnam War. During the conflict (Laos was neutral throughout), the United States flew approximately 580,000 bombing runs over eastern Laos, which, if you do the math, is about one every 9 minutes over 10 years. Apart from trying to cut off supplies to the North Vietnamese, the US was also attempting to prevent the Lao government from being taken over by the communist, North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao (literally translated as “Lao Homeland”) rebels. Predictably, this effort failed, and, riding the waves of communist victory in 1975, the Pathet Lao seized control. The remaining 1970’s and 1980’s saw little growth in the country, as Laos tried to balance teetering alliances with Vietnam, Thailand and China. While Laos experienced none of the Khmer Rouge-type reeducation atrocities from neighboring Cambodia, failed results from collectivization and the cut-off of US aid (along with the collapse of the Iron Curtain) significantly retarded the country’s ability to grow. But the 1990’s brought an economic boon to SE Asia, particularly a huge influx of tourism to neighboring Thailand, and Laos quickly saw an opportunity to capitalize. Much like China, Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos now exists under a mirage of communism, in that the party retains monopolistic control of the government, but Lao businesses are allowed to grow and be governed by market forces. And the number one business is unquestionably tourism. Lao textiles are for sale everywhere, in the form of clothing, wall hangings, bags, blankets, etc. The markets are crammed with these wares, with most stalls seemingly selling identical goods, priced at least 100% above what they will eventually sell to you during a course of good natured bargaining (a large display calculator and an exchange of faces expressing shock, delusion, derision and finally agreement are the only communication tools needed). The locals are exceedingly friendly, clasping their hands together and greeting you with the Lao word of welcome, sabaidee (pronounced sah-by-dee). Afternoon beer parties spring up in squares, mugs of frosty Beer Lao placed in your hands and cajoling, perhaps imploring invitations to join in the dancing and singing. As in other parts of Asia, a number of pot-bellied, silver-haired western men can be seen strolling the streets, young local women dangling on their arms. Is this companionship, true love or simply a polite form of prostitution? We took in the sites, wandering everywhere and visiting the Lao Arc De Triomphe (Patuxai), the National Museum, the textile market (Talat Sao) and the morning market. We ate meals that cost pennies and some that cost dollars (not surprisingly, the penny ones were tastier), we scorched our tongues on spicy papaya salads (washed down with ice-cold Beer Lao). We puttered around on foot or by the twee tuk-tuks and when in need of a boost, we sipped the excellent local coffee. And we basked in the summerlike warmth. After two days it was time to pay homage to “Asia’s Most Beautiful City” (and Unesco World Heritage Centre), Luang Prabang. A mere over-night bus journey from Vientiane, we thankfully forked over the $80 for a one-hour flight. Luang Prabang is indeed a sight to behold; Majestic wats sprout up at almost every corner. French colonial architecture of washed walls and pastel shutters dominate the streets and alleys. The northern end of town, the quietest and loveliest, is bisected by the Mekong, creating a dual-riverbank promenade. Both backpackers and wealthy vacationers have gotten wind of the charm, so much like Cambodia’s Siem Reap, the price disparity of lodging, food and handicraft goods is staggering – a meal can cost $2 or $200, a guesthouse/hotel room $8 or $360, a scarf $5 or $175. Orange-clad novice monks navigate the streets through a throng of shutterbug tourists. The cameras are clicking, digitally capturing the colorful scene. Like much of northern Laos, Luang Prabang’s winter brings dull, cool and foggy mornings. By 11am however, the sun manages to pierce the milky haze, and within minutes the sky is cloudless, bathing the town in glorious light and early summer warmth. There is really very little to fault Luang Prabang, save for the overwhelming convocation of tourists. Being one of them, how can I criticize? We soaked up the Luang Prabang atmosphere for three days, then, somewhat timidly, boarded the 5pm bus to the northern border town of Phongsaly, our setting off point for our trek through Akha hill tribe villages. The Akha are one of the largest ethnic hill tribes in modern Laos, originating initially from Mongolia, before migrating southward and settling for a period of time in Yunnan province in south west China. Various factors (war, famine, etc) forced further southward migration, and today, apart from Laos, the Akha, can also be found in Thailand, Vietnam and Burma. As in the case with other hill tribes in the region, the Akha live in remote areas, completely self-sufficient. They grow their crops, raise their livestock, make their clothes and sell what they can in the nearest big town. The Akha practice slash and burn agriculture, which, over time, complicates their ability to remain in one place, perhaps contributing to their nomadic, migratory history. A visit to an Akha village would likely show few signs of modernization. Some villages have rudimentary electricity, perhaps a few dim light fixtures and a black and white TV. Otherwise, there is little change from centuries past. We knew we were in for a long and bumpy bus journey. The tour touts said 12-15 hours over mostly unpaved, winding mountain roads. The Lao bus experience is expectedly similar to ones in Vietnam, Cambodia and China. As the bus driver’s compensation is directly connected to how many people can be squeezed on the vehicle, the bus doesn’t leave until every seat is filled – even then, many passengers are picked up en-route, cramming the bus yet further, not only with people but also massive bags of