My final big adventure in Laos -- if you don't count the ride to the Thai border when the bus fishtailed on the muddy, unfinished, winding mountain road -- was a 4-day ecotrek through the jungle-covered hills of Northern Laos to visit three different hilltribe villages. It was probably the best thing I've done on the whole trip.
We had the great fortune to meet our trekking partners on the bus ride out of Luang Prabang to Luang Nam Tha: 2 fellow Californians, and a French couple. We all visited the local ecotourism project office, decided on our 4-day adventure for the amazing price of only $58, and set off. Together with our very cool & knowledgable guides, we made up a fun little group of nine. There is no doubt in my mind that the incredibly great vibe maintained throughout the trip had everything to do with the incredibly great people that made up our group.
Hiking through the various jungle ecosystems was stellar, especially when we passed through towering bamboo forests, stopped for a rest at cold mountain streams, ate delicious homecooked Lao cuisine for lunch, or caught a view of the surrounding hills through a clearing in the jungle thicket. But it paled in comparison to the beautiful villages we arrived at after hiking all day.
In Northern Laos, the ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population, and the many different tribes fall into 4 different ethnic groups. We had the pleasure of visiting three of those four: the Hmong, Lanten, and Khmu. Each day we stopped at a different village, where we would spend the afternoon walking around making friends with the locals and learning about their tribe, followed by a scrumptious dinner cooked by the villagers. Each night, the village chief joined us for dinner and a back-and-forth question & answer session. Via the translations offered by our guides, we were able to ask questions about village life, traditional customs & dress, and their feelings about local tourism. The chiefs had many questions for us as well, but the pressing one was always the same: Are you married? If not, when will you be?
There were so many amazing things that happened in the villages, it would be impossible to try and list them all here. But perhaps the most amazing part of the journey was the trek itself and what it represents to the locals we visited. This trek is part of an ecotourism project, started only two years ago in Laos, that aims to provide community-based tourism that preserves, respects, and benefits both the environment and the villages and their traditional way of life. (www.ecotourismlaos.com) All of the villages were offered the choice of hosting tourists or not, and all are partners in the project, and receive profits from our visit. The very basic accomodation we stayed in was built by the villagers in the local style, so that we would be part of the village itself, rather than playing the role of disconnected observers with cameras in hand.
All three of the village chiefs raved about the project and how beneficial it has been for the villagers. One chief said "Before the tourists came, life was very hard. Now, life is not so hard anymore." Another pointed out the visible positive changes the tourism revenue has brought, such as tin roofs (rather than rattan which needs to be replaced every 3 years), new schools, and ever-growing libraries for the children. They all mentioned how respectful and lovely the tourists had been, and along with bringing some money into the village, people like us had also brought many smiles and friendly faces.
In the Khmu village on our last night -- during a game of team karaoke instigated by our guide Coom Seng (team USA sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game") -- the village chief improvised a deeply beautiful melody in his Khmu dialect. The translation spoke for itself: "Before, when the foreigners came, they brought war and everyone was sad. Now, the tourists come and they bring peace, everyone gets along, and everyone is happy."
But with all good things come a little bad. There was only one real downside to this journey: leeches. These little bloodsuckers flourish in the floors of the bamboo forests we hiked right through, especially in the rainy season. Unlike the stereotypical image of huge, slug-like, swamp-dwelling creatures I had in my mind, these leeches were tiny and frighteningly sneaky! But a small price to pay for such an amazing experience.