rice, assorted goods and livestock strewn throughout the center aisle. One’s own scruples are sorely tested (I failed miserably) when a mother and her two young children board the packed bus a few hours into the journey. With no available seats, she is forced to squat/stand in the aisle with her kids. My moral-me murmurs quietly, “Get up and offer your seat” but my practical-me rejects any thoughts of compassion, the prospect of 10+ hours of hunched-over standing just too intolerable to consider. I close my eyes to her plight, hoping she either is soon disembarking or an available seat magically materializes. Somehow, amid the blaring pop music, rutted roads and honking horns, I manage to fall asleep. A full 21 hours after departure, we lurched into Phongsaly, spent, dirty, dusty and disoriented. The ride was unending, the seats unsupporting, the jarring Lao pop music unwavering. The “luxurious” Vipaphone Hotel awaited us, with the promise of spacious, sunny rooms and glorious hot-water showers. If only reality had a hint of semblance to the Lonely Planet guide; the dismal room was small, dark and dirty, the squat toilet required do-it-yourself flushing (in the form of an adjacent bucket) and the famous hot water was tepid at best. This was indeed a cruel reward for surviving our epic bus journey. Luckily we were befriended by a kindly couple who told us of more civilized accommodations down the road for a mere $7/night. We bolted to the Sensaly Guesthouse and indeed discovered paradise in the form of a spotless room and a hot shower (the sit-down toilet an unexpected bonus!). Our next stop was the Phongsaly Provincial Tourist Office, where stilted trek arrangements had been prearranged several days earlier via mobile phone with the earnest director, Miss Dui. Dui greeted us enthusiastically and our trek route was presented by our guide, Somchanh. A crudely drawn map showed a circuit of ethnic Akha and Lao Seng hill tribe villages that we would be visiting over the next four days. After our bus ordeal, even an Akha hut sounded lavishly appealing. We left early the following morning. The four-day trek offered few amenities but countless memories and a clear insight into Akha daily life. It is evident that the Akha woman has been dealt a raw hand; women do all housework, including cooking, cleaning, looking after children, picking and spinning cotton, weaving and embroidery. On top of that extensive set of chores, they are required to fetch water (often the traveling distance and vertical grade being substantial) and gather wood for the fires. Men, by contrast, have an easier go, looking after the animals, building huts, planting and harvesting rice, drinking Lao Lao (rice moonshine) and smoking tobacco (in their water pipes). Women and children eat in the kitchen area, men in the main part of the hut. A man can visit an Akha woman at any time, but an Akha woman can never visit a man. And should an Akha woman be in need of a stiff shot of Lao Lao or a pull on the pipe, they’re out of luck. No drinking or smoking for them. The Akha villages show the soup-to-nuts, female-exclusive process of making clothes. At the village outskirts, women multi-task, spindling thread from raw cotton while on their way to fetch wood or water. In the village itself, one can see the small spindles being downloaded to larger ones (a wooden wheel being the principal form of employed technology), then the large spindles are thrown back and forth across the loom during the weaving process. Vats of indigo-infused dye come next, giving the woven fabric its dark blue color. Finally, the delicate sleeve/collar embroidery is done as busy work, while the food is cooking or the raw rice is drying in the sun. A further example of the elite status of men can be seen in the village schools, where 80% of the children attending are boys. Village size varies, but generally there are 30-40 homes, roughly a population of 250. The primary school (ages 5-13) can only support one “nominee” from each family and the chosen child is almost always a boy. How far their education goes will depend on whether the family can afford to keep the child away from the fields or domestic chores, as well as, of course, the child’s own scholastic progress. Through a winnowing process, some gifted children will have the opportunity to attend secondary school in the nearest Lao town (in this case, Phongsaly, a two-day journey). Regardless, the children will almost certainly, at some point, return to their parent’s village, marry, and start a family. It is quite rare for an Akha man to marry outside of the Akha people, though some young Akha women, who have been exposed to Lao life in the provincial towns (most likely as students), have been known to marry locals. On each day of our trek, we would arrive at our over-night village by late afternoon. The village chief was generally our host, and after parking our backpacks and sipping some tea, we would walk the village, nodding, smiling and photographing. The women were generally shy, the men more approachable. The kids would giggle and scamper away from my camera, but once we whipped out the small point-and-shoot and showed them hurriedly-taken, digital snapshots of their friends, the barriers disappeared and they all turned into regular hams, posing at will. Evenings would be spent huddled around small fires in the main room with the male host and his friends while the women brought in dishes of food and reinforcements of Lao Lao. Then there would be conversations, which Somchanh did his best to translate, but in many cases (most likely from the Akha’s Chinese origins) I found that my poor Mandarin was a more useful communication tool than Somchanh’s bewildering English. And then of course there was more Lao Lao. By 9pm we would stumble to our sleeping area of mats and colorful blankets, the host family just an arms length away. Luckily the dormitory style had little impact on my ability to sleep, the sounds of snoring and rustling of covers quickly melting into a deep, Lao Lao induced slumber. Some images taken left indelible memories; A mother and daughter pausing at the top of a hill while Akha huts glistened in the descending sun, an infant girl exuding a smile of utter bliss while being carried in a papoose-like straw backpack, a small boy, naked from the waist down, gazing over the demising fence of his hut through the morning mist, a woman cooking greens in large vats, the smoke delineating late afternoon bullets of light penetrating the kitchen while her squatting husband, in an adjacent dark room, smokes contentedly on a water pipe, sipping Lao Lao and lost in either deep thought or abject oblivion. We had fine weather throughout the trek, save for the last day, when morning sprinkles evolved into a healthy downpour, creating treacherous conditions for our muddy descent to the river. After a long slog, including several sloppy tumbles, we reached the water and gratefully clambered into a waiting dinghy (fitted with an outboard motor), for our return journey. Back in Phongsaly, tired and dirty, we cleaned up as best we could, but the mist enveloped town and its cold dampness did not offer much of an opportunity to dry out. That pleasure would have to happen on the next day’s bus journey, yet another languorous and comfortable excursion (only 8 hours!) to the urban connection hub, Udom Xai, a necessary stop-over on our way to Luang Nam Tha. Within 100 miles of Thailand (to the west) and China (to the north), Luang Nam Tha is a laid-back and friendly town set on the outskirts of the Nam Ha National Protected Area (Lao terminology for national park). The local scenery is peacefully beautiful; the town center itself resembling a rocky-mountain frontier town with an outlying perimeter of lush farms, verdantly green rice fields and red clay roads. This was a perfect place to kick back, relax and dry out from the damp of Akha Phongsaly. We trekked, we biked, we read, we ate, we did laundry, we caught up on email, and when we ran out of things to do, we just sat back in the warm afternoon sun and watched the small town go about its business. The days blended together. Eventually, it was time to move on. Retracing some of our steps (in the form of lurching bus rides) we returned to Luang Prabang for a night of absurdly expensive western food and luxurious accommodations at the romantic Auberge le Calao. The next day we separated; my wife to a conference in Kuala Lumpur and I to the bus station, making the requisite pilgrimage (along with an array of stereotypical backpackers) to Vang Vieng. Like Yangshuo in China’s Yunnan province, Vang Vieng has evolved into a mandatory layover on the backpacker tour. The weather is warm, the karst scenery is stunning, the rice fields are plentiful. The Nam Song river affords a bounty of water sports including kayaking, tubing and rafting, and for those more grounded there are caves to explore, temples to visit, and drugs to smoke while watching endless reruns of Friends in outdoor cafes. I arrived in the late afternoon and got in a sunset stroll over a wrought iron bridge, the water and sky iridescently glowing shades of yellow and umber. I spent two full days traveling around Vang Vieng, the first day by foot, visiting some caves and small outlying villages, the second on a bicycle, breaking past the tourist radius and visiting some sleepy towns along the Nam Song. In one such town, I met a local Hmong, Tou, who had worked for the Americans during the war. In complete contrast to their cousins in neighboring Vietnam, the Lao Hmongs were intensely pro-American during the war, believing that an American victory would bring them class equality and prosperity. Tou worked for the CIA, and luckily was able to reimmerse himself in his village without recriminations once the Americans had left the region. Tou’s two brothers fled to Thailand in 1976, and three years later were granted asylum in the US, moving to Minnesota. Tou presented me pictures of his American nieces and nephews, proudly showing off his siblings’ minivan, TVs, and other, seemingly ordinary, mechanical devices. The day was getting late and I had some intense biking ahead if I wanted to get back to Vang Vieng before nightfall. The Lao roads are hardly congested, and, in this area of the country, of fairly good quality. Most people get around by tediously slow buses, bicycle, scooters, or they share rides in open pick-up trucks, called songthaews. Rarely will you see a private car. Regardless, none of these vehicles move at a great pace, as the locals are generally in no hurry to get anywhere quickly. So as I was fighting the setting sun and furiously pedaling my rented bike, I was passing pretty much anything on the road. Locals stared at me, laughing at the incomprehensible effort I was making, but I felt great, and as the sky tinged pinker or a scooter loomed on the horizon, I ramped up the speed, basking in a fusion of testosterone-driven competitiveness and the simple thrill of blazing through a beautiful valley at dusk. At one point, unsure if I needed a breather, or perhaps just awestruck by the breathtaking scenery, I paused from an over-head pass to photograph a farmer, amid a checkerboard of rice paddies, tending to his crops with a watering can, the looming karst rocks and the piercing directional, late-afternoon sun adding a spatial depth of warmth and tranquility. I didn’t know it at the time, but this became the most lasting visual from the trip, still today conjuring images of simple solitude, self-sufficiency and serenity. Back in Vang Vieng, glowing from the beauty of the day, the adrenaline of the ride and the gratitude to be back in familiar grounds before nightfall, I spent the equivalent of about two dollars on a whole fish, smothered in chili-infused sauces, and grilled to succulent perfection. Bottles of ice-cold Beer Lao kept me company and I drifted off into a haze of satisfaction. It had been a thrilling trip and I knew I had images to prove it.